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Substack: The Latest Substitute for Standard Publishing

What do authors Salman Rushdie and Chuck Palahniuk have in common with a small army of indie authors? They’re actively publishing newsletters and creative content on the newsletter platform Substack.

Let’s look at why this new platform might be the hottest place to publish your next novel and connect with a whole new group of fans. 

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What is Substack?

At its most basic, Substack is a newsletter platform. Founded in 2017 by Chris Best, Jairaj Sethi, and Hamish McKenzie, as of August 2021, Substack had more than 250,000 paying subscribers. It’s attracted a variety of content creators, including journalists, comic artists, religion writers, and political commentators. 

Substack is free to use, regardless of newsletter size. It also offers creators the option of setting up paid subscriptions to earn money on their content. The only time Substack gets paid is when someone subscribes to a paid newsletter, as a percentage of those subscriptions goes back to the company.

Most people use their Substack as both a newsletter and as a blog because all content is archived at a permanent URL on a writer’s Substack page. If someone subscribes today, they can easily go back and read everything a writer has written in the past. 

The Substack interface is also dead simple. Unlike most newsletter platforms, there’s no need to design multiple templates or layouts. Although there’s a little work involved in starting a new Substack, once you get past the setup phase, sending out new newsletters is as easy as drinking that first cup of coffee in the morning.

It’s important to note that Substack is about content, not business. While it’s great to share content, it’s not a good choice for people who need advanced newsletter capabilities. Automation, such as onboarding email sequences, isn’t possible. You also can’t have multiple templates for different audiences or purposes. And although you can segment newsletters between free and paid, that’s about as far as segmentation goes. 

How authors are using Substack now

As a relatively new platform, people are still learning what it can do.

Some authors are experimenting with it as an alternative publishing platform. Looking at it as one part Wattpad, one part Patreon, they’re publishing short stories and novels in serial form. 

On Palahniuk’s Substack (https://chuckpalahniuk.substack.com/) he’s publishing his novel Greener Pastures in fifty-two installments, while Rushdie (https://salmanrushdie.substack.com/) is publishing a work entitled Seventh Wave. Both novels are available only for paid subscribers, but both offer preview chapters as well as other content for free. 

But Substack isn’t just for big names in the traditional publishing world. Author Patrick E. McLean (https://patrickemclean.substack.com/) moved his mailing list to Substack in June. His paid subscribers gain access to his How to Succeed in Evil series as a membership reward. He’s also shared some of his other work, including a novella entitled Beowulf and the Dragon, as both written stories and audio files.

Another indie author, Elle Griffin (https://ellegriffin.substack.com/) is currently serializing her gothic novel Obscurity on Substack, and giving her paid readers exclusive access to a Discord group. Meanwhile, Jon Auerbach (https://jonauerbach.substack.com/) is serializing his Guild of Magic and Guild of Tokens fantasy novels there for both paid and free subscribers. 

Other indie authors are keeping their novels on KDP, Vella, or other platforms, but are using Substack as a way to not only keep in touch with their readers but share a bit more about themselves, their writing process, or some of their shorter fictional pieces. 

Why you might consider it for your own work

Some people came to Substack as a replacement for a previous mailing list platform. The fact that it’s free is one attraction, but more than that, it offers a cleaner interface that focuses on the craft of writing. Auerbach chose Substack because “it’s really simple to send out a newsletter that’s readable and has a website-end that can be organized like a mini-publication.” 

Others like it because, in addition to a free newsletter, it’s possible to charge an annual subscription, bringing in a decent income stream even for new authors. The simplicity of the platform makes it more conducive to publishing long-form content. Some authors use sites like Royal Road or Wattpad to serialize their stories, but then have to resort to asking for donations on PayPal or setting up a Patreon in order to earn anything from their work.

Shaiyan Khan from Substack’s partnership team explains that the platform can be a great fit for authors because it makes it simple to build a relationship with their audience. “By providing authors with the tools and services they need to succeed,” Khan says, “we’re freeing them to focus on the hard part: the writing.”

Sci-fi and fantasy author Alex S. Garcia (https://xenin.substack.com/) agrees. He chose Substack because the monetizing system “is in-built, rather than relying on something external like Patreon.” And Auerbach’s a fan of the paid option because it “makes it easier for me to focus on providing value to all of my paid subscribers, with enough flexibility to offer higher-end items for annual/founder tier subscribers.”

The Community

One of the biggest reasons people like Substack has nothing to do with the technical elements or the pricing. Unlike traditional email platforms and trendy content sites, there is a vibrant and growing community of Substack users. 

The growth of the community is something Substack itself is working actively to promote. As Khan says, “being independent shouldn’t mean being alone.” The Substack Community Team hosts weekly question and shoutout threads, and the company also sponsors free programs like Substack Grow that bring together smaller content producers to discuss how to improve their newsletters while getting to know each other. Recently they have branched out into online and in-person user meetups.

Outside of Substack, there are Facebook groups and Discord servers that help connect the community as well. One of the biggest is Griffin’s “Substack Writers Unite” Discord group (https://discord.gg/q9S4feaDVz) that brings together both fiction and nonfiction writers to discuss everything from craft to audience building to going paid. 

Is Substack right for you? It depends on your goals and how you want to approach your publishing future. As Khan points out, it’s a different kind of publishing that allows authors to “take their readers on a journey while writing, growing an audience and interacting with readers the whole while, instead of working on a book in isolation and releasing a static work at one point in time.” And for many of us, making those connections along the way makes Substack a worthy alternative to standard indie publishing.

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