Once upon a time, people had to work to find things to do and media to consume. These days, the inverse is true: We’re all desperate to get back the free time and ability to focus we used to have.
“Attention is your last finite resource,” Substack CEO Chris Best said on the latest episode of Recode Media. “You’re not looking for things. You’re never bored. You’re always constantly addicted to things. Now the next thing that you aspire to is regaining control of your time and your attention. Email newsletters are a way to do that.”
Substack helps writers start and run paid email newsletters, requiring that those who charge readers for their content charge at least $5 per month — a rule designed to keep the quality of the newsletters up, Best told The Verge’s Casey Newton. He argued that unlike social media, which tends to reward people who post outrageous things, email rewards the writers who can provide consistently useful information.
“What I’m actually paying for if I pay for an email newsletter or even if I just subscribe to it and I pay with my time, is that I’m paying for this ongoing relationship I have with you,” he said. “I start to trust you. I start to feel like you’re in my brain. I can consult you about things. That is valuable.”
Below, we’ve shared a full transcript of Casey’s conversation with Chris.
Casey Newton: I am here today with Christopher Best, the co-founder of Substack. Christopher, welcome to Recode Media.
Christopher Best: Thanks for having me.
Can I just call you Chris?
That’s way easier. By the way, Chris Best, pretty incredible CEO name.
Well, thank you.
Is that a real name?
I worked hard on it. We workshopped it. We had some focus groups. No, it’s my name.
Wonderful. Well, cool. I’m excited to talk to you. I am a big fan of email newsletters. Last year I started my own daily email about social networks and democracy, which is called the Interface, which we also publish on the Verge. I have learned a lot over that past year about the power of writing a daily email and kind of cultivating an audience. So I wanted to talk to you about Substack. For folks who may not yet be familiar with what you’re doing, tell us what Substack is.
Substack really simply is a platform for readers to pay writers directly. What that looks like is basically a paid email newsletter. You know about the power of email newsletters, a way to reach people. You come directly into their inbox. You’re not mediated by some algorithm, by some anything. We just add a really straightforward, you can pay for it. That’s the Coles Notes, which is a simple idea, but I think there’s actually quite a profound sort of implication of that, once you start to take money and have a real sort of financial relationship between the reader and the writer.
A hundred percent. Email is an old technology. I want to acknowledge that during this interview, it’s going to sound a lot like, I think, that email was just invented. I know that that is not true.
We’ve got this thing where you can send electronic messages — get this — to anybody in the world!
Let me say, I know people have been sending email newsletters for a very long time, and probably some of those have been paid newsletters in some way. I do feel like something new is going on that I think is related to various changing ways that smart people, in particular, have decided to get their news. Let’s maybe dig in there. Before y’all, you and your co-founder, started Substack, what were you seeing in the market that made you want to build a new business around it?
I think the most important thing was just a general frustration with how much control we have over our own attention, right? My theory on this is that it used to be that you had too much attention and you would get bored. You had to spend money to find things to fill your time.
Sometime in the age of social media that’s completely flipped around, where attention is your last finite resource. You’re not looking for things. You’re never bored. You’re always constantly addicted to things. Now the next thing that you aspire to is regaining control of your time and your attention. Email newsletters are a way to do that.
What is it about email that makes you feel like they help you regain that focus?
I think one thing is, it’s conscious. You’re making the choice. You decided what email newsletters to subscribe to. Then, it shows up. What’s more, you make that decision not in the heat of the moment. You’re your best self, sitting on a Sunday afternoon, thinking about what email newsletter do I want to subscribe to? Not going for one more scroll in your Twitter timeline on the toilet because you’re angry. It’s a different method of making that decision.
Something else, it seems to me, that is going on is, there is a general decline of trust in social feeds. Whereas two, three years ago, I think most of us felt a lot more comfortable getting the bulk of our news from a Facebook, from a Twitter, from other social networks. Lately, there’s been a reckoning over social media. We’re not as certain that if we see a link in the feed, was that put there by a real person or was it put there by a Russian bot?
We don’t necessarily like the way that it makes us feel, right? It’s not just a decline of trust, there’s a reason for the decline in trust.
It seems to me that if you are cultivating an audience via email you may not have to rely on the same sorts of tricks that we used to have to rely on to get people’s attention on a Facebook, right? I don’t know that there’d be a way to quantify that. I guess anecdotally, are people doing less clickbait in their subject lines?
Yeah, you still want to have an interesting subject line for a newsletter so that people open it. That fundamental effect that you see on social media where you can get virality by just making people angry doesn’t work in a newsletter. People don’t subscribe to a newsletter because they’re angry. But they do absolutely share a tweet because they’re angry.
That’s interesting. We were talking earlier about what you saw in the market. I saw something else that I wondered if this was on y’all’s minds at all. When Axios came along, unlike most new media companies, they actually had a somewhat novel distribution strategy, which was that they were going to hire a bunch of stars and get them to write newsletters. While I think their strategy has turned out to be slightly less newsletter-centric than I think they originally planned it to be, it was a very effective strategy for getting them attention early on. It definitely influenced me as I was starting to think about trying to build an email audience.
I wouldn’t underestimate how important email still is to what they’re doing. I think you raise a really good point. This is another thing that is part of, sort of, our core thought process for Substack, which is that people trust people, right? There’s a thing where, especially now that you can have an email newsletter that reaches out to people and you can charge for it, part of what I’m paying for — or what I’m paying for isn’t the content, right? The internet did make content free. It did kind of break that whole thing.
What I’m actually paying for if I pay for an email newsletter or even if I just subscribe to it and I pay with my time, is that I’m paying for this ongoing relationship I have with you. I start to trust you. I start to feel like you’re in my brain. I can consult you about things. That is valuable, regardless of whether I’m trying to click on an individual article and pay for it or whatever.
That’s true. I think there’s a secondary point there, which is that email is interactive in a way that articles aren’t. Something that I have noticed is that people will frequently write to me just to say, “Hey Casey, thanks for the newsletter.” Or, “Nice newsletter today.” Just three quick words. No one in the history of The Verge has ever created an account to just go in and write, “Nice story, Casey.” There have been some nice comments under there. But there’s this sense of intimacy that comes from being in someone’s inbox.
How often does somebody hit reply to just tell you that you’re an asshole?
Very little. And yet that, in other mediums, that happens all the time. It’s just, the context under which you’re interacting changes everything, which is something that fascinates me.
I think it’s the fact that the message is private. It just changes it completely, right?
Because people love to make fun of you in public. But if they know that only you are going to see it, it weirdly removes all incentive to do it.
This is one of the things I’m sort of weirdly nerdy about. Before Substack, I was CTO and co-founder of a messenger called Kik that was a big, popular messaging app. This is the main thing that I learned while making a messenger, is the way that you structure people’s interaction can absolutely change the entire outcome of any kind of social system.
Say more about that. How are the interactions structured on Kik, which remains a pretty big messaging app?
Yeah, no, I mean, there’s lots of little things that we did that made things better, and made things work ... One thing that worked really early on is something that isn’t novel now, but worked surprisingly well at the time was, when we first introduced you to your friends on Kik, instead of just giving you a message that said, “You can match your address,” but you can say, “A bunch of my friends are on Kik.”
Instead of just giving you message that said, “By the way, your friend Casey’s on Kik,” we’d open a conversation with you, with Casey. There’s a conversation there. There’s already a message, so it kind of already feels like the ice is broken. It’s the exact same information content and yet it’s like night and day in how people engage with it. It changes the whole growth curve of a company.
Just one tiny change.
You make it a friendlier place to chat. Next thing you know, you have a lot of friendly chats going on. Maybe email is creating a similar vibe, at least as opposed to a standard web-based article.
As you said, it feels like a personal relationship in the way that reading a article online does not.
Talk to me about some of the pioneers here. Who is actually out there doing this, making real money, making a living, sending paid email newsletters?
I mean, one of the people that sort of inspired the company and is not on Substack is obviously Ben Thompson, who writes Stratechery, which is this must-read tech-focused thing. I’ve subscribed to him since before he started the company. This is part of the thing where like, “Could it really be just this simple?” He’s been telling people, “More people should do this. It’s a really good model.” We’re like, “Huh, maybe we just made that really easy.”
Now there’s a ton of people that are on the platform that are making it work. I mean, we’ve got Bill Bishop, who also writes for Axios, or, interestingly, he’s got this sort of focused newsletter about China. What the heck is going on in China for international business and government audience. People feel like they can’t live without it. We’ve got a pretty big range of people.
One of the things I wondered early on is, “Is this only gonna work for business-type stuff?” Like news you can use. You’re a VC, you can subscribe to Stratechery. You’re a CEO, you should subscribe to Sinocism. We’ve also got the Shatner Chatner by Daniel Ortberg, which is like absurdist literary comedy, is I think maybe the best way to describe it. I think the audience is mostly librarians, or largely constituted by librarians. We’ve got an interesting variety of things. We’ve got a serial novel called “The Business Secrets of Drug Dealing” that’s about how to be a successful — or it’s nominally about how to be a successful drug dealer. There’s just this wealth of weirdness that’s happening on the platform that warms my heart.
I mean, certainly Ben Thompson seems like he’s doing very well. I think Bill Bishop is doing well. Is it fair to say it is still somewhat unproven how many entrepreneurs can get out there and make a real living doing this? Is this probably gonna wind up being more of a supplemental thing than a primary income for people?
I think it’s fair to say that it’s unproven how many there are. What’s not unproven is that it can work exceptionally well for some people. The thing that convinces me that this is something that’s not just a niche — “Oh yeah, there’s some kind of wonks out there that’ll pay for crazy stuff” — is that underlying trend we were talking about before where people are starting to value their time more and more.
Readers, your time is worth something. At some point it’s irrational if you don’t want to spend your money to use your time and attention better. I actually think the reverse. I think this is the seed of a model that will become a dominant model in media.
Which is the main reason I wanted to have you on here, is to figure out whether I think that’s true. I sort of do think that’s true. But I wanted to see what you, a person who’s actually bet your entire life on it, has to say about it.
Well, it’s not as exciting if you think it’s true. You should take the devil’s advocate position here.
I know, that would be the Peter Kafka thing to do.
Come on, who’s gonna pay for email?
Well, I have some of those questions. I want to draw a comparison and see if you think it makes sense, because the more time I spend with email newsletters, the more it reminds me of how podcasting felt in like 2006.
Where the technology is there, the early adopters are doing it. But we’re still a few Serials and S-Towns and The Dailys away from a big breakthrough. I should say, the other big point of comparison is that podcasts can get super nichey in the exact same way that an email can get super nichey. The reason you listen to a podcast is because there’s no other media source that lets you hear about knitting on a weekly basis in the way that a podcast can get you. I feel like an email newsletter does that exact same thing.
No, I think there’s very much a parallel. Also, as I said, the way that you subscribe, right? You sit back and you choose to subscribe to a podcast. Then those podcasts show up in your feed. It’s not like the radio where you just put it on and you consume whatever comes. You sit there and you decide, “Hey, I’m gonna spend ...”
Podcasts, even more than newsletters, are a huge time investment. I can spend an hour listening to the Recode Media podcast. I have to think about that. That’s the cause of a lot of those things that I think you’re describing. I think it is directly analogous.
A reason why I think you might even be more optimistic over the long run about this than podcasting is just that email has that built-in viral mechanic if you can forward it to somebody, right?
It’s so much easier to get somebody to sign up for your email than it is to get them to download a podcast.
I’m also sort of bullish on podcast. I think that podcast usage is increasing, increasing. It’s breaking into the mainstream in monetization. Even for podcasts, maybe, [monetization] has not totally caught up to where it should be. I think those are a lot of commonalities of the kind of things that work.
Let’s talk about the kinds of money that people are making. What is the range of prices that people can charge these days for a successful email newsletter?
You can charge ... There’s a whole range of prices you can charge. We actually set a minimum. We said, “Hey, look. You should charge five bucks a month or more”” which sounds kind of high. The reason we did that is because we wanted to focus on people who are gonna do it with a certain degree of seriousness and try to create above a minimum threshold of value.
Five bucks a month, yeah, it sounds like a lot to pay for a digital thing. But it’s like getting one fancy coffee a month. It’s actually not that much money. We see people charging all the way from five bucks a month up to, I think, 30 bucks a month is probably the highest monthly price we have right now. I think that that’s not some absolute limit. I think you can have prices that go up and up.
At those prices, at five bucks a month, sure, that might just be a fun thing about a writer you really like or a subject that you’re particularly interested in. I think once you get above 10 bucks a month you’re in that Netflix price range, which I think can be a scary place to be, in the sense that “Man, Netflix gives people a lot.” For me, at least, they’ve really sort of anchored that price in my mind. If you’re gonna be charging me 10 bucks a month for something, you better be giving me an ocean of content. If you’re writing a weekly newsletter for 10 bucks a month, that doesn’t seem like as good of a deal.
I totally see why you would say that and why people think that way. I actually think that’s the wrong way to think about it. The right way to think about it — especially when you get into these things that, as you say, are kind of niche — is the model where you pay for stuff allows you to get something that’s this perfect niche thing, that’s just right for you.
The reason Netflix can charge you 10 bucks a month is because they have millions and millions, whatever it is, hundreds of millions of, I don’t know how many subscribers they have, a lot.
And yeah, sure, you can get it for 10 bucks a month. But maybe you are like the ultimate board game fanatic. If there was like a publication that was about the internal nitty-gritty of making and playing high-end board games. something that’s just completely up your nerdy alley. That might be worth more than 10 bucks a month to you.
The only way it’s gonna exist is if there’s a community of people out there willing to pay for that. So this model allows things to exist that otherwise never could, in an ad-supported model or something else.
Right. What we’re really almost talking about is zines now, or magazines.
Yeah, and history repeats itself. None of this is new technology or new ideas, really. It’s just the right cultural moment for it, I think.
So, let’s say people sign up for bunches of paid newsletters, and maybe some free ones as well. I guess that’s maybe a question I’d just add. Do you guys enable free newsletters as well?
Yeah, we actually did turn that feature on. We let people do it. Just because it’s a nice feature to the platform to have. We had a bunch of people that were coming over from TinyLetter and other services and just wanting a good, simple, editorial newsletter product.
For us, we love doing it because we like giving things to writers that are doing good things. Also, it’s lead gen for us. You have someone that’s got a very popular free newsletter, we can see how much it’s being delivered, we can go to them and say, “Hey, if you charge for this, you’d be making real money.” It’s sort of a good — pays for itself, from our perspective.
Yeah, and I think the people want a way to try this out without necessarily committing to doing it forever.
Totally, and as you know, building up a free subscriber list for a newsletter is really hard. Right? It’s not even ... I mean, charging is hard, but just building up an audience of people that wanna read it for free is actually kind of the more important barrier.
So letting people do that, and sort of cross that chasm without charging anything, is useful.
I think about this all the time now. My newsletter, it’s called The Interface, I try not to talk about it even too much on this ...
You can subscribe at ...
Although, go to the verge.com/interface and we’ll sign you up. But, it’s basically a daily newsletter about social networks, focused on social networks and democracy. Kind of, what does the government have to say about Facebook and Twitter, and how are these companies affecting the way that our body politic operates?
These are very important topics.
Yeah, so that’s like a long way of describing it. Another way of describing it is, it’s a daily column about Facebook. Which is kind of how I think about it. In my mind, this company has 2.2 billion users, how hard could it be to sign people up to get a free daily email about the most interesting things happening with that company? In about eight months, just yesterday, I hit 4,000 subscribers.
I felt good about that. Thank you, I feel good about that. But it’s not that many subscribers when you think about, the average post on The Verge gets maybe 10 times that.
So there are definitely challenges with people building up subscriber bases, as you know, even when you’re giving it away for free. Is that something you’ve started thinking about helping your writers with? And what things can a company like yours do for them?
Yeah, and this is one of the things that we focus on a lot. My pitch to writers is, “Come on Substack, we’ll do everything for you except the hard part.” Where the hard part is “write a newsletter that’s actually interesting enough that people wanna read it.” But a big part of that, obviously, is making it so that if the content is there, that people can find out about it.
So we do stuff like, when you publish an issue, it goes to email obviously, but it also automatically shows up on the web. All of the search engine stuff is there so that it can get discovered and it’s easy to share. There’s share buttons where you can do it. If you forward the email, we construct everything so that it works that way.
I think we’re actually only tapping the very beginning of what we need to do in that area. Because as you say, this is one of the main problems. But the cool thing about it is that from our observations, if you’re writing something that genuinely people find useful, it does tend to grow.
It doesn’t tend to grow in the crazy hockey-stick tech-company [way] — I did a messenger and I added a viral feature and here it goes — but as an editorial product, if you’re putting out something that’s regular and consistently good, there is kind of this basal growth rate that happens, when people are like, “No, I’ve actually been reading The Interface and it’s helping me, like you should check it out, it’s actually good.” Like, “Here’s where my smart opinions come from.”
Our job, we see it as really to just kind of supercharge that. Just give as many avenues for that as possible and make sure that all of the built-in loops where people tell each other about it work really well.
Then there’s some other stuff that we’re really interested in. Like, you know, once you’re charging for it, are there ways that you can do paid advertising and have that pay for itself? Because the lifetime value of a subscriber’s pretty good.
Yeah, absolutely. It’s interesting to think about your point that you make sure that everything that you publish gets published to the web. That’s something that we didn’t say, that we should, is this move toward editorial newsletters is only possible because of the web. Most of the people who are writing these newsletters are linking to things on the web.
The email, really, it is a curated view of the web at a time when the web had become completely unmanageable, right? Where you’re gonna have plenty of feeds in your life suggesting things at you. But if you’re the sort of person who knows what you like, and you know what you wanna be smart about, there ought to be a place where you go where you can get that delivered to you directly.
Right. And at the same time, you know, that used to be blogs. People would remember, they’d have a certain number of blogs that they would remember, they would go and surf the web and they would go to the blogs. Now we live in a world where you open your smartphone and you have a certain number of apps that you go to. If you’re not, if the things you want aren’t in one of those apps, you’re just gonna forget about it, right? So this is why Facebook and Twitter are such powerful sources of traffic.
And it just happens that your email client is another one of your apps that you already click on. It’s sort of like this very practical ... It’s the one channel you have as, say, an independent writer, to reach a reader base that’s not directly mediated by a third party. It doesn’t have a Facebook algorithm deciding what people are going to see. It’s the last open channel, even though it’s all old and crufty and a pain to work with as a developer, I’ll tell you.
Yeah, and maybe we should talk about that. I remember Ben Thompson said to me once that the reason that he does emails is because it’s the only feed that he can insert himself into for free.
Which is an elegant way, I think, of making that point. So yeah, still a really good distribution channel. Another point that I think is worth talking about is this moment for editorial newsletters as kind of like podcasts in 2006. I can remember in the early days of blogging, everyone would start a blog, then their second blog post would always say, “Hey guys, sorry you haven’t heard from me in a while, things have gotten really busy around here,” then that would always be the last post on the blog, right?
Email newsletters, I’m starting to see the same thing, where people on Twitter are announcing, “Hey, I’ve started my newsletter, you can subscribe here.” I do subscribe, because I like seeing what people are up to. Then the second letter comes, you know, like, three months later. It’s like, “Wow, sorry I haven’t been around here for a while.”
But I actually think it’s a good sign that the medium is hitting that moment of everyone at least wanting to try it out.
Yeah, something that that tells you, as you know well, is that doing a good daily, especially a daily email newsletter, is a ton of work. That’s not something you do as a side project and it just kind of trucks along. If you wanna make that go, you gotta invest a lot of time in it.
When you do, it can be quite valuable for people, and this is part of why we think, “Hey, sometimes the right answer for that is to charge money for it and make it a real priority.”
Yeah, yeah, it’s true. On that point, like daily versus weekly newsletter, I’m wondering if you have thoughts about this. The reason that I decided to do a daily newsletter was because if you do a daily newsletter you’re actually doing a job for people. I feel like anybody can put together a weekly newsletter of like, “Here are 10 interesting links about Facebook,” right? But to come in every day and say, “Here’s basically everything that happened today, and here it is in the order that it mattered,” then all of a sudden you’re doing a job.
What kind of breakdown do you see in terms of the average frequency that your users are sending out their newsletters?
I think among the people that are making the most money, daily is the most common, for all those reasons you say. It kind of depends on the subject matter. If you’re doing something that’s related to business or related to staying up to date being the most important thing, then daily is a natural frequency for that. Whereas if you’re doing something that’s comedy or entertainment or essays, which we also see, maybe doing once every week or something like that also makes sense.
But the key is that whatever you do, it has to match the frequency of the content you’re doing and it has to be regular. You can’t do this thing where it’s like, “Oh, I’m gonna do one issue, then maybe three weeks later I do one, maybe whatever, whatever.” Especially when people are paying for it, they do not abide by that.
It’s true, when I started my newsletter, I just decided I wanted it to go out at 5:00 p.m. Pacific every day so that I could sort of catch basically Facebook employees at the end of their day. I feel like at 5:00 p.m. nobody really wants to work anymore. But they can’t leave the office quite yet, so here, why don’t you spend five minutes with this? You know, also by that time of day, pretty much all of the major news of the day has happened. But at the same time, I could kind of catch east coast people as they were maybe having dinner, or even maybe getting into bed a little early.
I get mad at myself when I don’t hit that deadline. I will come in like 15 or 20 minutes late sometimes.
Do you find that exhausting?
I do and I don’t. I’ll tell you, mostly I find it invigorating because unlike writing a story on The Verge, where the feedback I get tends to be very unpredictable, there’s this rhythm now where I send out the newsletter, the responses start to come in, people share it on Twitter and say, “Hey, subscribe to this thing.” I see the email addresses of the people who are signing up, and it’s either names I recognize or it’s people signing up from Facebook, from Twitter, from Pinterest, from Google. These are the readers who maybe I’d been reaching them before, but I didn’t know that I was reaching them. Now I do.
So I sort of add all those things together, and there’s something intoxicating about making this thing every day, because that feedback is so intense. Yes, putting it together is a ton of work. But I have to say, I grew up as a journalist in Chicago, where they have these traditions of daily newspaper columnists. Like the Mike Roykos, the John Kasses, they would, you know, hit B2 of the Chicago Tribune every day with some sort of interesting observation about the world. Often they did have help, you know, they’d send some intern along with them to gather string for some story. Part of me marveled at them as a journalism student, because I went to Northwestern out there. But then part of me was like, that seems like the coolest job in the world. You get to be the face of Chicago and tell Chicago what’s interesting today. So it’s obviously an egomaniacal project, which suits my personality.
As I really started to get obsessed with how these social networks were affecting democracy, it’s like, this is absolutely the best way to do it, is to just try to understand the subject a little bit better every day. And tell people what you’re thinking in real time, and ask them for your feedback, and build a community.
Yeah, and you have incentives that align with your readers. Especially if you’re getting paid, you know this is my, I’ll keep beating this drum. But, you know, that problem that you have on social media where you’re not the customer, the reader’s not the customer, at the end of the day the algorithm wants engagement at all costs. The effects of that are all of these horrible things that tear apart society and yadda yadda. You can fix that by just a little change in the rules. You can change the rules to say that hey, your incentive is to follow what the reader wants, whether that’s feedback from getting nice email replies back, which is it own little dopamine hit and feels really good.
Or it’s like another five bucks shows up in your bank account, which is also pretty motivating, a pretty motivating feeling. And you’re, you are now, you’re the face, you’re the voice of a city, you’re the voice of some type of news. You’re doing a service for people. You’re helping curate what they think about the world. Your incentive to do that is to make them better, is to give them what they actually want and need, as their best selves, as their thing that they’re choosing to subscribe to, not one more scroll while they’re angry, standing in line at Starbucks.
Yeah, and that’s right. Something that I think about as somebody who listens to Peter’s podcast all the time. Media, it’s just a question of distribution, right? There’s a lot of great stuff out there. The only thing that matters is can you get it in front of people’s eyes. So something that I think is becoming more and more important to journalists, in particular, although I think it probably applies to anyone in the media business, is how to you build a sense of community where people feel almost like a tribal belonging.
At a high level you see this all the time, people listen to the same sports call-in radio show, and it’s like Bill from the Bronx or whatever calling to weigh in on his thoughts. But people listen all the time and they feel this sense of ownership, like “these are my people,” even if they themselves are not the one calling in. As journalists, we have not had great tools for that in the past. We would publish our stories in newspapers and maybe a letter to the editor would show up. Maybe the local gadflies would call you up, give you a tip here or there. But when you’re writing about these sort of global corporations and your potential audience is so much bigger, you need this new set of tools to give some shape around that community. I think that, in some ways, the email newsletter is just going to be kind of the tip of that sphere and that it’s going to let you gather that community, but then over time, you’re going to be able to do so much more.
And this is something that we’ve started to do. I mean, we put in ... Because you can always reply to an email newsletter and you get that dopamine rush, but something that we did pretty early on and we’re still actively working on is we let you put comments. And for us, we did it so that only paying subscribers can comment, A) because it’s another way to get subscribers, which is good, but it also solves this problem that you have on the internet in general of everything being a garbage fire all the time. Right?
If you are asking people, “Hey, pay five bucks a month and then you have the right to comment,” first of all, that whole community, as you say, is more valuable now because it’s filtered for the people who already really care about the stuff that you care about. Right? Because you know, if you find someone that loves the exact same email newsletter that you do, you probably do have a lot in common with them. That’s not an illusion. You actually probably are kind of kindred spirits.
And so being able to filter for the group of people that have also shown this costly signal that shows they care about the thing, and once you get there, a lot of just the default problems of internet garbage are fixed because you can absolutely moderate profitably, if it’s going to cost people five, 10 bucks [every] time they want to come in and troll and be mean.
And for the most part, people that are just trying to be jerks won’t show up, so you have this kind of ... You get this effect where there’s not as many comments, but the ones that are there, they’re these weird reservoirs of friendliness and hope and lovely community feeling that I can’t remember feeling anywhere else recently on the internet.
It does seem like a rare thing. There are a couple of nicer forums on Reddit that are essentially just internet comments from random strangers, and these are not people who are paying, and yet they bring me joy every day. And whenever you encounter something like that, it is a moment that sort of builds your faith.
Yeah, you can get that through obscurity, right? You can get that through just not being that well known, but I think that as soon as you get that to a certain size, it becomes impossible to maintain that feeling.
So we have all these people now out here who are putting together these email newsletters and selling them for up to $30 a month. You know, traditionally, when you have this profusion of channels, someone eventually comes along and tries to sell a bundle. Is that going to happen with a system like this?
I think that’s probably eventually going to happen, right? I mean, you know, the first stage of this is kind of a deaggregation, right? It’s saying, “I don’t want to subscribe to one big combined thing. I want to subscribe to this one person that I really care about and that’s the sort of level of brand that I care about.”
But you know, at some point in a future world when we’re super successful and lots of people have this problem with like, “Oh man, I don’t want to subscribe to my ninth $5-a-month email newsletter, this is starting to add up to a lot of money,” which, there’s like 10 people that have that problem today and the writers tend to be some of those people. But eventually, if as we predict, this model becomes more popular, eventually you’ll get to this world where bundle economics just are incontrovertible, right?
Like you can’t ... It won’t make sense to not have some sort of bundling. And the way that I ... We’re so far away from having to worry about that. We have so many problems to solve before that even becomes ... we have the right to have that problem.
But the thing that excites me about when we get there is the idea of doing it bottom-up rather than top-down. So instead of saying, “We’re going to be the Netflix for email newsletters and we’re going to try to force everyone to play by our rules,” to give writers the tools to self-federate and start to form bundle alliances where they can say, “I’m the writer about this, but here are the other writers that I love and that I crosspost with and we all support each other and we’re kind of banding together to form a bundle that’s going to be this good deal and take advantage of all these bundle economics.” That future is very exciting to me.
I would love to think more about what that world is going to look like. As somebody who writes a newsletter that consists almost entirely of other people’s journalism, in a way, I feel like I’m already sort of creating that bundle of people. The same people show up on my newsletter time after time because there are only so many reporters on the Facebook beat, and a world in which some of those other people have their own newsletter. I mean, my gosh, I would love to promote those because, you know, because everything winds up being in conversation with everything else there.
Do you have other newsletters that you read and sort of swear by?
Oh, 100 percent. Things out there that I would encourage people to try, probably every single listener of Code Media listens or reads Ben Thompson. Matt Levine and Bloomberg is another one who is amazing. He’s been doing some career-defining stuff on Elon Musk lately. There’s a guy named J.R. Raphael who writes a newsletter about Android once a week. I’m an iOS person, but I just love that once a week I get this deep dive into Android that lets me know how the other half lives. So that’s great.
That’s the only contact you have with the Android plebs.
MG Ziegler has started doing a newsletter. I’ve always loved MG’s blogging, but he’s gotten interested in newsletters and so now I hear from him like once a week about some subject. I follow MG on Twitter and I would read most of his blog posts, but I would miss stuff. Now it all just comes to my inbox. I don’t have to think about it anymore.
Awesome. These people should all start Substacks, by the way.
Yeah. I’m trying to think. There is at least one Substack that I know that I subscribed to. It’s called Famous People and it’s by two of my former colleagues.
You subs — no way!
Yeah. So Kaitlyn Tiffany and Lizzie Plaugic, two of my former coworkers, have started a very funny — and I think it’s fair to say strange — newsletter about attending parties in New York and about everything that happens when they go to these parties.
That’s hilarious. I’ve read that newsletter, and I’m so happy to have it on Substack. I can’t believe that’s one of the ones that you know.
Like I said, they’re both very talented writers.
Well there you go. You can go and check that out. All right, so let’s think a little bit bigger. I think up until this point, most media companies, to the extent that they’ve thought about email at all, it’s exclusively been as a marketing tool, right? It’s like when you go to most media companies and you ask them what email tools they have, it’s Campaign Monitor, it’s Mailchimp, it’s something that was designed to get people to click on a 25 percent off coupon.
I think if this is kind of the paradox of email, is that it’s such an effective way to reach people that there’s been this explosion of email marketing because it’s so effective.
And so everybody thinks of email as this way to, you know, send deals instead of a way to actually reach people with editorial content.
Right. So what do media companies, how should they start thinking about email right now?
You know, I don’t want to paint myself as any kind of an expert in what media companies ...
That’s literally the whole reason we invited you here was to paint yourself as an expert.
All right, well, as a programmer, I will come and fix the media. No, that’s actually one of the reasons I’m so happy to be working with one of my co-founders, Hamish McKenzie, who’s actually a real journalist and can tell me about how all these things work. I will say that I think that email is a super-powerful and underrated medium to reach people, especially for sort of the high-value content that they opt into specifically wanting, and our numbers say that, given the choice, people really like to consume stuff in email.
It’s really tempting to say, “Oh, I’m going to send them a little notification that tells them about something that I did so that they can come to my web page and I’ll serve them all the ads,” but people, given their preference, especially on mobile, like to just read things in their email. It’s this really simple, lovely experience. So if you’re a media company that has some needs that could be served by that kind of experience, I think it’s worth investing some time into.
Yeah. You think about how much angst a lot of us have had over the death of RSS. Email really can meet that RSS need. Like I see a world where there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be able to subscribe to every writer on The Verge via email if I wanted to. “Just let me know the next time this person has a story.” Right? I also think that most media companies will eventually build email functionality into their content management systems. Right?
Like, you know, for now we’re happy to hire folks like you who are making really beautiful tools for this kind of thing, but eventually at some point there’ll be some consolidation and media companies will buy these email distribution tools because they’ll have found that, again, they want to cultivate community, too. They’re just as tired of surfing the Facebook and Twitter and Google algorithms as anyone else. And if they had an owned audience that they could reach with a high degree of accuracy every single day via email, why wouldn’t they do that?
That might be, literally, the only way they can survive.
Yeah, I mean ... Well, I think there’ll probably be multiple ways that they can survive, but do I think that sustainable media looks like relationships that the media company owns what the customer ... yes. Do I think it involves some sort of direct contribution from readers? Yes. And do I think that involves some kind of direct distribution to a human being? Absolutely.
Is it 100 percent mediated by Facebook and Twitter? Probably not.
Right. You can now see Facebook is going out of its way to tell journalists almost to give up, right? At least in the sense of, if your business was predicated on getting a lot of traffic referrals from Facebook, they’ve explicitly said give up. And some businesses have gone belly up because of that.
And this is kind of a cycle. I mean, this isn’t even the first time Facebook has been through a loop of like, “All right, we’re going to get all of this great high-quality media. No, nevermind. We’re just about friends and family.” Any time that the core of your business is based on the whim of a big company that has different interests than you, that’s a tricky long-term place to be.
Right. Ultimately the interests were only ever aligned so much.
So tell us what you are working on now. You mentioned earlier you’ve got a lot of problems that you’re trying to solve. And we should say it, your company is barely a year old, if that. Right?
Yeah. We launched the first publication October last year.
Okay. So it’s still in the relatively early stages. I’m sure there’s lots of basic blocking and tackling that you’re doing, but sketch a vision for me of where you’re taking this thing.
I think the biggest thing, the biggest most important thing we want to do is just make this a great product for the readers and the writers who are having this relationship with each other. And a lot of that is just the simple, unsexy, does the email show up? Does it look great everywhere? Is it awesome? Can I share it? Can I buy a gift subscription for other people? Can my company buy a corporate subscription? There’s lots of just basic stuff.
It sounds like such a simple piece of software, like, “Oh, you pay for some email, I could build that in a weekend.” It’s trivial, sure, but there’s a lot to just nailing the basics around having that work and being able to grow and make a lot of money when your content is good. You know, our business model is to take a cut of subscription revenue, so we literally only succeed if the writers are making a lot of money, and so we have every incentive to continue to build those features that keep the reader’s loving it and keep them telling their friends and letting their friends find out about it, yadda yadda.
Beyond that, the stuff that’s fascinating to me is the stuff about community features, right? This idea of, you know, what is a publication in this world? Today, you can describe it as it’s paid email newsletters, but I actually think, as you said, it’s sort of the tip of the iceberg. And the ways that the readers can interact with the writer and feel like they have that bidirectional relationship there, and the ways that the readers can interact with each other, I think, are where a lot of the value comes from at the end of the day.
It’s going to be about, do I feel like I’m part of something? Do I feel like I’m ... I get to have this relationship that makes me better and that I, you know, all of this stuff. And so nailing the community aspect of it feels very important to me.
And then the other thing that’s interesting in the medium- to long-term is, are there other mediums that this works for? You talked about podcasting. I’m a big believer that at some ... There’s a lot of people trying to do it. At some point, someone’s going to figure out how to do paid podcasting right. And that’s gonna be a massive industry.
Right. And so you’ll have maybe more than one medium that you can tackle. We’ve got plenty to do in the meantime.
Chris Best is the CEO and co-founder of Substack. You can check it out at substack.com. And if you want to know what I’ve been raving about for this entire episode, you can go to theverge.com/interface and sample what I’ve been doing over there. But in the meantime, Chris, thanks so much for coming by the podcast.
Fantastic. Thank you for having me.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.