Sunday, December 19, 2021

the Substack chart

Feels a bit like a Ponzi scheme. There's that moment in the sales pitch where the presenter gets out the chart to show you how you can make big money through this scheme just by doing this, this, and this. Then just watch your profits grow! Put in X amount of effort, and you're already making enough monthly to quit your regular job. Put in 2X effort, and now you're saving up for that new car. At 3X, you're moving to another state and buying the home of your dreams. And so on.

Much as I'm warming to the idea of switching to Substack, the Substack site does have one of those smarmy charts on its splash page, and sure enough, it's enough to tempt the reptilian part of my brain (which is also what Ponzi-scheme presentations are designed to do... maybe one day, I'll tell the sad story of my two weeks of desperation as I tried working for a telemarketing firm). Here: come be tempted with me as we stare out over the canyon of seduction. The chart is a simple calculator that lets you see what your monthly income will be with X number of subscribers who each pay Y dollars per month. Let's be real conservative and stick with the allowed minimum of \$5/month for subscribing. This means that

50 subs (the standard slang term for "subscriptions" or "subscribers") = \$203/month

100 subs = \$406/month

200 subs = \$811/month (not \$812? I guess there are invisible fractions involved)

400 subs = \$1,622/month

800 subs = \$3,244/month

[the chart skips 1,000 subs]

2,000 subs = \$8,110/month

NB: this is where writing for Substack would put me about 25% over my current monthly income at my regular job, although God only knows how much of a cut Uncle Sam might want.

5,000 subs = \$20,275/month

I'd be tempted to stop right here. It would be insane for someone who has labored under debt as long as I have to reach this never-before-seen level of income. But the chart has done its work: it's prompted me to dream. So the cynic, at this point, has to ask: what does Substack get out of this? And the answer is: 10%. Just like Hunter Biden's "Big Guy." The numbers in this chart do not reflect Substack's cut, but a little caption at the bottom of the chart tells us that writers retain 90% of their earnings minus credit-card fees. But the chart's not done showing you its wonders.

10,000 subs = \$40,550/month

50,000 subs = \$202,750/month

The Substack splash page features this greedy-capitalist quote:

“When you look at the economics of newsletters... If you can find 10,000 people to pay you \$100 a year, you’re making \$1 million a year. No one in media is going to pay you that.”
– Casey Newton, Platformer

Temptation, temptation...

With traditional publishing, you're lucky to earn even 12% of the cover price of your book, which will come out only after a year of vetting, proofreading, editing, and other sorts of prettying-up. Ebooks are better: you normally get 70 cents on the dollar with a service like Amazon. That's a hell of a lot better than traditional publishing, and the results are more immediate, too. But with ebooks, you have the same problem that you have with regular books: there's an initial wave of sales, and then you get to watch that wave slowly trail off into a trickle. The Substack model, though, is a standard subscription model, and even with Substack scraping off 10% of what you earn, there's no trailing-off of the graph because you now have a steady income so long as you continue to produce. Stop producing, get off the hamster wheel, and watch your subscriptions dry up. I can actually live with that, I think, although living with that will depend on what heights I attain. So: to Substack or not to Substack? That is the question.

There's a line in the movie "Starship Troopers" in which Michael Ironside's character gives advice to a younger officer: "Never pass up a good thing." The Substack payment model, despite the Ponzi-scheme chart, seems simple and straightforward. I have to review the extensive FAQ section before making a commitment, but truth be told, I'm eager to get started writing on this platform. Will people want to pay for my writing? I expect not the people who know me and who take for granted all the free content I've put out for years. I hope those folks understand that, in a sense, I've been waiting all my life for a platform like this—a chance to earn money on my own merits while doing something I love. Were I suddenly to accrue a loyal set of faithful subscribers (probably all people who know little to nothing about me), well, it could indeed be the start of my little empire. Won't know if I don't try.

What are the implications for this, my old, faithful blog? Well, readers familiar with my output know I'm pretty logorrheic, so don't expect significant changes, although the more-substantive content will now appear exclusively behind a paywall. Just feed the troll at the paywall once, and the pain will be over because at that point, you're committed. Upshot: my blog will still be here, chugging along and updated daily, unless writing on Substack becomes so all-consuming that an amputation becomes necessary. If and when I do make the jump to Substack, I'll let you know all about it, and if you're willing (probably not, but if) to make a small, monthly financial commitment to my work, I'd be forever grateful.