Chapters locked behind a paywall. Writing hand drawing Substack logo. (Image: Substack and Alyssa Shotwell.)

Authors Choosing Paid Substack Serials Over Full Books Worries Me as a Reader

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In the last few weeks, I’ve seen increasing stories of authors choosing to publish their books as serials through the newsletter platform Substack. Readers on the platform are able to subscribe to specific writers and read that content via email or on a website. Many writers do a mix of free and paid content. The difference from the platform Medium is that readers do not get a limited number of free articles a month. Instead, the author chooses what is free and what readers must pay for.

While journalism (what many people see the platform as, for now) has an interesting, albeit complicated, case for the site, fiction is what worries me. Short stories could work, but the shift to break up longer works on a paid platform like this is concerning for a few reasons. Before getting into that, let’s talk about the good coming from fiction writers using the site and how we got here.

How serials can help writers

Reminder from the first English class that introduced you to Charles Dickens: Serials aren’t new. Dickens, like other authors in the past such as Alexander Dumas, Leo Tolstoy, and Arthur Conan Doyle, published stories in bits at a time before the narrative was physically stitched in a book. This was actually how I first learned about them, and since then, I dreaded to think, what if I missed one!? Now, with the internet, that is less likely. (Well, not so much with Substack, but we’ll talk about that later on.)

Serials even in the recent past have led to authors finding great success. In science fiction and fantasy alone, authors like Andrew Weir (The Martian) and N.K. Jemison were found via free chapters of their books online. In fact, two major imprints, Tor.com (under MacMillan) and Orbit (under Lagardère Publishing), have found authors or acquired already started/completed novels via parts of their writing being online.

Both Weir and Jemison’s work was posted free online, which is where the similarities diverge with the newish trend of serials. The model for platforms like Substack is focused on getting paid readers for exclusive writings. Not everything is behind the paid (Plus) version. However, the shift in authors starting fiction serials on substack is by using the paid model. This means that people in a profession in which not having money is a stereotype (second only to the visual artists) now have another way to earn a living.

It didn’t come out of nowhere. The last decade showed us the trend of creatives online looking at ways to monetize their work—some as a side hustle and others as an entry point to a career in that particular interest. This is where online ads come in—Patreon (and Subbable before Patreon bought it), Kofi, Paypal, CashApp, Square, and more. Platforms like YouTube, Twitch, Facebook, etc. rolled out partnership programs and subscription options. Similar to some of these, Substack also began a residency program for selected writers.

For some writers, like Salman Rushdie (The Satanic Verses) and Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club), Substack offered advances to start on the platform. Palahniuk told Publishers Weekly, “They offered me an advance that was comparable to what I was getting from Hachette for the book.” For Palahniuk and Rushdie, who both have had their work challenged, Substack also provides alternatives to magazines, a struggling business. Alternatives to traditional publishing routes, especially from marginalized authors (like by age, race, education, etc.), can be a way to subvert a few barriers to entry.

Unfinished work, accountability, and burnout

While the serialization of books can provide financial opportunities for authors and new ways to engage with readers, I have many concerns for all parties involved.

For readers, it worries me to think that my favorite authors all might go to the platform, and unless I pay up, I won’t get to read their next title. Sure, some can later publish their books for us to buy or check out from the library, but until then, there is a continual wall between us and their stories.

What about those who pay for a story for a few months (on Substack) and the author decides to publish the book in another format? Are they to pay for it twice? (Which I do understand people do.) What if the first book is physical and then the series goes serial or vice versa? This will not turn off all readers, but the reality is you don’t want to make it more difficult to get a hold of your story.

Another element is the lack of accountability on whether or not the story gets finished. There is an infinite number of unfinished books out there, and it’s probably better that they are wholly undone instead hooking people with a few chapters and never giving a resolution.

Now, as frustrating as it is for those of still unfinished long-running series (like A Song of Fire and Ice), at least with those, there are constructed arcs within each entry in the series. So while you may not have the full picture, there is a complete story in each book. And in the age of binge-watching and spoilers online, to add a piece-by-piece long-form story by way of a newsletter is just frustrating.

This all sounds so selfish, but issues arise for writers, too. Other creatives that rely on online web traffic and regular content get burned out, such as YouTubers, visual artists, etc. They have no arc to complete, and the pressures of telling a long-form narrative but in a weekly or monthly format that relies on routine support. This can be averted with reasonable schedules and transparency, but that is something that often takes failing at and attempting to continue to really learn. Even then, like writing, not everyone is cut out for it, and that is okay.

Some writers may plan it all out and THEN launch, similar to TV shows that are shot, edited, and then released week-by-week. However, that isn’t a requirement, and reader response may influence stories. If a writer loses subscribers because of a character’s trajectory, does that mean they will change it to bend to the wants of the readers? Now, does a collective choose-you-own-adventure week-by-week sound fun? Absolutely, and that is why D&D shows are so popular.

However, what I’m talking about is the subconscious (or conscious, but behind the scenes) ways this can affect the writer. To refer to other online creatives again, it is almost a monthly occurrence in which one of my favorite creatives will say they are concerned because of the conflict between what algorithms (influenced by people’s decisions!) tell them people want and what they want to do. Writers already deal with this in different ways, and this is not a conversation about selling out, but this also acts as a reminder that Substack is not a cure-all.

If a writer I liked joined something like a Patreon where I could support their work and maybe get sneak peeks, that would be great. Even without bonus features, I support many artists, writers, and researchers on that platform so they can continue to keep their bread and butter available (usually for free on YouTube). Fiction writers could offer exclusive Q&As, readings, mood boards, character sheets, story art, deleted chapters, etc. for those that want to support their work.

Substack as a platform

Unrelated to the process and implications, I also take issue with the platform itself. Substack is the dominant force in the media and newsletter world but made headlines off and on over the last two years for how the site is funded. The platform continues to give big advances to writers that deliver hateful content to their users’ inboxes. This goes beyond allowing racist, homophobic, xenophobic, and sexist content to make money on the site. They are offering people that espouse this vitriol money to bring them and their readers to Substack.

They are not held to the same fire as other social platforms like YouTube, Twitter, and even the more equivalent Patreon, because everything is hidden. Who makes them money has only come out through leaks in the company and employee protests. In a way, this makes it very similar to traditional publishing which bids on, prints, and markets books of people who are vocal against multiculturalism, gender equality, etc. These people include a host of names like far-right politicians, Fox News grifters, Turning Point USA shills, and more.

In addition to this, Substack (again like other online spaces) allows for relaxed hate speech rules and Covid-19 misinformation because it makes the case that they are not publishers, and it is the users (that they allow) who are responsible. Look at Amazon to see how that is going. While much of Amazon’s self-published content is harmless, there are also so many books recommended with harmful conspiracy theories about anything you can imagine. What’s worse with Amazon is that the site will recommend them to you if you are looking at anything slightly related. While we can point and say, “Hey, what Amazon is doing is wrong,” Substack works behind closed doors with little incentive to do otherwise.

(featured image: Substack and Alyssa Shotwell)

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Author
Alyssa Shotwell
(she/her) Award-winning artist and writer with professional experience and education in graphic design, art history, and museum studies. She began her career in journalism in October 2017 when she joined her student newspaper as the Online Editor. This resident of the yeeHaw land spends most of her time drawing, reading and playing the same handful of video games—even as the playtime on Steam reaches the quadruple digits. Currently playing: Baldur's Gate 3 & Oxygen Not Included.