Admin Update: More on Substack

Your feedback needed on where we might go

Hello again! I wanted to keep people posted on my progress making a decision about Substack because it affects you guys as much as it does me. I want to be as transparent as possible about the whole process. Also I could use some input from you about some decisions if you don't mind.

For those who simply want the tl;dr version: I have done more research. I've found things which made me question my ability to trust Substack's leadership when it comes to how supportive they truly are about things like transgender issues. However there is yet to be a slam dunk decision on moving both by myself or by the greater Substack community at large. I'm still looking into options though but the current best option comes with a cost, which is what I'd like your opinions on.

Whew. I'm aware that's a wordy tl;dr but I think it covers all the bases. Now to get into more details for those who want them. For those who don't but still want to give advice, you can now skip down to the header that starts with "Option Three" to get to the part where I ask for feedback.


On The Ethics of Staying

As of right now there still seems to be a fair split between those who have left Substack and those who want to stay and fight. As far as I've seen, in general both sides of this debate see the value in the other's side. Which is to say those who have left don't consider it a huge betrayal that some have stayed to try to fight and those who have stayed don't consider it a betrayal that some have left.

This affects my decision making progress because, as someone cisgender, I do want to take into consideration what my best action is as an ally. I'm aware I am but a tiny newsletter which makes zero money for Substack but even still. Principles matter. So if there was a clear path for what the right thing to do was, I would want to take it.

Since so far there doesn't seem to be a preferred answer, I've dug deeper into things so I can have a more informed opinion. In doing so one of the things I discovered is that the co-founder and CEO of Substack is tweeting out such gems as "Defund the thought police" in response to people's complaints about Substack giving advances to transphobes.

You can see why this would undermine my confidence in Substack's ability to handle the current controversy well.

Likewise there is Substack's latest official word on the subject in which we get the "some of our best friends are…" defense that the Pro writers who were given advances include "More than half are women, and more than a third are people of color." Which of course is 1) hard to prove when they won't release the names of who is on the Pro program and 2) ignores the fact that being a woman and/or person of color doesn't automatically mean someone isn't a conservative transphobic asshole.

And this on top of them saying that those known to be on the Pro program are "none that can be reasonably construed as anti-trans" when… c'mon.

So yeah. Even though there hasn't been a collective consensus my gut suspects the right thing to do is to migrate. Which brings us to the next issue.


Technical Matters

One of the kickers for me is that, since this newsletter is new, I'd already done the research on what the options are and which was the best choice for me. Substack's features won by a huge margin. So for me picking somewhere else to go isn't easy.

To be clear: this is separate from the choice of should I go. The should is ethics and that takes precedence. This is purely about the practical issues of okay, if do go, where do I move to?

My goals for the newsletter are twofold. One, to share information that I have based on my experiences which I feel could be useful for others (such as what I go through as someone who is disabled) and two to give me a place to get all my thoughts and analysis out on things that I would otherwise be turning into disgustingly long twitter threads. Ultimately you can boil this down to "share my writing" as opposed to things like "make tons of money."

To that end, here was my list of wants when I first did my research and landed on Substack:

  • Newsletter functionality

  • Online archive

  • Ability to reach a larger audience than my social media could alone (so things like SEO, discoverability, good search engine ranking)

  • Simple interface

  • No ads

  • No financial barrier for the audience (HIGH priority)

  • Little to no financial barrier for me (moderate priority)

At the time I first made my decision, Substack was the only site which ticked all those boxes. The only other one which came close was Medium and Medium forces people to pay after they hit their free article limit, so fuck that on its ear.

As I've spent time with Substack, though, I have started to feel a desire for functions which weren't originally on my list but which I think would be useful. Even before the controversy happened I was thinking how much I would love a tagging function and/or some way of organizing my archive so that people who are curious about disability stuff, or WandaVision analysis, or whatever have better options than scrolling through a list of articles that are only organized by date. I'd even joked to friends that if a site made itself available that was close enough to Substack but had a tagging feature, I'd jump in a heartbeat for that alone, never mind all the other reasons. (I am nothing if not a whore for good organization.)

Because of that and because of some recent changes - like literally just this past week or so - there is one option that is emerging as a frontrunner for where I could go to. But there are some factors in that decision that I want to discuss.


GhostPro

Regardless of my own preferences, Ghost is emerging as the platform of choice for people leaving Substack. Ethically, the thing people like is that it's a non-profit company with open source software so even if the people in charge turn out to be assholes (which my dive into some of their twitter feeds has shown no immediate sign of, unlike the Substack CEO's) you can simply take the code, host it on your own site, and never have to deal with them.

On the technical side, Ghost offers all of the options that I personally was looking for plus the advantage of the organizational features I was starting to yearn for. It didn't come close previously but the new 4.0 update hit the final few buttons on that end.

Conversely, all of the other options have only become worse alternatives. For example sites that are only newsletters or only with ads and so on. Likewise, another plus in Ghost's column is that it has enough flexibility that if my needs continue to evolve I should in theory be able to adjust the newsletter and archive to evolve with them.

So that's all the good. Here's the… not bad per se but not thrilling either. Which is that Ghost comes with a cost.

I'm on disability. That means I'm on a fixed income. Now it's fortunately not so fixed that I'm having to split cans of food with my cat but it is to the point where I have to keep a closer eye on my margins. Hence why the part where Substack was also free for me was a nice advantage.

Based on my research, there's no form of Ghost which doesn't come with some cost. You can get their code for free, yes, but you have to pay to host it somewhere to say nothing of the additional costs of okay if you want that newsletter to function you've got to get a paid membership with a newsletter company, if you want this other function you have to pay this other company and so on and so forth.

Conversely, you can get a GhostPro account where they host the site and the various feature integrations come as part of your fees.

Now the plus side is that if you are small potatoes like myself the costs aren't necessarily huge in either direction. Me and my little newsletter aren't going to be requiring as much work and expense as Dan Rather's would, for example.

I've done the research and when you compare the nickel and dime version of costs on top of having to keep track of every separate piece of the puzzle to make sure that it's working (which is NOT something my brain can do right now) the GhostPro option emerges as the clear winner. Particularly since not only do they have all those options but they can bring over the Substack archives and mailing list so nothing gets lost in the move.

The other thing which is nice is that with the recent 4.0 launch Ghost added a much cheaper tier for payment. Previously the cheapest was $29/month if you paid for a year in advance, $36/month if you don't. Now there's an option for $9/month if you pay in advance, $15/month if you don't.

I'll be honest: the $29/$36 option would've been a no deal for me. Not that I can't afford $29/$36 a month if I needed to but again with tight margins it's not something I would spend on an experiment. I'd rather try another site which doesn't meet my needs 100% but also doesn't have that cost. That's money I could be keeping handy for an emergency co-payment or some such.

The $9/$15 option, though, is more feasible. Not as wonderful as completely free would be, but feasible.

And if I have to give up "Free to me" as an option in exchange for moving to a more ethical site I am happy to do that. (Same with having to move to a site which stays free but doesn't have all the features I'm looking for. I'm okay making some kind of sacrifice here as needed if it's the right thing to do.)

That being said, there is a third option which is either the elephant in the room and/or so obvious you've been sitting here reading all this and waiting to tell me this whole time. So…


Option Three: Do We Turn On Paid Subscriptions?

I cannot stress how much I feel weird even having this conversation given that not only am I not looking to get paid for this but I'm not even sure how much I could even if I did want to. Again: I'm on disability. If you can work, you're not disabled. There's allowance for some income but the way my anxiety is right now I don't even want to come anywhere near that limit and risk anything.

Also I never ever ever want to make the useful information on the site inaccessible to the people who need it most. Cost is a barrier to entry, ergo there will never be cost to get to that information.

However, it feels weird to bring up the matter of operating costs and not bring up the option? Maybe?

Look, I'm very bad at the human interaction thing where people do stuff for me. Do stuff for other people? Sure, all day every day. But the reverse? Does not compute, I literally do not know how to speak that language, this is one of many MANY reasons why I am in therapy.

So like… picture me making vague hand gestures as I go… is this it? One of those times where possibly in theory to normal people it is screamingly obvious that you provide a help option in case help is what they want to offer? Maybe?

Basically my thought is that an extra advantage of Ghost is, unlike Substack, AFAIK I have complete freedom on setting parameters of subscriptions. So like with Substack your options were subscriptions are on or off, and if they are on you have to charge a minimum of $5/month. (You can discount that but it has to be marked as a discount). You can have free content still so it's not all subscriber locked, but again there's a lack of flexibility.

With Ghost it's much more flexible. Again I haven't tested this but from what I've read if subscriptions are turned on there's no requirement for a minimum, no requirement for what is and isn't behind a paid barrier, or anything like that. It could simply be an easily integrated way for people to drop some money in a tip jar of sorts to help keep the site running. I would still have to set some kind of cost but it wouldn't have to be prohibitive. (I might also provide some kind of extra as a thank you to those who donate but it would be 100% extra and not the meat of the site).

And because of the way Ghost works, other than processing fees, all of the money would go to me, which would then by extension go into costs for running the site. It wouldn't be like Substack where I get a cut, processing fees get a cut, and Substack gets a cut which they then give to some jerkwad like Glenn Greenwald.

Or there could be the actual tip jar option of Ko-Fi for people who don't want to manage paid subscriptions of any kind but who still want to help with the site costs.

Or both! Again, Ghost offers the flexibility.

So my question to you all is: Should those options be turned on?

Again, cannot stress enough there would be no requirement to pay, no barrier to entry on getting the good stuff, nothing like that. Simply hey, it's there if you want it and if you don't you can keep on ignoring it no harm no foul.

And to be clear, this isn’t even asking about if you, personally, would pay. That’s a totally separate thing. I mean great if you would, don’t get me wrong, but this isn’t about me asking for people to pledge or something. This is 100% right now just a question of do you think it’s a good idea for me provide the subscription option to help defray the costs.

Yes? No? Maybe? Some option four I haven't even thought of?

Let me know either in the comments or email or twitter DMs or whatever works best for you. I am all virtual ears.

Much appreciated. Thank you!