With Substack sinking even deeper into the right-wing fascist pits (see #58), I think it’s time to look for alternatives. It’s not a manner of judging anyone for using Substack, it’s indeed a powerful network, and growth is probably easier there than anywhere else for aspiring newsletter writers, but the company aren’t doing nice things. They’re empowering, and promoting, content and writers that sound people wouldn’t poke with a stick.
This isn’t anything new, it just bubbled up again recently. I started Switch to iPad on Substack because it was easy. Later, I left Substack for two reasons:
- I didn’t want to give them such a big cut of my earnings.
- They promoted evil things.
Moving was a hassle, but thanks to the good folks at Memberful, it went okay. Leaving Substack was the right decision for me, although I think I might’ve gotten better traction for less effort with all the new tools they have, for recommendations and the like. I still get sign-ups there, despite Switch to iPad not being on Substack as of, well, years now. (Switch to iPad is, of course, sunsetted.)
If you want to move from Substack, consider the ramifications, and consult whatever service or solution you’re moving to. The most important thing to do is to make sure that your subscribers, if you have any paying you, won’t get billed double. Substack relies on Stripe, which you'll have your own account with, so moving is theoretically simple, but there might be situations where things could go wrong and you’d be doing a whole lot of refunding. Tread carefully.
Other than that, know that unless you’ve paid for a custom domain (as I did with Switch to iPad), all your links will point to your Substack archives. If that is the case, update each and every one of those posts with a link to its new destination.
Because yes, you obviously need to move your archives to a new place. Not doing so would be a bad idea. That likely involves a bunch of copy and pasting, but unless you have hundreds of letters on Substack, it shouldn’t be such a chore. See it as an opportunity to learn your new platform, that’ll be a positive at least. But yeah, this part is boring.
Finally, when everything’s in place, make sure you export all the subscribers, taking care to keep various tiers separated, and import into your new platform.
Moving from any kind of service tends to be a hassle. Substack is very much a closed platform, but thanks to the fact that they’re using Stripe, you’ll at least have a shot at getting set up on a better place.
Now, the big question is, where do you move?
Alternatives to Substack
There are plenty of alternatives to Substack, but they differ depending on what you were, in fact, using Substack for.
The Substack Notes feature is an outlier here. It was probably meant to be a stab at then-Twitter-now-dumpster-fire-X, but it’s nowhere near that kind of action. Creator dudes will no doubt sing X’s praise still, but what you need to concern yourself with is where your audience might be, and less with what’s the social platform of the hour. Notes does have the added bonus that it further kept people inside of the Substack ecosystem, which could potentially get you more followers and subscribers. There’s no real equivalent to that below, but on the other hand, Notes isn’t a real alternative to social media promotion anyway, so the weight you put on that feature will surely wary.
The following recommendations are not paid for in any way.
You're running a newsletter on Substack
The typical Substack used to be a newsletter with a free and paid tier. That has changed as Substack has become more akin to a blog with a newsletter feature.
However, if you do run a typical newsletter with one or more tiers, then there are plenty of alternatives.
- Buttondown / I use Buttondown for the weekly Bored Horse essay newsletter, and I like it a lot. It’s barebones, so if you like that sort of thing, then I urge you to take a look. Also, founder Justin is a nice guy. Buttondown has support for paid subscriptions, automations, basic styling of your emails, and a bunch of other things, but it's not as full-fledged as some of the newsletter services it competes with.
- Ghost / The closest thing you can get to Substack would be Ghost. It’s a site and newsletter, all in one, and the default themes (yes, there are themes) replicate Substack well enough, sans the Notes feature. Ghost is open source and available for free, but if you don’t want that hassle, there’s a hosted Ghost(Pro) service too. This is one of the most flexible alternatives, ready for your own domain, so if you’re willing to spend a little money, I recommend checking out Ghost.
- Convertkit / If you’re into all kinds of digital products and subscriptions, with great support for automations, then Convertkit is for you. I use it for Considering today, which (in its current state) consists of a series of emails per season, which will be delivered to subscribers on a defined schedule from their signup. Convertkit is also dabbling with a community feature as well as an ad network if you’ve got the subscriber numbers. It’s a slightly different approach, but you could definitely replace Substack with Convertkit if you wanted to.
- MailerLite / The Convertkit lingo might be a bit off for you, or you just want something more akin to a typical newsletter provider, then MailerLite is a good choice. This is what I used, in conjunction with Memberful, to manage Switch to iPad. You could technically send paid emails via Memberful, but they have an upper limit for that, so it’s recommended to use any of their integration partners, such as MailerLite.
You run a site on Substack
As previously discussed, Substack has come a long way from being just newsletters. You could run a proper site there, and many publications are. In a way, it’s Medium with newsletters tacked on, these days.
Leaving Substack for another option if this is the case for you will almost always be positive. It’s not like you have a lot of options to make Substack your own, whereas a more suited solution could be more or less limitless.
- Ghost / Ghost is yet again a great alternative. Out of the box, it’s very akin to Substack of today, but one look at the theme marketplace and you’ll see that you could roll just about anything on there, with very little money up front. If you wanted to, you could hire a designer to create your own theme, or even self-host Ghost. It’s better in every way but the cost. On the other hand, if you have paying subscribers, you won’t give Substack their substantial cut.
- WordPress / The world’s biggest CMS by far, WordPress, can obviously outdo Substack in every possible way in terms of features and freedom. You could self-host, or rely on WordPress.com or any of the other managed alternatives. You’d need to tack on the actual sending of emails though, but just about every newsletter provider out there integrates with WordPress easily, so that’s not a big deal. What might require a bit more is knowing how to charge for subscriptions and lock down content for paying subscribers only. You could use Memberful, like I did with Switch to iPad, which solves it for you, or you could build your own. It’s not as plug and play as Ghost, but it has more options, and you could find solutions that cost less per month.
Or, you know, you could go nuts and just do it all yourself, if you’re familiar with web development.
Look, I’m not going to tell you to leave Substack. It’s scary to switch services, and things can go wrong. I still subscribe to Substacks, although I don’t pay for any anymore. I might not ever again, we’ll see. It feels good not to give money to that company, is what I’m saying.
If I was starting out today, and I didn’t have a background as a designer and developer, I’d probably go with Ghost. It gives you a site, which is your archive, and it’s easy to get started with. Also, and I can’t stress this enough, make sure you register a domain name. That way, moving elsewhere or pivoting won’t mean starting from scratch again. Own your online presence, always.
I hope this helps. Feel free to reach out if you have anything to add, questions, or thoughts overall.