Substack and Medium
Two approaches to building communities for writers online.
If you receive my posts via email, you’re now getting them through Substack. Nothing should substantially change, but they’ll look a little different.
This is the fourth newsletter platform I’ve used for my writing: MailChimp, ConvertKit, and Buttondown all preceded it. This new change - which, let’s be clear, is an experiment - is already a little different. That’s because, unlike the others, Substack is more of a social network than a newsletter platform whose main competitor is very clearly Medium.
(Worth declaring: I worked at Medium from 2016-2017 and consider its current CEO Tony Stubblebine to be a friend. I’ve also been publicly critical of Substack’s laissez-faire editorial strategy.)
Substack’s main draws are very similar to Medium’s: you can make money from your writing; it will provide a beautiful, easy-to-use interface; it will find you readers. The mechanics of how it does that are different, though, and worth thinking about in the context of social network design.
First, the money.
This is the big carrot for new writers. (Content from my website will remain free, by the way.) Medium sets you up with the partner network: subscribers pay a flat $5 a month through its site. Funds are then allocated based on the fraction of each paying user’s attention you attract.
That means you can work on a big piece of writing that you think will attract a lot of attention and get paid for it without a lot of business preparation. Medium’s paywall is leaky, so non-members will be able to read and help to promote it.
While Medium’s financial model is content-centric, Substack’s is personality-based. Readers opt in to subscribe to a publisher, just as they would any newsletter. But publishers can opt to establish payment tiers that give subscribers access to premium posts if they pay more money. Attention doesn’t come into it: a subscriber either believes you’re worth paying a monthly fee for or they don’t.
The other trick is that, on Substack, publishers have to sign up separately to Stripe in order to gather payments. That means Stripe handles Know Your Customer requirements on behalf of Substack. Between Stripe fees and Substack’s 10% take, the publisher is left with a little over 85% of subscription fees - which is a significantly better deal than many places on the web.
Using revenue as a lens, then, whether you choose Medium or Substack depends on whether you have a following who might pay for your work. If you do great work, or are working on a single, amazing piece of writing, but don’t have a following, Medium is clearly the better choice. If you already have a community or want to put in the work of building a following, Substack might have the edge right now.
Second, the interface.
Medium’s writing interface is still the best, hands down. The attention to detail is superb, from font kerning through to embedding.
Substack’s is more utilitarian, but is still cleanly designed and distraction-free. Because of its email origins, there’s no way it can possibly do some of the fancy embedding tricks that Medium is able to.
I’ve long written using iA Writer no matter where it’s going, but Medium’s interface remains much more enticing to me. There’s also an API and - crucially, excitingly - a way to import posts from your personal blog and have the canonical link set to your blog’s URL. That feature feels specifically built for me, and I love it.
Finally, the community.
Both platforms will find you readers, albeit in different ways.
Again, Medium’s model is content-centric: it will show you posts it thinks you’ll find useful or interesting, no matter who they’re by. The algorithm automatically promotes content inside implicit communities of interest. It will also try and show you content by people you know, however, partially by connecting to your Twitter network.
Substack’s is very personality-focused. It does the same Twitter trick as Medium: your followers from elsewhere who are already on Substack will know about your Substack feed. But it also operates using a system of direct recommendations; every Substack publisher directly suggests other publishers to follow. It’s relationship-based rather than algorithmic: one can imagine asking a publisher if they’d consider recommending you. Medium’s algorithm is more of a black box (because it’s likely being tweaked every day).
Both services now offer a feed. Medium’s, as discussed, is algorithmically-ordered so as to optimize for serendipity: you’ll discover new content you didn’t know you wanted to read. Substack’s is much more like a traditional feed reader, in that you’ll read the latest content from people you’re subscribed to. (In fact, beautifully, it is a feed reader: you can bring your own RSS feeds from elsewhere.) Substack has traditional blog-style comments and hearts; Medium has claps to indicate attention and the concept of stories that follow stories rather than threaded comments. Both have merit, although Substack’s approach is considerably more straightforward.
I don’t: I’m a happy user of both, while also publishing on my own site first in the indieweb tradition. I am, if you’re interested, experimenting with a unique, native Substack about my work writing a book. And you can follow me on Medium.
Moving to a community-based newsletter is strategic for me. I want to continue to build a following so I can share the work I’m doing. Moving away from a straight newsletter platform is also financially beneficial: services like ConvertKit cost real money every month to operate. You can get started on both Medium and Substack for free.