It’s been a year since the launch of Substack, a platform that allows newsletter writers to build a subscription business. Today, on its first birthday, the startup has a simple message: Yes, people really are willing to pay for newsletters.
In fact, the company says there are more than 25,000 paying subscribers for Substack-powered newsletters (up from 11,000 in July). And newsletters published on the platform reach a total of 150,000 paying active readers.
Co-founder and CEO Chris Best described the pitch as, “We’ll do everything for you except the hard part,” namely writing the newsletter. It offers way to publish newsletters, charge a subscription fee and then decide which content only goes to paying subscribers.
“It’s a really simple idea,” Best said — and in his view, that’s part of what makes it powerful.
At the same time, the startup has been adding more features like gift subscriptions, podcast support and subscriber-only comments, which have the bonus of reducing troll-ish commentary from random visitors.
“We can be like, ‘Comments are for people that are paying,’” Best said. “That actually fixes a lot of the problem.”
Substack launched with Sinocism, a China-focused newsletter written by MarketWatch co-founder Bill Bishop, and apparently the paid subscription sign-ups on Bishop’s first day added up to six figures in annual revenue. Since then, writers like Judd Legum (who quit his job as editor in chief of ThinkProgress to launch his newsletter Popular Information), Toast founders Nicole Cliffe and Daniel Mallory Ortberg and Slate political correspondent Jamelle Bouie have also used Substack to create paid newsletters (though again, it’s not all behind a paywall — the platform allows them to publish a mix of free and paid content).
“One of the things striking to us is the kinds of writers,” Best added. “It’s not a particular genre or type of writer, it’s not the subject matter that determines [success]. The kinds of writers who make it work are people who have a dedicated following, that have a particular point of view that makes them indispensable.”
Best also said this is “the kind of thing you want to do whole hog.” In other words, the successful writers are passionate about their subjects and committed to the newsletter format and subscription business model, rather than asking, “How can I diversify my revenue?”
At the same time, co-founder Hamish McKenzie (a journalist himself) noted that Substack isn’t just a platform for well-known writers to start charging their existence audience for their work. For example, there’s Petition, which was launched on Substack as an anonymously-written newsletter about corporate restructuring and bankruptcy.
The Substack team didn’t get specific about plans for the year two, but Best and McKenzie made it clear that they think this reflects a broader shift away from a news and commentary model driven by social distribution and monetized by ads.
“The core thing is really simple,” Best said. “The core thing is: Publish some stuff, get people to love it and then charge them for it.”