Maximizing passion

Hardcore fans will pay for great writing

A common question we hear is: “How many people do you think are out there who can do well from subscription publications?” Our answer is that we see two clear cases:

  • Group 1: writers like Ben Thompson who can write useful analysis or news about a particular industry for which that industry’s members will be happy to pay (especially if they can put it on their corporate credit card); and

  • Group 2: writers who are expert in, or passionate about, a particular niche and can build an audience by covering that niche exceptionally well.

It’s easy for people to see the potential for “Ben Thompsons of industries other than tech”—and indeed, Substack’s first publisher, Bill Bishop, fits that mold. But the second category requires more imagination. To many, it’s not yet clear that readers will happily pay for non-professional online content, notwithstanding the rise of Patreon, which is due to pay creators $150 million this year, and The Athletic, a subscription sports news network that has raised $8 million.

So why do we think that Group 2 is going to be a big thing?

Well, for a start, we just believe strongly that people will pay to read high-quality stuff about the subjects and people they care most deeply about. But thanks to Patreon and a nascent pre-Substack subscription publishing movement, it’s also clear that a meaningful number of people are willing to pay good money for podcasts about war history, YouTube shows about video game critiques, in-depth NASCAR reporting, body building, and many other niche interest areas. As the barriers to starting subscription publications are lowered, we expect to see the emergence of many more “monetizable” editorial niches.

One of our favorite new subscription publishers has observed that passion is the key underlying ingredient for this emerging economy. Ben Falk, a former VP of basketball strategy for the Philadelphia 76ers, has just launched Cleaning the Glass, a stats-and-analysis site for hardcore NBA fans (subscribe). Falk, a data-crunching Moneyballer who also happens to be an exceptional writer, goes deep on the NBA, breaking down the mechanics behind a modern defense, examining the evolution of big centers, and showing how behavioral psychology influences which players get picked in the draft, to pick just a few areas of his coverage.

In last week’s introductory letter for Cleaning the Glass, Falk said he was committed to “quality above all else.” He didn’t want to maximize clicks, because “that drives a certain type of behavior and content: catering to a more general audience, hot takes, lightning rod topics, controversy, argument, click bait.” Asking readers to pay was the best way to run the kind of publication he dreamed of reading himself.

“A subscription-based business, on the other hand, needs to maximize passion. It’s not about the number of people you can get to click on your site and skim your article or video. It’s about the number of people who see it and love it and are willing to pay for more of it.”

Falk doesn’t want to be beholden to advertisers. He wants to be beholden to “the true fans.” By paying $7.50 a month or $75 a year, they allow him to bring light, instead of heat, to complex topics. Those paying fans allow him to elevate the standard of discourse around something for which all involved share a deep passion: the NBA.

It’s a beautiful model for a beautiful game, and it’s one we can’t wait to see more of.

Got any niches that you’re dying to see a subscription publication cover? Email us your ideas at hello@substack.com.