Don't believe people will pay to read your writing?

The ad-driven revenue model may have you in the grip of Stockholm syndrome.

I originally wrote this article last week, when Duncan Grieve speculated what the government’s response package might look like. Now it’s here, and my guess is that if you’re reading this then it’s not exactly Christmas for you. I’ve rewritten. If you sense urgency in my approach, you are correct. I have lived one of your possible futures and it sucks.

I spent 10 years as a professional in the arts. Playwright, actor, producer. I was about as successful as you could hope to be in terms of cultural capital, but I had to break away. I’ll be back, but never on government-funded terms. It encourages shit work, that people don’t care about, for pay that makes the dole look like a Wall Street salary. It’s the road to a very specific type of post-modern serfdom. Now it’s coming for the media.


It took me 10 years to understand that the government’s interventions weren’t helpful for the industry and were even more devastating for me personally. There seemed to be no other way for me. There probably was. There definitely is for you. Two of them. Ad-driven or paid subscription. Your best path likely depends on whether you are more of a broadcaster, or a narrowcaster. Both are noble, but each requires a different approach.

I am being paid to help promote Substack as a path to financial and creative independence for NZ’s best writers

That doesn’t mean I’m not organically passionate about your success. It means I’ve got Substack’s backing to eliminate the speed bumps and roadblocks to your participation. Read this through and if it’s interesting, connect with me. @ArthurMeek on Twitter or Arthur Warring on LinkedIn.

Solo or small team?

Both can work. Your biggest challenge will be to build and maintain a subscriber base. The Substacks that work have around a 1:10 ratio of paid to free content. You’ll likely want to do about 2 pieces of content a week total. For some individuals, those are hard asks. Not for all. For some NZ writers I recommend going it alone - like with David Farrier. For most I recommend launching publications based round teams of 3-4. Like bands. Remember bands?

Is your writing better suited to the ad-driven model or a more direct relationship with readers?

I’m not being a smart arse. There’s no ‘right answer’. There are two possible paths for you depending on your honest and fearless self-assessment in light of that question. I don’t think that buying or serving ads is bad. I believe in the beauty, simplicity and utility of the mutually beneficial exchange of money for goods or services. What I want to get clear about is the different relationship between writer and reader that is fostered by ad-driven versus subscriber-driven revenue models. What I believe Substack offers, and what - in my opinion - has never been offered before in such a powerfully simple way, is a genuine choice between them.

Writing for the ad-driven model is difficult and perfectly admirable.

My friend Matt Heath is one of New Zealand’s finest broadcasters. His Wikipedia could use some updating, but it gives you the gist.

Heath hosts the Matt and Jerry Breakfast Show with Jeremy Wells on Radio Hauraki. He has been a The New Zealand Herald columnist since June 2014 and provides animal facts for The Alternative Commentary Collective (sports) commentary.

I sense Matt got a bit shitty with me when I reached out to him the other day. I suggested that Substack wasn’t an opportunity for him, but I was hoping that he might be able to furnish me with some warm intros to his favorite writers. I got a reply telling me about how long and lucratively he’s been writing for the Herald and how popular his radio show and the ACC are. I know. Matt is a broadcaster. His many talents ideally suit him to deliver instant and consistent gratification to a large bunch of people via mic, camera or words. He’s a master of the hot take. This is incredibly hard to do. It will be eternally welcome to a broad array of audiences and advertisers. My gut says that Substack’s not the best platform for broadcasters.

My gut says Substack could be ideal for narrowcasters.

Epecially if that narrow channel runs sufficiently deep.

My suggested depth? Your call, but here are some figures. 1000 paying subscribers at $10 a month = ~$7500/month (that’s minus [Substack’s 10% + 3% CC] minus 15% GST). No ad teams to pay, no designers, no printers, no distributors, no studio, no back office staff, no office if you don’t want. It gets divided between the writers on your team - I recommend teams by the way. So your mission is to multiply those paying subscribers to a total that makes it worth it for you and your fellow writers to get out of bed and do what you do best. Your paid-to-free ratio is likely to fall somewhere between 1:20 and 1:10 within a few months.

Let’s drop that template on top of The NZ Listener’s latest figures. Circulation of 45K. Readership of 231K. Let’s call that a paid:free ratio of 19% - very high! But maybe not impossible. That’s $330K per month net. That’s a very real business proposition for a relatively large team of writers.

There are so many caveats and unknowns about activating a subcription-based readership, but your laser-focus should be on the fact that whatever money a publication makes on Substack, all you have to subtract are the voluntary expenses associated with subscriber acquisition and internal communications. The rest is split between the writers. Judd Legum was running a successful newsroom of 200 people. He now runs a Substack from his home office and earns considerably more.

Without ad-driven media, Substack’s subscription-driven model couldn’t exist.

Nor would that pain in your brow when you try to X out of a pop-up and it thinks you clicked it and takes you into a new tab. That antagonism is the prime motivator for readers to be curious about a different MO.

As a storyteller (and observer of human nature) I’m in awe of the creative driving force of clear and present antagonism. Captain Ahab’s life lacked meaning without Moby Dick. Ayrton Senna wouldn’t have achieved his true greatness without Alain Prost’s constant provocations. Space race. COVID-19. Ya de ya de ya.

But I’m not here to help ad-driven revenue model survive and thrive.

It’ll do fine just fine without my input. But writers and readers may not even consider the Substack alternative unless they’re told about it by someone like me.

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by selling ads, harvesting hysterical naked eyes,

dragging themselves through robotic tweets at dawn looking for an angry click,”

With apologies to Allen Ginsberg and the sickening sense that I could go on and on

In my nightmares, great writers lose touch with their talent by honing their skills to better serve the ad-driven model. They focus on SEO-optimizing, or mood-matching, or learn to develop an algorithmic ‘brand’ by applying a binary auto-fluff/auto-destroy approach to discrete thematic inputs. The alternative is to use events to feed the yeasty bug of your heartfelt values and turn them into tasty word-treats.

To get back to my subtitle: if you’re a natural born writer, attempting to prop up the subprime market for New Zealand media advertising shares thematic parallels with leaping in front of your captor after a 3-day siege to stop the Armed Offenders Squad from blowing a hole in his chest. When the siege is on and the bullets are flying you have a scary, highly consequential decision that I can’t ethically make for you:

  • Stay put?

  • Get amongst?

  • Use the distraction to try crawl quietly out the back door?

If your honest and fearless moral inventory reveals that the true potential of your written voice has been held hostage to an ad-driven media model - come and see: there is another way.

If there is another way, it’s certainly not subscriptions.

As Duncan Grieve reported in his article which I’m no longer linking for lack of time:

“even though sources suggest [The Sunday Star-Times] gained hundreds of new subscribers during the week, it didn’t come close to wiping away the pain of booking just a tiny fragment of an ordinary week’s advertising.”

No argument from me. But context is important. In the ad-driven revenue model, subscribers aren’t meant to cover the cost of producing and disseminating writing. They’re typically a loss-leader designed to demonstrate wider circulation in order to inflate readership in order to charge more for ads.

In the ad-driven model, subscribers are not people so much as a commoditized market signal that helps advertisers understand the wisdom and value of ad space. Subscribers are paying to be used as ad$-bait in exchange for the convenience of being sent the paper in the post, or maybe accessing a little more ad-driven content. This unholy subscriber-publisher-advertiser trinity seems an odd relationship at first glance. But like Anna Nicole Smith and J. Howard Marshall II, I completely understand how it came to be.

And why it will continue until the demise all participants.

Great sermon - but people just won’t pay for it when they can get it for free.

You’re wrong. Meet porn. Is there any doubt that you can acquire a lifetime’s worth of gripping porn for free anytime, anywhere, with the touch of a thumb?

The only half-appropriate way to prove my point is to direct you to 'I make over £20k a month selling nudes online' It’s an article about a documentary that justifies its tom-peepery through a remarkably strong piece of journalism exploring the whos, whats, whys, hows and uh-ohs of keeping a subscriber-based audience engaged with a steady flow of images of your body. The secret to success is crystal clear: you have to develop, deepen and maintain a relationship with your subscribers that they perceive to be intimate. By ‘perceive’ I mean - and you will know this if you’re a writer - that there’s a craft to it. It’s not fake. It’s just that there’s something magic about the ability of well-wrangled words to stir feelings of complicity and belonging inside the soul of another. That’s why I read.

Breaking away is going to be hard because you may to lean to write differently.

Right now, you’re mad to consider leaving a well-paid, satisfying job that you’re good at. If that job leaves you, you’ll have space to consider your options.

Figuring out what to write about is tough at the best of times. Parameters are a blessing - especially parameters like ‘get eyeballs on this in any way you can’. I spent 10 years locked in my own Stockholm syndrome with government arts funding. Some people’s creativity thrives under those conditions. Mine certainly did, but ultimately my fearless moral inventory threw up an inconvenient counterpoint to Janis Joplin’s lament in Me and Bobby McGee:

Freedom’s just another word for something left to gain.

This article is not going to convince you, but I hope it could point you in the direction of someone who might.

“Example is the school of mankind and they will learn at no other.”

Edmund Burke

Flick through these examples of people who are succeeding on Substack. Find your bliss, subscribe, experience, see how they deliver content. Pay to subscribe to a couple to experience what it feels like and what else it gets you. If you were starting a punk band, this would be the equivalent of learning three chords: after you’ve finished, you’re ready to play.

This window will stay open for a good long while. But probably not forever.

It seems a lot trickier to launch a podcast now than it did 5 years ago. I’d argue that a good one can always break through — but history seems to throw up moments in time when people are more receptive to trying something different. On those rare occasions, luck seems to favor the quick and the brave.

I cannot stress enough that if you’re in a satisfying job and super popular and well paid then Substack might not be for you. If, on the other hand, you’re in a position to believe that Substack might have something to offer,

Get in touch

This is could be the perfect time to find out.

Declaration of financial interest in your actions: I’m getting paid something to help out/promote Substack to writers affected by the distress of ad-driven publications. The moment I read about Bauer I emailed my friend and Substack COO Hamish McKenzie.

Subject: In which I meddle with the best of intentions, hopefully to your advantage.

Body: I suggest this could be a big opportunity for Substack to step in and provide a path forward for those titles/key journalists

Hamish is on paternity leave, but he’s passionate about this project to reach out to Kiwi writers. I agree that what I’m doing is potentially profitable for multiple stakeholders in every sense of the word. I agree that it’s fair to be compensated for my efforts to that effect.