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What actually is Substack?

And why you might want to use it
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If you’re a writer and you’re reading this, chances are you’re curious about Substack.

If you’re already an experienced Substack writer, you can opt out of this video series in your subscription settings.

Today’s video is a quick introduction to what Substack is, what it can do and why it’s useful for writers. Later in this series I’ll be getting into the nuts and bolts of how to use it: posts, threads, chat, Notes, podcasts.

This video series isn’t produced by Substack, so in today’s video I also briefly cover some of the alternatives. Choosing your platform is a hugely important decision, so you want to get it right.

At the moment, Substack is still best thought of as a publishing platform for writers that mixes together the best bits of Wordpress and Mailchimp.

The key pillars of Substack

The three absolute key things to know:

  1. Substack is free to use

  2. You own your data, including your subscriber list

  3. You have the option of monetising your work via paid subscriptions.

This means you’re in control of your material. There are no ads, and there’s no algorithmic chicanery getting in-between you and your readers. Bottom line is, If someone subscribes to you, they will receive your newsletter.

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How Substack works for readers

People can read your Substack material in three places. On the web, you get a nice website that contains your archive and presents everything in a magazine-like format. Take a look at my home page - you can see the latest posts, my most popular articles, browse the archive, or jump to a particular section.  You don’t have to be a subscriber to check out the website.

Then there’s the email newsletters. Each one of the articles on my Substack website was also sent out via email to my subscribers. Many readers will never go to the website and will read entirely via email. A lot of my readers have never even heard of Substack: all they know is that they’re reading newsletters from me.

There’s also a Substack app. This is entirely optional, but offers an additional way for people to read, alongside the work of other Substack writers. This provides a streamlined reading experience on mobile.

Substack features & formats

Substack is very writing-focused but it also makes it easy to embed images, videos and audio.  A publication on Substack is also a great way to build a community, if you want. You can open up discussion threads and allow people to comment on your work, or turn off those features if they’re not of interest. I’ve met some amazing people this way, as well as found new readers - and other writers.

You can make your articles free for everyone, exclusive to paying subscribers, or a bit of both using a paywall partway through. Subscribers can pay per month or annually and you get to set your own pricing. Substack takes a small cut, 10% which I think is a fair exchange considering the quality of the tools they’re providing.

Write More with Simon K Jones is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.

The risk is low

Perhaps the best thing is that you can take all of your subscribers and content and go somewhere else at any time, really easily.

This is excellent for two key reasons:

  1. It makes using Substack relatively low risk - you’re not locked in, and you’re not going to lose everything if you leave, like when you try to quit Facebook or TikTok or Twitter (or X, or whatever Musk is calling it. And

  2. It motivates Substack the company to keep improving in ways that benefit writers. Their priority is writers, and helping writers make money, because that’s how Substack makes money. The consequence of this is that their priority is not advertisers. And even if someone like Musk comes along in the future, buys Substack and runs it into the ground - it won’t make all of your hard work meaningless. You’ll be able to just pick up your stuff and go elsewhere.

Alternatives to Substack

There are alternatives, of course. Ghost is probably the closest you’ll get in terms of features. You could use a combo of services, like Mailchimp and Wordpress. Buttondown is a really good small-scale newsletter service run by one guy. Last I checked, it was really good.

I’m using Substack for now, though, and that’s what this series is going to be about. If you’re using Substack, or thinking of using Substack, make sure you subscribe so that you don’t miss upcoming episodes.

Next up:

If you’re wondering who the hell I am: I’m a UK-based writer of science fiction and fantasy. I’ve been writing online, weekly serialised stories for almost 10 years - you can read my latest project, Tales from the Triverse, over here. I’ve been exploring Substack as a platform for fiction writers for the last three years.


Meanwhile. How was your weekend? I went to the Out There festival in Great Yarmouth, a coastal town near where I live. Lots of outdoors art and performance and music. Think of it like a really, really, really colloquial SXSW without the networking.

Also found this alleyway while I was there:

What else? I recorded a podcast interview on Sunday which was enormous fun. Hopefully I’ll be able to link to that in the newsletter next week. It’s always a curious experience talking about my writing. I’m much more familiar with talking about other people’s writing, and talking about my own requires a significant gear shift.

This popped up in my notifications:

Which makes me think two things: 1. I get the feeling the audience for reading serial fiction is growing on Substack. No real hard data to back that up, just a general feeling. I think we’re headed in the right direction, though. And 2. I really should replace those old generic MidJourney images with some illustrations of my own.

Some bits:

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Write More with Simon K Jones
Substack for Beginners
A no-nonsense video guide for writers who are new to Substack.
Authors
Simon K Jones