Controversy over the platform that I use to write this newsletter, Substack, has been roiling around Twitter and, well, the other Substack newsletters lately. I’m going to weigh in, but do so while staying firmly in my lane, which is book publishing. I’ll explain how that works, but first, my bit of transparency:
I initially started this newsletter as a tinyletter, another newsletter writing platform. I switched to Substack because it offered paid subscriptions, and, since I was enjoying writing Notes from a Small Press, and people were enjoying reading it, I thought I might put more time and effort into it, and see if it could also subsidize a small part of my income.
The lowest monthly rate that Substack offers is $5/month, and the lowest yearly subscription is $30. However, you can offer discounts. So I set paid subscriptions at the lowest level and then created what is in effect a permanent discount code, so the yearly cost is $24. Today, 2718 of you are free subscribers, and 229 are paid ones. Substack takes 10% of all subscriptions, and Stripe takes another cut for their processing fees.
Substack has never contacted me personally. They have not, as they have for some others, offered me a Substack Pro account (more on that later). In June, they opened application for grants for writers who lost income due to COVID. I applied, and won. I received $2500. There were no expectations or requirements.
Now the controversy: Substack has been offering some writers deals to entice them to start a newsletter. Substack gives writers an advance against their subscriptions. It’s called an advance (and not a salary or a grant), because Substack then keeps most of the subscription money for the first year. After the first year, most of the subscription money goes to the writer. If the calculus is right, the same amount of money is given to the writer in either scenario: if through advance, they get it all up front; if through subscriptions, a bit at a time, as people sign up.
These advances, which are given under a program called Substack Pro, are controversial, because many of the people offered them have politics which many find offensive. You can read Substack’s defense of Substack Pro here. You can read a list of folks who have or might have received deals here. You can read some people explaining why they are leaving Substack here and here.
And now, for what this has to do with book publishing: this system of offering advances of differing amounts to some writers, as a risk/reward calculus against future income, is exactly how book publishing works. Glenn Greenwald gets an advance from Macmillan Books for his book, which the publisher expects to recoup in sales from the book; he also was offered an advance from Substack for his newsletter*, which Substack expected to recoup in newsletter subscriptions. Greenwald might get a larger advance from both Macmillan than feminist writers (I’m sure he does!); he also might have received more from Substack. That’s unfair. The structural reasons for this have to do with conglomeration, and capital, profiteering, and misogyny. But, if the process works as it is supposed to (and it never does), both should receive the same amount of money, over time. A lower advance from Macmillan means larger royalty checks for the feminist if the book sells well; no advance from Substack means you keep all the subscription money, and if you sell more subscriptions than anticipated, you will do better than if you took an advance. Of course, the safest bet for a writer is to take the sure money up front, although that’s not always the smartest bet.
So now let’s go over to book publishing and take a look.
Jude Ellison Sady Doyle is leaving Substack because they give money to writers he deems transphobic like Freddie de Boer, Matt Yglesias, Glenn Greenwald, and Jesse Singal. He upset that Substack is paying these men advances. As he put it:
This is a logical and understandable response. He does not want to be in bed with a company that pays such people, and help underwrite their salaries through the subscriptions people pay for Doyle’s Substack.
However—and this is really the point I want to make, the reason why I am walking you all through this Substack mishegas—this is also how book publishing works. And yet many of the writers who are leaving Substack because they offer money to objectionable writers also have contracts with publishers who offer money to objectionable writers.
Jesse Singal has a book coming out in April from Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, which is owned by Hachette. Matt Yglesias published a book in September from Portfolio, which is owned by Penguin Random House (literal Nazis, if you want to go that route!). Freddie de Boer published a book earlier this year from All Points Books, owned by Macmillan.
Hachette, Penguin Random House, and Macmillan also publish books by some of the writers who are leaving Substack.
Why don’t those authors also cancel their book contracts? Those publishers are also using the money from sales of their books to give big advances to men with objectionable politics. Or, more to my point: why don’t we become more activist about how we sign book contracts with? Why not abandon the objectionable conglomerates for (less) objectionable independently-owned presses who operate more ethically? I would be so happy to see prominent writers publicly cancel their Penguin Random House contracts because they also publish Donald Trump. I would be thrilled if writers looked less to the flashy up front advance and gambled on an independent press who will pay them the same amount of money if the books sells the same number of copies in royalties after the fact.
My main points are:
—many companies have problematic business practices. If you are going to only work for companies you 100% endorse, then, well, it’s gonna be hella hard not to be hypocritical. My MO? We all live in contradictions. Do the best you can, and protect yourself.
—can we—please—pay attention to the problems of Big 5 publishers when we are being activist about which media entities we take money from? And could some Big Name Progressive authors who are receiving advances from those publishers please lead the charge (and not, say, the staff, or outside-the-bubble folks like me, slinging shots from the provinces, or, worst of all, the first-time author who received a modest advance?)
I realize there is more to the Substack controversy than I have sketched out here. I respect the arguments of those who have decided to leave Substack. But I am not leaving.
I am okay with working with a company that I am not 100% sure is 100% ethical, because I do not think there is any other option. Turtles all the way down, no ethical consumption under capitalism, all that. See the italics at the bottom of this post for one breakdown.
I’ve been tweeting about this, and some people have been DMing thanks, because they have Substack newsletters that are providing them a much, much, much needed income during a terrible time for journalists and others in media. They have been wringing their hands wondering if they should give up that income. I do not think they should, unless they cannot sleep at night given the contradictions. Good people doing good work should continue to be paid for it. Come the revolution, we will all be paid only from worker-owned, unionized, misogynist-free, ethical entities.
*And now for a full breakdown of where the money will go in my usual marketing slug:
If you subscribe to Notes from a Small Press, for $24/year, Substack will receive $2.40 of your money.
Stripe will take about 2% of your money. Learn more about who owns Stripe here.
If you buy a copy of So You Want to Publish a Book?, the book based on this newsletter, directly the Belt Publishing (a worker-owned LLC) store, Belt will receive about 98% of the proceeds.
Shopify will take about 2% of your money. Learn more about who owns Shopify here.
If you purchase So You Want to Publish a Book from Amazon or any other bookstore (including indie bookstores), Belt Publishing will receive about 25% of the proceeds, after Amazon or the other bookstore, as well as Ingram, take their cut. Books are sold wholesale to all retailers at a 40-50% discount; distributors, in this case PGW, which is owned by Ingram, takes about another 25%. Ingram is an extremely powerful company in all aspects of book publishing. Learn more about Ingram here.
*Update: Glenn Greenwald tweeted to me that he was not offered and did not accept an advance from Substack.