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Substack Review 2024: The Non-Plus-Ultra Newsletter Platform For Writers

What is Substack, who is it for, who is it not for, what are the biggest competitors

From its Silicon Valley headquarters, Substack* is rapidly transforming the newsletter industry.

Since launching in 2017, the email platform has built momentum as a home base for writers and creators.

But is Substack the right fit for your ambitions?

Let’s figure it out!

This in-depth Substack review assesses both sides – pros and cons – of the popular publishing platform in 2024.

Understanding Substack’s core capabilities and limitations lets you determine if it enables you to achieve your publishing and audience-building goals this year and beyond.

And make money along the way, of course.

Quick overview

Before diving into the details, here are some of the key themes I’ll explore:

  • Substack appeals strongly to writers wanting creative independence
  • Writers keep a major cut of subscription revenue from paid newsletters
  • Discussion threads foster subscriber conversations and engagement
  • Minimal editing experience spotlights written content over fancy design
  • No automations or advanced email functionality – newsletters are the focus
  • You must market and promote your own Substack to gain readers
  • Top Substack writers can bring in excellent earning potential

Now, let’s analyze what gives Substack its appeal as the darling of writers while also revealing its shortcomings depending on your aspirations.

What is Substack?

A platform created by and for writers

Launched in 2017 and based in San Francisco, Substack describes itself as

“a new model for independent media — one centered around individual writers and thinkers.”

The company clearly built its platform targeting the frustrations many creative professionals experience when trying to attract an audience and get properly compensated for their words.

Substack directly enables writers to not just publish but own their subscriber lists without relying on third parties.

You’re in control of communicating with subscribers via email newsletters on your own schedule about the topics you choose.

So far, so good.

For writers who wish big publishers didn’t have much influence over shaping ideas or who feel social platforms control reach too deeply and rely on algorithms more than on human thinking, Substack promises some liberation.

No restrictive word counts and certainly no clicks for cash incentives pushing controversy. In theory.

The freedom afforded – both in independence and keeping what you earn – explains why Substack captured attention in the crowded landscape of writing on the web.

Industry veterans and talented newcomers alike flocked once they realized the opportunity.

Substack’s writer-focused value proposition

Substack’s philosophy has remained consistent since the beginning – offer writers a straightforward way to own their work, build community, and get paid.

With an easy-to-use, free tool.

In an era with an abundance of online publishing options, yet limited paths to sustainable income through writing and creating, Substack filled a gap by tackling monetization head-on.

And it’s working.

While blogs, news sites, and social platforms rely primarily on display ads that barely bring measurable revenue, Substack provides the mechanism for asking readers to pay.

Underrated.

Writers understand the model – provide value to your supporters and they’ll compensate you, much like decades past when subscribing to newspapers demonstrated your patronage.

For those producing regular, quality writing that resonates, Substack offers a reasonable path to profitability compared to fame-chasing on Twitter or hoping Google picks you from the content wilderness of the billion WordPress blogs online.

Ideal writers and use cases for Substack

Substack can be many things to many people, but it firmly targets and caters to writers first rather than marketers, brands, or commerce-focused creators.

However, “writer” encompasses many spheres – journalists, authors, bloggers, columnists, critics, and thought leaders of all kinds find appeal in Substack ownership.

Key writer archetypes best suited to using Substack

Newsletter writers

Email content delivered directly into inboxes remains a vital method to engage readers.

Not to mention the money expected of email marketing, providing the highest return on investment (ROI) of any marketing channel with around $44 for every $1 invested.

Substack is not a marketing channel, though. Not in their minds.

Substack makes starting a newsletter extremely simple while putting no cap on your potential audience size whether you charge subscriptions or not.

Substack wants to make writing dead-simple for everyone who has something to say.

And that, they do exceptionally well.

Beat reporters and columnists

Whether covering politics, business, arts, science, sports, or any journalistic beat, Substack grants latitude to report, opine, and investigate minus the editorial filtering.

Beat reporters from traditional outlets migrate seeking direct financial upside and reader relationships.

This was one of Substack’s breakthrough areas. Still is.

Freelance writers

Freelancing remains an unstable career but crowdsourcing subscriptions can offset the rollercoaster of pitching editors.

Building your own Substack subscriber base means relying less on the whims of publishers granting assignments.

Good ol’ bloggers

Bloggers appreciate Substack handling the newsletter component without added complexity.

It’s also a much less complex tool to dive in and learn than other “traditional” blogging platforms like WordPress.

Distribution to engaged subscribers supplements blog content while unlocking revenue streams not dependent solely on display advertising.

Authors & book writers

Whether sharing fiction or non-fiction, published or aspiring authors use Substack newsletters to preview works-in-progress, serialize novels, or drive pre-orders.

Substack provides promotional opportunities and income beyond royalties.

Topic experts & thought leaders

Well-informed writers who specialize in technology, politics, critical issues, and more find Substack expands their audience beyond social channels. Reader funding fuels investigative work not supported by other publications.

The diversity of voices using Substack to increase reach while getting paid directly is immense. But the options also come with limitations, particularly for those with growth aspirations.

I’ll cover those next.

Key features and capabilities – where Substack shines

Substack certainly carved an influential niche in enabling writers to grant paying supporters access while establishing direct relationships with readers.

Now, let’s examine some of Substack’s notable features and inherent strengths.

Substack spotlights writing above all else

The Substack interface and editing experience keeps features to a minimum to avoid distracting focus away from publishing written work.

Options for formatting text exist like bold, headlines, inserting links, and media. But otherwise, writers stay centered on content creation.

Seasoned writers need no handholding structuring a narrative or making key points.

Thus, Substack avoids adding superfluous elements that clutter visibility into translating thoughts into words and sentences.

This purposeful absence of excessive functionality makes Substack beloved by those craving a text editor where words rightfully claim the majority of screen real estate.

Own your audience – no third parties

A core Substack differentiator is ownership over your readership. Whether you offer paid subscriptions or not, subscribers belong to you rather than any platform. You can directly export your list whenever desired.

Writers want to control their distribution channels rather than remain vulnerable to outside decision-making.

Social platforms constantly tweak algorithms shaping reach, but email puts transmitting your writing directly into supporters’ inboxes.

Subscription revenue

Most platforms taking a generous cut when users make money seems standard practice.

Substack keeps 10% of your earnings from paid subscribers. But the rest remains free.

This payment model has its ups and downs. For small creators, it’s very affordable. For writers with giant email lists, 10% will get pricey.

Discussion threads build community

While social networks get criticized for being echo chambers that breed groupthink, the opposite happens with Substack.

Discussions on posts actively encourage readership to debate issues or provide meaningful commentary rather than just signal empty virtue.

It’s not all perfect. But miles ahead of some other online channels.

The comment functionality helps transform passive readers into engaged community members. Writers also gather valuable feedback for shaping future content or offerings.

Top writers can generate significant income

Substack lacks any vetting or standards before enabling subscriptions.

Again, this is good and bad. Everything is.

Ultimately readers vote with their wallets. Thus, writers producing stellar work tend to attract devoted followings over time.

Income potential has no limit if subscribers find your writing consistently worth paying for.

Some have even generated millions in annual subscription revenue through their Substacks. Emphasis on some.

Where Substack falls short

No platform delivers perfection across the board, especially startups still actively evolving product direction.

Substack excels as an online home for writers but stalled incorporating features supporting wider business functionality.

Before committing fully to Substack, acknowledge the current weak points.

No email automations or workflows

While Substack writers manually publish on their own cadence, including scheduling ahead, of course, understanding email marketing requires much more.

Email pros leverage automations and segment audiences to deliver more targeted, personalized content.

But Substack ignores advanced email functionality like workflows, automation, segmentation, or conditional subscriber experiences.

You broadcast each email universally even if narrowing relevance might foster loyalty. This shortcoming prevents maximizing each piece of content’s impact.

Of course, for some writers, any complexities beyond a basic newsletter seem unnecessary complication.

However, having automation options allows better leverage of efforts.

Design customization remains limited

Appreciating simplicity and Substack’s clean interface is understandable.

Writers hoping to reinforce brand identity through custom fonts or templates get disappointed.

Colors and a set a fonts is all you get.

Visual presentation beyond basic formatting like bold text has minimal allowances in Substack’s current construct.

You rely predominately on written content rather than complementary design elements to engage readers.

Market yourself – Substack provides no direct promotion

Gaining attention as a writer both on and off Substack requires understanding no one hands you an audience.

Substack facilitates reaching supporters but itself does little to directly spotlight writers to potential new subscribers. One exception is the discovery section within the website and app. But that’s usually reserved for large Substack writers.

There are recommendations, too.

You retain full independence but also total responsibility for marketing efforts. An active social media presence, guest posts, collaborations, and branding signal to readers your credibility and authority. Self-promotion never stops for those taking newsletters seriously.

While some writers get spotted with viral content leading to sharp subscriber spikes, relying on such randomness is not a great idea.

Growing a writer’s platform through a Substack newsletter mandates networking, pitching, and time.

Transaction fees

Earlier we covered how Substack only takes a cut after you convert from free to paid subscriptions.

But once you flip to premium, both Substack and payment processor Stripe deduct fees from earnings through every new customer.

Stripe takes 2.9% plus 30 cents per transaction while Substack adds 10% on top of Stripe’s cut.

So a $5 monthly subscription nets you $3.57 after both parties process payments.

These percentages and fixed costs eat into your revenue split but get justified for Substack providing the platform.

Still, writers stacking thousands of paid subscribers will cringe watching 12.9% bleed from their income at scale.

This triggered some to migrate despite Substack’s strong writing focus.

Alternative platforms

Understanding what competitor offerings exist always pays dividends before committing fully to any service.

Let’s explore some of those alternatives.

Medium

  • High authority blogging platform
  • Wide reach and good SEO
  • Includes newsletter capabilities (if limited)
  • Paywall options but revenue split model
  • Advantage is expanding scope beyond just emails

Verdict: Great blogging platform, large built-in audience, strong potential.

WordPress

  • Most popular open-source CMS and blogging platform
  • Requires self-hosting for full control (or paying for the hosted version)
  • Robust plugin ecosystem unlocks features
  • Steeper learning curve but extremely customizable

Verdict: The no-brainer for the tech-savvy users. Mostly reliant on SEO practices to get exposure.

Ghost

  • Open source alternative to WordPress
  • Includes subscriber newsletter functionality
  • Custom plugins and theme integrations
  • Self-hosted option but demands tech skills

Verdict: Similar to WordPress, offers much functionality, but fewer plugins and add-ons available right now.

Beehiiv*

  • Rising competitor targeting Substack’s market
  • Simple newsletter creation like Substack, but with options for segmentation and automation
  • Transparent pricing that is especially interesting for large email lists
  • Focused on serving small and big indie creators and writers

Verdict: One of the best all-around solutions for newsletters and email marketing.

Substack in 2024

Ultimately, Substack will remain purpose-built for writers rather than general online creators or marketers in 2024.

Evaluating its continued strengths against clear limitations allows for properly assessing fit.

For those producing regular writing that engages readers enough to pay – whether journalists, columnists, experts, or commentators – Substack can prove rewarding both editorially and financially.

Just ensure you actually enjoy some promoting to get found.

If you need more advanced email marketing capabilities, Substack won’t suffice yet compared to Beehiiv*, ConvertKit*, or MailerLite* designed for newsletter creators & selling products.

Writers fine staying simple will continue thriving on Substack.

Those wanting greater design influence or revenue models beyond subscriptions may soon outgrow it.

Weigh priorities before committing completely either way.

The bottom line

I love Substack. I use the platform extensively. It’s a free blogging tool with newsletter features, recommendations, chat, and social media functionality all in one, for free.

Not many tools can say that.

If you’re looking for more email marketing functionality, Substack is not for you. And that’s by design.

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