When my puku is churning it usually means I have to.
1) My first reason for not wanting to write about it is because there's so much hype around it now. But where was collectivisation 3 years ago in response to the mountains of toxic transphobic, racist and anti-vax mis and disinformation? The alarm about Substack's role not just in giving a platform to hate speech but crucially financially benefiting from that hate speech (and misinformation), was raised AGES ago.
Influential writers with large followings, some who had been with Substack right from the start with pro deals (like Luke O'Neil who's farewell post was written way back in 2022), left under a puff of controversy - but nothing like the storm of recent months. But despite coordinated efforts to pressure Substack to change its moderation policies, no-one seemed to care much en-masse back then. I hardly heard a whisper about it here in Aoteaora. That worried me deeply on two counts: did it mean that writers were simply not reading the material being published around them? OR, were they reading and keeping their heads down, mouths shut, hoping no-one would notice??
I have written about my frustrations and concerns with Substack a number of times. I didn't make a huge deal of it, but people who've followed me since the beginning will know I have never been ok with (many things about) that platform [I realise some of you will be reading this in your inbox and may not even have noticed I moved which is excellent!].
Unfortunately, when I joined Substack, I launched about three weeks before I became aware of the hate speech problem. When I realised how bad it was I knew I wouldn't be able to stay but I also couldn't face shifting after the anguish I just went through convincing myself to even start a newsletter. I gave myself a year's grace, then took another 8 months to complete the shift to Ghost due to #admin (see below). I would have to trawl back through the shit of the internet to find all the references to the controversy from that time, but I don't want to spend my beautiful sunny Saturday morning doing that because I don't want to write about it!! But please just trust me when I say The Hate Speech Problems with Substack are Not New.
2) So then, why now? If you missed it, the most recent controversy blew up in December last year when The Atlantic ran a piece by a writer who did a deep dive to discover how rampant anti-Semitism was on Substack. He published the story under an absolutely damning headline "Substack has a Nazi Problem". The public trial of Substack that followed was intense and swift and widespread. Writers joined together to publish an open letter which, if you follow a few writers, you may have received multiple times all at once in your inbox (if you didn't, here's the letter and a list of signatories.) Curiously, the list included a number of writers who I'd never once seen raise even the slightest hint of discontent with Substack before.
So why, I wanted to know, was anti-Semitic hate speech considered worthy of a vocal boycott and collective action in December 2023, but anti-trans and other racist hate speech in 2021 wasn't?? I was also curious as to why no-one had done a similar deep dive of anti-Muslim, anti-Arab and Zionist propoganda on Substack? Why were the parameters of hate speech so narrow?
And let me be clear: obviously I support the de-platforming of Nazis. The public shaming of Substack was well overdue. But I am frustrated that some hate speech seems to be more tolerable to people's conscience than others. It's wild how fast and scared people will spin their wheels if they think they might be accused of supporting anti-Semitism. Somehow it all felt like a reactionary performance - a tick box, hands-up-don't-shoot-me-defence rather than active steps to challenge racism and white supremacy all the time - not just when leaned on and with the relative protection of a group (*more on this in a minute).
The clue is the timing: The Atlantic piece was not even original. What that writer uncovered, especially in terms of Substack's dirty hands, had been pointed out many times before by others [you can find the material without too much effort but I don't want to have to go searching for it again and make myself sick]. It seems obvious that the timing of the genocide raging in Palestine is at least part of the reason people knew they would need to act.
Don't get me wrong, it's great to see writers collectivising to get Nazi shit off Substack, but I hope that they will (continue to) be equally as vocal and uncompromising when it comes to exposing all the other forms of hate speech that also run rampant on Substack. Otherwise it worries me it's just words without action.
3) Reason 3 ethics and judgment. I'm speaking directly to my fellow New Zealand writers on Substack now: I don't want to judge people who have decided to stay on Substack, or who have only just recently joined, or who are considering joining. I don't want my views to come across as some kind of holier-than-thou-ethical standard. That's another reason I've been hesitant to say anything - the hate speech was not the main reason, perhaps not even the most important reason, that I left Substack. I genuinely believe what I said up there at the end of point 2: putting your name to a letter is easy. What each of us do away from the theatre of the internet every day to support the dismantling of power hierarchies matters so much more. Only you know what you do. Your conscience in relation to Substack is a separate thing and it doesn't need to be publicly declared unless you feel you really have to. I especially say this to my other kaituhi Māori and indigenous writers. You're fighting enough fights out there!! I see you! Stay on Substack if it's easier, if you can't face the admin (believe me I get it), or if the place just suits how you roll.
But for those of us actually making money for Substack, we do have a responsibility to consider how we undermine and challenge the systemic fuckery and redirect some of the coin (Side note: I'm not talking to those who make a few hundred dollars, although, considering Substack takes 10% of every transaction whether you have 10,000 subscribers or 10, it effectively operates like a flat tax rate so you'd probably be better off financially elsewhere anyway).
A number of writers I respect have moved away, others are talking with their communities in really engaged and meaningful ways. These writers I also respect and I see the work they do in many places. Regardless our positions as individual writers, what I care about the most is that all of us as writers use the platforms and audiences we have to raise our voices against ALL HATE SPEECH and especially GENOCIDE and ohmygosh i'm gonna say it, please can we read each other's words and amplify the voices of those who have far less reach and far more at stake in terms of threats as a result of publishing?
Sign your name to all the letters, of course, but the work is not a performance and it does not stop there. We have to listen to the oppressed, we have to take steps to do more of what they tell us is needed.
4) I don't want to talk about MONEY but my puku is insisting: Substack likes to tell you you can monetise your blog and organically grow your audience and they have all kinds of tricks and tips to encourage you to go paid - and why wouldn't they, when they take a cut of every tiny koha you get?
But lemme tell you, this is some networking marketing bullkaka. Like any service or trade, to be financially successful on Substack, even nominally, you a) have to provide people with something they actually want and believe is deserving and b) have sufficient subscribers paying above a certain threshold. The stats are consistent and clear: most people who monetise will have around 10% who pay. There are calculators readily available in the shape of koolaid but it's probably faster and more interesting to share with you my own stats (which I very rarely check because it makes me feel all kinds of weird and gross and I do not like thinking you might feel spied upon).
- 992 subscribers in total
- 812 are free subscribers
- 117 are paying (amounts varying from $5 per month to $100 annual founding member plan)
- 63 are comps/free AND, I have just discovered through this process that when I made the transition to Ghost, none of the subs that I gifted carried over!! And no-one even told me! You lovely shy people!! I have fixed this error now so you will have access again to everything behind the paywall). If you need a free sub, just ask!
$$$: In terms of how much money I make - I don't know the monthly figure - I don't keep track of it. It all goes into a separate account and at the end of the financial year I pay tax on it (Yes, it's taxable income! I also pay GST on it because I'm GST registered! These are minor but very important admin details that Substack doesn't remind you about because they could care less about your tax obligations). So last year, after tax and GST, I had about $6,000k in my Substack account. This had accrued over about 20 months. I spent just over half of it on publishing Narrating The Seasons of Grief and the rest is still in the account ready for the next self or collective publishing venture.
Side note: A much more interesting stat to me is how many people on average actually open my newsletter and that stat sits consistently around 57%. Apparently this is very good, and I'm stoked about that. However it does suggest that just under half of you are eg. too busy, not interested, signed up by mistake etc: That's because Substack has tricky sign-up methods to help over inflate writers' egos with subscriber numbers, and they also lowkey shame people by not making it easier to downgrade subs or cancel. I feel embarrassed that my newsletter might be crowding out people's inboxes who aren't remotely interested in my writing, so if you happen to be reading this and don't care for it, please don't feel any guilt in hitting unsubscribe :)
The point is, Substack markets itself as a newsletter but newsflash: IT'S A BUSINESS!! It's a very specific kind of business - a pyramid-style one. I don't think I can even coherently tell you why I hate it so much, it would become it's own book-length rant. I think it's because I grew up in an Amway household (Love you, Mum) and I saw how these businesses work. They target people who are poor, they promise and oversell by showing them examples of people who are rich, and then they make people fall in love with a fantasy that is structurally impossible to achieve and rigged against them. Ultimately, if I could only pick one reason for finally leaving Substack it's this one. They take money off people who least have it to spare, selling a dream that's not realistic for 99% of people, and then claim they're providing some altruistic public service. It's ok to make money and be in business, but they are NOT upfront (or perhaps they're in denial) that that's what they really are. It's the misleading nature of it that I don't like.
[Side note: How hard my Mum worked!! Here's a picture of her at the first Amway National Convention in Wellington in 1990]
5) Okay where am I up to in the list of things I don't want to talk about? Oh, meaningful actions versus hot air (looping back to the activism out front versus the actions no-one sees). For this, I really want to mihi to Emily Writes, because a third of you found me via Emily's recommendation.
I am therefore proof of the network marketing model that drives the success of Substack. Without the reach that Emily has, my subscribers would never have grown as steadily as it has. Emily is one of the original pro-writers Substack paid to write full time, and has consistently used her platform to share and amplify other writers - especially Māori, Pacific, Queer and other writers shut out of mainstream publishing.
Interesting side note: none of Substack's pro deals were given to Māori or Pacific writers (that I'm aware of.)
The crucial thing is, Emily's not just dropping links. Emily actually reads widely and recommends widely. She's a writer.... who reads other bloggers!!! She's a writer who reads other bloggers AND listens to what they are saying and asking and I have never once seen her sit silently inside a space that is safe for some and not for others.
6) There aren't that many writers in Aotearoa like Emily. But nor am I singling out any particular writers for not being "more like Emily". I don't want anyone to feel to targeted, because I personally have been incredibly well supported by both kaituhi Māori and allies. But not everyone gets the support that I do, and I also think that there ARE writers out there with huge national reach through mainstream publications, podcasts, and even youtube channels. These "influencers" genuinely could, without much effort, walk the talk by amplifying others' voices.
I hold myself to the same standard - that's the whole motivation behind my sporadic Poppin' Off Pānui. It's not even a sacrifice or a labour. I LOVE writing the Poppin' Off Pānui and wish I had more time to write them . There are others who actively do this work too - shout out to Nicole Titihuia whose role in the Māori Literature space as Official Hypewoman for kaituhi Māori is basically a public service - please subscribe to the MLT newsletter and follow on socials, and Lee: you are amazing).
As a community of creatives in Aotearoa, we could, and need, to do so much better. We need to actively read more widely. We need to branch out. Challenge ourselves to expose and confront our hidden biases. Sitting in our IG or TikTok chambers and pushing shares is fine for bursts, but it will never ever be enough. We need to talk about our mistakes and hapa and own them. Publishing is not ever gonna be safe, but it sure as hell isn't gonna be safe until and unless all of demand that it is and create the conditions that it can be. If you feel safe, that's not lucky, that's evidence of privilege.
Sidenote: I'm genuinely curious why other writers don't make a point of doing this more. Do they read and simply not share or is it something much more murky, like Substack being ultimately a competitive rather than collaborative environment, despite the tools that try to tell us otherwise? I honestly think that people just don't read widely enough.
On that note, if you read my blog but I don't read your blog, please leave a comment and a link to it below and I will definitely read and follow. Some of my most reliable commenters have their own newsletters and I always make a point of reading them - not just because I love being part of a reader/writer community, but because I am genuinely interested in what others are thinking about and making and working on. If I don't follow your blog, it'll just be that I didn't realise you had one. Please let this always be a place where you feel invited to share your own work or someone else's. THANK YOU.
7) I'm losing count of reasons and the day has fully receded, it's evening and the rain is pissing down and I still haven't finished. The 7th reason I didn't want to talk about leaving Substack is because of Social media and by extension, admin. Let's face it, building a website is eternal punishment for most of us (I see you @Cass). I think I'd rather pick fluff off the couch while listening to Talk Back radio than build a website too. And then there's the need to promote yourself and share the damn thing! UGHHH. The work feels endless and boring - which is why so many people love Substack. They do ALL of that because they're your personal hustler!
But as they've grown, their hustling has gotten more bolshy. They've grown their stable of social media engagement tools to the point it is beginning to look like a hybrid of all the other platforms before it. A twitter slash Facebook groups slash newsletter mash-up - modelled on 1990s Amway Textbooks.
It feels like a train speeding towards a concrete wall and we all know how it ends. We saw the wreck of Twitter, the sick wasteland of FB comments. Substack hasn't dealt with the issues that imploded those platforms, all it's done is create create cordons between people so we can live under the false illusion that there is harmony and peace and community where in fact there is hatred and animosity and death threats. They are not providing a public service, they have created a tech solution to a social problem and found a way to make it pay.
I predict that monetised newsletters have peaked. The editorial role of online platforms (and newspapers before them) has shifted the power into the hands of individual writers, but as to whether that is a wholly good thing, is a chapter still be written.
The admin involved in shifting away from Substack is SO boring and I really didn't want to talk about (though I referenced it back in December) but if you have stuck with me all this time, you must be some beggar for punishment. Some people manage to make the move from Substack in a day or two (some writers who have big enough platforms will receive personalised service). I managed to make a part time job of it.
Here's a visual summary from the time I first contacted Ghost in April 2023 to December last year. Probably the only reason I stuck with Ghost is because of this thread. 77 emails long. Look at them! Ghost demonstrated over a period of 8 months that they genuinely care about people more than money.
Here's me in April (and these emails were pages long listing my complaints hahaha)
By June we're basically mates
And in December we're cracking the champagne!
Like I said earlier, there are ways to show your support and not all of them demand huge administrative effort like shifting platforms. So if you decide to stay on Substack I don't think you have to punish yourself for the Fuckery of a platform that you did not create. You could just as easily show up at a march for Palestine. You could use your existing platform to share and amplify the work of writers doing the work to dismantle power hierarchies in thousands of tiny and often unseen and undervalued ways. You could keep going, and keep going.
The biggest reason I did not want to write this post is because the kūmara does not need speak of its own sweetness and I worried that half this rant could be perceived as someone pointing out how great they are. Look at me taking an ethical stance in leaving Substack, I'm so great! Or, look at me sharing my private subscriber information with people, I'm so great! Or, look at me throwing shade at other writers for not being better allies when I have no idea what those writers do!
But I guess if people think that I'm an arrogant dick, that's their business. As Renee used to say: "there's always the chance that someone will totally disagree and that's their right."
But for me, my puku has told me it's time to get braver. Not just by leaving Substack, but also showing up more authentically online, more fallibly, more vulnerably. Challenging myself - as well as chilling out. I mean, it's just a fucking newsletter, Lois!
You may have noticed I'm now putting more behind the paywall than I used to as well. It's not a sales tactic, it's signalling to readers which bits I've chosen to keep for a smaller audience. It's a line where you know that the reader audience you're with is similarly engaged. It's a safe(r) space for deeper, slower, more meaningful connections (or maybe just for private gags?).
Revenue is not the reason, but by god I am incredibly, incredibly grateful for every subscriber who does koha, because when my contract ends in June I plan to use some of the pūtea I've saved to take some time off full time mahi to focus on one of my longer projects. This isn't marketing spiel. I will never put pressure on you to become a paid subscriber. It's just an explanation for those who may have noticed a shift in my content recently and wonder what's behind it, and if it might be something you want to be a part of. Everyone's (except eggs) welcome - if you need a paid sub, please just message me.
Ok I hope my puku will stop grinding now.
Thank you ALL for being here.