Can Substack power a creator economy middle class?
And what will it take to get there?
✍️ The big story
On Thursday Substack announced it was adding the team behind community-building consulting firm People & Company to the company, as part of a larger effort to help creators on its platform grow their readership and build their own independent publishing businesses.
The acqui-hire comes on the heels of other creator-friendly announcements by Substack, including the introduction of writer fellowships, mentorship programs, and a local news initiative. In each case, Substack hopes to give writers on its platform the tools they might need to turn their passion for writing into a livelihood. In other words, Substack wants to help power a new “creator economy middle class.”
These initiatives are separate from its Substack Pro program, which the company launched by offering upfront advances to attract A-list writing talent. To be fair, the fellowships and mentorship programs are designed for a different class of writer—i.e., those who might not come with a large, highly engaged audience.
In his post announcing the deal yesterday, Substack founder Hamish McKenzie tried to stress the importance of supporting lesser-known writers, striking a very “rising tide lifts all boats” tone:
“I’ve always resisted the contention that the only writers who can succeed on Substack are those who already have large existing audiences. I like famous writers, but they’re not the only voices worth hearing (and writers who have built their media businesses from scratch on Substack agree). While we are proud that big-name writers have found a happy home on Substack, if that’s all we were able to achieve then we would consider our job not even half done. We think the true measure of Substack’s success will be in helping to create livelihoods for people who would otherwise never have had the opportunity to become professional writers. We succeed only when they succeed.”
It’s not entirely true that Substack can only succeed if it empowers the next generation of independent writers—it could, after all, make a tidy sum by just taking a cut of its most popular publishers. What McKenzie probably means is that he believes Substack will succeed only if it becomes the de facto place for new writers to be discovered.
In his blog post, McKenzie cites YouTube as a model for enabling the discovery of new creators. But putting aside the challenge of delivering video over the Internet in 2005, in some ways YouTube had an easier row to hoe.
For one thing, there weren’t really any viable platforms for sharing user-generated video at the time YouTube came to prominence; for another, powering video recommendations and discovery is a lot easier when the social contract of your platform isn’t built around explicitly opting in to follow one creator and one creator only as it is in the blog/newsletter world.
But most importantly, if supporting the next generation of independent writers was as easy as building an easy-to-use CMS, the problem would have already been solved. McKenzie acknowledges as much in yesterday’s post:
We’ve always believed that a platform that supports independent writers has to be about more than just software. The current crisis that writers face can’t be solved with a beautiful publishing tool or a whiz-bang content management system. To really flourish, especially when starting something new, writers need a support structure to reduce the anxiety that can come with doing important work for the public. They need peer support; they need advice and guidance; they need access to healthcare and legal support and design and all the things that could be offered if the economics of the media ecosystem made a little more sense.
The question is if peer support and guidance will be enough to enable wantrepreneurs to become entrepreneurs, or if Substack will have to provide even more assistance to make independent publishing viable for even just a few of its lesser-connected writers.
📖 What I’m reading
Trolling the woods of Maine, where Scandinavian folklore comes alive [Boston Globe]
A series of giant Scandinavian trolls have been constructed in the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens.
Tech vs. Journalism: Inside the nasty battle between Silicon Valley and the reporters who write about it [NY Mag]
A long read charting the transformation of journalism covering tech, startups, and venture capital, and the requisite fallout that ensued.
Buy yuppie scum: ’90s rich-guy gear is in style [GQ]
A new generation subverts the vintage fashion that defined Wall Street largesse; I look forward to wearing TechCrunch’s startup fashion collection again in 2040.
David Foster Wallace won [Freddie deBoer]
DFW remains relevant only because his haters won’t let his memory die.
Monkey tennis [The Fence]
A London literary magazine asks a bunch of journalists for the worst pitches they ever sent. Hilarity ensues.