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Why writers return to Substack
“We learned on the open market that Substack had offered us much more than we’d realized”
At the end of June last year, I got an email with a subject line that said: “It’s cold out here.” The body of the email didn’t elaborate much. “Very cold. Can we chat, please?”
The message came from, the publisher of Exponential View, who had been an early mover to Substack in our early days but who, in search of more customization and perhaps some savings on fees, decided to try his luck with a more DIY publishing platform.
Azeem was away for about a year. A few months after bringing Exponential View back to Substack, he tweeted about the effect that the experiment had had on the publication’s growth. In the tweet, he showed a chart with a growth line that was steadily increasing until a sudden and prolonged plateau. Then, at some point, it mysteriously started picking up speed again, faster than it had ever grown before.
“Can you spot the year when my newsletter @exponentialview was off the @SubstackInc platform?” he asked.
Unlike most other online media platforms, we don’t seek to lock our customers into a walled garden by controlling their relationship with their audience. On Substack, writers own and control their mailing lists and their content, and if they choose to leave, they can take their paid subscriptions with them. While it is uncommon for today’s online media platforms to guarantee such freedom of movement for their users, we believe it is critical to establish trust and align incentives. Platforms should lift people up, not lock them in.
Over five and a half years of working on Substack, we have been fortunate that only a small number of publications have ever left the platform (although some do so quite loudly). With each departure, we have reflected on what we would need to do to win them back—and we’ve been making progress. Over the past couple of years in particular, we have greatly improved Substack’s marketing and design customizability, and we’ve built up a suite of features that drive enough growth to more than justify the 10% fee we collect to run the business. The Substack network now drives 20% of paid subscriptions across the platform. The fee pays for itself and then some.
While a few publications, like Exponential View, have tried their luck on other platforms, we’ve been pleased to see an increasing number coming back to Substack. Among the recent returnees are, , , , and , to name a few. We always welcome returning publications with open arms and make the migration process as simple as possible with our importer tools.
So why do writers return to Substack? They come back for the simple, powerful tools, and the growing advantage of the Substack network.
Each one of these publishers has reported that the other tools were more complicated than they anticipated. When he brought Exponential View back to Substack, Azeem talked about how easy Substack is to use compared with alternatives. “Time and effort that could be spent on sharing our insight through essays and analysis was spent worrying about email deliverability, spam, HTML templates, or user authentication,” he said. Now he and his team can focus on the most important work: the writing itself.
But writers had also noticed their peers talking about Substack’s network effects, which help publications get subscribers they wouldn’t otherwise have found. Substack offers what, publisher of The Generalist, has called “a holy trinity of media: tool, network, and destination.” Features like Recommendations, cross-posting, mentions, and now Notes have not only connected readers with new writers but also helped writers feel less isolated. On Substack, they are part of a cooperative ecosystem where writers can collaborate with others, highlight each other’s work, and help each other reach new heights. write a great breakdown, we can cross-post it. If Exponential View by publishes a new fascinating update, we can link it seamlessly. If Newcomer and I want to have a conversation about a shift in the venture landscape, we could try out a Letters series.” is another writer who has heralded the growth benefits of Substack’s network. Austin brought his newsletter, Growth Curve, back to Substack after a brief foray with an alternate newsletter tool. The growth Substack brings is compelling, he said over email. “First, 37% of my paying subscribers had existing Substack accounts. 27% had saved credit cards on the Substack system, which made it a one-click experience to sign up for my paid newsletter. 11% came from platform features like Substack leaderboards, recommendations, or promotions.”
When I asked, editor in chief of The Pillar, why his team brought the Catholic news outlet back to Substack after a brief period on another platform, he said: “We learned on the open market that Substack had offered us much more than we’d realized—that its features and customer service were excellent for our subscribers, and that the network effect of subscription growth, which we’d been skeptical about, was for real.”
There is a word from the past couple of decades that understandably causes an allergic reaction among some writers and creative people who have been burned by how online platforms have worked in recent years. Centralization. The large media platforms of the last 20 years have shown that there is great power in centralization: large numbers of people can interact in the same place; anyone can broadcast or communicate to almost anywhere in the world, almost instantly; and the consumption experience—viewing, listening, reading, conversing—can be simple, delightful, and in some cases amazing. But there are also significant trade-offs, including compromises on surveillance and privacy. Perhaps the most profound trade-off, though, is in the power dynamic: on the centralized platforms the world has known to date, almost all the power and wealth accrues to the owners.
Substack changes that power dynamic. On this platform, you get the benefits of centralization—sharing and collaboration, growth and conversation, and elegant publishing and consumption experiences—but you also get control. You own your content and mailing list. You can have deep relationships with writers and even other subscribers. You choose what you see and who you hang out with. It is a system that brings people together while respecting their individual agency. It offers power and growth coupled with full creative freedom. It’s warm in here.
If you are considering switching to Substack, visit our guides on moving your blog or newsletter over in four simple steps. We are able to help some writers with hands-on support moving to Substack. If you have an existing audience and plan to turn on paid subscriptions, get in touch by filling out this form. If we are able to help, we’ll get back to you.