The 144. The 430. And Everyone Else.
144 have "1,000 true fans" on Substack. 430 can aspire to this goal, more or less. Everyone else...
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Substack’s post says:
Many writers make their living on the platform, and others are building new empires from scratch.
“Many writers?” Wow, how many? I bet it’s a lot.
“Building new empires from scratch?” Ah, the power of writing. More writers living the dream.
Our bet is that, ultimately, millions of people will discover they can make money from their creative work…
So it’s not millions yet – but ultimately! “Ultimately” doesn’t mean the year 2121, right?
We embark on this next phase with optimism. … 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.
We are betting that these dynamics will lead to a lively and incredibly valuable media ecosystem with low barriers to entry and a model that works for a much larger range of people than previously possible. Entirely new types of businesses will be created.
This is going to happen in the “next phase.” Definitely not 2121. Not even 2031. A phase wouldn’t take that long, right?
“Incredibly valuable.” “Much larger range of people.” “Entirely new types of businesses.”
The potential of the internet is being unleashed as we speak.
Today, there are a million reasons to believe this opportunity is larger than anyone guessed. We see no reason why the trend will slow down. Next stop is 10 million subscriptions. And then we keep going.
If things are this good with one million subscriptions, can you imagine 10 million? Sure, a bunch of new writers will join Substack when they learn about this opportunity. But with 10 million subscriptions, or more, any decent writer could get 1,000 paid subscriptions and make a living. Huzzah!
Except for the happy few, paid Substack newsletter publishers are in Phase 1 of the Underpants Gnomes’ plan. And we’re not getting to Phase 3, not to any life-changing extent in the near future. If only we knew what happened in Phase 2, and how it could happen faster…
If Substack or anyone else has information that contradicts what I say in this post or fills in the Underpants Gnomes’ question mark, I'd like to see it.1
Maybe the answers can be found in advice from Substack or a fellow publisher? Or is it just to work continuously, writing and promoting – and some time in the next decade you might reach financial security?
Maybe the 10 million subscriptions are coming very soon to provide security, if we work hard and keep the faith? Or maybe, in 2 or 3 years, around 100 newsletters will account for 5 million subscriptions (about 50,000 each); several hundred newsletters, 4 million more (about 5,000 each); and twenty thousand split the rest (about 50 each)? Nice for the hundreds, but not for thousands (or millions) of creators.
Seriously, I could be missing the answers. I’d like to know. I’ll be happy to tell you all what they are, as long as they’re not a Substack secret. You might want to get a paid subscription to find out the answers as soon as I know (and support me so that I can find out).
What do “hundreds,” “thousands,” and “tens of thousands” of subscribers mean?
At least a hundred, thousand, or ten-thousand subscribers? Or at least two hundred, two thousand, or twenty-thousand subscribers (since “hundreds,” “thousands,” and “tens of thousands” are plural)?
Paid subscribers? Or paid and free?
I feel confident the terms mean at least a hundred, thousand, or ten-thousand paid subscribers. The newsletter Common Sense with Bari Weiss was listed with “tens of thousands” of subscribers when it had 14,000 paid subscribers in August and 16,500 in October. Platformer has been listed with “thousands of subscribers” since September, when it had 50,000 free subscribers and 5 to 10 percent (2,500 to 5,000) paid subscribers.
Among the top 574:
16 have “tens of thousands of subscribers”
128 have “thousands of subscribers”
430 have “hundreds of subscribers”
This might not be the entire story. Perhaps the lists aren’t completely up-to-date. Also, the lists don’t include all active Substack newsletters.3
But I presume that Substack, in promoting its successes, wouldn’t omit many newsletters with many subscribers. If the number isn’t 574, I suspect it’s close.
The top 144 have at least 1,000 paid subscribers (aka 1,000 “true fans”). Many writers of these newsletters were already well-known in general, in their field, or at other publications. For instance:
E. Jean Carroll
Anne Helen Petersen
Some people have become better known because of their newsletters. But surely there’s some correlation between prior prominence and current Substack success.
I presume all of the top 144 deserve credit. They’ve worked hard to obtain audiences. They write and promote well. They endure criticism and carry on.
But my point is that most people, however skilled at creating content, aren’t in the top 144. Substack is kidding itself and the public if it suggests that most writers can make such a good living from a newsletter if they work hard enough and believe.
Only 430 others are in some kind of shouting distance of the top 144.
If these 574 newsletters average about 1,750 paid subscribers, they’d take up the entire million. That can’t be right.
Still, the average might be fairly close to 1,750. Newsletters with several thousand or over ten thousand subscribers would raise the average.
If the top 144 average about 6,950 subscribers, they’d have a million. Again, this can’t be right. But these newsletters could have a substantial majority of all paid subscribers.
Just the 16 newsletters with 10,000 or more subscribers account for at least 160,000 subscriptions. They could conceivably account for half a million (though below I will estimate only a few hundred thousand).
The top 10 newsletters make more than $20 million, according to Substack.
Twelve of the 16 newsletters with “tens of thousands” of subscribers are in Substack’s politics category. Two are in the crypto category, along with a newsletter (The Bitcoin Forecast by Willy Woo) with “thousands” of subscribers that Substack lists first among paid crypto newsletters.
Here’s a possible top 10, drawn from the politics and crypto categories:
Letters from an American, $5/month
The Dispatch, $10/month
TK News by Matt Taibbi, $5/month
Glenn Greenwald, $5/month
Unreported Truths, $6/month
Common Sense with Bari Weiss, $5/month
The Weekly Dish, $5/month
The Bitcoin Forecast by Willy Woo, $150/3 months
As of late March, Glenn Greenwald reportedly had “between 20,000 and 40,000 paid subscribers.” I presume his newsletter has gotten thousands more subscribers since March. And since Letters from an American and TK News by Matt Taibbi (also $5/month) are listed higher for paid politics newsletters, they presumably have more subscribers. These three newsletters could have 100,000 subscribers combined.
Perhaps the top 10 have 200,000 subscribers, at an average of about $100 a year per subscriber?
I presume subscription numbers are generally on the lower end of the hundreds, thousands, and tens of thousands ranges, most of all for tens of thousands. It’s harder for newsletters to achieve 90,000 subscriptions than 10,000, or 9,000 than 1,000.
I’ll estimate the average subscriptions in the “hundreds” category as 400, “thousands” as 3,000, and “tens of thousands” as 20,000.
430 x 400 = 172,000
128 x 3,000 = 384,000
16 x 20,000 = 320,000
That would be 876,000 out of the one million subscriptions. 876,000 for 574 newsletters, and 124,000 for everyone else.4
Presuming about 5,000 paid newsletters, that would leave an average of about 29 paid subscribers for newsletters outside of the top 574.
Even assuming 200,000 subscribers, there’d be about 45 per newsletter. A net income of $50 per subscription (after fees and any other expenses) would total $2,250 a year. Not a living – a side gig, perhaps, likely involving significant time and effort. And many would be below that average. (Ten subscribers would yield $500!)
Only 144 newsletters have 1,000 paid subscribers.
Of the next 430, a few might make $50,000 a year. But some might make $10,000 or less. (For example, 150 subscribers at $50 per subscriber is $7,500.)
How many people are on the outside looking in? I think it’s impossible to say for sure. There are too many uncertain factors:
How many publishers have made a significant effort to obtain subscriptions?
For how long have they offered paid subscriptions?
How many publishers or potential publishers have been dissuaded from offering or promoting paid subscriptions by what they learned about Substack?
How many are hoping and waiting to offer paid subscriptions?
Newsletter Spy has counted over 88,000 newsletters on Substack. According to Newsletter Spy, a bit over 5,000 newsletters have a “paid ratio” above zero. I presume this means they have at least one paid subscriber. I’ll guess that 5,000 is close to the accurate number of newsletters offering paid subscriptions.5
So one could say that nearly 600 newsletters have at least one hundred paid subscriptions, while about 4,400 don’t. Or maybe the second number should be raised or lowered due to the aforementioned factors such as effort and time.
Maybe the dividing line shouldn’t be whether a newsletter has at least 100 paid subscriptions, but instead at least 1,000 paid subscriptions. In essence, are you making a living or not. About 150 newsletters on one side – 4,850 on the other.
In any case, not thousands with financial security or a media empire.
I feel that Substack has tried to change the game for writers. They’ve made a start. But they haven't done nearly as much in four years as they suggest in celebrating a million paid subscriptions. Substack has rewarded people already doing well as writers, more than created a pathway for many less-known people to do well. There are exceptions, but they aren’t the rule.
Presuming my conclusions are essentially correct, I hope they give writers a realistic sense of the current situation.
And I hope they do likewise for Substack. I want Substack to succeed.6 But hope or optimism won’t help writers obtain “meaningful revenue” or “total financial security” within a reasonable time, or support writers while they work towards that goal.
Note how I don’t use the terms “scam” or “Substack Pro” in this post. Those words are so first-half-of-2021. If Substack engages in hype, or uses shortcuts to success, I assume the best intentions, even if it doesn’t leave the best impressions. And I want to believe in Substack. With the inevitable rare exception, I like the writers and employees of Substack I’ve interacted with. I want them to have long successful careers on or at Substack if they want to.
I suppose I could use the word “discoverability.” I’m disappointed by Substack’s efforts in that regard. I feel that writers can overcome that problem. However, this is not something that writers should have to overcome. A topic to explore in another post…
Of course, the writer must create a newsletter worth subscribing to and let people know about it beyond ambient discoverability. As for me, I’m happy with my newsletter while trying to improve and promote it. Sub Pub has a small niche of potential subscribers – people interested in Substack/newsletters – relative to, say, a newsletter on American politics. However, there are few newsletters in my niche… Again, issues for another post.
The lists actually included 573 as of November 17, 2021. But I've added one that joined the lists shortly thereafter, since it had been omitted due to “a technical glitch.”
Including the podcast category, the total in all categories is 618. But 37 of the podcasts are also in categories such as politics and culture. Seven other podcasts appear to be double-counting: they’re part of subscriptions to Bulwark+, The Dispatch, and Bankless.
Newsletter Spy indicates that over 47,600 Substack newsletters have published a post during the past six months (over 18,000 in the past month), while only about 2,600 newsletters are in Substack’s list categories.
A random distribution of subscribers in the hundreds, thousands, and tens of thousands would result in these numbers:
430 x 550 = 236,500
128 x 5,500 = 704,000
16 x 55,000 = 880,000
This total is far more than a million and clearly couldn’t be right.
My estimate is less than half that, which I suppose is reasonably conservative.
[Added and revised on November 23, 2021:] I had presumed "paid ratio" implies paid subscribers. But actually it indicates paid posts. A newsletter may have paid posts without paid subscribers – and vice versa.
I assume the number of newsletters with paid subscribers/no paid posts is about the same as those with paid posts/no paid subscribers. Thus my estimate of 5,000 newsletters with paid subscribers remains unchanged.
And I want to succeed on Substack. So please consider a paid subscription. (You can’t say I didn’t try.)
I want Substack to succeed for many people (not just me, or the top 144 🙂).