A million is not enough
We (beyond the top 10) need more subscribers, more statistics – more indication of what's reality and what's a dream
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[The following three sentences, though not the interspersed quotes, should be read with some sarcasm.]
Whoo-hoo, one million! 🥳🎉
Today, we can announce that there are more than 1 million paid subscriptions to publications on Substack.
And on to 10 million and even billions!
This is a good start, but it’s not enough.
We are in the very earliest days of this shift, but we are happy with the progress so far.
Next stop is 10 million subscriptions. And then we keep going.
Our bet is that, ultimately, millions of people will discover they can make money from their creative work and billions will find better things to read, watch, listen to, and participate in.
Get excited, everyone! 😃🎆
But note: the progress so far is “not enough.”
Substack anticipates enough progress. I hope they’re right.
So, is this reality, dream, or both?1
You don’t have to know anything about tech or business to succeed on Substack. You can set up your personal media empire in minutes. With the subscription model, you can generate meaningful revenue without having to reach millions of readers. If you can convince a thousand people to subscribe for $5 a month, you’ll make more than $50,000 a year. A few thousand subscribers is enough for total financial security.
How many publishers offering paid subscriptions make more than $50,000 a year?
How many have total financial security?
How many don't?
We don’t know.
But…we know how the top 10 are doing:
The top 10 publications collectively bring in more than $20 million a year.
How does this relate to the rest of us?
Seems like the top 10 must have a sizable chunk of the million paid subscriptions. Is it 20%? (200,000 subscriptions x $100/average per subscription = $20 million.) Closer to 40%? (400,000 subscriptions x $50 = $20 million.)
Do the top 50 – or perhaps the top 100 – have half of the million paid subscriptions?2
Do the top 500 publications have 900,000 paid subscriptions – leaving everyone else to split the other 100,000? If everyone else is 10,000 publishers, are they averaging 10 paid subscribers?
Or is the situation more equitable than that?
How much does pre-existing social media presence (say, number of Twitter or Instagram followers) correlate with number of paid subscriptions?
How long does it take publishers outside the top 500 or whatever to reach however many paid subscriptions they’ve obtained?
We don’t know.
By announcing a million paid subscriptions, and $20 million for the top 10, Substack is hiding the ball about how subscriptions are distributed and how publishers outside the top 10 are faring.
Statements about setting up your personal media empire, generating meaningful revenue, and making $50,000 a year fall flat without statistics to show how many people is this is happening for and how quickly.
Statistics, please. Transparency, please.
Substack, don’t trick us into believing the dream with rosy phrases and boundless optimism. Prove that the dream is attainable for a reasonable number of people in a reasonable amount of time. (Will it really be attainable for millions, with billions of readers?)
Or tell us what you plan to do, and suggest what we can do, to make the situation better.
Speaking of plans, here’s the best part of Substack’s post:
As we look to the next phase of Substack, we will focus on giving ever-greater powers to a growing community of writers and readers.
In short, our master plan is:
Continue to improve Substack’s simple and powerful publishing tools, including expanding support for audio, video, and community-building features.
Grow the Substack economy to help writers connect with the services they need to do their best work and build thriving publications, such as editing, design, insurance, and financing.
Build, in partnership with writers, a discovery network that helps them cross-promote, collaborate, and connect with audiences independent of attention economy networks.
I especially like the parts about “financing” and a network to “connect with audiences.” Financing is a bridge to the dream. Connection to audiences should help publishers achieve the dream more quickly.
I also like the parts about other services and connections, which might improve the publications, presumably resulting in more subscriptions.
And improving the publishing tools couldn’t hurt (unless it broke what’s working).
But again: reality, dream, or both?
People are willing to pay for writers they trust. New types of publications serving previously ignored communities can succeed. Writers who pursue the work they most believe in can do better than merely support themselves – they can build thriving businesses and hire others to work with them.
Congratulations to those for whom this is a reality. I hope Substack isn’t just dangling this as a distant dream for most everyone else.
I use the word “dream” somewhat ambiguously in this post. An achievable dream is a potential reality. An unachievable dream is mere fantasy. I hope that my meaning of “dream” is clear each time in context. Moreover, I hope my meaning is clear to Substack, if anyone there is reading this.
If I have sufficient time this week, I plan to do a count of newsletters listed on Substack’s homepage as having “tens of thousands of subscribers” or “thousands of subscribers.” I think the number with “tens of thousands of subscribers” is more than 10 but less than 50. (Of course, the subscription numbers could be incomplete, not up-to-date, and/or inclusive of both free and paid subscriptions. And note that it is possible for a newsletter with thousands of subscriptions to make more than one with tens of thousands of subscriptions, if the fewer subscriptions cost significantly more per subscription.)
I also intend to find some subscription numbers reported for particular top newsletters, to see how they compare to the numbers on Substack’s homepage.
Perhaps this information will enable me to better estimate how many subscriptions the top publications have.