Two years ago today, we launched the first Substack publication: Bill Bishop’s Sinocism, a newsletter about China. Chris, who was taking time off after leaving Kik, had built a prototype in the spare room of his Kitchener, Ontario, apartment, by lashing together Stripe, an enterprise email delivery tool, and some quickly-built web publishing software. We convinced Bill, who knew Hamish from his days as a reporter in Hong Kong, to be our guinea pig, since he was planning to make Sinocism a paid newsletter anyway. None of us knew if it would work.
We had started Substack based on the belief that there had to be a better way for writers to make money from their work. The media business was already in terrible shape. Two decades earlier, Craigslist had killed the newspapers’ classifieds business, and now Facebook and Google were taking away the ad business. Newspapers were shutting down, journalists were losing jobs. At the same time, social media products had become so compelling that we found ourselves trapped in an attention economy that prized “engagement” above all else, so that all the rewards – shares, likes, reach, impressions, and dollars – accrued to those who produced work that provoked extreme responses. Rage had become a powerful currency.
If great writing were to flourish on the internet, the media world needed an alternative to online advertising. We believed that direct payments between readers and writers provided a better way forward. With subscriptions, the emphasis is placed on an ongoing trust relationship between reader and writer. The reader – not an advertiser – becomes the primary customer. A writer of a subscription publication can only do well if the reader feels well served – and if they succeed with that, then even a relatively small audience is enough to support a lucrative business.
In our founding essay, we envisaged a universe of subscription publications that would provide satisfying experiences for readers and financial sustainability for writers:
Precisely targeted and curated content means less noise. In fact, by attributing a dollar value to such content, people can make more focused decisions about their consumption habits. Instead of allowing ourselves as readers to be vulnerable to the social media platforms that war with each other to monopolize our attention, we can instead be selective with our media choices, honing in on the interests, writers, and localities that we find most meaningful.
One example we had in mind was Ben Thompson’s Stratechery, a hybrid web and email publication about technology business models that costs subscribers $10 a month or $100 a year, and which we estimated was making at least $1 million a year from subscriptions. Why weren’t more people doing that? Because Ben had a rare combination of skills. Not only was he a good writer, but he also had the product sense to invent a new kind of publication, the business sense to figure out a sustainable financial model, and the tech savvy to cobble together the long list of tools needed to make it work.
We asked ourselves: What if we could take care of everything except the part about being a good writer? If we could reduce the startup costs for such a publication to virtually zero, what potential might be unlocked? Perhaps in the future there could be a million Ben Thompsons. There could be a subscription publication for every conceivable niche, giving readers access to writing that the current media economy doesn’t support. In such a world, a new generation of writers could make a living doing the work that matters most.
We wanted to live in that world. For society to work well, people need trustworthy and independent sources of information and storytelling – but the events of the last couple decades have been pushing us in the wrong direction. The promise of the internet has always been great – a global community that can share information freely and instantly, fostering connections that wouldn’t otherwise be possible – but the reality has not been so rosy. The dominant ethos in the early days of the internet was that information should be free, so advertising offered the main way for digital media businesses to make money. It was never the intention, but that online ad model has created serious problems, eroding trust and devaluing the work done by writers. But we still believed in the power of the internet as a force for good.
Why couldn’t we build a network where readers subscribe directly to the writers they trust? It felt like an ambitious thing to attempt, but Chris felt like it would be a good product, which helped convince Hamish. Hamish felt like it would actually work for writers, which helped convince Chris. Our partners Cara and Steph believed in and supported us, which convinced us both.
We dropped what we were doing and, relying on our savings, went full time on Substack. We began convincing our friend Jairaj, a talented developer, to join our founding team. Getting Bill to agree to be the first Substack publisher was the next crucial step.
On October 18, 2017, Bill sent a letter to his readers.
I wanted to personally thank all of you for sticking with me over the years. The Sinocism blog became the Sinocism China Newsletter in the Spring of 2012 after Beijing blocked sinocism.com. An email newsletter was a workaround and it is quite gratifying to have grown from a few dozen readers to more than 30,000 subscribers today.
The daily newsletter is moving behind a paywall on Monday.
We were all scared shitless. If this experiment didn’t work, it would be bad for Bill, bad for Substack, and an abrupt end to our experiment.
But it turned out okay.
By the end of that day, Sinocism had brought in six figures of revenue.
A new media ecosystem
Bill’s launch was successful because the work he does is great and because he had built up a loyal readership over years. Still, it helped us feel that we were onto something and we began to form a plan to realize the goals that we laid out in our original essay:
Recruit writers of great newsletters so that instead of paying to send email they could get paid for the important work they were doing.
Open up the platform for all writers to start their own independent publications.
Create better ways for readers to discover and read the writers they care about.
Expand into community features, audio, and video.
Continue to fight for this new media ecosystem, built on trust, that pays creative people for their valuable work.
After Sinocism’s launch, we were able to attract writers of a diverse group of publications, including The Shatner Chatner, by Daniel Ortberg, co-founder of The Toast, and an anonymously authored newsletter called Petition, about the bankruptcy industry.
In early 2018, we opened up registration to all and made it possible to use Substack to start a free publication. If you were a newsletter writer who didn’t like the idea of a subscriber cap or paying to send emails, we offered a modern publishing tool, no limits, and no fee. If you were a writer who missed the glory days of blogging, we gave you a home for your blog – except this time it came with a mailing list. If you were an established journalist, you could use Substack to go independent, with a website, email distribution, and the ability to get paid directly by the readers who care most about your work.
On Substack, you choose what to publish for free and what to make available only to paying subscribers. The beauty of this model is that you get to reach the world and also publish for an intimate audience. When a writer publishes something great, it can blow up online, garnering hundreds of thousands of views and dramatically growing their mailing list and earning potential. This has happened with Luke O’Neil’s piece on the effect Fox News has had on families, Cari Wade Gervin’s exposé of an anti-LGBTQ Tennessee congressman who was busted soliciting sex with young men on Grindr, and Matt Taibbi’s critique of the media’s handling of “Russiagate,” to name a few.
Two years in, we’re thrilled by the work being done by writers who use Substack. With Popular Information, Judd Legum, the former editor in chief of ThinkProgress, has been holding social media giants to account for their political advertising practices and exposing how corporate dollars are put to work in political campaigns. Emily Atkin is reporting on climate change accountability issues in Heated, a venture that she quit her job at The New Republic to start. The author and comedian Samantha Irby is writing about pop culture and food with hilarious verve, including a daily breakdown of what’s happening on the courtroom TV show Judge Mathis, in books/snacks/softcore. Nicole Cliffe, another of The Toast’s founders, curates Reddit, writes about Jesus, shares pet photos, and hosts a thriving intellectual community at Nicole Knows. Meanwhile, publications have emerged to cover a myriad of issues and subjects, including the NBA, music criticism, the business of Hollywood, women’s sports, international affairs, faith, astrology, cooking, eating, books, beat-making, municipal politics, crypto, trans issues, transportation, the culture wars, English Premier League soccer, the sake industry, MMA, and Chicago theater, among thousands of others.
More than 50,000 people now subscribe to a publication on Substack. We are processing millions of dollars a year in payments, with writers making a range of incomes from pocket money to supplementary income to “this is a serious business!” levels of cash. We’re encouraged by the progress and have raised money to set Substack up for a long future, but we know this is just the beginning. There’s so much work to be done, so much more to prove, and so much more great writing yet to be produced.
So, where to from here? Well, we’ll keep following the plan.
We’ve always thought that this new era of publishing can be more lucrative than the one that came before. The media is going through an upheaval, but that doesn’t mean that people’s appetite for the written word has diminished or that this is the end of the line for journalism. On the contrary, we see an enormous opportunity in this moment of reconfiguration, where new voices will emerge, new kinds of businesses will be built, and everyone can benefit from rewarding relationships based on the exchange of culture.
To accelerate the advent of this new media economy, we’ll build increasingly powerful tools to help readers and writers. We will make it simple for groups of writers to work together on Substack publications. We will do more to support local news and help independent reporters get the resources they need to do fearless journalism. We will improve every aspect of our product, including more support for community features, podcasting, and video, with richer analytics all round. We will help writers grow their audiences, and help readers fall in love with writers they otherwise may never have discovered. We will put everything we’ve got into building a better future for news.
If you are a writer interested in using Substack, even if you’re not sure you ever want to do paid subscriptions, we’d love to have you publish with us.
If you care deeply about the future of media and think you might want to work on these challenges with us, please check out our careers page. Maybe you even want to follow us on Twitter and sign up for our blog.
Two years ago, we wrote that we believe great writing has intrinsic value and that it doesn’t have to be given away for free. We said that what you read matters, and that there has never been a better time to bolster and protect those ideals. Our conviction on these points has only grown stronger.
So, thank you, so much, to all the writers and readers who have helped build this community so far, and for showing the way forward for a new generation of publishing. We now have the foundation for the kind of ecosystem we dreamed of when we got started. There’s so much more to come.