Why you should launch a Substack

The ad-driven model is struggling. That doesn't mean you have to be.

“There are eras of human history in which the channels of thought have been too deeply cut and no change was possible, and nothing new ever happened, and “best” was a matter of dogma, but that is not the situation now”

- Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I haven’t read that book. I started it yesterday, but I can’t concentrate. My wife and I fled New York two weeks ago and we’re in lockdown in Grantchester, near Cambridge in the English countryside. We’d been living in NY for a combined 15 years. We made the call on March 18, left on March 21. We figured acting too early was better than acting too late. In retrospect, we believe got out just in time. Vis-a-vis the state of print media in NZ: I realize it’s not totally kaput. But is it March 18?

Bauer is gone. Lots of jobs too, I guess. Demand for great writing is not a problem. Neither is the supply of great New Zealand writers. Hundreds of writers need a profitable way to engage hundreds of thousands of readers.

I propose that Substack could be the solution for some of you. To explain why - and why you’re reading it from me - I have to tell you a bit about myself.

My friend Hamish McKenzie is the COO of Substack. We became friends writing at The Critic Te Arohi at the University of Otago in 2001. Hamish was head of news. Patrick Crewdson was editor. They gave me my first professional writing job. $50 a week. I scheduled my coursework around Critic. It stimulated me that much.

I love print journalism. I’ve always hoovered it up. I became a playwright and screenwriter because I was restless and a bad listener. And I thought there were enough good print writers.

Stage and screenwriting was my sole source of income for 10 years. That’s not saying much, but I had a good time and got on Kim Hill. It took me to New York. I met my wife and took her name. I welcomed change. My artwork wasn’t stimulating audiences and they weren’t stimulating me. Jealousy used to motivate me. I began to pity my peers. I envied people whose skills were valued. I wondered if I had valuable skills.

I started freelancing on Upwork. I started doing copywriting. A job came up writing business plans. I’ve been pitching all my working life. For grants, for television shows, for people to support my schemes like Bureau - the shared office and meeting room in Wellington that I help run from afar by patching together simple SaaS. I started working with Evan Fisher at Unicorn Business Plans. 2 years later our clients have raised $1B in investment capital and I’m COO. I feel good about that. But I feel better about helping craft our process. It helps new and established businesses get their shit together and put their best foot forward fast. Weeks, not months. Hours, not days. That’s why I’m talking to you.

If you’ve got a job, stay put. If you’re out of one - or it’s about to let you go - I want to show you a potential new path. It won’t take long. Under certain conditions, I suggest that you may like to launch a Substack.

If you’re the truly independent type, the fastest way is to just get started and figure it out as you go along. You can do that here.

If you don’t know what Substack is, or how it works, or why it might suit you, I’ll try to orientate you now.

Substack is a publishing platform that takes care of everything except the hard part: the writing itself.

Basically, it helps you write email newsletters that you can choose to send to paying or non-paying subscribers. If you think that sounds old-fashioned or tried-and-proved-dull, I want you to stick with me for another paragraph.

Substack makes writers the owners. Email is a neutral platform: not owned by ​
any one company that can change the rules ​(e.g. Facebook or Google)​. It’s a more pleasant, mobile-first way for readers to consume online content. No browsing, no ads. By opting into direct relationships with writers, readers can be more selective with how they consume information, honing in on the ideas and people they find most meaningful​. With any luck, that could be you. It’s a less distracting way to engage with writing online, and far more satisfying. It’s an opportunity for writers to seize the means of production, management and distribution.

What’s your practice, preacher?

I get two email newsletters every morning (three now that I’ve signed up for Newsroom in a tardy attempt to support NZ print media…). One is from Substack. It’s called The Dispatch. Its morning briefing is unlike the Wall St Journal newsletter that I also get. The WSJ is trying to tease me to click through to the full story on their site. My morning briefing from The Dispatch IS the full story. I read it over coffee, then I get on with my day. The Dispatch was created by a team of writers with strong bylines. Within 4 months of launch they have 10K paying members and are generating about $1.5M a year. They’re outliers. But before they chose Substack they spent time and energy exploring the website/app model that will chain you to CAC and SEO for the rest of your days. I believe they made a much better choice to go with Substack.

Is Substack better for solo writers or teams?

Substack started out for individual writers, but I suggest that in the New Zealand context, it may be better for teams of 3-4. An editor and three writers. My reasoning is that you need to get a critical mass of people to pay to read what you write. Then you need to deliver regular, compelling content. It’s hard to muster a critical mass of people for anything in New Zealand. It can be hard for a sole operator to deliver compelling content with audience-satiating regularity. On a more optimistic note, critical mass may not be as many subscribers as you might think.

How much money can I make?

You’ll need to do some basic maths. Or you could play with the calculator here. The two most important numbers are subscribers, and paid conversion rate. A typical ratio is 1:20. that means 20K subscribers to get 1K paying.

Edit: Hamish told me that the big hitters commonly convert 7% to 10% and I should be more optimistic. But I’m the kind of playwright who used to budget for 40% ticket sales and was only periodically proved Eeyore, so I’ll stick by 1:20 for my example.

1K paying $10 a month equals $8,700 to you. Substack takes 10% + credit card charges. Everything else goes into your pocket. Minus your expenses and that’s your pay. I believe there are dozens of writers in New Zealand who could get 20K+ total subscribers. I suspect there are dozens more teams of 3-4 who could rustle up 40K. In 2019 The Listener’s alleged readership was 231K. I bought it to read about 4 writers. I met other good ones as a byproduct.

Is it better to launch a new masthead or dust off a folded one?

Traditionally, the former. But these are not traditional times and NZ is not Substack’s traditional market. Substack’s been in business for 3 years. It hasn’t made a big push outside of the US. It’s worth thinking about how you could generate the most buzz. Stuff readers got pretty excited about saving that beach… how would they react to the resurrection of NZ Rugby World?

Will I be pretty? Will I be rich?

Que sera, sera. But the great thing about Substack is that que sera, sera pretty damn quickly at virtually ZERO startup cost - beyond your valuable sweat and talent. It’s not going to work for everyone. But right now, there are 2 factors in your favor that may make it worth a crack.

  1. You could have a few weeks earning a government stipend to get up and running

  2. You can get going really fast. Like, in <72 hours

Can you help me do this, Arthur?

A little bit. I can help you get acquainted with the Substack team. They’re excited about the idea of a bunch of Kiwi writers jumping onboard. I’m basically filling in for Hamish (who’s on paternity leave) because I think this is a rare chance to carpe the new diem and change everything forever. I envy you. I was aching for a creative-destructive meteor to crash into the arts and change NZ theater, film and television irrevocably. Either it never happened or I missed it.

Besides, you’re probably a better writer than me. If you’ve ever set up a blog or a website, you should be able to DIY with a bit of clicking around. That’s what it’s designed for. Go here.

I do have some process things that can make fiddly stuff go faster.

  • A few low-cost, high value options to get your brand guidelines (logo, color scheme etc) within a few days

  • If you want to bounce your ideas off a human being that wants your Substack to succeed and can quickly identify likely obstacles to that desire, I’m here for you

The only reason you’d want to do this with me rather than your bedroom wall is that I spent 10 years trying to convince gatekeepers that my writing would appeal to a popular NZ audience. Since then, I’ve spent 2.5 years helping US and European business owners convince investors that customers will pay for what they do.

If you’re interested in what I’m offering, book your best time for a call now, here. I want to eliminate any barrier to your curiosity. I’m going to move as fast as I can to put you directly in touch with Substack.

Good luck. Share this round. I can’t stand Twitter, but this is an emergency. If you know me from when I lived in New Zealand, don’t be surprised if you feel me up in your DMs.

I’ve skipped straight to the last paragraph of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I quote it here because I heard that good writers circle back at the end.

“Trials never end, of course. Unhappiness and misfortune are bound to occur as long as people live, but there is a feeling now, that was not here before, and is not just on the surface of things, but penetrates all the way through: we’ve won it. It’s going to get better now. You can sort of tell these things.”

- Robert M Pirsig. Writer.