Substack is great. Here's how to make it better.

I met Hamish McKenzie about a year ago when he came by the San Francisco Writers Grotto to tell us about Substack. What made it so compelling to me as a venture was how simple, yet powerful his ambitions were: Blogging with a better business model. So I sent him a note back on Aug. 13 about how I would make Substack better. With the announcement of Substack Reader today, I thought I’d share its contents. I’m sure I’m not the only person out there who suggested Substack create a better way to find newsletters, but I’m sure glad they did it.

8/13/20

Hamish,

The opportunity Substack has in front of it is incredible. I think you have brand permission to go beyond just being a technology platform for newsletters but to actually reinvigorate freelance journalism and commentary - maybe fiction too. Right now the pay is so low for most work - it’s the same as it was in 1990 - that writing can feel like a hobby. Writers need good creation and distribution tools. But they also need the bargaining power to get paid a livable wage, to have access to affordable healthcare, and to have agents who know how to turn their writing into bigger more lucrative projects. The stuff you are doing with legal backing as well as with fellowships is incredibly important. I hope it's only a beginning. 

So what would I improve immediately?

1) Improve search/discovery. Substack writers want distribution and to be able to find each other to maybe collaborate/bundle. Substack readers want to be able to discover new Substack writers.  But the Substack search function doesn't really do either of those. If I want to find all the Substack newsletters that mention the FTC and Facebook, I get no results when I type those words into the Substack search box. It's more more fruitful to do a Google search: Site:Substack.com "FTC Facebook" though it’s  

I get it. Search is hard if you aren’t using Google’s or Microsoft’s technology. Wired’s search function stinks too. We also use Google to find old Wired stories. One Substack writer I talked to also wondered if a powerful, opaque search algorithm controlling which writers’ stories get top billing might leave you open to accusations of favoritism. You want your writers to feel like both your interests are aligned, not like you, the writer, have to do SEO to get top billing from your own backer. 

So ... kill the search box and create Substack Feed. This would be a link to a Feedly-like RSS reader that could by default list every Substack newsletter post by Most Recent - to avoid favoritism accusations. From there, readers could set their own sorting preferences  - by Author/Feed, Topic, Post Popularity, and Author Subscriber Base. 

This link could replace the search box on the Substack home page. It could also be a link that any Substack author, or anyone for a fee, could add to their website. It could also be an alternative way for readers to look at a writer's archive. 

Another option, at least from a layout and design perspective, might be a customizable version of Techmeme called Substackmeme. Gabe Rivera at Techmeme might even help you do it. The layout has the advantage of showing readers Substack stories ordered not only based on whatever preference they choose, but also with the top social media conversations about those posts below them. 

These ideas would have the additional benefit of helping to market Substack. Users would experience first hand - and visually - just how much was happening every hour on Substack. One of Google's great marketing bits in the early days was a map of the earth from space showing where Google searches were happening real time around the world. I saw it first in 2003 when it was just an engineer’s pet project. You felt like you were actually watching Google change the world in front of you. You want to create a similar feeling with Substack Feed. You want readers to see it and go  “Holy Shit. Look at how much is happening here that I didn't know about." 

Substack Feed could also be a good place for Substack to sell newsletter bundles or for that matter enable users to click and create their own bundles - eg. three newsletters for $10 a month, five for $15, eight for $20. 

2) Make it easier for writers to turn their thoughts into Substack posts. Help them find the best distribution channels to mine. Get them better data about their posts. And help them figure out what to do with it. Writing is hard. Writing and being the publisher too is even harder. Anything Substack can do to make it possible for writers to create posts during a 10 minute Uber ride and,  as much as possible, automate the marketing, distribution, and sales part of their job is a good thing. Before I wrote a book I was one of those journalists who wondered what those on the marketing, sales and distribution side of the house did all day. What an arrogant doofus I was.  

Specifically: 

*** Buy or partner with Thread Reader. How many times have we seen incredible essays and op-eds written in 10 takes on Twitter? How incredible would it be to build an audience for an idea there, and when the Thread Reader option appeared, have that click take readers to the complete post on the author's Substack? I'd enable similar functionality for other social media apps to the degree possible. You could also use this as a recruiting tool for new writers. "Wow, I just splatted out a column in 10 takes on Twitter. Look how nice and cogent it looks sewn together on Substack." I'd troll Twitter for every writer with a following create a list of prospects, and get them to sign up. 

*** Create some kind of bookmarker/web clipper, or partner to offer that functionality.

Everyone has their own way of keeping track of ideas and stories they run into during the day. Make that process easier to do on Substack than anywhere else. I'd love to have  "Post to Substack" and "Store on Substack" options when I click the "Send to" icon at top right of my phone screen. If I’m not posting to Twitter or Facebook, I keep track of things by emailing myself links - Twitter conversations, web pages, other social media tidbits. It sounds kluge, but it's fast and doesn't create another information channel for me to look at. Having everything get stored or posted via Substack would be better. Is there a way to do this without having your own mobile app? I know mobile apps out of the AppStore don't mix well with those trying to build subscription businesses.

*** Create Hootsuite or Buffer functionality that works in both directions. If I post or comment on something on Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, or any other social media platform, give me the option to have that appear as a post on my Substack. And when I post something on Substack, enable me to post a version of it with the link on every social media platform, not just Twitter.  (Yes, I know Facebook has become annoying about this.)  

*** Partner with Alice.ai. Q&As with interesting people are great content. Steven Levy's interview with Larry Brilliant at the beginning of the pandemic has become one of the top five read Wired stories ever. But Q&A's are a pain to create because of the time or expense required to transcribe the interview. There are a zillion AI-driven voice transcription apps out there. But most are too expensive and have privacy policies that make journalists squeamish. Alice is the only one designed with both the pricing and privacy requirements journalists require - because one of the co-founders is Adam Fisher, a long time journalist himself. You could buy their 100-hour package for $300 - 5 cents a minute - resell it to writers for 6 cents a minute and still be offering a huge bargain over anything else out there. Trint is 25 cents a minute. Using Alice, a 90-minute interview costs $5.40 to transcribe at 6 cents a minute, $4.50 at 5 cents a minute.   

*** Become a subscription conduit for other professional media outlets - local and national - and partner with them as a source and distributor for their content. It would be amazing, for example, if I could add and manage all my news subscriptions in my Substack Feed. Would big media put Substack Feed on their websites in return?  Yes, the business dynamics in big and small professional media are changing so fast that it's hard to keep up. But in other ways their business has become simpler as their ad businesses have evaporated: They want good content that will bring in additional subscriptions/readers. 

Why should you let other publications compete for your newsletter subscribers? I think the potential marketing and distribution benefits outweigh worries about subscription fatigue. Sure, there is a theoretical limit on how many publications people will subscribe to. But it's also true that people will eagerly pay money for content that makes them smarter in life and work. Also, you don't need more than 2,000-3,000 subscribers paying $5 a month to have a viable newsletter. 

***

For as long as I've been a journalist with an internet presence I've been hoping someone would come up with a platform that Substack seems to be heading towards - a place I could easily set up and use as my digital home online, and a place that would help me handle the critical back end functions like legal, benefits, and business development. I thought the blogging revolution in the aughts might enable something like this. Then I thought Facebook might do it when it  first became available for public use back in 2007. Now I’m hoping Substack can do it. 

There has never been a better time for this. That's not just because of the growth in freelance writing right now. It's also because we've reached the point in the explosion of information sources and communications platforms that I actually think we need aggregation. We see this problem most acutely in private communications. I like to use my Gmail as a searchable database of my life’s activity. But chunks of my communications now also happen over text, What’s App, Twitter DM, Slack, LinkedIn mail and Facebook Messenger. That’s half a dozen places to search if I can’t find my back and forth with someone on email.

It’s increasingly the same story with my public posts. Which of the half dozen channels I use did I say what in? I think Substack can help fix this. It would be great to land on a Substack writer's page and quickly get an entire picture of that writer’s work and thoughts in every channel he/she used. 

It would be a place where readers could go to not only see my bio, but also see links to everything I'd written, every lecture, TV, radio and podcast I'd done, and see an archive of all my social media postings. I could manually create this and keep it updated, of course. It would be better if someone else gave me tools to do it faster. A company called Authory.com is taking a whack at part of this. They have algorithms that first search everything you've written online, automatically create an archive, and then automatically add to that list as you write. But the technology wasn't ready for prime time when they tried to get me interested in it two years ago. Substack is positioned to do so much more.

Maybe hoping for this - a place that acts like my talent agency - is an impossible dream. But you guys are the first I've run into who seem like they want to try and understand the writing life well enough to make it happen.