Substack is looking to help writers make money in a way that CEO Chris Best described as “diametrically opposed to the broader Internet news model.”
In other words, while large digital media companies are chasing “a lot of engagement, a lot of clicks and eyeballs,” Best (who was previously co-founder and CTO at Kik) said Substack has built subscription tools for “these niche publications — they’re about doing something really good and really meaningful for a small number of people.”
Substack is actually going live with its first publication today — Sinocism, a China-focused newsletter written by MarketWatch co-founder Bill Bishop, who’s using the platform to launch his first paid version, which will cost $11 a month or $118 a year.
Bishop has 30,000 subscribers, and he told me he’s experimented in the past with asking readers for donations.
“It didn’t work as a business,” he said. “It got too messy and I got sick of begging for money.”
In Bishop’s words, Sinocism’s new business model is “shamelessly copied” from Ben Thompson of Stratechery, where members can read free posts on Thompson’s website but need to pay to get his daily email. Similarly, Sinocism readers will need to pay for access to the daily newsletter, but Bishop will also be writing a free weekly email.
“I liked having a bigger audience and so it’s important to me to be able to keep that avenue alive,” Bishop said. “Over time I’m hopeful that people who stick with the free one will start missing the paid one.”
There are other companies offering different types of subscription and paywall support, but Best said his goal at Substack is to make the process of selling subscriptions as simple as possible. Part of that approach means Substack hasn’t just built payment and paywall products, but also a full content management system for publishing to both the web and email.
“We’re not trying to say: Use us as one of a constellation of services,” Best said. Instead, the goal is to “offer a unified solution.”
Best founded Substack with journalist Hamish McKenzie, who’s written for Tesla, Kik and PandoDaily. McKenzie argued the startup provides an antidote to some of the doom and gloom in the media industry.
“We’re very optimistic about the future of media,” McKenzie said. “People are struggling to figure it out, they’re chasing the next shiny objects. With subscription publishing, the likes of Bill and Ben Thompson have shown that there’s a huge, underexploited market that we believe can be bigger than the existing publishing industry.”