She's sick of the Substack hype and I don't blame her one bit

This publishing consultant takes a shiv to the pretty lies propping up the latest disruptive gold-rush

She's sick of the Substack hype and I don't blame her one bit
Photo by davide ragusa / Unsplash

You know you've heard the buzz about the Substack.

I've sure heard it, since I'm running my own version of a Substack without the rented sharecropper land.

I may be a hayseed that fell off the turnip truck... but that didn't happen yesterday.

I've seen these emotional boom-and-bust cycles happen before. Plenty of times over the last 20 years.

I also know that when you see the herd stampede in one direction, you rarely go wrong when you...

High-tail it in the other direction

The last thing I want is to grow an audience on yet another VC-funded Silicon Valley platform, only to be shocked... SHOCKED, I tell you... that the Terms of Use have changed and my own brand of speech is no longer on the commissar's approved list.

Fool me once, shame on you.

Fool me twice... you can't get fooled again.

Echoing my correct opinions, publishing consultant Jane Friedman wrote a post yesterday that takes a hatchet to the buzz around this new darling, confirming my own biases to a degree that I can't help but elaborating here.

The main reason I decided against taking the Substack express is so obvious it almost pains me to have to point it out.

The rogue planet newsletter is mine and I own it

To the maximum degree that you ever own anything online.

That qualifier is important. We'll come back to that.

This site runs on Ghost, which is the indie-underground and freely available publishing platform originally built as a Wordpress competitor.

Pretty slick setup if you want to spin up your own opinionated samizdat with semi-private gated access.

RP runs on a VPS that I manage myself, saving God knows how much in monthly hosting fees. The downside is that you need to handle the tech side yourself. While this isn't much of a challenge for me (it takes maybe 20 minutes of upkeep a week), most creatives do not have this skill-set, so I can't say I recommend this path. But if you've got the chops, it's another level of control.

Control is everything.

I control all the data. I control how the site looks. I control who can use it and who gets the boot. The list of subscribers? Mine. Should the worst happen, I can still contact my readers.

There are bottlenecks. The VPS company could in principle deplatform me should the mob come a-crowing. Payment processors are turning out to be highly vulnerable.

If you're showing up in the world, you're never totally independent.

But you can minimize your attack surface.

There are enough resentful and mean-spirited schoolteachers in our lives trying to punish us for not following the stupid rules. Why add one more?

That goes triple when you know that these companies do not have a track record of protecting individual freedom of expression.

A important as control is, Jane's post brings up a different set of issues.

Why does Jane Friedman hate the Substack?

It doesn't sound like she does. She's just telling the truth, cutting through the herd-think with clear and accurate thinking.

If you read between the lines, the message is stop chasing all these fads and look at your writing/publishing business with a cool head.

I couldn't agree more.

Those lost souls chasing trendy fashions don't have any higher purpose guiding them. They have no strategy, no method, no goals beyond the vague muttering about "selling more books I guess".

With no purpose, you're left to chase your emotions... lacking the temperance and fortitude to find a course of action and stick to it.

The serialization rush is the latest example. Serials are as old as publishing. You're gonna act like this is a new thing about to bring your book sales into the stratosphere?

Most important, the market for a serialization and the market for a book are not the same. I learned that when talking to Amazon years ago about their serialization program. More than half of the revenue arose from book sales after the fact. And I’ve seen that same dynamic play out for other authors in both nonfiction and fiction. Some people like the serialization experience, and some people like books—and the overlap between the two is smaller than you might think.

You're going to up-end your whole business model to jump on a bandwagon when you haven't even done the research to see if anybody in your readership wants it?

The market is not intuitive. The market sure doesn't work to fit itself to what YOU want.

This is direct marketing 101. You've got to be what John Carlton calls a sales detective. Get out there and see what's selling, what they love, what they hate, what keeps them awake at night and then...

Give 'em what they want

Chasing the herd is like playing the lottery. You're waiting for an external event to bring you fame and fortune.

You can put your future in the hands of fate, if that's your choice.

But know that the winners who succeed get there by way of a boring, though consistently applied process.

You don't get an audience... or sales... because you publish it

That's a no brainer for books, but web publishers still have not cottoned on.

It wasn't true for blogs when blogs were real.

It isn't true for social media... your email list... your Kindle books or your traditionally published books that went out of print after 8 weeks of zero attention from your publisher.

Quality alone does not attract attention.

Consider this gem:

When I worked at the Virginia Quarterly Review (a very literary journal), I learned something critical on the first day of the job: fiction and poetry sank like a stone in terms of online traffic. Only nonfiction gained traction. Our audience simply did not read fiction online. They read books—usually print books.

Why do you think that I publish short and excellent essays here instead of fiction?

Readers of fiction aren't going visit my website to read stories. They aren't going to read them in emails.

Readers of fiction want books and they expect the book experience.

Do I know this? Not exactly.

I suspect it. It's a hypothesis based on my own readerly habits -- and knowing that I am a fair representative of the readership for SFF and weird/horror fiction.

It turns out that my instincts on this are dead-on:

Who does read fiction online, particularly on mobile devices? If you look at the established demographics of Wattpad, Tapas, and Webtoon, they’re all quite similar: young, diverse readers who consume comics, manga, graphic novels, and genre fiction... It is possible to make money on those sites, but you are writing in established corners for established interests. It is not the same as going off to your Substack garret to pen the Great American Novel.

Jane's done her sales detective work. This is why Jane is worth listening to.

If I were writing to young and diverse readers, that's how I would write... and in the medium I would publish.

The media is as crucial as the message and the market.

This is not my target audience. Nothing against the young and diverse, but I can't keep up with what the kids are into.

Nor do I want to. I'm into pulp from the 1930s and films from the 1980s. I'm entirely uninterested in catering to YA tastes.

Plus, they're broke.

Broke people with weird tastes who I have to lure in with a social media song-and-dance ain't my crowd. You can have 'em.

Traffic is one thing, but...

I'll take a high-quality reader over blind quantity any day

Your medium matters because it's how you reach your market.

That market to message match is everything:

That brings me to Elle Griffin, a writer who has spent this past year analyzing how writers make money by publishing fiction, through her own Substack newsletter (but of course)... But her primary goal, as she’s made clear all along, is meant to accomplish one thing: support her paid Substack serialization of her upcoming novel.

I wish Griffin every success and I hope it works out. But so far she has established an audience for writers who want to learn how to make money writing. And that is not the same audience who reads fiction online. Sure, there could be some overlap, but it’s a well-known problem among writers that blogging about writing and becoming an expert on publishing doesn’t translate into readers for your fiction. You end up in an echo chamber.

I've interacted with Elle briefly and I believe she's a sincere and good-hearted person who is genuinely trying to help others while building her brand. I wish her the best with her projects.

I also think Jane is right to be skeptical of this approach.

The danger is not in building up a crowd by way of non-fiction. That can work just fine with due diligence by the keen-eyed sales detective who constructs an "extended universe" around the fiction.

The issue is the total mismatch between the message and the market.

In my experience, you can expect one thing whenever writers get together online.


A pitch-fest of links to "read my stuff", small-talk chit-chat, blind-leading-the-blind business advice, resentment and anger from people who feel wronged by all this fancy technology and marketing stuff, and the usual ego-puffing status plays from highly-credentialed people that have sold 10 copies of a book.

You have a crowd of creators swimming in a red ocean, competing on price and trying to desperately to scream louder than the other guy. In those groups you are one commodity among infinite commodities.

It's the "internet marketing" problem all over again. You get a pyramid scheme of consultants, coaches, and courses all teaching you how to make money teaching people how to make money.

Somewhere in that loop, somebody's got to sit down and make something... but that's not what they came for.

Maybe some people get value out of this kind of arrangement. I guess you could see possibilities for networking.

Personally I find online writers groups tedious, a waste of time better spent on higher and better uses, and a reminder of why I stay far away from both writer groups and uncurated social media.

But setting aside my personal distaste, even as a business move that's not the kind of audience I'd want to curate to sell fiction books and build up my brand as an author.

Time will tell, but my shockingly accurate intuition says that if you want to build up an audience around your fiction, there's what you DON'T do.

Whatever else it might be, that is not an audience of devoted readers and rabid fans who can't wait to read your fiction stories.

But RP, you write a nonfiction blog or newsletter or whatever this is

True enough.

And you'll notice that I don't spend that much time writing about writing to writers.

Most of my content here is riffs on movies, stories, authors, books, and philosophical ideas that you'll find in the sci-fi fantasy and weird/horror genres.

I do drip in the occasional regular post about head-game, craft, and the business of being a creator, that's true enough... heck you're reading one of them right now.

Why not? Marketing and publishing are part of what I do. Commenting on the productive side of life comes with the turf, being insights into my own process and attitudes.

I don't write these as bait to attract a cult of wannabe writers and amateur self-promoters.

It's part of letting you get to know me, and hopefully come to like and trust me.

Plus, these biz-posts are balanced out by the majority of the articles which explore my three core themes:

Weird/horror pulp stories, 80s sci-fi action movies, and synthwave music with a cyberpunk aesthetic.

The kind of stuff that appeals to the people likely to pick up the kinds of books & stories that I write.

There's as much care and thought put into my ideal audience, who I want around and more important still, who I don't.

That's the same reason I'm also careful about how I show up on social media. Which is to say, I don't. The RP community is based on a private and highly-curated platform operated by people of like mind.

I have no desire to get involved in the nerd-drama, pedantry, the slap-fights, and paid shills trolling on the major social networks.

The RP message and medium is about a topic that I personally like... only because I'm in my target audience.

If I were writing historical fiction, I'd be putting up posts about the American Revolution or life in Byzantium in 1071 AD or whatever era I was writing about.

If I wrote Westerns, I'd be talking to you about life in the American Southwest in the 19th century.

And so on.

The newsletter is about creating an Extended Universe for my readers to play in. My opinionated views reflect my own tastes and point of view. Nothing here is quite like what you'll find from anyone else. By design.

You write to what your niche wants, likes, and prefers... not your own authorly desires.

The kind of people likely to show up here and become a part of the community are also likely to be interested in my fiction.

I don't hate Substack or think badly of them. Far from it. They are doing okay so far at holding out against Cancel Culture censorship and for that alone I salute them.

But even if the general public has the memory of a traumatized goldfish, I'm not so quick to forget the lessons of history.

I'll hedge my bets here instead of following the herd... a strategy which hasn't let me down yet

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