Can the newcomers offer different advantages for writers?
Some new players are emerging to take on Substack, promising content creators better rates, SEO optimization and more potential for growth.
Substack, a 4-year-old San Francisco based company, was valued at $650 million earlier this year. With tech giants from Twitter to Facebook getting into the newsletter game, newcomers including Ghost and Buttondown will have to differentiate their products to pull customers from the larger services.
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Having a newsletter has become increasingly attractive to content creators, writers and public figures looking for a way to cultivate their following. From journalists to Wall Street analysts, writers are increasingly using newsletters to speak directly to their audience — and sometimes to monetize their content.
“Newsletters are direct. You don’t have to fight through an algorithm to reach readers,” Adweek reporter Mark Stenberg told TheWrap. “It goes securely to their inbox and you have certainty they will see it, and that is huge.”
But what does it come down to when there are so many choices? There are a host of features to consider: from startup cost and fees to customizability and service support. Let’s look at some of the advantages and features of each platform.
Substack is by far seen as the biggest player in the newsletter space. The platform is home to big-name writers including Andrew Sullivan, Bari Weiss, Matthew Yglesias, Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi and Roxane Gay. In April, Substack boasted 12 million readers a month and 500,000 paying subscribers. Some of the top paid newsletters include Sinocism by Bill Bishop, with thousands of subscribers at $15 per month, and Popular Information by Judd Legum, with thousands paying $6 per month.
The service is attractive to many because it is easy to use out of the box. Writers decide when they want to start charging for subscriptions, and they can link it with a Stripe account. “For writers who just want to focus on creating great content and spend very little time thinking about the technical aspects of publishing, it’s a great tool,” said Simon Owens, content and social media marketing consultant.
Owens writes a media newsletter on Substack, but he said there are some downsides to the service. The company takes a 10% cut of his revenue, and this can start to add up if you’ve established a big following. “When you have a few hundred subscribers, the cost is worth it, but when you reach 5,000 paid subscribers? Then you have a lot of money going out the door,” Owens said.
When looking at email marketing capabilities, Substack is also lacking compared to, say, Mailchimp. Services like Mailchimp offer more customization, whereas Substack is limited in how much users can play with the design or run more extensive email marketing campaigns.
Overall, Substack is for those that don’t want to worry too much about the technical aspect of running a newsletter. “You’re writing and pressing send. Substack becomes the breakaway competitor,” Stenberg said.
Substack does offer some writers an advance that pays for their first year using the service. Back in April the company offered $200,000 to $300,000 advances to The New York Times’ Liz Bruenig and Taylor Lorenz to incentivize them to write there full-time. Another Times’ columnist Ben Smith said he declined a similar advance that was well above his salary.
Ghost is run by a nonprofit launched in 2013 from a Kickstarter campaign. Its mission is to build open-source technology for journalism, and it hosts individual writers and teams of writers and editors at various organizations. Ghost offers a free core service, and different levels of premium subscriptions with added features and support, similar to pro options on other newsletter platforms.
Ghost has 9,172 active customers, with brands including Mozilla, Tinder and Duolingo running on Ghost. One editorial newsletter, The Browser, has more than 10,000 paying subscribers. Ghost said there have been 2.5 million installs of its platform to date, and the organization has an annual run rate of $3.7 million.
Unlike Substack or Revue, Ghost charges based on the size of a writer’s subscription list. That’s an advantage for writers who may have a smaller audience, since Substack would take 10% of their entire revenue no matter how big or small a newsletter’s readership is. “This is why you’ll often see popular Substack writers jump ship to Ghost; they’re tired of paying Substack’s steep revenue share,” Owens said.
Ghost offers more control over the look and feel of content, as well as an advantage when it comes to SEO. As a former web editor, Stenberg noticed that the other platforms are lacking in this department. After publishing his newsletter, he would not get the search traffic. “It was like a flash in the pan and then would disappear,” he said.
Revue, a Netherlands-based upststart that was acquired by Twitter earlier this year, allows writers to choose to make their work free or paid, with the company taking a 5% fee in subscriptions. Vox Media and Chicago Sun-Times are working with Revue to develop a product for larger publications. Revue gets subscription revenue from about 60,000 active users.
Besides being half the cost of Substack, the product offers the potential for writers to leverage Twitter to grow their audiences. Twitter was considering adding a box to user profiles that allow people to subscribe to newsletters without leaving the Twitter platform, for instance. There are also other potential features that would boost a newsletter’s reach, including Twitter Spaces and Super Follows.
But for Stenberg, who originally started his newsletter on Substack and has since moved to Revue and Ghost, Revue was the most disappointing of the bunch. He pointed to very limited features, even though it is the cheapest to monetize when compared to the other services.
Bulletin was created by Facebook in July, pitched as a home for podcasts and newsletters. Bulletin already recruited high-profile writers and authors including Malcolm Gladwell, Mitch Albom, Tan France and Dorie Greenspan. It said the service will be opened to more journalists and writers later this year. Facebook said some writers are getting multiyear licensing deals to jumpstart their newsletters on the platform.
One early advantage, at least for now: It’s free to use at launch. Facebook has said it would commit $5 million to jumpstart Bulletin and promote more local journalism. Because it is still new, there isn’t a lot known about the invite-only platform. But it will incorporate Facebook’s own payment system Facebook Pay, and the company has said writers can take their subscriptions with them should they choose to leave the platform.
Similar to the potential with Revue, Bulletin could differentiate itself by offering tools and a wider potential network through the vast Facebook platform. There are some interesting ways in which the service could integrate it with Facebook pages and groups, for example.
This week, Bulletin added its next batch of 30 writers, including Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai and TV journalist Alina Cho.
Buttondown was a side project in 2017 by Stripe engineering manager Justin Duke. It can get technical to use, but is an affordable option compared to other platforms. Duke had been writing his own newsletter but didn’t like how the existing tools worked. So he created a minimalist tool offering free or paid subscription options through Stripe, analytics tools and the ability to build embedded Tweets and photos. It charges $5 per month for every 1,000 subscribers.
There’s also an emphasis on data privacy. As Duke writes on his site, “Most email and newsletter tools operate under one of two business models: They are venture-backed, forcing them to achieve scale and profitability at the expense of usability or privacy. They are designed for large corporations, who spend tens of thousands of dollars a month to create complex automation workflows based on subscriber actions.”
Duke makes the active spending on Buttondown public, which comes out to about $2,133 in monthly costs to run the service.
None of the above
Some writers will alternatively go with none of the above tools, and choose a custom route by using a combination of an email marketing platform, publishing platform and some sort of payment service. Mailchimp, WordPress, Tumblr, Medium are some of the most popular. Going this route could mean more work and more costs for the writers, but this could be the best option if none of the newsletter tools fit their needs.
“There are more upfront costs and technical headaches to this approach, but some people really love the level of control this affords,” Owens said.