Chief Writing Officer
The first job title I’ve ever taken seriously
A few years ago, I was given a tour of Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park. It’s a beautiful campus, with modern buildings, comfortable furnishings, striking murals—all the things you’d expect of a mega-moneyed tech company. But there was also quite a bit more. The main thoroughfare between buildings is modeled on Disneyland and dotted with the kinds of amenities that satisfy all the dreams of an eternal child: a candy store serving free ice cream; a video arcade parlor; a burger joint; a workshop for screen-printing posters; an on-site laundry service. No normal human being needs any of this stuff at their place of work, but Facebook clearly decided that these perks help attract talented employees and especially software developers, Silicon Valley’s holiest of holies.
It was fun to visit and fantasize about endless scoops of Cookies & Cream, but I also left with a slight queasiness. It didn’t feel right that software developers were treated like gods while writers—my people—were treated like paupers. During that time, I had a friend who worked in The Guardian’s U.S. West Coast bureau, housed in an Oakland WeWork. Their version of an office perk came when a startup based in the same WeWork left out their uneaten sandwiches after a catered event.
I’m not saying there’ll be no justice in the world until writers have employers who’ll do their laundry, but I do believe that good writing brings at least as much value to the world as good coding. Unfortunately, the prevailing economic system hasn’t viewed things that way. In terms of financial recognition in recent decades, a software developer is afforded infinitely more respect than the humble writer.
Last week, I changed my title at Substack from Chief Operating Officer to Chief Writing Officer. On one level, I made this move to correct an inaccuracy. While I have led our communications, marketing, and writer partnerships efforts, I haven’t been running the operations of the company. I took the COO title when Chris and I registered Substack as a company simply because it was the most important title we could think of that wasn’t CEO.
More importantly, though, I wanted to become Chief Writing Officer because it signals the appropriate level of respect we have for the craft and its practitioners. Substack is a writing company. Companies like ours should have someone in leadership whose primary focus is in advancing the interests of writers. On top of that, the title makes sense on a practical level. I’ll be writing a lot more from now on. Soon, I’ll be starting a new project focused on writers.
At Substack, we believe that what you read matters and great writing is valuable. Great writing shapes how we think and influences our actions. It connects us in a common consciousness. It is one of the most important technologies humans have ever developed. To many of us, these statements seem like truisms. But look around. How is great writing being rewarded in today’s economy? News outlets and magazines are shutting down and doing mass layoffs. Freelance budgets are being slashed. The major book publishers are consolidating. Social media is turning us into tweeters. Even at some of the best publications, writers are scraping by on subsistence salaries, often without health insurance. Writers and readers deserve and need better.
I’m proud of Substack’s contribution to making a better system for writers. There are writers on Substack who make more than a million dollars a year from subscriptions alone. Writers simply don’t get paid that kind of money at publications. But just as significant to me are the non-millionaire writers who can make an honest living doing the work that they and their readers find most meaningful.
More and more, I see writers who were running out of options come to Substack and find the kind of financial security that had previously proven elusive. Here, I’m thinking of people like parenting writer Emily Writes. Before she started making a full-time income on Substack, Emily could only write in her spare time while working a marketing job at a sex-toy company. Or take Emily Nunn, a former newspaper and magazine writer who in her 60s found that no publication would hire her. She now makes a handsome living writing about salads. It’s writers like Tyler Dunne, who started a Substack to publish longform stories about the NFL and is on track to earn more than he was ever paid in his last job at Bleacher Report, where he was part of a group layoff. It’s Lyz Lenz, who lost her column at her local newspaper in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and now makes six figures on Substack. And it’s Freddie DeBoer, who was about to accept a $15-an-hour job for a junk-removal service when Substack came along. Now, he has permitted me to share, he makes $240,000 a year from subscriptions.
If you asked any of these writers two years ago what they needed in their professional lives, not one would have said free ice cream. They just wanted a chance to do the work they believe is important; the work they know they can do well and that their readers value. By going independent and making their readers their customers, they have earned financial dignity. The respect they get from their subscribers is worth more than any tech company perk.
Most writers I know don’t seek to get rich from their work. They merely want to find a financially viable way to do the work that can make a difference in people’s lives. That some of them are getting wealthy on Substack in spite of their modest aims is a wonderful side effect of a broader trend of writers taking their destiny into their own hands. Every day, I obsess over Substack writers’ revenue numbers and cheer silently as those numbers go up and up. These are the people I am rooting for. These are the people I want to represent. Writers are culture carriers. Their storytelling helps us understand each other and the world. It is immensely satisfying to see a model that can reward them as well as a tech company rewards its engineers.
If you Google “Chief Writing Officer,” you won’t find it listed alongside any prominent names. A colleague wondered if I might be happier with Chief Creative Officer, a more conventionally prestigious title used by such luminaries as Hugh Hefner and Jessica Alba. No. I prefer to be aligned with the fringe figures who care so deeply about writing that they’d rather take a novel title than one that common corporate culture arbitrarily lionizes. I want to give credence to the idea that it’s valuable to have a writer in the C-suite. I want Substack to be known as a place that puts writers up top. I want to dedicate all my energy and professional focus to the mission of creating a better future for writing.
So, Chief Writing Officer it is. And now you have it in writing.