2 years ago, I started a newsletter on Mailchimp called Tech Bound and built it out to +3,000 subscribers. 3 months ago, I decided to migrate to Substack. One week ago, I went from Substack to publishing on my own site. In this post, I explain why, what my current stack looks like, and a larger trend that has been in full swing for 2 years.
Great read! The problems that you point out with social networks served as the motivation for my co-founder and I to create Readup . We rank articles based on complete reads which slows down the overall pace considerably and cuts out a lot of noise since users cannot post or comment on articles they haven't really read.
I'd be really curious to hear your thoughts on our proposed business model since it's based on compensating writers when Readup users read their articles to completion. In short, users pay $10/mo to use Readup, we keep $5 and divide the other $5 among the writers whose articles the user has read to completion during that month.
You keep your own stack and there's nothing you have to do other than verify a Readup account with us so we know who you are and collect any money earned. Readup users can read your articles using our browser extensions or mobile apps (I just did! ). You can view the full pitch  on YouTube.
I was suspicious about your "complete reads" claim so I signed up to see how it works. Impressions:
1. Doesn't work on Safari. Definitely not a great first impression.
2. Sure, let's switch to Chrome (one of the three supported platforms: Chrome, Firefox and iOS). Now all I get is a blocking modal "To read on Readup, add the Chrome extension. Add to Chrome — It's Free". Sorry, not about to install an extension for something that hasn't explained why it needs an extension, let alone demonstrate any value to me, whether it's free or not.
So let me ask: how do you tell a skim from a read? How do you distinguish a complete read from scrolling down to comment section (maybe even slowly)? Reading speeds vary greatly, and there's no mind-reading web API yet.
1. Safari uses a completely non-standard extension model and right now I'm the only developer so we're Chrome and Firefox only for the time being. Definitely sucks.
2. That's great feedback on that modal. Seriously, it never even crossed my mind that we don't explain why the extension is required before displaying it. Also that the "Add to Chrome" button makes it seem like it will trigger an install instead of bouncing you over to the Chrome store where you can see screenshots and a description of how it works before choosing to install. We really need to fix that ASAP.
Re tracking: When the extension is triggered (limited permissions, it only runs when you click the icon) it runs a script on the web page that tries to identify the primary text of the article. Once identified, we mark the individual words as having been read, starting at the top left of the viewport. Since we keep track of individual words you can scroll around and read out of order and the tracking will still work properly.
This process runs on a timer that allows for a pretty fast reading speed (probably around 500-600 wpm) but doesn't allow a user to just sit on the page for a long time or scroll right to the bottom. As you point out you can cheat it by scrolling very slowly through the entire article. Still waiting on that mind-reading API!
Thanks for the reply and glad the feedback is of some value.
Re timer: 500-600 wpm is pretty fast on average but I can certainly beat that when reading information-sparse content (e.g. most digital magazines) or when I consciously try to read fast, and I know people who read way faster than me... Also note that some people can maintain a high comprehension level even at high speed while others struggle to comprehend even when reading word by word. I guess your compromise may be okay, but it's certainly rather crude (not that I have a better idea).
Btw, Safari 14 is adding WebExtension API support. (You're probably already aware of this but doesn't hurt to share.)
Re: "Read it on Readup" - Again, great point. It should be read with Readup. To clarify, you're always reading on the publisher's site. It would be a crazy violation of copyright if we copied the article text into our web app for you to read on readup.com. That's why we need the extension, to inject the tracker into the publisher's article pages. Can you tell it's just the two of us an neither of us are designers or UX experts?
> I guess your compromise may be okay, but it's certainly rather crude (not that I have a better idea).
Haha 100% agree. One day, maybe a reading speed calibration during new user onboarding? As you pointed out though, speed varies even for an individual depending on what kind of content they are reading.
> Btw, Safari 14 is adding WebExtension API support. (You're probably already aware of this but doesn't hurt to share.)
Wow, I was not aware! This is awesome! Thank you for sharing.
The economics very well could work at a different split! We chose a 50/50 split because we estimated that we could grow and survive on $5/mo per user. We're 100% open to shifting that split and plan on making all the economics transparent to users so they know where their money is going, both the cut that we take and how the writer take is split up.
We don't want to over-promise on the revenue share at the beginning because we've got 3 key promises that we never want to compromise on but do limit us somewhat financially:
- Absolutely no advertising.
- Absolutely no selling/sharing of user data, even in aggregate or "anonymized".
- Reach profitability ASAP so we don't have to fund raise endlessly and lose control of the company.
The value-add for the supply-side is that you'd be getting paid when Readup users read your free articles on your own platform (like I just did with this article). We're sharing our revenue with you, not the other way around!
Glad you like the completion filter! I've found myself reading articles just so I could leave a comment about how much I disagreed with the headline only to have my mind changed half way through. Taking the time to read really matters!
You should charge through another platform! There's nothing exclusive about the relationship that we want to have with writers. As long as you're producing any content that is a) freely available and b) worth reading we want it surfaced to our community of readers and we want to compensate you on a per-read basis for it.
The writer compensation is both a value prop for our users (it's the #1 reason that users say they would want to pay for a Readup subscription) and a growth mechanism for us since some writers will have an incentive to tell their readers to read them on Readup. We think that initially writers who have a non-existent or small subscription base would be most inclined to want to promote Readup to their readers but that should scale up as we grow.
Yup! Essentially a premium "social reading" experience. Sounds kinda like marketing speak but it really is both a reading app and a social network that's powered by the reading activity of its members. The idea of having half of your subscription allocated to tipping the writers of the articles you've completed is also an incentive for readers (a powerful one based on the user surveys we've done).
I really appreciate the honest feedback. Also sorry for kind of blowing up this thread with all my replies but I'm pleasantly surprised that some other people were interested in checking it out and asking questions as well!
No, writers do not opt in. The Readup extensions and mobile apps work on articles that are freely available on the internet. Writers do not have to share their premium subscription-only content with us or do anything differently. The Readup extensions and mobile apps work similarly to other "reader mode" utilities except that we track reading progress on a word-by-word level and we want to pay writers when users actually read their articles to completion. Please see my reply to @bgroat regarding the 50/50 split.
That doesn't feel great. Telling creators that people are paying you for their work but they have to create an account to get paid feels shady. Do you make it clear when something I read is from a creator who has signed up and therefore will be paid?
If one of your users were to read something I published, would they see it exactly as they would if they visited directly? Same ads, same layout? Will the reader look any different to me as far as my analytics go?
Edit: Also, how do you manage abiding by all the crazy terms and conditions on different sites? For example, on your homepage is a link to an Atlantic article and their terms and conditions prohibit the use of their RSS feed for commercial reasons or selling access to their site. Do you have a deal with the Atlantic? Have they signed up with you?
> That doesn't feel great. Telling creators that people are paying you for their work but they have to create an account to get paid feels shady.
I get that, but isn't it better than paying for a utility like Pocket or Instapaper that strips ads from writers' articles and doesn't offer them any compensation? Those companies aren't asking writers to opt-in to that. We're trying to do the right thing in a financially sustainable way.
Also just to be clear, writers won't be required to sign up for a paid Readup subscription in order to collect their revenue share. If they don't want to use the platform they can just verify with us via email.
> Do you make it clear when something I read is from a creator who has signed up and therefore will be paid?
Yes! There will absolutely be some sort of "blue checkmark" verification indicator. (To be clear we have not yet started charging users. We're still in the building stage!)
> If one of your users were to read something I published, would they see it exactly as they would if they visited directly? Same ads, same layout? Will the reader look any different to me as far as my analytics go?
On the browser: Initially yes, before activating the extension which will strip ads and enter the "reader mode" layout.
> Also, how do you manage abiding by all the crazy terms and conditions on different sites? For example, on your homepage is a link to an Atlantic article and their terms and conditions prohibit the use of their RSS feed for commercial reasons or selling access to their site. Do you have a deal with the Atlantic? Have they signed up with you?
We don't crawl any publisher websites or use their RSS feeds. All article curation on our site is crowdsourced from our users - 100% organic human spidering. We just track their reading progress and use that data to rank the articles so that everyone can find the best content. We'd love to eventually partner with publishers but especially larger ones probably won't want to talk to us until we have millions of paying users and can offer them a significant revenue share.
Possibly! I'm not sure if writers who write for a publisher like The Atlantic would be able to claim any sort of compensation for something that I imagine the publisher owns the rights to. But on the other hand, it's kind of like a tip from the readers to the writer for writing a good article so would that be allowed?
Lots of questions here, but as I stated in another answer on the topic we're committed to keeping all payments open and transparent. This can only work if everyone has insight into who's getting money for what.
I'm not sure I understand. If we had paying subscribers that were reading your content and we reached out to you and you didn't want anything to do with us we would certainly respect that and not bother you again.
The only way to prevent our users from reading your articles though would be to require some sort of authentication to access them. Same way you block anyone from accessing your content through any web browser or extension.
1. You are taking money directly from customers
2. To serve content that you do not have the right to sell access to.
> If we had paying subscribers that were reading your content and we reached out to you
That sounds like a lot of ifs. It sounds like you're making money directly off access to my content which makes me deeply uncomfortable. If you reach out to me, and you're unsuccessful in contacting me, you're still making money directly off my content whether I chose to monetize it or not.
2. No. We are not serving content. The user's device makes a GET request to your server and you serve the content. Readup just displays the metadata and a link to the article just like reddit or Hacker News.
I've also had the idea of creating a site which restricts users to having read the article. So, I'm excited about your project.
1) You mention a paywall, but your video says that users who sign-up before paywall stay in forever. You honoring that (the video was posted 5 days ago)? I see that the median comment count on your site is about 3 so I should hope so
2) How exactly are you paying these authors? We can post articles from anyone and then trust you're able to get in contact with them and hand them their money?
1. Yes, we are honoring that! It's a reward for being an early adopter and it's important to keep the community "starter culture" intact as we move to a paid membership model.
2. We don't want you to have to trust us. That information will be transparent. Check out our current writers leaderboard  as a prototype of how that will look. Minutes reading to completion is our basis for payments to writers so you can imagine a pie chart on your account page that shows who your $5 went to for that month in addition to a community-wide distribution that would look similar to the current leaderboards.
As you can imagine there will be cases where we can't get in touch with writers or they're not interested or something like that. We'll probably have to have some sort of time-out period where the uncollected funds might be reallocated to writers who have verified with us or something of that sort. The important thing is that we're committed to making these rules and decisions transparent.
Why is there no tagging or other organization (besides per author)? Skimming through the frontpage I either have no idea what an article is about or it appears to be some lowest-common-denominator politics article. With reddit I can go read my niche subreddits with topics I actually care about (yeah, I know you don't have enough users to replace this quite yet, but still). With no other hooks for following my interests I feel like this is still abusable with clickbait titles.
Could you have like moderator-written abstracts for the AOTDs, at least? Even better would be an abstract for every article (not sure how you would accomplish this)
> Why is there no tagging or other organization (besides per author)?
The only reason is because I'm the only developer and simply haven't had time to build it yet! In fact right now I'm working on a new "Discover" screen that will allow filtering by publisher and topic. We gather "tag" and "description" metadata for articles even though it isn't currently displayed in the UI.
> With no other hooks for following my interests I feel like this is still abusable with clickbait titles.
It's not a perfect filter by any means, but keep in mind that even if an article title looks like clickbait it will only rank highly if users are finishing it so the real garbage usually doesn't float up since people chose to abandon those articles. Again, not perfect by any means but it is something to consider if an article is more than a few minutes long and has a lot of reads on it.
> Could you have like moderator-written abstracts for the AOTDs, at least?
Yes! When the AOTD email goes out (midnight PST every night) it includes the "description" metadata provided by the publisher if present (seems to be available about 90% of the time). We should definitely show that in the UI on the web app too for the AOTD at least (and maybe have some expandable toggle to show it for other articles).
> The only reason is because I'm the only developer and simply haven't had time to build it yet!
I see you're using React on the frontend. And, you only have an iOS app but not (yet) an Android app. Are you not using React Native? In that case it's fairly easy to target both platforms. I know RN is a bit of a shitshow but not supporting the biggest mobile platform in the world is arguably worse
> We gather "tag" and "description" metadata for articles even though it isn't currently displayed in the UI.
If you're taking this metadata directly from the articles I'm skeptical about the accuracy/completeness. Anyway, it's better than nothing I guess
> It's not a perfect filter by any means, but keep in mind that even if an article title looks like clickbait it will only rank highly if users are finishing it
This is something, but still high-quality articles with clickbait titles will outcompete high-quality articles without clickbait titles. Incentive still being: write clickbait titles. Anyway, if someone is 0.25x as likely to finish a bad article having clicked it, but 10x more likely to click a clickbait article, you still have a major problem beyond "not perfect", imo
I know it's a big ask for you to solve every single problem with online reading/discussion but this one is so tangled with the rest it's kinda hard to ignore.
Today's AOTD: "If Everyone Else is Such an Idiot, How Come You're Not Rich?"
From the past few weeks, some selections:
- "Meet the social media echo chamber that is radicalizing you & your friends. - Alexa Rohn"
- "Racism Is Terrible. Blackness Is Not."
- "A White Woman, Racism and a Poodle"
- "The American Press Is Destroying Itself"
- "Dear Fuck Up: How Do I Figure Out What I Want in Life When Every Day Feels the Same?"
- "You Should Be Feeling Miserable"
- "Tom Cotton: Send In the Military"
- "The Sickness in Our Food Supply"
I'm sure some of these are great, but be honest: did the title have anything to do with people clicking through?
You weren't kidding about being dialed in on this space!
> Are you not using React Native?
Not even! Our iOS app just uses WKWebViews for the main UI so yes it would be pretty trivial to do the same thing on Android. Only excuse is that it's in our backlog with 100 other things that we also really want to build.
> If you're taking this metadata directly from the articles I'm skeptical about the accuracy/completeness.
Haha yes, it's an absolute clusterfuck that I'm currently trying to clean up enough to make useful. The descriptions are usually actually pretty solid, but there is so much noise in the tags/topics.
> This is something, but still high-quality articles with clickbait titles will outcompete high-quality articles without clickbait titles.
Yes, yes, yes! I think providing more context in the way of the description could help to cut down on this, but you're very right that there is no easy or complete fix (at least not that I can imagine!). Something else to think about would be looking at the ratio of clicks to completions instead of just the sum of completions alone. That way in your example the 10x likelihood of a click could be cancelled out by the low 0.25x completion rate.
I'm planning to launch a newsletter soon for a site I own that gets a moderately decent amount of traffic. Here is a snippet of some handy things I've found:
The cost of sending email is a lot on some platforms (Mailchimp is $30/month for 2500 subscribers and $50/month for 5000 subs), but a lot cheaper with Mailgun or Amazon SES. Sendy  and Mailcoach  are both self-hosted newsletter sending apps that use Mailgun/SES if you want to DIY.
There is a handy blog post  from the creator of cron.weekly on his newsletter workflow.
Don't put "weekly" in the newsletter name because then you're really setting that weekly expectation. At some point, you might not want to be publishing weekly unless you've got some serious automation happening.
There are some interesting ideas on newsletter businesses on gaps.com . A year ago I thought that a newsletter should link to my own content. But now? Many, many newsletters are link aggregators.
Note: do not attempt to use something a low-level as SES to send newsletters unless you understand all the plumbing that has to be built around it (unsubscribe/opt-out, bounce handling, click tracking, IP pools, DKIM/SPF, etc). This especially applies if your list is low-quality or old.
I’d be interested to see if the author will get as much exposure to new potential subscribers without a platform like Substack of Medium promoting it. IMO, it’s always been the community aspect of these platforms that keep the authors locked in rather than the technical difficulties of setting up your own website.
As a consumer, I actually think this approach is great. I think a lot of the issues platforms deal with in terms of making hard decisions around content standards comes down to the fact that they put things in front of the user, and therefore have some responsibility for what you see.
I think the only way you can really have a true "free speech" platform is to make it entirely self-serve. As soon as there is algorithmic content discovery, bad actors will attempt to game it to get their ideas in front of people.
If I'm trying to BUILD an audience, I'm going to write content for free. If I already have a website I post content on, you bet I'm going to keep posting my free content there. Why am I competing with Substack on SEO for my own free content? That's just stupid.
Eventually, if I actually get an audience that's willing to pay, I would use Substack to offer that walled garden. Just like Youtube creators offer their free content on Youtube, and paid content through other means like Patreon.
Even Medium supports canonical URLs. I'm not sure why Substack isn't satisfied with being the distributor of my content, but also wants to be the home for it.
That was one of the reasons I decided to go with my own platform. But Substack is not like Medium because it provides less discovery and more of a platform for writers. Medium, on the other hand, is more like an aggregator.
I was glad to see the canonical URL issue mentioned in your post, since that was the main thing bugging me about Substack. Thanks for writing this!
When I sent Substack Support an email about the issues of content ownership and canonical URLs in late May this year, I got this response:
>On Substack writers own all of their content, but we don't support synchronizing with external website or have external websites as the canonical url. Substack is meant to be the home for individual writers. Sorry about that
I love many things about Substack. Chiefly, the user experience of setting up the newsletters, and the iframe embed (though it can be improved) are great.
But I hope Substack reconsiders what their idea of being a "home for individual writers" means. Substack shouldn't have to be the source of my content, but rather be the plumbing for it. It seems not supporting custom canonical URLs was a conscious decision to force me to make Substack the source of my content, which is disappointing.
I'll have to look into ConvertKit in the meantime.
I'm surprised Substack's business model is charging ~10% from one's revenue. A fixed pricing would make more sense. Why would anyone who is planning on profiting from their newsletter would go with a deal like that? Building a newsletter site these days is a pretty simple task with many no code solutions. I'm not saying what Substack provides is not worth paying for, just that it's a bad deal for people with successful newsletters that generate money, and a good deal for everyone else. But the former users are the ones Substack need in order to make money.
They're charging "ad valorem" -- relative to the value received. The value that a Substack user with 4000 subscribers receives isn't the same as what someone with 50 subscribers receives. This is a very common fee structure that exists across industries.
The fact it's a common fee structure that exists across industries doesn't mean it makes sense for Substack. And I wouldn't call 10% standard. Most companies I know of, take Stripe for example, charge much smaller fees percentage wise and rely on high volume transactions.
Maybe a better example I can think of is a referral site. Maybe a site like Kayak can charge Marriott 10% each time they refer someone who books a room. If that room wouldn't be booked otherwise it's probably a good deal for Marriott. Substack does help with discoverability, and that's probably where their main value is (similar to FB, Instagram, etc), but the problem is that unlike the Marriott example, the fee is not a one time payment.
And you think Substack can achieve the same high volume as Stripe does?
> Substack does help with discoverability, and that's probably where their main value is (similar to FB, Instagram, etc), but the problem is that unlike the Marriott example, the fee is not a one time payment.
No, they also provide the platform, the tools, the analytics. They are not just an aggregator. Also, Marriott has to pay for every transaction, just like someone using Substack. You pay per transaction.
> No, they also provide the platform, the tools, the analytics
Maybe I'm in a bubble but I don't see it as their main value for successful users who make money from their newsletter. I've setup a newsletter with analytics a few weeks ago without writing a single line of code and with a fixed cost (and custom domain...). Yes, starting with Substack is cheaper to start with but long term it'll cost you).
> Marriott has to pay for every transaction, just like someone using Substack. You pay per transaction.
I guess I'm not familiar enough with Substack. What does it mean you pay per transaction? It's a newsletter - you make money from paying subscribers who pay monthly let's say. Are you saying Substack users pay per email sent to their paying subscribers?
> No, I was referring to the whole Marriott thing. If you book a Marriott hotel with an aggregator (like Kayak), Marriott has to pay for that booking. If you do it the next week again, Marriott has to pay again.
> Substack fees work the same, you pay a fee to Substack whenever a person renews (transaction).
> So to make the loop back, no the Kayak example works the same way as Substack does.
Replying here since HN doesn't let me reply to the comment directly (probably reached the max number of nested replies).
I now understand your example but I disagree with it. A newsletter, unlike a hotel, relies on a small number of paying users who are likely to renew their membership. Many even pay for annual membership. The main cost is finding a new paying user. Once the user is subscribed it's the newsletter's job to keep that user paying. Marriott pays Kayak only for new users. Next time the user can book a room via the Marriott site. It doesn't need to keep paying Kayak for life every-time that user books a room.
> Are you saying Substack users pay per email sent to their paying subscribers?
No, I was referring to the whole Marriott thing. If you book a Marriott hotel with an aggregator (like Kayak), Marriott has to pay for that booking. If you do it the next week again, Marriott has to pay again.
Substack fees work the same, you pay a fee to Substack whenever a person renews (transaction).
So to make the loop back, no the Kayak example works the same way as Substack does. It just happens to be the case, that customer retention is higher with Substack (or lower-cost transactions in general)
Maybe I don't understand how the fee structure works, but if it's a percentage that doesn't feel very equitable.
If I launch a paid newsletter with one reader, I'm getting a lot of value from the platform. Once I gain a second reader the platform isn't doing twice as much for me. It's gone up a smaller, incremental amount.
That's the catch. It's easy to start and experiment. But as you grow bigger you start realizing it's a bad deal so may start looking for alternatives. That's bad for Substack since why would you like your most successful users to be unhappy? A better model IMHO would be a fixed tiered price based on the number of subscribers you have, similarly to how most email providers' business model work. For most users it wouldn't be cheaper than 10%, but for the top X of users it would. Having a fixed cost you can plan in advance for is more attractive IMHO.