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For Substack Authors
A few things to keep in mind about a free blogging platform.
Hey there friends, this is Phil Tanny from TannyTalk with a few thoughts about the experience of being a Substack blogger.
If you don’t have a blog and aren’t interested in creating one, you can probably skip this newsletter.
I think about the topics I’m about to address more than normal people because I’ve been involved in email and web publishing in one way or another for just short of 30 years. In the 1990’s I created one of the first email newsletter delivery services, a system which was similar to today’s Substack. I sold this startup to a big company in 2000. Then I went on to code a forum network platform from scratch, followed by a blog network platform, and a lot of other similar projects. I’m sharing this history with you so you’ll know what I’m basing the following perspectives on.
Substack Is Great
Based on my long experience with Internet publishing platforms, including my own blogging system, I feel qualified to say Substack has done a great job. I’ll spare you a long winded feature by feature review and get to the bottom line, these people know what they’re doing. Overall, I’ve been really impressed. And now that I’m at age 71 and retired, I’m really glad I don’t have to compete with the Substack team.
Substack Is Free
As you know, Substack blogs are entirely free. This is great for casual users, but is a more complicated situation for those who are serious about their blogs, who should perhaps be keeping the following in mind.
Substack is offering a free quality blogging service to everyone on the Internet, which is rather a lot of people.
And because of the nature of blogging, the vast majority of those who start Substack blogs (or any blog anywhere) will never build much of an audience, or make any money. As just one example, I have almost 30 years of experience in web publishing, and after 90 days of somewhat intense involvement on Substack, TannyTalk is up to only 15 subscribers. Let’s call it an exclusive club. :-)
This pattern of widespread blogging failure is in no way Substack’s fault. Again, this is the reality of all blogs and websites on the Internet. It’s easy to start a site these days, and very difficult to build an audience, obtain engagement, make any real money. In my particular case, a lot of the problem is that I’m drawn to saying unpopular things on unpopular topics, which is not such a great business plan.
The Substack Business Model
As you probably know, Substack takes a percentage of whatever Substack authors earn from paid subscriptions. As Substack proudly and rightly claims, they don’t make anything at all unless the Substack author makes money. While this is a great system on one level, it’s problematic on another level.
Given that Substack is a quality platform offered for free, it will attract a great many users, probably at an accelerating rate. And given that the vast majority of Substack users will never make any serious money, or perhaps no money at all, this means Substack will be supporting a large and ever growing number of users who generate no income for Substack. All the time and money that is invested in serving the vast majority of unprofitable Substack users is time and money that won’t go in to serving serious Substack bloggers. This is something for the serious blogger to keep in mind.
Sooner or later the avalanche of unprofitable Substack users may overwhelm the system requiring changes, like a fee for owning a Substack blog. For the serious blogger, having to pay for a Substack blog would probably actually be a good thing, especially if a fee meant industry standard levels of support.
One of the ways Substack’s business model is weak is in the area of support. In my experience the support folks have a good attitude and are making a sincere good faith effort. But remember, they are trying to support a growing avalanche of FREE users who typically generate no income for Substack. And so support is slow and rather disorganized. As best I can tell, there is no place, not even a user forum, where one can obtain quick answers to technical questions.
To put this in perspective I have a few accounts with DirectNic, a traditional web hosting company. I’ve been a customer of theirs for at least 20 years. At DirectNic you can open a ticket and receive a very detailed and accurate answer to your complicated questions, typically within 24 hours. That is, the support at DirectNic is vastly superior to what’s available at Substack, and for only a few dollars a month. (PS: I don’t earn anything by mentioning DirectNic.)
Why Does This Matter?
None of the above will matter too much, until you have a problem. And if your blog is just for fun, then it still won’t matter too much.
But if you’re working all day every day on your blog and trying to turn it in to a business, not being able to solve technical problems quickly can be an issue, because ongoing problems undermine your audience’s faith in your publication.
Here’s a small and silly example. Today I was setting up a second blog on Substack. It’s a jokey political blog so I was going to write under the extremely clever :-) name of Til Fanny. Once I set up this goofy name on the second blog, suddenly all my serious articles on TannyTalk were by some ridiculous person named Til Fanny. Til Fanny wasn’t too happy about this.
So I thought, you know, I’d better do another backup, just to be safe. Except that the backup feature appears to be broken.
None of this really matters too much for TannyTalk because my blog is still so small. The point here is instead that if I did have a big audience, I don’t know what caused these problems, and I don’t know how to fix them, and I’m unlikely to find the answers any time soon.
The Buy Out Dance
One thing to be aware of before getting too married to any web hosting company is that web hosting companies are bought and sold all the time. Sometimes the new owners know what they’re doing, and sometimes they don’t. Often the new owners aren’t that interested in the customers at all, but bought the hosting company at one price hoping to quickly sell it at a higher price. Or maybe the purchase is part of a stock market play.
I’m sure Substack would tell us they have no interest in selling, and they would likely be sincere in saying that. But having sold an emailed newsletter service myself I would have to say, it’s not that simple. I had no interest in selling my company either, but then a buyer came along who offered me more money RIGHT NOW than I could have made in the next seven years of running my company. That’s pretty hard to resist, no matter how personally invested you might be in your creation.
And what happened next is pretty common in the world of hosting. As the creator of the startup I was paid a fair price, and made out very well. But my customers got screwed, because the folks who bought my company managed to completely trash it in just six months. This surprised me, because everything I had learned about the buyer indicated they were intelligent and professional. You just never know…
The solution to worrying about hosting company failures is to have maintain good backups of your site somewhere other than the hosting company (like on your personal computer). AND, you should know how to move all your content to another host if necessary, or know someone you trust who can do it for you.
Substack does offer an easy way to download all your text. But not your images. And in my experience recently, the backup feature doesn’t always work. On top of all that, while the format of the backups would presumably allow you to restore your blog on Substack, but maybe not anywhere else.
Again, if your Substack blog is for fun, don’t worry about this too much.
On the other hand, if your Substack blog is a serious business, do worry. Or better yet, learn how to move your Substack content to another platform or another host. You don’t have to actually move, just learn how. Or find someone who knows how. Be prepared, just in case. Web hosts die all the time. Even the good ones.
Domain Name Disasters
Even some of the most successful Substack authors are making this mistake.
When you set up a Substack blog you get a URL in the Substack domain, something like this:
If your blog is just for fun, this is no problem.
But if your blog is a business, it is a problem. If you have a serious blog there will likely be lots of links around the net to your URL of name.substack.com. Lots of your traffic will probably come from those links.
And if you ever want to leave Substack, or ever _have_ to leave Substack, all those links will die. The reason is simple. You don’t own, and thus can’t control the domain name.substack.com, because that URL belongs to Substack, and not to you.
The solution here is simple. You can buy your own domain name such as yourname.com and then use this for your Substack blog. Substack calls this a “custom domain” and they’ll set it up for for $50. They did it promptly for TannyTalk, the same day. You have to first buy the domain at a registrar like DirectNic, and then contact Substack support with your request.
It makes me squirm when I see bloggers who are making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year with their Substack blog, and they don’t even own their own URL. Not a good plan.
The traffic stats within a Substack account are great if all you care about is what’s happening with your mailings. You can for example, see which of your subscribers has opened your emailed newsletter, and whether they clicked any links. That’s pretty cool.
But as blog statistics Substack stats are significantly deficient. For example, the information provided by Substack is far inferior to what is available from a free website stats service like Statcounter.com.
Is this a problem? That’s up to each author to decide. To be fair to Substack, sometimes the best plan is not to obsess about one’s traffic, but just keep writing, writing, writing, writing.
Substack is a great blogging platform. I like it better than my own blogging platform which I spent a great deal of time coding to my own particular taste. For the casual hobby blogger Substack is a wonderful solution.
Substack can be a great platform for serious bloggers too, as proven by those making incredible amounts of money writing on Substack. But a serious blogger should be aware of Substack’s limitations, and plan around them. Like all things on the Internet, the serious website owner should be prepared to move their site to another platform, just in case that someday becomes necessary. Once you have a good plan for that, then you don’t need to worry.
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