Friday, November 26, 2021

Substack for Fiction Writers

Subscription services for writers have had a spotty history. For one thing, these services have previously been based on borrows, rather than sales, and authors tend to focus on sales. As a consequence, there aren't many subscription services that have stood the test of time. Oyster collapsed after a scant two years, leaving Scribd and Kindle Unlimited to hold down the fort, at least for book borrows.

The newest kid on the block, Substack, takes a different approach. Readers can subscribe to anything the writer produces: short stories, essays, commentary, serialized novels, how-tos, you name it. Authors have the option of charging a fee or not charging anything at all. 

Why bother with yet another publishing platform? There are already so many of them.

Substack has an astonishing Alexa ranking of 931. That means it's among the top thousand websites in the world, as far as traffic is concerned. A few digits under a thousand may not seem significant, but consider the fact that the New Yorker is ranked at 3390, and the Paris Review, one of our most prestigious literary magazines, is ranked at 140,000. 

One of the reasons for its impressive amount of traffic has been Substack's ability to attract big names. Salman Rushdie is one of them. Substack contacted Rushdie through his agent and invited him to publish on their platform. Surprisingly, he accepted. Someone of Rushdie's stature has absolutely no need of another platform, but his reasoning was that he wanted to reach readers with "something new." 

The reason most writers give for signing up with Substack is artistic freedom. They can write whatever they please without a publisher monitoring their output. Salman Rushie says it gives him a more "complex relationship with readers." That "complexity" is that it gives writers who have already signed up with a publisher an additional source of readers, and of revenue. Another is that writers can publish views that would otherwise be discouraged.

But is Substack really any better than a traditional publisher? Some authors have answered that question with a resounding yes. A former Forbes media and entertainment writer, Zack O’Malley Greenburg, received an advance from Substack comparable to what a major publisher would offer, and on top of that, he is charging for his weekly newsletters. Comic book writers, among them James Tynion IV, are also turning down lucrative deals with Marvel and DC in favor of Substack. Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, turned down Hachette to sign a deal with Substack for his forthcoming novel, Greener Pastures. He plans on distributing it through weekly newsletters over a span of 52 weeks. 

Serializing novels is nothing new. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas was originally published in serial form in 1844. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, and Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea were also serialized. But while Substack is willing to offer famous authors a substantial advance, an unknown author would probably have no greater chances of a sale than trying to get the attention of a traditional publisher. Substack's only appeal to unknown authors it that, like self-publishing, it allows an author to simply put a book out there, come what may.

I have not seen any statistics on how Substack compares to self-publishing platforms, but my guess is that there probably isn't much difference in sales. Like Medium, Substack provides a certain amount of searchability by topic, but an awful lot of promotional work would be required if you are just starting out. 

That being said, Substack offers of couple of features that make it appealing to writers, one of which is that you can import your exisitng blog, or create a new one. You can also send newsletters via Substack. And if you already have a newsletter, you can import your subscriber list. 

The monthly fee for newsletters can vary anywhere from free to $2 a month to a yearly fee of $200. The writer sets the fee. While writers don't have to pay to sign up, Substack charges 10% of the subscriber fee. An additional 2.9% of your billing rate, plus 30 cents per transaction will be taken out by Stripe, the service Substack uses for billing. Like many self-publishing platforms, Substack offers editing, proofreading, art and design, and legal services as part of their packages.

In addition to subscriptions, Substack also runs a monthly short story competition. Their mission is to "revive the art of the short story, support artists, and produce something wonderful." The prize is $100 for the chosen story plus 50% of subscription revenue to be sent by Paypal, Zelle, or check. Submit stories by the end of the month. (Only one story receives the full payout.) Their preferred length is 6000 - 10,000 words. Reprints are ok so long as you still have the rights to distribute. Read more about the competition HERE.

Find out more about Substack:

Serialized Books Are a Burgeoning Business at Substack

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