Site of the Year: Substack.com
A platform built for subscriptions heralds a new era for niche publishers
In addition to a Book of the Year, I want to also name a Site of the Year. Books are an important format for intellectual output. Sites are ideas about how the world can work.
My Book of the Year dealt with the hijacking of social media for espionage, illicit business, and organized crime, a topic that is still in the news. My Site of the Year shows how important business models can be to making information more robust, manageable, and trustworthy.
Substack.com is a subscription e-newsletter platform that allows writers to commercialize their work, uses email to deliver full articles, and integrates nicely with e-commerce platforms. Substack is the platform “The Geyser” uses.
Substack was founded by Chris Best and Hamish McKenzie. Best is a tech entrepreneur, having been a co-founder of Kik Interactive when he was in university. McKenzie is a tech journalist and author of the book about Tesla I recently reviewed (“Insane Mode”). Both saw a need for a way to support and commercialize niche journalism, and knew that cobbling together the technology was a pain point. So, they decided to create a platform that would do it for authors. But there was more inspiring it, as McKenzie says in a subscriber-only interview also published today:
Substack is intended as an antidote to the prevailing media environment. . . . and the rise of tech platforms . . . in which it was more profitable to spread sensationalism, outrage, and divisiveness than it was to spread truth . . .
One point of inspiration was the thriving tech newsletter Stratechery, written by Ben Thompson. Stratechery allows readers to enjoy free posts via a blog, but they must pay to receive daily email updates.
Substack puts these approaches into one platform. You can write posts that are only available to subscribers (initially delivered by email, preserved in the blog); posts that are publicly available and delivered to registered users and subscribers via email; or posts that only go to registered users and that are not featured on the blog. This latter type allows you to make subscription appeals to registered users, spotlight content they’ve missed by not subscribing, or offer discount incentives, all without cluttering up the blog portion.
Substack is taking advantage of the tilt towards subscriptions that is making more online businesses viable, from Patreon to Scribd. In an article in Wired, Scribd’s CEO Trip Adler said that after trying all sorts of business models, subscriptions have proved the most effective. Now 500,000 subscribers pay Scribd $8.99 per month to access books and articles through Scribd’s app.
Tech companies themselves have hidden and growing subscription revenues, from Amazon Prime to YouTube TV to Apple Music.
The elegance of Substack is part of why I selected it. Nice touches abound. If you pause as you’re writing, the site saves your work automatically. You can schedule posts/emails. You can place Subscribe or Gift Subscription buttons with one click. The blogging tools are simple, sufficient, and well-designed. You get analytics. Templates for various e-business emails are provided and are easily customizable. Design work is a breeze, with most of the design done, so all you have to do is integrate a logo and go.
What kind of success is Substack having? Just look at these examples, and do a little math as you peruse:
Clearly, Substack has tapped a need in the market, and their technology, while still nascent, is effective and easily adopted. By embracing the subscription model, Substack has also made writing commercially viable again, something many newspapers forgot how to do years ago, to their peril. The “readers pay” model works well to this day, and thousands of readers are already paying $50/year to $360/year for Substack e-newsletters.
Why the Site of the Year? Because Substack hit on three major realities I embrace — email is a key workflow and information tool for most professionals, content is still royalty in the information space, and subscriptions are the most wholesome way to purvey information.
An interview with Hamish McKenzie about Substack.com is available for subscribers. Find out what inspired Substack, how the company and technology came together, what kind of success they’ve had, and where they’re going.