Disrupting books

Substack wants to take publishing back to Victorian times

Substack, which owns the platform on which you read SHuSH, recently announced plans to enter the world of book publishing, because Substack, like everyone else in tech, is a disruptor.

Newsletters already are said to be disrupting conventional media, giving writers/creators an opportunity to reach their audiences directly instead of through the medium of a newspaper or magazine. Supposedly, the advantages are to the writer/creator, who can charge individual readers $5 or so a week/month and earn an income independent of a larger publishing enterprise. Who doesn’t want to own his/her own work? Substack takes a 10 per cent cut, which is pretty low compared to what Apple takes from creators in its app store and Amazon from its sellers (in other words, expect it to rise over time). In isolated cases, Substack guarantees star writers a certain level of income to entice them to the platform.

Substack isn’t alone in the newsletter space. There are a bunch of alternatives, including Buttondown, TinyLetter, Revue, and MailerLite, and it is also possible to run a newsletter off a subscription platform such as Patreon or an email marketing platform such as Mailchimp.

A few months ago, Facebook jumped into the newsletter game with Facebook Bulletin. This comes under the guise of “supporting independent writers,” which everyone knows is Zuckerberg’s raison d’etre (for more on this see the New Republic’s “Facebook has found a new way to ruin media”). Zuck threw big money at Malcolm Gladwell, Mitch Albom, economist Tyler Cowen, and sports personality Erin Andrews to kickstart the venture. The platform is not taking a cut of subscription revenue, which is another way of saying Facebook is using its financial might to crush rivals in a new market: ‘Here’s your disruption, Substack.’

Welcome to the 108th edition of SHuSH, the weekly newsletter of Sutherland House Books. If you’re new here, hit the button—it’s free:

The Bulletin results are weird. Cowen’s posting daily but it’s the same stuff as on his Marginal Revolution blog, which is still running. Gladwell has posted infrequently and lazily, largely follow-ups to his previous work (more Ivy-League bashing).

There has been much angst in the newspaper/magazine world about the rise of newsletters, in part because writers driven out of conventional news outlets, including Andrew Sullivan, Alison Roman, and Bari Weiss, have resurrected on Substack. The platform is bashed for providing a backdoor for reprobates. There is also fear that Substack may cause a brain drain at newspapers and magazines if top talent can enjoy lucrative or at least sustainable careers by going direct to consumer.

There has also been criticism of newsletters from writer/creator types, who note that only a few stars are making bank on these platforms while everyone else is being abused in gig economy fashion. This is largely true. For most newsletters writers, as with most bloggers and YouTuber, dreams are big and rewards are wanting.

Regardless, more newsletters are coming, and not just on the aforementioned platforms. Conventional media outlets are busily hiring heads of newsletter development and repurposing their content for delivery to your inbox, which is understood to be more valuable than delivery to your Twitter or Facebook feed because people tend to care more about things in the inbox. The Wall Street Journal has forty-four separate newsletters, mostly updates or curations of its standard fare. The WSJ appears to have built its own platform and, unlike Substack, earns revenue by slipping ads into its content rather than charging subscription fees (although you have to already be a subscriber to the WSJ to get the free newsletters).

One result of all this newsletter activity has been to clog the world’s email inboxes, which will make it increasingly difficult to distinguish between your inbox and your Twitter feed. Another will be subscription fatigue. We’ve gone from an internet where all content was free to one where almost every news outlet and a ton of newsletters and podcasts are now requiring payment (along with all your streaming services).

For the people at Substack, the abundance of competitive activity has to be a headache. You create a great platform that strikes a chord with its intended audience and just as it’s gaining momentum, Zuckerberg and Rupert Murdoch are on your ass. What do you do?

More disruption!

Substack wants to upend the book publishing world. Its gambit is to deliver serialized books on its subscription platform. Zack O’Malley Greenburg, who has written popular books on Jay-Z and Michael Jackson, has been recruited to produce a new work that will be released a chapter a week for $5 a month or $50 a year. The subject is the reinvention of the music industry after its disruption by digital technologists. So disruption on top of disruption—how can it miss?

Inevitably, the Substack serialization project invokes Charles Dickens, whose novels were serialized to great acclaim in the mid-nineteenth century. Also, the late Tom Wolfe, a fine writer and avid nostalgist (below) who, also invoking Dickens, serialized The Bonfire of the Vanities in twenty-seven consecutive editions of Rolling Stone in the 1980s.

Serialization has worked before; it will work again, or so the theory goes.

The Substack model allows writers to bypass publishing companies, which pay them 10 per cent of total revenue derived from book sales. In fact, it turns the table, with writers keeping 90 per cent and Substack taking ten. Those are good terms.

As a writer, I’d love to see Substack succeed, and I’m all for its executives exploring new ways to deploy the platform. But I have doubts. There was only one Dickens. More importantly, there was only one nineteenth-century.

Every couple of years since the Pickwick Papers, some newspaper or magazine publisher has announced to great fanfare the serialization of a book, because Dickens. In recent decades, Alexander McCall Smith, Stephen King, Michel Faber have all been involved in serialization experiments. I tried several of my own in both newspapers and magazines. As far as I know, I’m the only editor in the last half-century to have made multiple attempts. Most learned the first time.

Despite my broad experience, I can’t explain why book serializations fail. I just know they do, even when you have the hottest novel of the decade. Bonfire did little for Rolling Stone, and Wolfe only got $150,000 from the magazine. All the serialization accomplished was a lot of momentum for the story’s eventual publication in book form (hardly anyone noticed the main character was rewritten from a journalist to an investment banker). Farrar, Straus & Giroux raked in $14 million with the book and Wolfe about $2 million. (For a great Audible experience, try John Lithgow’s reading of Bonfire).

Book excerpts work, but those are self-contained, stand-alone pieces of books published in newspapers or magazines. They are not serializations, telling the whole story, beginning to end.

You can also adapt a book for serialization on TV—Big Little Lies, for instance—and it works fine. Television is all about serials: dramas or sitcoms, strung out over eight to twenty-four weeks, or twenty-two seasons if you’re “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”

Radio, too, can do serials (at least, it did in its early days), and podcasts are getting good at long-form stories. There’s S-Town, and the thirty-two-episode Serial, both from the studios of This American Life. Big hits.

Just don’t try it with text.

Or maybe I should say, don’t try it with a single book. One form of serialization that does work for writers in today’s publishing environment is the genre series, where the characters and the setting are brought back time and again (for instance, Micheal Connelly’s twenty-odd Harry Bosch detective novels, or Vampire Academy in the young adult paranormal category, or Harry Potter). But you get a whole book at a time, not one 1/27th of a book.

Why will people read twenty-odd Harry Bosch novels but not a twenty-part serialization of one Harry Bosch novel? No idea, but they won’t.

So is this a stupid idea by Substack? Not necessarily. It’s in a tough competitive situation, and it needs more people on its platform. That’s how it makes money. The simple fact that Greenburg is writing a serialization on Substack’s platform is a marketing coup. It will convince others to attempt the same, especially self-published writers. There are hordes of self-published writers, all of them looking for new angles. Amazon sells 1.4 million new self-published works a year. The vast majority of those titles probably sell less than fifty copies but it’s a volume play. It will cost self-published writers nothing to repurpose their work as newsletter serializations, and they’ll be happy to get ten or twenty paid subscribers. And you never know. One of them might be Dickens.

Our Newsletter Roll (suggestions welcome)

Lydia Perovic’s Long Play: literature and music.

Tim Carmody’s Amazon Chronicles: an eye on the monster.

Jason Logan’s Urban Color Report: adventures in ink (sign-up at bottom of page)

Anne Trubek’s Notes from a Small Press: like SHuSH, but different

Art Canada Institute: reliable source of Canadian arts info/opinion

Kate McKean’s Agents & Books: an interesting angle on the literary world

Rebecca Eckler’s Re:Book: unpretentious recommendations

Anna Sproul Latimer’s How to Glow in the Dark: interesting advice

John Biggs Great Reads: strong recommendations


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