Please stop calling it the ‘newsletter economy’
Or the creator economy, for that matter
When we started Substack in 2017, we told people that we made it simple to start a paid subscription publication. But that terminology was confusing for some people, who wondered if by subscription publications we meant magazines, academic journals, or such like. We solved that problem by instead telling people that we made it simple to start a paid newsletter, since that was easier to instantly understand. Then, we were able to convince writers to use Substack instead of email service providers such as TinyLetter and MailChimp.
The term “newsletter” was just a rhetorical device, though. It was only one small part of what Substack was. Substack was more like a blog where you could email the posts to your readers. You could collect money and make some posts available only to paid subscribers. There were comments, and an option to publish posts that were purely for discussions. Soon, we added audio features, so you could host, distribute, and monetize a podcast. And nowadays, you can publish subscriber-only video and complement your writing with narrations. Everyone on the platform has a Substack profile. There’s an app. The network of writers, publications, and readers on the platform drives more than 40% of all Substack subscriptions.
For most of Substack’s life, however, a good number of people, especially those who work in media, have wrongly assumed that we are part of a newsletter trend. In the earlier days, it was suggested that Substack merely co-opted newsletters as a category and pumped it full of VC money, or that the world was already at “peak newsletter.” When we first started raising money, some investors (and a good number of writers) wondered if anyone would pay for email newsletters. But then Substack started to succeed, and we got imitators. Revue added paid subscriptions to its existing newsletter product. Ghost, a publishing platform, added an email element and started touting itself as just like Substack. Forbes, the New York Times, and The Atlantic all started newsletter programs. Twitter then bought Revue to compete with Substack, and Meta launched Bulletin and offered writers huge sums of money to start newsletters there, directly copying Substack. There are other email service providers that sell themselves as just like Substack but with ads or lower fees. These are all worthy attempts but these companies are not doing what we are doing.
The trend that Substack is part of is not a newsletter trend, or even the much-hyped creator economy. We are part of a seismic shift in the media economy that is all about writer and creator ownership and independence. When writers are in charge, they can do the work they believe is most important, have a direct relationship with their readers, and have the potential to make far more money than they could get from being an employee who produces content for others to own and disseminate. Our fellow travelers in this trend are not email service providers or legacy news organizations, but the likes of Shopify, Twitch, Patreon, OnlyFans, and Discord. This subset of the media economy is thriving. It is entirely different to what some people think of when they talk about a “newsletter economy.”
The proof of this is that the imitations aren’t working. Meta shut down Bulletin. Twitter doesn’t appear to be prioritizing Revue. The New York Times and The Atlantic have hardly set the world on fire with their newsletter stables. An exciting story for media reporters to write at this point in the hype cycle is that the newsletter boom is over. As these newsletter hopefuls fall away, Substack remains strong and growing not because we have deeper pockets – we are a tiny startup with a flimsy fraction of the resources of Facebook, Twitter, and even the New York Times – but because we have always been playing a different game.
The game we’re playing is one that gives power to writers and creators. It’s a game that ensures writers can maintain their independence without most of the drudgery that comes with running their own media operation, and without having to cede control to a gatekeeper. We build tools that give writers and creators the full powers of the internet so their work can have maximum impact, reach, and revenue. We are helping to unlock the potential of existing writers to get greater value for and from their work, and so that new types of writers can enter the media economy and thrive. That’s the movement Substack is helping to drive. We don’t believe it’s going to slow down any time soon. On the contrary, we expect it to accelerate and expand.
Consider these statistics:
Two years ago, there were fewer than 300,000 paid subscriptions to Substack publications. Today, there are more than 1.5 million.
Two years ago, two publications made more than $1 million a year on Substack. Today, there are more than a dozen.
Two years ago, the top 10 publications on Substack collectively made $8 million a year. Today, they make $25 million.
How many newspaper or magazine writers are making more than $1 million a year? How many writers anywhere have been making that kind of money in the last few years? Even among bestsellers, how many authors whose names aren’t James Patterson or J.K. Rowling have been able to build that sort of wealth? How many names at the tops of the leaderboards on substack.com are the same old names you’re used to seeing elsewhere in the media? How many are brand new entrants into this economy?
This trend is just getting started. Substack has been around for five years, and it’s only in the last couple of years that the broader public has really been paying attention. In that time, we’ve helped writers make money doing the work they believe in, and sometimes even get rich. We’ve helped launch a myriad of wonderful publications – some of them newsletters – that might otherwise never have existed, covering everything from local politics to food culture to hard science. We’ve created a network that helps writers grow simply by being on Substack, bringing them subscriptions for free. We have built a system that has helped podcasters bring in many hundreds of thousands of dollars. We’ve made Substack into a place where TikTokers and Instagrammers are creating new homes for their communities and instantly making full-time livings.
All of this is happening against a backdrop of decline in the legacy news business and disempowerment in the legacy social media business. All of it is new. All of it is needed. Our work today, and for as long as Substack exists, is to keep this new economy powering forward.
You can help. You can start a paid newsletter. Or better yet, start a Substack.