So, a bunch of my colleagues are pondering whether to remain on Substack, given the fact that they have started paying what amount to advances against royalties to some objectively crappy humans. I wasn’t going to have a public opinion about this, because I, in general, am old enough to not feel as if I need to have a public opinion or a hot take about everything and usually when I do have one it’s too Libra* for Twitter.
But a conversation this morning with my spouse convinced me that I probably needed to let you all know the status of things.
tl:dr, I’m staying here for the time being.
What I feel is getting missed in the “Substack is paying Bad People!” discourse is that Substack is paying them an advance against royalties. I.E., Substack expects to recoup that money from subscriptions. Like all advances, it’s a sort of fancy loan, and because of the way the model works, it actually has a chance to be (I would say) a bit of a bad deal for the writers, since Substack’s current advance system isn’t a standard publishing advance—it’s an exchange of a flat rate for a year’s worth of payments on the platform. More money up front, potentially losing out on a year’s worth of revenue.
(Substack’s chief complaint about paying a “traditional” advance was that they weren’t making a profit on the “loan.” Well, that’s how advances work. My publisher pays me to invest my time and energy in a product we can then both profit off of—they take a financial risk, and I take the risk of investing a year of my life or more. This is a business partnership, in other words—we both make an investment and take a risk. I don’t work for my publisher. We work together.)
Anyway, I wouldn’t take the deal Substack is offering, assuming I had enough subscribers to make it worth their while.
By doing this, Substack is essentially setting themselves up as a hybrid publisher/self-publishing platform in the Amazon model (which has its own ethical drawbacks), using venture capital to pay advances to a variety of people (we have, in general, no idea who those people are, but Rumors Abound. I am not one of them, for the record.)
I think the arguments that Substack is operating as a “publication” are somewhat disingenuous or misinformed, for the record. Since readers subscribe to individual blogs rather than the platform as a whole (like Medium, for example) it’s much more like “buying a book” than “farming content for Huffpo.”
If I refuse to work with publishers who pay royalties to objectively crappy people, I’m going to have to go get a job as an office manager and frankly I no longer have the wardrobe for that gig. Also I’ve developed a morbid fear of telephones.
Heck, there are a few people in publishing who think I’m an objectively crappy person, for reasons of their own. I haven’t seen any of them refusing to work with my publishers.
I also don’t see why progressives should en-masse abandon a pretty useful tool for outreach and a decent income stream without a much better reason than “capitalism is kind of fucked, internet capitalism doubly so.” It is, but we all have to live here for now.
So for the time being, this content will continue to be available both here and over on Patreon. (If you’re no longer comfortable with Substack feel free to follow me over there. Same content, also delivered to your mailbox, different capitalist overlords.) Much of it free, a percentage of it for paid subscribers only.
Anyway, that’s my extremely cold take, which I don’t expect anybody else to abide by. Everybody has to make their own calculations of what’s acceptably ethical under capitalism.
Hang in there.
*I am not actually a Libra, or a believer in astrology for that matter, but if I were a believer in astrology, I would wonder why I wasn’t a Libra. It’s a useful shorthand anyway.