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Six Months on Substack
Reflections, and a few questions for you.
I spent most of 2022 reporting and writing a book about the labor movement (which will be published in February—preorder now.) After I finished the draft, I spent a few months as a full time freelance journalist, which taught me that it is possible for freelancers to write and publish just as many stories in national outlets as staff writers, while making one third the amount of money. This did not strike me as a great deal. On May 1, I started this Substack, as a way to centralize my writing and be my own boss and see if this is, in fact, the future of the writing business. It’s been six months now, and I’m happy to report that the answer is… maybe??
Before I started How Things Work, I spoke to several people who had been on Substack for a long time. From those conversations I understood that building this into a sustainable living could very well take a couple of years, if it happened at all. Having seen a lot of people launch Substacks, ask for subscriptions, and then quickly lapse into laziness, with the writing coming less and less frequently, I decided to do this site like a job for a year, and see how it went. (By “do it like a job” I mean “make a good effort to publish a couple of things a week here at least,” which I have mostly been successful at doing. I am still freelancing all over the place, and the various rounds of book edits have been happening for most of this year as well.) My main concern was not so much that this site turn into a sustainable income overnight, but finding out if the line of progress would go in a direction that would make me think that it would turn into a sustainable income in a reasonable amount of time. Ultimately something like this has to support me like a job if I want to do it like a job. I don’t need a scratchpad to publish my Weekly Musings and Such. I am a professional, damn it.
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When I spoke to the Substack people about how to do this, they recommended that I launch the site with everything being free, and then move into paid content—putting either some or all of my pieces behind a paywall—after about six weeks, in order to incentivize paid subscriptions. It has now been six months. I have not put up a paywall yet. “Hamilton,” you may ask, “Are you history’s biggest moron, when it comes to business?” Perhaps. But to be completely honest, just between all of us here, I do not really want to put up a paywall. I want to write things and have them read by anyone who wants to read them. In return for that I would like to make a living. This is kind of a socialist conception of a publication. The idea is that everyone can read it, and everyone who can afford to pay for it will pay for it. It’s a pass-the-hat model. This is not, I can tell you, the very best way for a publication to maximize its revenue. But I like it better.
The viability of this model depends on readers choosing to become paid subscribers because they want to support the work, rather than readers needing to become paid subscribers in order to read the work. One way to look at this, from a business perspective, is “Hey idiot, you are giving something away for free and then expecting people to pay for it.” The other way to look at it, from the socialist perspective, is “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”—a phrase that I just made up. Since I am a socialist I figure that I might as well put my faith in the idea that The People will support something if it is worth being supported.
I’m happy to report that the path seems promising. Six months in, I am about halfway to the imaginary number of subscribers I have in my head that I will need to make this a sustainable full time job. When I look at the numbers, I see that stories on How Things Work often get as many or more readers than things that I write for some other long-established national publications. The Substack audience, it turns out, is real. The line is going in the right direction. The How Things Work dream is alive. You might even say, my friends, that it is thriving.
Like many writers, I have spent most of my career thinking about “how to write good” (still a work in progress) and much less time thinking about “how to market and promote and advertise and make money good.” I do not particularly like asking people for money, outside of the context of bargaining a union contract, in which case I do like it. I do not particularly like selling The Brand Called Me, and doing self-promotion, and doing all the desperate Please Read My Latest Story, Oh God tweets that all writers today must do, because deep down our hearts are black holes of fear that we are shouting into the void. In the past five years or so, the online media business model has essentially collapsed, and I have witnessed countless very talented and accomplished friends and colleagues cast out into the world and forced to do the little promotional dance for subscribers to try to scrape together a decent living in this godawful industry. Most writers do not care for this and do it only out of utter necessity. Many of us have worked to unionize the industry, in hopes that we can create something more stable and capable of supporting full-fledged careers in journalism that do not require constant layoffs and upheaval. I think that we will get there, one day. But not yet. So for now we come out and ask you all to subscribe to our stuff. Sorry! It sucks for us as much as it sucks for you, I assure you.
On the bright side, this model—my own site, with my own readers, with total freedom and flexibility—offers the possibility of a dream job. This is the best possible arrangement for a writer like me, who enjoys writing about different things and saying whatever I want, sometimes to my own detriment. It also, I think, offers a number of benefits to the public: It creates truly independent publications that can speak freely; it builds a cohort of writers who are not bound by corny institutional mandates and restrictions and whose careers do not depend on cultivating the approval of a small number of editors who went to Yale; and, best of all, it demonstrates that there can be a way for journalists to earn a sustainable living doing work that readers want to read, without having all of the money sucked out by evil middlemen who do not care much about either reading or writing. That is a good thing. In the big picture, the more real the ability of writers to earn a living from this model, the better for the quality of American discourse. (I also think that there is a possibility that successful Substacks can end up re-forming into sustainable worker-owned publications, which I wrote about here.)
The tagline I chose for this site is “Labor, Politics, and Power.” In the past six months I have indeed written here about labor, politics, and power. I have also written about media and housing and executive pay and climate change and insurance and socialism and capitalism and war and police and other things. Traditional journalism jobs often force writers into a single beat, but I think that it is easier to get close to the truth about How Things Work when you can look at the world through all of these lenses. If you like this approach, you may enjoy reading this site for years to come, even if you don’t agree with everything.
So, How Things Work will survive and thrive if enough people want it to. I would prefer to keep this site open, without a paywall, so anyone can read and share and, if you want, comment on or criticize anything I publish here. That will be possible if I have enough paying subscribers to support the work. My figures are about average for Substack: around ten percent of total subscribers are paid. That means that nine out of ten people are reading for free. The very best thing that you can do to help this place exist for the next six months is to become a paid subscriber. If you can’t afford it, no worries. But if you can afford it, I would appreciate it. And you will be helping to keep this place open and accessible for all.
The other thing that you can do to support this place is to have your friends subscribe, or even give a paid subscription to a friend as a gift. Ultimately, a large subscriber base is what will enable this place to succeed long term. If you can think of someone who might enjoy reading this stuff, why not sign them up? Truly, there is no greater gift than “occasional essays on topics of public interest.”
Also, sharing the work is good too. People continue to subscribe every time I publish something new simply because they see the site for the first time. Please, share everything far and wide!
Finally, I want to pose a few questions to you, my valuable readers. Hundreds of you are already paying subscribers here, for which you have my eternal gratitude and respect. Thousands more are free subscribers, and all of you have given me something valuable as well—a little bit of your attention. As I look at the next six months of How Things Work and ponder how to keep progressing, I would be grateful if any of you would like to share your thoughts on any of the following questions I have been chewing over:
I prefer not to have a paywall on this site. However in theory I could drive more paid subscriptions by instituting a paywall. Thoughts?
On this site I generally publish the same kind of essays that I would publish in a magazine or whatever. Many other writers on Substack, by contrast, publish things in a more newsletter-y format, including tons of little conversational updates about what they are reading and a great new restaurant they found and whatnot. I do not include very much stuff like that here, because my attitude is: who gives a shit. Thoughts?
I’ve thought about selling some How Things Work merch featuring my super fly Jim Cooke-designed RED GATOR logo. Thoughts?
Anything else you would like me to know? Please feel free to leave feedback as a comment below, or you can reply to the email in your inbox directly. In conclusion, I apologize for such a tedious and self-referential post today, and next week I will get back to writing about more important things. To all of you reading this, who are helping the How Things Work dream come true, I love you all. You are just great.