10 Reasons Why I'm Publishing My Next Book on Substack
The publishing world is changing, but writers can change too—maybe even for the better
I’m a little like Walter White in the TV show Breaking Bad.
As you may recall, White was a high school chemistry teacher, overqualified and underpaid, who turns to the illegal drug business to pay his bills. In season one, White is still a reasonably decent guy, and we sympathize with his plight. He wants to focus just on the laboratory side of the business, leaving all the nasty downstream distribution problems to his young partner Jesse Pinkman.
That’s me and my writing. I enjoy the creative side of it—every aspect of it. My writer’s nook is my shiny white laboratory. It’s all the messy downstream stuff I prefer to avoid.
Dealing with it is painful and time-consuming. I send a manuscript off to a New York publisher, and it takes another year to get the book in the stores. Or more than a year, in some cases.
And what happens during that year? Oh, I could share stories that would make your blood run cold.
But Ted doesn’t tell tales out of school.
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The key point is, that like Walter White, I’ve learned it’s impossible to avoid getting embroiled in the complexities and competing agendas of downstream activities.
At least until now.
The Internet may be a curse in many regards, but it has given me direct contact with my readers. I cherish that. Things that once took a year now happen instantaneously. Instead of getting feedback from one editor, I learn from thousands of people, many of them very smart with useful things to say. The whole process is energized, streamlined, and turbocharged.
Best of all, I get to stay in the lab—or writer’s library office, in my case—but still have total connectivity with all my readers. Publishing is as simple as pushing a button, and there’s no cartel to worry about.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had great experiences with editors and publishers. I even had one editor (Sheldon Meyer) who was an extraordinary individual, one of the most impressive I’ve met in my life. And I’ve collaborated with many other outstanding people in the publishing business. I’ve worked with them on 15 different books (11 new books plus 4 revised editions) at 6 different publishers over the course of 3 decades, and all parties have benefited from these relationships.
The publishers have done well—all my books are still in print and have, on average, paid off the initial author’s advance four times over—so they have nothing to complain about. And I’ve definitely gained from access to their know-how and downstream distribution expertise. Those smart folks in New York have been my Jesse Pinkman, yet even more on-the-ball and reliable.
Alas, the New York publishing world has changed, and not for the better.
The indie publishing business has almost completely disappeared. For decades now, large publishers have swallowed up small publishers. It’s gotten so bad that the Department of Justice had to file an antitrust suit to prevent the acquisition of Simon & Schuster by Penguin Random House.
Here’s what merging those two publishers would do. The combined Penguin and Random House is on the left, the next 21 publishers are on the right.
Can you see what I’m saying?
I still have cordial relationships with those big four publishers. Just a few days ago, an editor at one of them reached out to me about writing a book for his imprint. But I declined, because it wouldn’t have been the right move for me.
But it’s more than just me. This kind of concentration of power can’t be healthy for other writers—or for readers. Or for our culture at large.
And as publishing becomes more monolithic, the process of writing a book changes—sometimes in awkward or even disturbing ways. I said above that I wouldn’t tell tales out of school, and I won’t. But let me simply note the dizzying rise of teams and committees and Zoom meetings in publishing—so many stakeholders with so many competing agendas—and too many crucial decisions made after a group discussion of five minutes. I’m sure the pandemic contributed to this, but the groundwork had already been laid in the previous decade.
Nowadays the team not only judges your book but your entire life—spelled out in the morality clause now inserted in many book contracts. The Author’s Guild is protesting, and for good reason. The wording is extremely vague—and leaves me wondering whether Hunter Thompson or Allen Ginsberg or Anaïs Nin or James Baldwin (or Baudelaire or Wilde or Dostoevsky in an earlier day) could have confidently accepted a book deal with such vague threats hanging over their head. Hey, can the team provide me with a clear definition of moral turpitude? But the penalties are crystal clear. Not only can the team terminate your contract, but can also demand you repay your advance—which might cause problems if, like most writers, you have already used it to pay your rent.
When I was publishing my first three books, I never heard once about what the team decided. My editor had my trust and vice versa. We worked together closely as individuals on every issue, from writing to marketing, even down to the tiniest details. I knew publishing was a business, even back then, but it didn’t feel like one. That started to change in the new millennium, and every aspect of that downstream process became more acutely corporatized.
Fortunately, the rest of the world has changed too, especially technology. And authors have options that didn’t exist years ago. Or, in some instances, they have options that didn’t even exist just a few months ago.
Substack is one of those options.
So I’ve decided to publish my next book on Substack. Maybe I’ll later do a deal with a traditional publisher to issue physical books, but I’ll worry about that in good time. (That’s the downstream stuff and, blessedly, I can defer all that for now).
My subscribers will receive the book in installments. And I will continue to do lots of other articles too—so this is a plus for them. What they call a lagniappe in New Orleans. I hope and expect to pick up more paid subscribers, so I benefit too.
Below I’m listing the 10 reasons why I made this decision. I offer them as a checklist for other authors considering a similar move.
But first let me share the title of my new book.
This is breakthrough research, and it not only tells you extraordinary things about the origins of our music and culture, but it’s also a guide to how music can transform lives and communities today.
I’m very excited about this book, and have to restrain myself from talking more about it now. But I’ll provide more details (and the first installment) soon enough.
For the time being, I’ll limit myself to sharing the chapter titles. The book is every bit as surprising and wide-ranging as the titles might suggest. On almost every page you will discover something you’ve never encountered anywhere else.
I expect to publish at least one chapter every month on Substack, alongside my other articles. I would prefer to send the chapters to all subscribers, paid or unpaid. That’s my current hope—but I need a sufficient number of generous readers to take out a paid subscription to make that possible.
Consider this my equivalent of pledge week. In other words, your support can make it possible for everyone to enjoy this project, and the other offerings from The Honest Broker.
So let me insert one of those subscription buttons here.
And now here’s the checklist of ten reasons why authors should consider publishing their books on Substack.
10 REASONS TO PUBLISH A BOOK ON SUBSTACK
(1) Substack is an accelerating platform:
A few days ago, I had a chance to sit down with Substack’s founders while they were visiting Austin. I told them that I was initially skeptical about the platform, but a moment arrived when I finally grasped the way Substack empowered me.
“What made the difference for you?” CEO Chris Best asked.
“The lightbulb went on when I saw that Substack was an accelerating platform,” I replied. “I initially thought that I would gain some early subscribers and then growth would flatten. In fact, the opposite occurred—my subscriber growth and impact have accelerated over time. I had no idea this would happen, or in such a dramatic way.”
I started out on Substack attracting around one thousand new subscribers per month. But within a short while I was gaining around one thousand subscribers per week. In other words, not only do I continue to gain an audience on the platform, but the pace at which it grows gets faster and faster all the time.
Below is a mind-blowing chart. A few months ago, I would have told you that the best decision I made in expanding my audience was getting into direct contact with my readers on Twitter. But check out this comparison between my Twitter followers and Substack subscribers.
Here are three observations:
It took me eight years to reach via Twitter the audience Substack got me in just a few months;
Publishing on Substack turbocharged my audience on every social media platform (and visibility in traditional outlets too); but…
My Substack audience is growing five times faster than my Twitter presence, which was already expanding rapidly, but not at the post-Substack rate.
This is not a small thing. There’s a huge difference being on an accelerating platform versus a flattening or shrinking one. But most media people rarely (or never) experience it—the audience for almost every media outlet has flattened or declined in recent years.
As a result, I will reach 50,000 total Substack subsribers within the next several months, and probably surpass 100,000 sometime next year. In other words, I will soon have a larger subscription presence as a freelancer on Substack than many magazines enjoy after decades.
This is genuinely a game-changer for writers. Especially for someone like me, who (according to several experienced NY editors) writes articles that are poorly suited for commercial success—they are too long, too dense, too strange.
But the numbers don’t lie. I always believed there were readers who didn’t want writing downsized or dumbed down. And now I see it confirmed in the metrics every day.
I get some credit for all this. But the larger truth is that Substack is an accelerating platform for writing. There aren’t many of these, and I may have stumbled upon the best of them all.
(2) The money is better:
It’s shameful to talk about this, but even Walter White had to pay attention to accounting. Substack only retains 10% of subscription revenues. Authors keeps 90% (minus some tiny transaction fees). That’s almost the exact opposite of a traditional publishing deal.
I like math, so let me calculate the payoff. If we make some reasonable assumptions, an author can generate the equivalent of a $100,000 publishing advance with fewer than a thousand new paid subscribers.
Did that catch your attention?
To be more precise, the number of breakeven new paid subscribers to reach that six-figure level is actually 901.
Here’s how I arrived at that:
Many of my readers are active in the music world, and might wonder how this compares to the way musicians are paid. I’m glad you asked that. Here’s a quick summary, from a recent analysis by Billboard.
That’s quite a contrast between business models—one provides the creator with 90%, the other with 16%. (And let me give three cheers for Bandcamp at this point, which has a payout model for music similar to Substack’s.) I suspect this approach will spread further, not just in publishing and music but other fields where creative professionals have been locked into trickle-down formulas of this sort.
(3) Translation and audiobook rights are mine:
Previously I shared these revenues with my publisher. If I publish myself on Substack, I retain 100% of all these rights and revenues. There are a bunch of other income streams (book club revenues, etc.), which I’ll skip over here, but also won’t have to be shared.
(4) I can still sell physical book rights:
Publishing on Substack doesn’t prevent me from subsequently releasing a physical book with a traditional publisher. I can even refer you to case studies of books achieving a larger audience in print because they first found readers online. So I’m not foreclosing any other options by publishing on Substack.
I note that it’s not quite so easy working in the opposite direction. Try telling a big commercial publisher that you want to share your book for free online after they have released it in print, and just see what happens. But the beauty of the Substack model is that I can do whatever I want with the text after publishing on the platform—I can remove the book from Substack, or put it behind their paywall, or license it, or change the font to Comic Sans, or anything else I fancy.
(5) Speed to market is much, much faster:
I no longer lose a year, as invariably happens when dealing with a mainstream publisher. I find that attractive in itself, even without considering all the many ways that time is money. But if I dug into the details, I could certainly show how the shortening of time-to-market has many positive financial ramifications for the author. Yet even if we only consider the psychological benefit of faster publishing, this is a big positive for me.
(6) I have more direct contact with my readers
This is an intangible, but it’s a very important consideration for me. I will get direct feedback from thousands of smart people. This leads to the next advantage. . . .
(7) I can improve the book after getting feedback from readers:
I can fix a mistake on Substack in a few seconds. If someone sends me an interesting piece of information about a story I’ve published, I can add it to the text in a flash. (I’ve done this on several occasions already—that’s why it’s always best to read the article online even if you have received it via email.) I anticipate getting all these benefits for my new book. Put simply, it will improve after publication.
(8) I can easily add links, graphics, and videos to my book:
I am excited about the potential for embedding YouTube videos, links, images, and other enhancements into the book. This is an extraordinary advantage of online publishing, and I’m still at the beginning stage of tapping its potential.
(9) I have access to much better metrics:
Substack provides authors with extremely useful metrics. I will actually be able to measure the dissemination and response to my chapters in real time. I’ve never had that opportunity before.
(10) There’s tremendous symbolic value to making this move right now:
That’s another intangible, but an important one. I believe that it’s important to show other writers, who may be considering such a move, that they can be masters of their own destiny, and don’t need to operate within the often inflexible system of legacy publishing.
Authors deserve more options than they find today in a publishing world dominated by a tiny number of enormous corporations. If anything I do contributes to their freedom or flexibility, I will be quite pleased.
FINAL COMMENT: The first installment of my new book will be coming soon. If you haven’t already signed up for a subscription, consider doing so now.
I’m a novelist, so I do something very different from what you do. I started by publishing with smaller independent publishers, then did five books with Knopf, and the last three with smaller publishers. My editor at Knopf is a genius, and we became close friends. What I learned from his editorial expertise was invaluable. But dealing with the publicity arm of the publisher grew worse and worse. I won some awards for my work and was a PEN/Faulkner finalist for my 2004 novel PRISONERS OF WAR, but the last time I did a book with them, they didn’t even try to get it reviewed, and so for the most part it got ignored, though it did win one significant award. So now I’m back with smaller publishers. Until I read this piece, I had never considered publishing a novel here, and I am still not sure that would work for fiction. But this is a great piece, like everything you write, and I am going to start telling younger writers to read it.
This may prove to be a life-changing post. For years I’ve been thinking, I have a book in me, but I’m basically too lazy and don’t have the fortitude to get over the hurdles required. How do I start? Will anyone want to read something by me? Are my thoughts even worth the paper required to print them? I realize that I don’t need to worry about all of that. I just need to write. Substack can provide the platform. Easy peasy.