Soft Launch: The Future of Online Publishing
Newsletters, websites, subscription services, and mobile apps are integrating into unified online experiences
The blog is back! Or at least, something that looks like a blog. Newsletters, websites, subscription services, and mobile apps are integrating into unified online experiences that replicate the blog idea, but in a much more sophisticated package. Strangely, it really does seem to be true that everything old is new again — even on the internet. If you don’t believe me, check out my own “Benchmarking America” blog from 2011 for a reminder of what the internet used to look like, courtesy of the folks at Internet Archive:
It looks suspiciously like … a Substack newsletter.
This “soft launch” is my first newsletter to go out via Substack instead of from my former newsletter provider, Mailchimp. Substack’s main selling point is simplicity. They handle the technical side; you provide the content. And content is just about all there is: Substack’s design tools are so basic, they’re practically retro. The 2020s difference is that Substack mails your newsletter, posts it to a blog, hosts your site, manages subscriptions, handles search engine optimization (SEO), provides Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) certification, etc. All you have to do is write — and convince people to subscribe:
Of course, attracting subscribers is only the second hardest part. Even more difficult is convincing them to pay. If you’ve already signed up to pay $50 a year for the Salvatore Babones Newsletter, thank you. You’ll be receiving an e-mail newsletter just about every Friday (starting January 1) and you’ll have full access to the newsletter archives. Thanks to Substack, every newsletter I send out will be converted into a blog post on my website, which $50 subscribers will be able to access anytime. Good going.
If you’re not a paying subscriber, you’ll only receive a “First Friday” newsletter on the first Friday of every month. That’s the Substack model: free content + paid content = everyone dissatisfied. Sorry about that. It’s not nice to hold back on people who care about you. It does, however, prod them to pay.
Substack’s chief competitor is … Patreon. Strangely, no one seems to realize that, not even Substack. When it comes to the internet, people tend to think in terms of functionality, when they should be thinking in terms of function. From a functionality standpoint, Substack seems to be a newsletter platform, competing directly with Mailchimp. But Substack is a terrible newsletter platform. It is so primitive that I can’t even put “terrible” in red colored text, or underline it, or anything. A company could never run a serious e-mail marketing campaign on Substack.
Functionally, however, Substack is a subscription platform, not a newsletter platform. As a subscription platform, it competes directly with Patreon. Yet although it is possible to publish a newsletter in Patreon, it’s not really straightforward: any newsletter you publish using Patreon is structured as a member premium that subscribers receive in recognition of their donations to your account. Patreon offers a much broader, more multifaceted subscription service than Substack, but functionally it’s still in the same world. Substack is thus in effect a specialized Patreon for people who primarily produce textual content. It’s Patreon for authors.
Another potential “Patreon for authors” is Medium, and for authors who just want to publish without all the fuss of building an audience, Medium may be the way to go. But Medium is more like an all-submissions-accepted magazine than a true Patreon-style subscription platform. On Medium, pretty much anyone who wants to publish, can publish. But you only get paid if people up-vote your articles, and as with any traditional publisher, you don’t actually know who your readers are. With Substack, the author becomes the publisher; with Medium, the author is still just an author.
If I were starting an online magazine in 2021, I would start it on Substack. What Substack lacks in design flexibility, it makes up for in systems integration. And although Substack is designed to work as a newsletter publisher, it doesn’t have to be used that way. Individual posts don’t have to be e-mailed to subscribers, so it would be easy enough to run a conventional news website on Substack, e-mailing subscribers a daily or weekly digest with links to recent articles. What’s more, a single Substack site can have multiple contributing authors, each with a personalized profile page. The only thing Substack lacks is auto-publishing to Apple and Android apps, and unless the people who run Substack are very dim indeed, that functionality must be in the works.
Substack even supports podcasting — though no, I’m not starting a podcast … yet.
The boring (ahem, straightforward) design of Substack sites might have been a deal-breaker for online publishing five or ten years ago, but not anymore. These days, most people access news articles via direct search, not by reading them on a website. Back when people actually browsed the internet in their spare time, reading whatever happened to catch their eye(s), good style was crucial for luring them in. Even bad style had a certain appeal. But now that most people experience the internet via Google search, news feeds, and opinion aggregators, content is king. A no-frills website is fine, as long as it delivers the goods.
Speaking of the goods … I know there are some great writers on this newsletter list. If a dozen of you want to get together and start a Substack magazine, just let me know. I’m game to edit it — if any of you can bring in the (paying) subscribers!
And speaking of “paying” subscribers, if you’re not currently one of mine, please do consider subscribing to this newsletter for $50 a year (that’s $1 an issue) by clicking here:
My goal with this preview issue of the Salvatore Babones Newsletter was to offer a behind-the-scenes tour of the mechanics of online publishing, explaining why I moved to Substack and how I expect things to develop in the future. Starting January 1, you’ll be getting the real deal. I’ll be asking (and answering) questions like:
Who will win the tech wars?
What drives Eurasia's geopolitics?
When will India develop?
Where is Australia really?
Why has China stopped growing?
How can Narendra Modi beat Xi Jinping?
Subscribers to the free “First Fridays” edition of the newsletter will see a bit of the action and receive links to all of my published articles from the previous month. Fee-paying “Fifty Fridays” subscribers will have access to more detailed weekly analyses of Indo-Pacific and global affairs. I hope all (many? some?) of you will join me for $50 a year, if for no other reason than to make sure that someone will actually be reading all those weekly articles. That’s a lot of writing for those discerning intellects who are willing to pay for it.
And for those of you who’d really like to make the monkey dance, a $200 “sustaining” subscription will buy you the chance to pitch topics for me to cover in future newsletters!
Thanks everyone for reading … I look forward to writing much more for you in the new year.