The Ridiculous (And Cynical) Freakout Over Substack Pro

It ain't really about the money...

This post is Part Two to my original post on the Substack Pro - Jesse Singal controversy, I decided to address this issue in two separate posts because there are parts of this story that raise broader concerns beyond the attacks on Singal. 

Since this controversy is ostensibly about the Substack Pro program I’ll start there; in case you missed it Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie posted to the Substack blog an explanation of the program and what its purpose is. The idea is simple -- Substack identifies writers who they feel would be successful on the platform and offers them a deal where the company will financially support them for the first year in exchange for 85% of the writer’s subscription revenue for that year. After the first year, the deal reverts to the standard Substack arrangement where a writer keeps 90% of their subscription revenue. 

McKenzie is not shy in saying that the company views this as a hopeful win-win for both Substack and the writer

“It’s also important that the economics of these deals work out for Substack. We don’t have to make money on every one, but we certainly shoot for that. If the program were financially unsustainable, doing these deals would do more harm than good, since not only would it compromise writers’ careers but we’d also be burning their trust.”

More interesting, McKenzie gives a glimpse into how Substack chooses which writers to approach with a Substack Pro deal

“When considering a Pro deal, the main thing we take into account is the writer’s likelihood of success with the Substack model. We look at the writer’s audience size, how engaged their following is on social media, and the respect they engender among their readers and peers. As an indicator of a publication’s market opportunity, we look at what they cover and assess how well that subject is covered elsewhere. We consider their track record and look for evidence of an ability to publish multiple pieces a week for an extended period of time. We do not approach this process from the perspective of a publisher, looking to gather a particular type of content under our brand, but with the eye of an investor, looking to stimulate a new generation of profitable media businesses. We want to help writers flourish.”

In other words, Substack is approaching these deals from a business perspective and not an ideological one. The most telling part of their criteria to me is the explicit reference to seeking writers who are covering subjects not already extensively covered elsewhere. It’s no secret that legacy media has, seemingly by their own choosing, left a huge market ignored -- the market for center-left / center-right content. 

If Substack is targeting that market, it’s a very smart business move. Substack is a company, it exists to make money, it has venture capital investors to pay back, so its motives are inherently going to be more business-focused versus ideologically focused. And as mercenary as that sounds, it’s an attitude I’ve long advocated for legacy media to take in regards to content creation. I don’t see how large, mainstream publications can continue to forgo the money they could be getting by appealing to a broader audience and still keep the doors open. We’re not talking small sums of money that legacy media is leaving on the table either; while most independent content creators don’t disclose how much money they make from subscribers, the podcast Blocked and Reported chose to leave their Patreon earning public specifically to make this point. As of this writing, the Blocked and Reported Patreon has 4,516 subscribers and is earning $24,463 a month. 

The exodus of top-tier talent to the platform has also raised its profile significantly and Substack’s base of paying subscribers has exploded from 250,000 in September 2020 to over 500,000 in February 2021, and the data mining site SimilarWeb shows total visits to substack.com at 15.91M for February 2021. With data like that, it’s hard to argue that Substack isn’t on to something, and that letting writers express views that are considered too heterodox for mainstream media is making them a ton of money.


The controversy is, of course, about who is in the Substack Pro program and what are they getting paid. On that topic there has been a lot of bad faith assumptions about the Wrong People getting money from Substack and that somehow the existence of the program means that Substack as a whole is a giant scam.

No, I’m not kidding. From Annalee Newitz

“Realistically, almost nobody will reach that point. The vast majority of Substack newsletter writers will never make money that’s equivalent to a year’s salary, which is what the staffers get. Instead, they will provide Substack with free content, hoping to get that sweet subscriber cash one day. And Substack will dangle its “successful” writers in front of its rank-and-file membership to keep them going. You too could have a Substack that’s as financially successful as this guy’s Substack! Except you don’t know whether this ‘successful’ Substack was bankrolled by the company or not. There’s no transparency about that.

...

Substack’s business is a scam. They claim to offer writers a level playing field for making a living, and instead they pay an elite, secret group of writers to be on the platform and make newsletter writing appear to be more lucrative than it is. They claim to be an app when they are a publication with an editorial policy. They claim in their terms of service that they will protect writers from abuse, but they don’t.”

When I said in my first post that this outrage over Substack Pro was sour grapes masked as outrage, this is what I meant. Everyone who writes for Substack knows what they’re signing up for, nobody “scammed” anyone. And yeah, I wish I had more paying subscribers too, but I’m not going to whine about it or act like there’s some big conspiracy against me. 

This is why I made of point of explaining that the idea behind Substack Pro and how it chooses which writers to approach. It ain’t personal, it’s business -- Substack isn’t going to offer a writer a deal unless they think the company will at least break even on the deal. That means the company isn’t approaching any writers who wouldn’t have made large sums of money on the platform even without a Pro deal. Even McKenzie himself admits that most of the big-name writers on Substack chose to forgo the Substack Pro deal in favor of the standard deal because they stood to make way more money that way. 

Inevitably, the argument against Substack Pro pivots to feigned indifference on making money on Substack

“I didn’t pay much attention to Substack’s subscriber model because I wasn’t going to use this newsletter as a revenue stream. I already have plenty of paying gigs. All I wanted was a way to let you folks know what I’m up to, and occasionally tell you a story for free that I personally wanted to tell. What clinched it for me was that Substack had attracted such a big, engaged readership with high-profile writers like Daniel M. Lavery, Emily Atkin, and Heather Cox Richardson. 

Substack’s nice interface and large community made it easy for content to go viral. And that’s what I wanted. I didn’t need to be paid, but I wanted to get some of my weirder ideas in front of a broad audience. What I’m saying is that Substack suckered me in with the promise of growing my readership, and the bait was that they had so many great writers with huge followings. But now I’m left wondering how many of those huge followings were made possible by payouts from Substack.”

The cognitive dissonance here is astounding. If your goal is to have a place to write and expand your following and the platform is performing that function for you, then why the fuck would you care if someone else is making money? It’s a classic case of stated preference versus revealed preference; Newitz says they didn’t care about using Substack as a revenue stream but now they are very mad that someone else is making money on Substack. The argument about writers with huge followings is somehow the result of Substack money makes no sense either; Substack is paying writers to write, not subscribers to subscribe. A writer’s following is contingent on their work, and no amount of money changes that. 

But when you get to the core of the angst surrounding Substack as a platform and Substack Pro specifically, it isn’t really about the program or the money. The real issue seems to be that Substack gives certain people a platform at all. Jude Ellison Sady Doyle gives the game away here

“Glenn Greenwald started his Substack by inveighing against trans rights and/or ACLU lawyer Chase Strangio, is currently using it to direct harassment at a female New York Times reporter, and has repeatedly used his platform to whitewash alleged rapists and domestic abusers. Freddie de Boer is an anti-“identity politics” crusader who became so infamous for harassing colleagues, particularly women, that he briefly promised to retire from the Internet to avoid causing any more harm; he’s currently using his ‘generous financial offer’ from Substack to argue against ‘censoring’ Nazis while pursuing a personal vendetta against the cis writer Sarah Jones. Matt Yglesias, who publicly cites polite pushback from a trans femme colleague as the Problem With Media Today — exposing the woman he named to massive harassment from Fox News and online TERFs alike — reportedly got a $250,000 advance from Substack. It’s become the preferred platform for men who can’t work in diverse environments without getting calls from HR. 

Those are just the assholes. Increasingly, Substack is tolerating and funding extreme trans-eliminationist rhetoric: They host Jesse Singal, a high-profile supporter of anti-trans conversion therapy who is also widely known to fixate on and stalk trans women in and around the media industry. I would list Jesse’s targets, but at this point, I don’t know a trans woman in media who doesn’t have a story. Graham Lineham is a transphobic bigot so extreme and abhorrent that he’s been permanently banned from Twitter, Medium, and basically every platform but the one I’m using to talk to you right now. He reportedly considers Substack a major source of income.

I’m not even listing all the problematic bylines here. (Andrew Sullivan! Bari Weiss!) Those bylines themselves are not the problem. Self-publishing platforms can’t control who signs up. Substack isn’t a self-publishing platform, though. It curates its writers. It pays them, sometimes massively, and it makes choices as to who gets paid well and who doesn’t. We’ve seen instances of tech companies allowing hate group leaders to acquire huge followings through negligence, from white supremacist YouTube stars to a President who has to be banned from Twitter for trying to start a civil war, but those were cases where the platforms failed to keep bigots out. Substack is actively bringing the bigots in. Then it’s giving them paychecks.

Substack takes a small percentage of my subscription money, and that money goes to fund the writers they view to be better investments. I give them my money, and they use that money to pay men who have, in several instances, stalked or harassed either me or people I care about. This money is extracted, not just from me, but from many early Substack recruits who were enticed to contribute unpaid or drastically underpaid labor on the basis of names like Lavery and Cliffe. Or, for that matter, mine. To whatever small extent, I built Substack’s legitimacy as a platform used by professional writers, and I did this by signing up at at time when they didn’t really have many professional writers. I gave Substack my trust, my name, and my credibility, and it used that credibility to platform hate groups aimed at eliminating me and everyone I care about from the face of the planet.”

Doyle makes two major errors here, first in falling into the trap of thinking that every high profile Substack writer has a Substack Pro deal -- the details of who is part of the Substack Pro program are not public and both Singal and Greenwald have said they do not have Pro deals -- and by thinking that Substack is using writers’ fees to fund the program. Substack has made it clear that Substack Pro is not funded by writers’ fees but by VC funding the company has raised, a piece of information I’m sure Doyle could have got by reaching out to the company.

The foot-stamping over the program and the payouts are ultimately a smokescreen; if Substack Pro was ended tomorrow and everyone who received a payout had to pay it back that wouldn’t stop the attacks on Substack. The real issue is that the platform allows certain writers who have been deemed unacceptable to work in mainstream media a place to write. It wasn’t enough to hound people like Sullivan, Yglesias, Weiss, and others out of their legacy media jobs, they must be hounded out of existence altogether. Thankfully Substack has held the line and stuck to their principle of allowing writers the maximum amount of freedom but I can guarantee this will not be the last time the platform faces pressure to “moderate content” or completely deplatform certain people. I hope for everyone’s sake, including my own, that the company has the stomach to hold firm against the upcoming attacks on their business model.

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