Substack Essay Series #2: Is It True That That There Are Only a Dozen Publications on Substack?

I investigate a major-media canard, and the findings are surprising—to say the least.

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Introduction

According to scores of major-media reports, there are a dozen people on Substack.

We know this because only a dozen people are ever mentioned as being on Substack, per articles in The Washington Post, New York Magazine, Financial Times, Vox, Axios, Adweek, The New Republic, The Verge, Columbia Journalism Review, TechCrunch, and a handful of other outlets that heard about Substack and apparently shouted out their office-building windows to see what people thought of it as research for their think-pieces. I’m not going to link to all those articles, because I’m going to tell you right now what they say: that there are a dozen people on Substack.

Within this universe of Substack users, these articles add, there are only six people on Substack who actually matter. They are: Glenn Greenwald, Matty Yglesias, Andrew Sullivan, Matt Taibbi, Graham Linehan, and Freddie deBoer. They happen to all be men, and widely disliked, and (excepting Yglesias) conservatives (or now seen as such, anyway).

So the picture is pretty clear, then: Substack is a playpen for disaffected conservative men. Case closed.

I guess I should add, however, that on occasion (but only on rare occasion) we hear tell of six other Substack authors: Heather Cox Richardson, Judd Legum, Bill Kristol, Bari Weiss, Emily Atkin, and Anne Helen Petersen. And yet, because this latter group is more heterogeneous—it includes a Boston College history professor, a progressive environmental justice author, a “Never Trumper,” a conservative woman, a progressive culture columnist, and Judd Legum—we don’t really know precisely what to do with it.

We can acknowledge that it exists, but that’s about it.

So, there you have it: there are a dozen people on Substack.

There Must Be More Than a Dozen People on Substack

You’re correct. There are more than a dozen people on Substack. It’s silly to think otherwise.

In fact, there’s a baker’s dozen people on Substack—as Patti Smith’s decision to create a Substack a few days ago was widely covered, including by Rolling Stone, Variety, NME, Pitchfork, and Yahoo! News.

There Must Be More Than Thirteen People on Substack

Well… maybe. But here’s where things get tricky.

Technically there are more than thirteen people on Substack, but we don’t know this because of any of the scores of articles written about Substack by major media in the 45 months that Substack has been around. While the New Yorker wrote in December 2020 that there were “thousands” of publications on Substack, that was just a rumor.

Certainly there was no evidence in any of the journalism surrounding Substack that there are more than, as already indicated here, about a dozen authors on Substack.

But I’m a crank—I admit it—so I decided to investigate this rumor in the New Yorker.

After all, Substack is in the process of raising $65 million in Series B venture-capital funding, with a total valuation of $650 million, and wouldn’t a $650 million valuation be considerably high for a company whose user base could fit in a Chevy Suburban?

I decided to, while I was at it, determine if, as major media has likewise made clear, the only topic discussed at Substack is politics. It seemed to me that twelve or thirteen people—including Patti Smith, apparently?—discussing politics in about that number of distinct digital newsletters would probably not be worth $65 million in VC funding.

Let alone a $650 million total valuation.

So I set out to find the truth. Below are my findings.

{Note: I don’t advise anyone in major media to replicate my bizarre, onerous research methods, which I’ve taken to calling—as a shorthand, apologies for the affectation—“basic journalism.”}

Substack By the Numbers

I’ve broken down my OSINT (open-source) research on Substack into five key findings:

(1) As of April 5, 2021, there were at least—I mean at a bare minimum—2,728 publications on Substack.

I know this because I counted all of those that are available to be counted when you click the “All” tab under each of the existing nineteen subject-matter categories (see below). The counting took me about fifteen minutes. Substack makes a listing of its publications in these categories publicly available—easily searchable and countable.

{Note: I say “at least” 2,728 publications because I’m not sure if new publications appear in the Substack index right away, and because I’m not sure if abandoned publications or publications outside the nineteen “ranked” categories appear or are locatable via this sort of search. So the figure above may be very low, but represents a good “rock-bottom floor” for future discussions.}

(2) These (minimum) 2,728 publications break down—according to Substack’s official category designations—as indicated below.

Before you read the charts below, you should know that Substack has been around for almost four years, but only disambiguated itself into first twelve—and now nineteen— subject categories on December 16, 2020.

Prior to that, Substack had only two rankings: “Top Paid Publications” and “Top Free Publications”—listings that captured only fifty of the site’s thousands of publications.

A review of the platform’s four-year history on WayBackMachine makes it clear that (a) the switch to subject-area categories rather than subscription-type categories was necessitated by the “Paid Publications” listing becoming too static and homogeneous (because politics journalists tend to charge more for their publications, with the result that politics newsletters will be overrepresented in any paid-publication ranking not disambiguated by subject area), and (b) prior to the switch to subject-area categories, Substack had a practice of featuring three to five publications on its main homepage—a major boon for those writers—and basically without exception, for years, those writers were politically progressive.

Total Number of Currently Visible Substack Publications By Category (Most to Least)

  • Technology (516)

  • Culture (453)

  • Politics (292)

  • Finance (242)

  • Literature (220)

  • Business (194)

  • Sports (115)

  • Food & Drink (108)

  • News (91)

  • Health (89)

  • Music (70)

  • Art & Illustration (68)

  • Faith (64)

  • Philosophy (51)

  • Science (41)

  • Climate (37)

  • Education (36)

  • Travel (29)

  • History (12)

Substack Categories with a Full “Top 25 Paid Publications” Contingent (Alphabetical)

  • Business

  • Culture

  • Faith

  • Finance

  • Food & Drink

  • Literature

  • Music

  • News

  • Politics

  • Sports

  • Technology

Substack Categories with Less Than a Full “Top 25 Paid Publications” Contingent (Ranked By Number of Publications Appearing in the “Top Paid Publications” Ranking)

  • Art & Illustration (24)

  • Health (20)

  • Science (20)

  • Climate (19)

  • Philosophy (14)

  • Travel (13)

  • History (7)

  • Education (6)

Percent of Total Currently Visible In-Category Publications Constituted By the “Top Paid Publications” Ranking in Each Subject Area (Smallest Percent to Largest Percent)

  • Technology (4.8%)

  • Culture (5.5%)

  • Politics (8.6%)

  • Finance (10.3%)

  • Literature (11.4%)

  • Business (12.9%)

  • Education (16.7%)

  • Sports (21.7%)

  • Health (22.5%)

  • Food & Drink (23.1%)

  • News (27.5%)

  • Philosophy (27.5%)

  • Art & Illustration (35.3%)

  • Music (35.7%)

  • Faith (39.0%)

  • Travel (44.8%)

  • Science (48.8%)

  • Climate (51.4%)

  • History (58.3%)

(3) Politics isn’t the most popular category on Substack. In fact, it’s not even close to being the most popular category.

Using the “2,728” figure retrieved above—with all the caveats already offered—Substack really could be thought of as a “technology publications” website, with a secondary focus on “culture publications.” The Politics category does run slightly ahead of Literature and Finance in this assessment, though.

{Note: It does appear that the Culture category acts as temporary storage for new publications as yet uncategorized by Substack, so the figure above is slightly—but only slightly—inflated. My own estimate is that up to 100 of the 453 Culture publications may later get reassigned to other categories, particularly Health, Science, Climate, Faith, Philosophy, Music, and Travel.}

(4) A review of Substack’s most popular categories reveals that (a) Substack skews wildly toward the political left, and (b) much of what is being written on the platform focuses on technology and money, with three of the platform’s six most popular categories (and 952 of the 1,917 currently visible publications in those six categories) focusing on these two topics. Of the remaining 965 currently visible publications in the six most popular categories, about 70% are in one of two culture-oriented categories, Culture and Literature. Incredibly, under this assessment “politics” sites make up only 15% of the currently visible publications in the six most popular categories on Substack.

Among the successful Substack users I discovered on the digital publishing platform who are not in the aforementioned “baker’s dozen” of Substack users are Roxane Gay, Grace Lavery, Cheryl Strayed, Samantha Irby, Tressie Cottom, Alison Roman

—in fact, what I learned is that a publishing platform with thousands of publications can’t be typified by just a few well-known names, and that writing about Substack in this way is lazy… and not journalism. The same would apply to anyone who tried to write about Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Snapchat, Weibo, or Clubhouse in this way, even though all of those websites (Clubhouse excepted) are far larger than Substack.

(5) Journalists don’t know how to calculate the financial value of a Substack publication.

Glenn Greenwald was recently reported to be authoring a Substack publication that will earn between $1 million and $2 million this year.

That’s amazing!

Also, wrong.

Greenwald will make significantly more than this in his first year on Substack.

This revelation underscores that Substack is poised to redefine the creator economy—making it increasingly senseless for high-value properties at major-media institutions to stay where they are when they are earning less than 10% of what they could earn if they struck out on their own.

Simply put, you cannot calculate the annual value of a Substack publication by taking its current number of monthly subscribers and then multiplying by (a) the per-month subscription rate, and (b) twelve (the number of months in a year). This doesn’t retrieve an accurate figure because it assumes that the current number of subscribers a Substack author has will remain constant over the next twelve months. This strange assumption is particularly inapt for an author, like Greenwald, who has been on Substack for less than half a year.

In fact, the annual value of a Substack is best calculated by monthly subscriber accrual, as this figure allows an assessor to roughly gauge how many subscribers a publication on Substack will have in each month of its first year, assuming a steady rate of growth.

Using this calculation, Glenn Greewnwald is likely to earn about $2.34 million from Substack in his first year on the platform. In his second year on the platform, he would earn far more—indeed, more than double this amount, or well over $5 million. By his third year on Substack, Greenwald’s total earnings may well reach over $10 million.

While it’s certainly possible that Greenwald’s monthly subscriber accrual rate—about 6,000 new subscribers per month at last count—could slow, it’s far less likely, relatively speaking, than the assumption now being made by journalists attempting to calculate Greenwald’s annual Substack income: they assume he will never gain another subscriber.

So why are major-media journalists incorrectly calculating the value of the only twelve Substacks they’re interested in, making errors that would be embarrassing from a high school student? I see five likely possibilities, though admittedly all are speculative and the real reason could easily be even stupider than any of these.

  1. Major media wants to make Substack’s $650 million valuation look ridiculous. Substack gets a percentage of Greenwald’s earnings—10%, to be precise—so by understating his annual earnings, indeed the annual earnings of every Substack author, major media deliberately and fraudulently undermines the legitimacy of Substack’s market valuation and even its business model.

  2. Major media hates Greenwald, and can’t accept that he’s about to become the highest-paid journalist—by a fair margin—in the history of the United States. Never underestimate professional jealously as a motivating factor in major-media reporting. On the other hand, Greenwald has also pretty famously conducted himself as a jerk online—and done so for quite a few years, now—which puts me in mind of a related axiom: never underestimate personal animus as a motivating factor in major-media reporting.

  3. Major media can’t accept the threat that Substack now poses to major-media institutions, and/or it can indeed accept it, but does not know how to respond to it, so it fraudulently minimizes it with willfully poor reporting and analysis. Certain high-profile major-media columnists, like Paul Krugman, and notable “access journalists” who sometimes get scoops by agreeing to publish obvious lies from their systematically deceitful sources, like Maggie Haberman, would almost immediately become millionaires if they moved from their current haunts to Substack. The same is true for a handful of other figures in major media. A few hundred others would at least see a notable raise from their current salaries if they jumped to Substack. If major media makes clear to its readers that this has been the case with Greenwald—and it has been—it more or less is engraving an invitation to its employees to bolt for the sunny wilds of the creator economy. This may be why the New York Times, which employs both Krugman and Haberman, has lately gotten busy setting obstacles to employees going on Substack (or, for that matter, any newsletter-publishing platform).

  4. Major media doesn’t care about getting the story of Substack’s rise correct, because that’s actually not the real purpose of all its reporting on Substack. There’s usually a reason when we see—across dozens of different major-media outlets—complete indifference to getting a story correct. I’ve mentioned some of the reasons above, but there are others. For instance, it may be that major media hasn’t yet decided the story is truly significant, so it doesn’t put its best people on it. Generally, the not-ready-for-primetime team comprises twenty-somethings who’ve been instructed to write think-pieces that get clicks regardless of their accuracy, thoroughness, objectivity, or quality. We often discount just how many journalists are young people whose main “asset” as digital writers is that they have recognized that tearing something down that they don’t even understand is a quick way to get attention; even some slightly older journalists in emerging tech have now made a career for themselves not by advancing any new ideas, innovating in any way, or having any unique perspectives on existing phenomena, but by seeing something new and then eviscerating it before either it or anyone else (including journalists) even know what it is or can be yet. Tech journalism is especially ripe for this sort of by-the-numbers writing: it finds a phenomenon still in the process of defining itself and evolving, points out its obvious flaws—as anything unfinished and evolving is certain to have glaring ones—then crows like it discovered a New World. It’s rock-bottom “journalism,” but the click rates are positively delicious.

  5. Journalists can’t do math—and also don’t have editors who are good at math. We often forget that most journalists don’t have much if any expertise in any field—one reason they’re so hostile to subject-matter experts who are not full-time journalists. The existence of such people with {shudder} experience, training, education, and a pedigree in various fields underlines the fact that journalists by and large become experts in the areas they cover only after many, many years. In the meantime, journalists suffer from the imposter syndrome of knowing that they are essentially dilettantes whose magic trick is to—often via a performative hostility to actual experts—appear like they know what they’re talking about, rather than being mere stenographers (or peanut-gallery cranks) to those who do. Reporting about Substack’s rise requires not some twenty-something think-piece writer but a serious business reporter who can do complicated math. Thus far, such resources have only rarely been deployed to cover the Substack story. This is incredible, given that Substack and services like it could cause the collapse and then generative reconstruction of the entire information ecosystem in the United States in the next 60 months. One could argue that Substack’s emergence—and that of newsletters generally (and, even more broadly, the “creator economy”)—is the most important story in America today after the domestic terror movement now being led by the former President of the United States, Donald Trump.

Conclusion

Don’t trust major-media reporting on Substack—at least not yet.

Major media has decided that Substack is a threat, and is acting accordingly—throwing its journalistic ethics to the wind in an effort to lie about the platform and those who use it. I’ve done my best to tell the true story of Substack in this article and also here, but the core truth is that we haven’t entered the era of decent Substack journalism yet.

May it come soon.