What Is Substack and How Does it Work?


The social media sphere is chock full of jargon and buzzwords, so much so that it can be hard to keep track of them all. It’s enough to keep track of Wordle, NFTs and the metaverse, but what is a Substack?

Resisting the urge to make a joke about a pile of sandwiches, we’ll tell you that Substack is a major game-changer in the world of online publishing. In fact, it’s the biggest disruption to journalism, personal writing and thought leadership since the blog boom of the 2000s. And it might just be the missing piece in your social media marketing plan.

Read on to learn everything you need to know about Substack, and whether or not it’s the right choice for your brand.

What Is Substack?

Substack is an email newsletter platform. Its simple interface and ability to publish (and monetize) posts on the web have made it a game changer for writers of any skill level.

For journalists, the app is alluring because it doesn’t rely on editors or ad sales to get their message across. For thought leaders, it’s a great way to jot down some thoughts and deliver them directly to their pupils. For new writers, it’s a great way to build a portfolio while finding an audience, however niche the topic might be. For creators, it’s a great way to monetize the loyal following you’ve built on social media.

Substack is known for its hands-off approach to censorship. While there are still some publishing guidelines (no porn, hate speech or harassment, for example), the platform’s lack of gatekeeping has attracted both ground-breaking journalists and some seriously controversial writers.

In other words, the site is simply a tool to facilitate publishing for, well, anyone. And it’s working. There are over 1 million people paying for subscriptions to Substack publications each month.

How does Substack work?

The bread and butter of Substack is publishing. With Substack, you can quickly and easily publish posts to the web or as emails in a matter of clicks.

The posts can be paywalled or published for free. You can also try out discussion threads — a feature that allows you start Twitter-style conversations among your subscribers.

But that’s not all — there’s also Substack for Podcasts, a relatively new tool that allows audio creators to publish and grow their podcasts. In early 2022, Substack also started beta testing a video player for creators, meaning the potential for content creation is only growing.

Once you get your Substack up and running (and more on that in a minute…), you’ll notice the simplicity of the interface. It really is a blank canvas, but people are doing amazing things with the platform.

Sure, traditional writers are the main draw of Substack, and you’ll find hundreds of media figures, journalists, thought leaders and, well, anyone else with a keyboard and something to say. Some major Substack players include Gawker’s Will Leitch, feminist journalist Roxane Gay and historian Heather Cox Richardson.

Authors Salman Rushdie and Chuck Palahniuk have used the platform to publish their new novels, while filmmaker and activist Michael Moore uses it to pontificate on politics.

Dig deeper, and you’ll find Substacks for any niche:

  • Beauty critic Jessica DeFino critiques the beauty industry with her newsletter The Unpublishable.
  • Cultural trends are forecasted and broken with Jonah Weiner and Erin Wylie’s immaculately designed Blackbird Spyplane.
  • And TrueHoop, one of the world’s longest running NBA podcasts, publishes its episodes through the platform.
  • Patti Smith also uses Substack’s audio feature to publish regular poetry readings.

Patti Smith substack

Because of its simple interface, your Substack can be as straightforward or complicated as you’d like.

Blackbird Spyplane substack

Source: Blackbird Spyplane

How to Start a Substack

It’s incredibly easy to sign up and start posting on Substack. Follow these steps, and you’ll be publishing in minutes.

1. Define your niche

This is, of course, the first step for any endeavour on the web. Your work, topic of discussion or content type may evolve, but early planning will still be helpful before you start.

Are you going to be writing newsletters for beginner knitters? Lord of the Rings fans? Politics junkies?

Choose an audience and find out everything you can about their concerns, desires, reading habits, and more before you get started.

2. Sign up for an account

You can either use email or sign up with your Twitter account. Substack’s Twitter integration is great — it’s easy to link your contacts and you can even prominently feature your newsletter near your bio — so definitely choose that option if you have a large following on your Twitter account.

3. Set up your profile

Yes, the steps are this simple. This is the place where you confirm your email address and username. You’ll also want to upload a profile picture, which will be used on your page.

4. Create your publication

Name your publication, give a summary of what it’s about and confirm your URL. Here’s where you should flex your creativity (but don’t worry too much — you can always make changes later).

Make sure your summary is as short and descriptive as possible, as in the example below. People will be more likely to sign up if they know what they’re getting into — and they’re excited about it.

The Unpublishable beauty industry description

5. Subscribe to publications

If you’ve linked your Twitter and follow people who have Substacks, you can easily follow them here. This is a good idea for two reasons — it’ll get you started on a similar content path as the one you have on Twitter, and it will alert your mutuals that you’ve joined Substack.

6. Import your mailing list

If you’re coming to Substack from another service like Mailchimp, TinyLetter or Patreon, you can upload a CSV file and import your contacts.

7. Add subscribers

Here, you can manually add friends and family to your subscriber list as a way to build a subscriber base. It might seem tiny, but you’ve got to start somewhere. Consider signing up with a second personal email address too — then you can see your newsletter exactly as it looks to subscribers.

8. Create a post

Once you’ve signed up, you’ll be directed to the Dashboard, where you can create a New post, New thread or New episode. As you’ll see, the interface is incredibly straightforward. You’ll have no trouble writing, formatting and publishing your first post.

How to grow your Substack

Substack is, again, more of a tool than a social network. In that sense, you’ll have to brush off your marketing skills and promote your work the old-fashioned way.

Here are some tips:

Call to Action

Yep, call-to-action copywriting is still your best friend. Fill your posts with headers, footers and buttons encouraging people to subscribe to your newsletter, comment on your posts and share your content.

Link Up

Post your Substack on your homepage, social media sites, company email signatures or, well, anywhere else that will allow URLs. This will also help with search engine rankings so people can come across your Substack organically.

Get Social

Perhaps the most obvious thing on the list, but it bears repeating: post your newsletters on social media. Break down your content in a Twitter thread, screencap key takeaways for Instagram or set up direct integration with Facebook.

Comment Away

While you may have stopped reading comment sections years ago, Substack actually thrives on discussion. Comment on related posts and users can link back to your own Substack. It’s also a great way to show off your writing skills to other potential subscribers in the community.

Build Partnerships

It doesn’t have to feel like marketing, even if it is. You can offer to guest post on other people’s Substacks, interview other creators on your own, ask relevant accounts on social media to share your publication or even pay for a sponsorship.

Substack did their own case study, following Ali Abouelatta and his blog First 1000.

Using a series of experiments, he gained over 20,000 subscribers in just three years. Ali achieved this growth through hard work, determination and a willingness to engage with his niche outside of the platform, marketing through Quora, Discord, WhatsApp and Slack.

Learn more with Substack’s video:

Is Substack free?

As a publisher, Substack is completely free. There are no costs associated with having an account, and you can publish text and audio without paying for storage.

Similarly, a large majority of Substack posts are free to read. It’s up to content creators whether or not to place their work behind a paywall. Typically, a user will have a mixture of free and premium content on their page.

A subscription to a paid Substack averages around $5 a month (although some of them go up to $50).

Fans can also subscribe as a Founding Member, which allows users to pay extra as a show of support. Substack describes it as being like a donation. An average of founding member payments is available in the chart below.

It’s through the subscription model that Substack makes their money, as they keep 10% of the subscription fees.

The company uses Stripe, which takes another 2.9% in fees, plus a 30-cent transaction fee per subscriber.

Substack founding member pricing

Source: Substack

How to Make Money on Substack

There’s really only one way to make money on Substack — selling subscriptions to your content. But Substack readers love to pay, so it’s not out of the ordinary to make money on the platform.

Some key things to remember:

  • Be Consistent. You want to convert your readers from being casuals to being fans. The best way to do that is to publish regularly and reliably. Consider publishing a free post on Thursdays and a paid post on Tuesdays. Find a schedule that works for you, and stick to it.
  • Be Interesting. It may be tempting to flood your feed with content, but it’s also important to make sure what you’re writing is actually good. And since Substack has no editors, that means it falls on you. Make sure you copy edit your work, and ask yourself questions like “If I was the one reading this, would I enjoy it?”
  • Stay Free. Even if your goal is to build a subscriber base, you should still make the majority of your content free. Substack readers aren’t necessarily looking to buy content — if they like you, they’ll throw money your way regardless of how much of your writing is free. Ideally, you won’t want to paywall any more than 50% of your content, and even that could be a stretch.

Is Substack worth it?

Thinking of Substack as a blank canvas, the platform will be worth it depending entirely on your brand, end-goal and skill set. If you’re looking for new avenues to market a product or service, you’d be better off expanding your strategy to include TikTok or Pinterest. But if you want to tell larger stories, engage in thought leadership and consistently commit to a writing practice, there’s no better option than publishing with Substack.

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