Something I don’t talk about much (because I signed an NDA as a condition of my severance) is the job I had from 2013-2014. That was the year that the NYC tech economy started being less fun and more cutthroat. Yahoo bought Tumblr. The people who had worked in high profile tech or blog jobs in the 00s were either rich and established or chewed up and spat out and searching for something new. I talked my way into becoming the lone “editorial” employee of a small startup that made app versions of magazines. I mean, it made the software that allowed people to transform their magazines into apps. The “editorial” part of my job is in scare quotes because it was actually more like sales. (A bigger, more established startup might have called my job “community” or “growth” or “audience.”) I was to convince writers with established internet presences and publications that had no app of their own that they needed an app – for the former group, the pitch was that apps were the future of blogs and for the latter group, the pitch was that apps were the future of print. Apps did not turn out to be the future of anything except apps, which is not this company’s fault. And just to be clear, I’m not going to write anything bad about this company, in part because I am not legally permitted to do that and also in part because Anna Wiener already wrote Uncanny Valley and even though she is 10 years younger than I am and had a different experience in a different city, that book contains everything interesting about my experience. You should read it!
No, I bring this up for a different reason which is that, given my firsthand experience working as a person with print publishing experience among tech people trying to use tech to monetize/reinvent some aspect of publshing, it’s VERY FRUSTRATING TO ME that I didn’t realize much sooner that Substack was not a cool place for us to hang out online.*
I don’t want to support this company with my reputation or (tiny amount of) dollars. Substack has a fundamental flaw that they are choosing not to own or address. They have repeatedly refused to acknowlege that paying some writers to use Substack makes them a publisher. They are simultaneously saying that writers who use Substack are “independent” and that by refusing to make value judgments apart from judging who can make the most money, they are promoting “free speech.”
In other words, under the guise of having no editorial strategy, they are choosing to have the worst kind of editorial strategy. The people who are capable of turning their existing writing platforms into a large paying audience aren’t all inflammatory demagogues who sell their audience a simplified worldview that confirms their fucked-up preconceived notions, but a lot of them – inevitably– are. “If your views about whether trans people deserve to exist are too spicy for the New York Times or New York Magazine, we welcome you with open arms” may not have been the explicit intent of this editorial strategy, but it is its inevitable outcome.
Furthermore, by promoting “indepedent” writing from “writers you trust,” they’re ignoring some fundamental truths about how the best and most valuable writing is produced. As someone who has been BLOGGING ON THIS INTERNET FOR ABOUT TWENTY YEARS it pains me to say this, but the ideal publishing process is collaborative. It goes something like this: I have an idea, or an editor has an idea they think is a good idea for me. We talk about it, and then I start researching or thinking. Then, after I have written something, the editor EDITS it, giving me new ideas, helping me figure out what aspects of what I’ve written are underthought or just garbage, and what parts I might use to tease out more meaning. Also, an editor would have cut the first two paragraphs of this post.
I understand that having relationships with editors I love and respect is a privilege! Also, I understand that the larger system of ‘legacy’ media systematically shuts out people who are not white men who went to Yale! But just because only a rarefied few people get access to the ability to make money by writing in collaboration with editors for publications that have not yet gone out of business, that doesn’t mean need to throw the whole thing in the garbage can and start over from scratch. We’ve tried that – we have been trying that – for as long as I have been an adult with WiFi. It’s not working.
I am gonna keep blogging, because unfortunately nothing can stop me from blogging (I have tried everything short of inpatient therapy.) I am also going to continue to read the words that my fellow writers come up with “independently”, because I like varying my media diet between the raw and the cooked. But in terms of larger systemic change, I would rather see stupid amounts of money invested in making legacy media sustainable than see another blogging platform come and go. I will continue to advocate for the changes in the print, digital and book publishing industries that I hope will make them last and improve. I will not invest my meager resources in companies that think they have made a new printing press when really they have made a software that enables Bari Weiss to keep getting a six figure salary.
*The writers who Substack gave Pro deals and fellowships, and also the people for whom it is providing a salary: get that money, I am not at all judging you! I have 100 paid subscribers and I donate half of those people’s $ to nonprofits, ie it’s not a major revenue stream for me. I can afford to take a stand here that I recognize is not feasible for a lot of people.