"How To Succeed On Substack"
Anxiety, ambition, professional jealousy, hot tips, vibe shifts, and other things that should make writers wary.
Something sort of odd happened over the past few days. I went viral on Substack Notes. Well, viral for Notes anyway, which is not that viral in the grand scheme of things. In contrast, I once shared my reaction to a New York Times story and one of its photos in a tweet. It got so many likes and retweets over the space of a few hours—something like 65,000—that the writer of the story emailed me to say that it was stressing out the people she had interviewed. To get that much attention was stressful for them, even though all I did was repeat something that was in the story itself. To be completely honest, I found it a bit, I don’t know, much that the person who had put their story in The New York Times was scolding me for exposing them to public scrutiny, just by tweeting about it, but my first rule in life in general is to do no harm, so I deleted it.
Compared to that, getting 500 likes on Notes doesn’t seem like much. But I had quite a few requests, including from people I admire a lot, to turn what I’d written there into an essay or a post that they could share, so here we are. This is that post. There was an initial long note, and then another even longer note, which was a reply to someone else’s reply, so I’ll try to integrate those here.
I have seen a lot of sentiment expressed recently, on Notes and in recommended posts, about competition on Substack, monetizing one’s newsletter, hacks to succeed faster, and all that. There is a lot of anxiety brewing, or at least it looks that way to me. If you are happily oblivious to all this, there’s no need to get into it. Keep on sailing. But among a certain segment of the Substack population, this is very much a thing. Some people are feeling a lot of pressure to grow their newsletter, grow their audience, turn a hobby into a side hustle, or a side hustle into a full-time job. They are looking at other people’s success and feeling bad about themselves. Most of all I have seen an intense anxiety expressed about status, as if the number of one’s subscribers, the presence of a bestseller badge, or that badge’s color, is somehow an expression of a newsletter’s worth or the worth of its author.
Is Substack really just like Twitter or Instagram or [insert other maligned platform here]? Is an algorithm ruining our chances for success? Does Substack only care about “famous” writers, while writers who are just starting out get shafted and shoved to the side? Are there easy secrets, hot tips and tricks, that we can pay someone else to get that will make us rich and famous in a matter of months? Should all Substacks be treated equally, or receive equal money and attention?
One thing that I think gets lost in this conversation is that Substack’s main purpose is publishing. It is a publishing platform. Specifically, it is self-publishing. Literary magazines will not accept submissions that have already appeared on Substack, in any form, because most have a policy against previously published material. Likewise, essays that appear on your own newsletter are not eligible for things like the Best American Essays anthology, because they do not consider work that has been self-published. Book publishers will republish work that has appeared on Substack, but that is in line with an existing willingness, even an eagerness, to repackage previously published essays, articles, and blogs. Substack can add nifty hang-out options like Notes or Chat or what have you, but it is still primarily a place to publish and read what others have published.
I saw a note bythat compared the diverse array of newsletters on Substack to the various publishing houses in the traditional literary world.
“I think Substack is beginning to resemble traditional publishing with each Substack operating as its own press,” he wrote. “Inside Substack, there are big mainstream presses, medium-sized independents, and micro-presses. And we all have different ambitions about where we are and where we want to be.”
This resonated with my own experience and observations. Since Substack is about publishing, it is fairly inevitable that it would then begin to resemble the publishing industry at large. There are big and small books, big and small presses. There are bestsellers. Not all books are equally successful, or equally successful at the same time. People want to know what other people are reading. Word of mouth is powerful. Other kinds of marketing help too.
This can be anxiety-provoking for some, especially for people who are not used to that. Or for those who are, and see that, ah yes, the same forces are at work here.
It’s important not to be drawn into a vortex of competition for competition’s sake. Over my years as a writer I have watched other writers make themselves miserable by focusing on various metrics of success rather than the work and the artistic/intellectual success of that particular work. They are obsessed with getting published more than they are passionate about a particular book project or a particular essay.
Here’s the important thing, even though it can be hard to hear: no writer, no book, no essay or post, is entitled to be read. No one is entitled to success in their writing, and notable success in writing always takes a lot of work. No exceptions.
It is easy for the work of successful writers to become invisible. The job of writing is often to make it invisible, to remove any trace of effort in the prose so as to provide a smooth and enjoyable experience for the reader. But when we compare ourselves to other writers, to their talent or to their material success, when we look at them and then at ourselves and find ourselves lacking, we have to ask—did I do what they did? Did I do the equivalent? What work of theirs am I ignoring?
I recently learned that the uber-famous essayist and humorist David Sedaris does full re-write edits of all his essays at least 15 or 20 times, or something like that. He’s patient. He prints them out, waits, considers, and rewrites them, over and over. He reads his work-in-progress, or pieces of it, vignettes, out loud to his audiences and then makes notes and edits based on their reactions. He works and works and works on them. His finished essays seem so effortless, but that is because he works hard to make them seem that way.
I can feel jealous of David Sedaris’s fame, I can feel like I’ll never get to that point, but I should ask myself: am I doing 15 or 20 full rewrite drafts of my essays? Am I pushing myself to search for a universal feeling, for a moment of poignancy, and for a laugh, all in the same piece? Am I doing what he did, in my own way? No, no, and no. I am not. If I did that, and then did it for 15 years before getting published, like he did, then maybe I would find out how close to David Sedaris (or my own equivalent) that I could get.
Someone replied to me on Notes by saying that it wasn’t fair to those who did not have the bandwidth to publish very often to have to compete with more established writers. They thought they should be given some kind of leg up by the platform, so they could receive the same attention and growth. While I can certainly relate to the frustration of not being able to devote the time you want to your newsletter, the reality is that if you want to build a readership, you do have to publish. That is true here or in any context of writing. The alternative is nonsensical—how can people read you if you’re not publishing?
So often in writing, people want advice on how to succeed, but they don’t like it when that advice includes a lot of time or a lot of work. You can’t expect to get the results of a person who works very hard at something without also working very hard at it yourself. When I work hard at my newsletter, it grows. When life intervenes for whatever reason, as has happened on multiple occasions since I started this newsletter, it plateaus or even shrinks. I am not entitled to people’s attention, time, or money.
Not everyone has to be extremely aggressive in their work ethic. Writing can be a hobby. Or it can be a side gig. Or it can simply be a labor of love that sometimes yields income and sometimes doesn’t. Writing just one essay or piece per month is still a lot. But producing writing that many people will pay for, writing that is ready for the marketplace—that takes hard work no matter what. It takes a lot more work than most people are willing to put in. That’s the hard truth.
Finding one’s community in writing is important for those who want that. I try to provide a sense of community through my own Substack, with Essay Camp, the Essay Series, accountability Chat threads, write-alongs, and various other things. People can find each other in the comments on posts and make connections there. People are finding writing community through Substacks like For Dear Life with, Writing in the Dark with, The Unexpected Shape Academy with , and others. It can feel good to connect with people who share your goals, enthusiasm, or taste. But there is also no obligation to do that.
It is true that not everyone has the bandwidth to become a full time professional writer. Many people don’t have the bandwidth to be a writer at all. And most people who vaguely dream about becoming a writer are not willing to put in the work that it takes to get there. But the hard reality is that those who can’t or don’t want to put in the hard work of writing—fair or not—cannot expect to be read except by their friends.
There is nothing wrong with that, and yet some people seem to think they can achieve the readership of a professional writer who works very hard for a long time without also working very hard for a long time.
Not everyone who writes needs to do any of these things. What I do know, and what I was trying to express on Notes, is that those who put metrics and ego and a sense of entitlement above the work will never capture a reader’s heart. Not only that, it warps the spirit.
As I said in a previous newsletter post:
Most of the would-be authors I encounter in life or on social media who loudly bemoan the fact that they are not yet published have a few things in common. For starters, they often cite an arbitrary age-related deadline. They want to become a published author by the time they are 40, or 30, or even 25, and feel like a failure if they don’t. This is not an ideal creative environment in which to write a book. Maybe they do have a particular book they are working on or querying, and maybe not. Either way, the focus of the complaint isn’t usually on the work of writing, on the success or failure of a particular body of work that they are passionate about, but on wanting or failing to achieve the identity of being an author.
Substack offers an amazing opportunity for writers, but also for readers. It is really unprecedented. It should not be a surprise to people that those who were already full time professional writers will have a shorter path to notoriety or to a full-time income here. People who were already famous will find a large audience faster. This is because they have already put in the work. There are National Book Award winners here sharing their new, experimental writing. There are MacArthur genius grant recipients shooting the breeze about craft., an award-winning writer and the recent editor of the Best American Essays anthology, is on here sharing his own essays. George effing Saunders is on here talking about stories with anyone who wants to sign up. The wealth of talent that has set up shop here on Substack is truly amazing. Am I as famous or successful, here or elsewhere, as the people who have won the National Book Award or a MacArthur genius grant? No. But have I put in the work that they did to get there? Also no. (Not quite yet, anyway.)
I think you’d be hard-pressed to find two successful Substacks that became successful in exactly the same way or for the same reasons. This is why some of these “how to succeed on Substack” posts can feel a little scammy. As Alexie said in his note, there are people who will seek to profit off of the hunger of writers who want a larger audience. Aspiring writers have always been vulnerable in this way. That hunger is palpable, and can easily be taken advantage of.
I do think there are some general best-practices that one can follow here on Substack. They will not apply to everyone, and do not guarantee success, but here they are. Start posting. Post good work. Build up a list of free readers. Be patient. Give people the option to pay from the beginning or do so after you have 100 free subscribers. Start paywalling posts after your free list passes 1,000 readers, if you want. Know that you will most likely only be able to get between 5-15% of that list to pay for your work. Know that you can’t please everyone. Be true to yourself. Remember that work created in the spirit of commerce, that doesn’t spring from some sense of passion, some place of truth within you, will rarely be successful.
Substack is based on the premise that good writing is worth paying for, and it is. But not all writing is good writing. Not all writing is valued in the same way. Sometimes even the best writing will not find a large audience, and that is simply the way of literature, the result of the current state of popular culture. Even so, we cannot expect to be richly compensated for work that is not at a professional level.
Like the publishing world at large, there is no way that Substack can be a perfect meritocracy. But assuming that anyone who is successful had that success handed to them, to dismiss the hard work of others, to focus first and foremost on status and numbers and metrics, and to compare ourselves to those who are at a more advanced stage of their careers—this is not the way to do it. Focus on the work for its own sake. Sometimes the money follows that, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s the only way.
I think for the most part, the same rules apply here as elsewhere. Some kinds of writing are more likely to yield a full time income than other kinds. Most creative writers, as opposed to journalists, have day jobs. But writers that write a lot, and that get a big response to their work, they do rise in the charts and become more visible. Substack has been life-changing for me personally. Anyone who does good work consistently can achieve some version of success, but it takes work, and it takes patience. If you’re here to share writing, focus on the writing. And don’t forget to be a reader too. The best writers always read.
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