Substack and the art of bringing writers closer to their readers

Salman Rushdie publishes a running series, The Seventh Wave on his Sea of ​​Stories newsletter © Alamy

My inbox is chiming with the arrival of newsletters from a few favorite authors, and this grey, chilly day instantly brightens.

On Salman’s Sea of ​​Stories, Salman Rushdie posted another episode of his running series, The seventh wave — 49 chapters on the relationship between Francis, director, and his beloved Anna, a tribute to the great French filmmakers Godard and Truffaut. Meanwhile, memoir writer Nicole Chung has a tongue-in-cheek piece on I’ve Got Notes on how long the bleakest moments of the third year of the pandemic lasted, eliciting a smile and immediate identification. And Booker winner George Saunders has over 200 responses from readers on Story Club to a recent article where he manages to make the action-climbing craft in a short story absolutely gripping.

Newsletters have already become an integral part of our general reading life on topics ranging from fashion, big tech and political pundits to whimsical travel. It is now the turn of the literary newsletter to impose itself on readers with an avalanche of novelties, book recommendations (The book bag, Dear reader) publishing tips (The Publishing Post, Indie Insider) or just newsletters from the home front of the writing life.

For readers like me, it brings a touch of nostalgia for early 1990s blogging and the more informal spirit of the time. Take Brandon Taylor and his newsletter, “Weather Sweater.” There the author of Real life and dirty animals articles on writing, literary criticism but also on personal things like his move from Iowa City to New York. I appreciate a lot of his posts because of the lack of fuss. “When I sit down to write, I don’t always try to convince people of certain things,” he writes. “Sometimes I just write down my thoughts, like things I would say to a friend.”

Over the past year, I’ve felt delight — but also skepticism — when new cohorts of authors have turned to newsletters. On platforms such as Substack, Revue (newly acquired by Twitter), and Tiny Letter, writers are experimenting with this old-but-new form, inviting readers to sign up for free in some cases, or purchase a paid subscription, usually at the cost of $6-10 per month.

They cut the monotony of the pandemic. Because newsletters are freer than a column or chat, writers can come in with their sleeves rolled up, their tone informal and intimate. My old friend Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan was one of the first to become a blogger, launching his newsletter, The Internet: Personified, in 2016, a year before Substack made newsletters mainstream in 2017. If Reddy Madhavan offers a mix of thoughts personal and reading tips, shopping and cultural suggestions, or her adventures as she moved from New Delhi to Berlin, best-selling non-fiction author and researcher Caroline Criado Perez shares her “just data rage” and her concise thoughts on the gender data gap with over 25,000 subscribers to her Invisible Women newsletter on the Revue online platform.

Yet despite their informal, barrier-free form, newsletters are actually harder work for their writers. Blogs can be intermittent and sporadic, but a newsletter needs to be published on a regular weekly or bimonthly schedule if writers want to build and retain their community of readers. this is especially true when it comes to paid subscribers, which in turn raises the always tricky question of money. Platforms take a reduction in monthly subscription fees: Substack takes 10%; Revue charges 5 percent. It can still pay off – for some. Substack Pro reportedly paid Vox co-founder Matt Yglesias $250,000 for a year’s worth of his newsletter, in exchange for 85% of his subscription payments; Rushdie received an undisclosed but substantial honorarium for his own. But emerging writers, under constant pressure to gain exposure and build community, are unlikely to find writing newsletters as lucrative.

Yet the thrill of reading Salman’s Sea of ​​Stories is the unfiltered immediacy as well as the thrill of reading never-before-seen short stories such as “The Lender of Time,” which Rushdie shared with readers last November. “The point of doing this is to have a closer relationship with readers, to speak freely, without intermediaries or gatekeepers,” he writes.

The internet has already dazzled writers with big, supposedly lucrative dreams, only to have them fade away. So while I appreciate new book recommendations from Roxane Gay (The Audacity) and Deepanjana Pal (Dear Reader), poems from Tyler Knott Gregson (Chasers of the Light) and Rohini Kejriwal (The Alipore Post), I am aware that newsletters could also go through a boom and bust cycle. But while they’re here, I’m happy to explore – and enjoy.

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