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Substack Pro backlash opens an opportunity for competitors

Substack has attracted several high-profile writers to its platform, but at what cost?

Substack Pro backlash opens an opportunity for competitors
Photo by Andre Hunter / Unsplash

Many well-known journalists and writers have flocked to the popular newsletter service Substack to publish their work with greater independence than what they would find in a traditional publisher or newsroom. As it turns out, some writers have made the move with more support from Substack than previously known.

Substack actively recruits high-profile writers with large upfront payments to join and publish on its platform. Current Substack writers are upset with how this strategy contradicts the “[democratize] the tools” mission the company has led so far. Substack is curating writers who tell certain stories and represent certain views and Substack is tilting the scales in their favor.

The Substack business model is mostly simple. It allows writers to sell subscriptions to their newsletters, and it takes 10 percent of any revenue the writers generate. Where it gets complicated now is the one-off payments Substack will also pay to prospective writers, usually as an advance, to lure them to the platform.

Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie published a post last week describing this newly revealed and branded “Substack Pro” offering for the lucrative upfront advances used to attract certain writers to their platform. Substack was founded in 2017, and public knowledge of these payments began as early as 2020. In the blog post, McKenzie says they haven’t discussed Substack Pro publicly until now because they have been in the “figuring it out” phase.

The distinction between platforms and publishers is a common discussion that usually takes place in the context of Section 230. There’s a common and misleading dichotomy offered in this conversation that argues platforms are required to play the role of neutral third-parties to the content their users post, while publishers can retain editorial control over the content their writers publish.

In reality, platforms are not legally required to remain neutral to the content shared on their systems. They’re only legally liable for illegal content distributed on their platforms.

Substack appears to use their Substack Pro “plan” as more of a growth marketing tactic than an editorial decision. This comes as several big names make moves on the independent publishing and newsletter business.

Facebook is getting in on the action with a newsletter tool of its own. In a post last week, Facebook outlined some key features planned for this unnamed newsletter product including a free self-publishing tool and close integration with Facebook Pages. The company is also reportedly ready to fork over large advances like Substack in an attempt to attract top-talent at launch.  

Twitter acquired Revue, a newsletter platform and Substack competitor earlier this year. Twitter has moved quickly to begin integrating Revue into its core product, even linking it within the Twitter “more” menu. Twitter has also announced their upcoming “Super Follows” feature that will allow Twitter users to charge their followers a monthly subscription for premium content.

LinkedIn is looking for a way in, too. The company is flush with professional writers and intends to double down on its community of content creators. In a now-closed job opening for a “Head of Community,” the company says their looking for someone who is “passionate about the idea of working with creators at scale and helping them achieve success on LinkedIn.”

Substack helped define the paid newsletter software category that has quickly become a crowded market. The Substack writers upset with the Substack Pro program have no shortage of alternatives to move to.

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