These range from Letters from an American, historian Heather Cox Richardson’s long view on contemporary politics who has by far the most subscribers, over one million, to four vaccine sceptics and a biblical prophecy newsletter sharing regular updates on the end of the world. Over half of these big earners are well-known political commentators, often polemicists whose extreme views lost traction in mainstream media. Substack has a mostly hands-off approach to moderation, and is known for following the US principle of free speech, though there are some content and moderation guidelines. No hate speech, porn, spam, impersonation or plagiarism for example.
But they’re not all breathing fire. “Substack has become a place of genuine discovery,” explains Storr. You might stumble upon Margaret Atwood or chef José Andrés writing things they’ve never put out into the world before. But you’ll also discover new names such British food writer Yasmin Khan or a wonderful new talent called Freya India.”
In January, The Buddha of Suburbia author Hanif Kureishi began writing about the devastating Boxing Day fall that left him immobile, and has just announced that his free Substack The Kureishi Chronicles will be expanded into a memoir, Shattered.
Elsewhere you’ll find writers, academics, politicians, chefs, scientists, economists – anyone with a public profile who is sick of promoting their work with short, snappy posts set to music. Social media remains an important communications tool, but infinite scrolling and increasing ad volume on Instagram and TikTok are no longer playing well with lovers of long-form content. On Substack, writers can spend their time nurturing genuine relationships with an engaged audience. “Substack as a whole is in a period of growth,” says Storr, “as the world looks for another way to engage their minds as well as their eyeballs.”
If a newsletter doesn’t sound particularly “new” media, Storr says she likes to think of the platform “less as a newsletter platform, and more of a personal media empire”. This feels like language that would win her a seat at Logan Roy’s table. She points out that users can choose how to communicate, whether they prefer video, voice notes, images or plain old writing. “The platform has evolved so much in the last five years, due in part to feedback from creatives. Patti Smith uses it for video. Hanif Kureshi uses it to write from his hospital bed. I use it to teach writing.”
“TWK brings me the freedom I have always craved as a writer,” she says. “I can write in my own voice and about anything I feel strongly about. It’s hugely liberating.” Recent pieces include a thrilling excoriation of Danish restaurant Noma and asking what happened to the body positivity movement. Paid subscribers spend from £70 a year for access to everything she publishes, from lifestyle features to guest posts from other Substackers and video tutorials on storytelling with her husband Will Storr, also a successful writer. Free subscribers get a weekly newsletter, but the rest, trailed tantalisingly in the freebie, is behind a paywall.
Because of her profile among UK magazine and newspaper editors, Storr’s work is often then picked up by national publications, for which she’ll pick up a further fee. Well-known journalists and authors bring existing fans to any platform. What about unknowns? Storr insists that while existing audiences help, Substack is built to help newcomers find fans, saying that many of its writers have turned small followings into full-time careers.
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Nicola Lamb, for example, is the pastry chef behind Kitchen Projects, which she began during lockdown and has grown into an engaged community of baking fans and her primary income, with a USP of pulling both popular and complex recipes apart and showing how they work.
“Substack feels like a calm space,” she says. “People are there because they want to be.” She arrived from Instagram with about 5,000 followers, and has since grown on both platforms, to 34,000 on Instagram and 27,000 free Substack subscribers in 50 countries, along with a paid list she says is “growing steadily”. Typically, according to the platform, paid subs make up 5-10 per cent of the total number.
Both Lamb and Storr also pay other people to write on their newsletters, and have converted their online presence into in-person meetups. As does popular food newsletter, Vittles, which writer Jonathan Nunn has grown to over 40,000 subscribers in three years (free and paid). Substackers share and recommend each other, to the extent that 40 percent of anyone’s growth, says Storr, comes from inside the network. “That should bring hope to anyone worried they can’t start a Substack because they didn’t start an Instagram account in 2016.”
A new feature, Notes, which launched in mid April, allows users to ignite conversations with their readers with short form text, and have conversations as they might on Twitter. Substack’s head of communications, Helen Tobin, says that a number of writers are already seeing growth from the feature, just weeks in. The possibility of a mega payday is a considerable draw to would-be Substackers. Curiously, Substack itself isn’t making huge sums. It takes 10 per cent of writers’ earnings, and is reported to have earned $9m in 2021, when it also raised $65m funding on a $650m valuation, which TechCrunch called “remarkable”, an impressive amount for any company of its size and age.
Money aside, why are we turning to more and longer-form writing, when in recent years the prevailing mood has questioned our need for more content? “We have spent the last 10 years connecting with anyone and everyone,” observes Storr.
“That’s exciting – up to a certain point when actually what you really crave is true connectivity. Having your favourite writer or artists or photographer drop into your inbox with their purest thoughts, undiluted by algorithms or advertising, is deeply comforting.”