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Jan 12, 2022

Blogging on Substack

Newsletter darling Substack, where people with large followings go to charge you for newsletters, is starting to resemble a blogging platform. Actually, scratch that, it’s been resembling a blogging platform for quite some time, but the new magazine layout option really brings it home. The feature, which some publications have had access to for a while already, is now widely available, and it’s clearly something put out there to combat the urge to move to platforms like Ghost or WordPress. I enabled it for Switch to iPad, my newsletter (and stand-alone site) about using iPad, and I must say that it’s an improvement.

Newsletters aren’t for everyone, at least not when it’s newsletter first, website second, so this move makes sense for Substack. The service is free to use, although they will charge you a $50 one-time fee if you want to connect your domain name, something I did for Switch to iPad, and I’d urge you to do if you’re serious about publishing. After all, you never know when you’d be forced to move from Substack, due to them shutting down, being bought by someone you’d rather not be in business with, or even starts charging you for using the service. Or, you know, maybe they’ll just turn evil, it’s happened in the past, and Substack themselves aren’t without controversy. Services like this are used by all sorts of people, free speech and all that, and you’ll most likely find large publications that are evil garbage on there. That’s the problem with using any hosted service, obviously — you can’t control who’s on there. Either way, having your domain name means that you can move elsewhere, should you want to, without losing linked traffic.

As mentioned, I use Substack for Switch to iPad, and I complement this with a stand-alone site. I’m not a fan of platform lock-in, but getting started with Substack was just so easy. Not all newsletters sent through there are free, though, which is where Substack makes money (they take 10%). This means that I have paying customers, which makes it troublesome to move to another provider. It’s possible, but it’s a bit of a mess. At some point, I probably will, I’d much rather host all those issues (about two novels' worth of content) on a site of my own, and while 10% isn’t all that much, it’d be a lot less if I managed subscriptions myself, through Stripe. The problem is moving away, I’m reluctant to do so because of said subscriptions.

This recent move by Substack, the magazine layout and making it more about what you publish, and link to, online, and perhaps less about sending newsletters, does ask whether this is a good platform for blogging? After all, WordPress, the original blogging behemoth, is downright overkill for regular blogging, with all its features, bells, and whistles. It’s a great content management system, for sure, but for blogging, I’d prefer something tighter. That’s why I’ve gone with Astro for Bored Horse, but that’s obviously a developer’s choice, not something I’d recommend unless you felt comfortable with code. There are paid services, like Ghost, but starting for free is of course something many people would like to do. Tumblr, somewhat recently acquired by owner Automattic, might be an option, but that does seem pretty old and stale these days, doesn’t it? And has the same issues as WordPress itself, meaning that it feels so damn much, when all you want to do is write blog posts. Then there’s Medium, but their business model is iffy and unreliable, and, well, there’s more, obviously, but going down this road, you’ll end up at Substack sooner or later.

And, I guess, that’s fine. Just make sure you’re ready to move from Substack, should you have to. This is true for all third-party hosted platforms. Connect a domain name of your own, make sure you can export (or otherwise easily copy) your data, and you’re good to go. You get the feature of being able to send your posts as newsletters as well, which is nice. It’s hard to compete with the feature set, and even harder on price (although that one-time domain fee is ridiculously high). So, blogging is good, thus blogging with Substack must be good as well. Just think it through from the beginning, as I wish I’d done with Switch to iPad. Because the moment you charge money, you’re not just locked-in by your promise to your customers, you’re also pretty tied to your platform of choice.

For transparency: Bored Horse uses Revue, a Substack competitor owned by Twitter. I picked that one because it embeds so nicely on your Twitter profile, but ultimately, I’m pretty sure I’ll move to something with a little more control. That’s a different matter, though.