Are you a writer? Then perhaps you have been aware of the presence of Medium and Substack and how their presence has been changing the writing’s landscape. Have they, though? We will talk about that much later in this post.
Medium started out first, a couple of years ago, with promises of how budding writers can build up their following, publish articles and let the interwebs crawl them – all that wonderful SEO stuff. You could cross-publish your articles from your website to Medium and people could engage with them. You could put your articles behind a paywall and got paid each time you published.
Substack jumped into the game a couple of years ago, with promises that writers could build up their own newsletter following, write often and email their subscribers. There were loud promises of how writers didn’t need social media, substack is enough. There was also an introduction of a subscription model for paying members to your particular newsletter and you could post various forms of media – audio/podcasts and videos as well.
What drew me to Medium
The initial draw when I was still dabbling in the early days of my business and still building a following was that, you could be paid for the articles that you published. The more you published, the more people engaged with them, the better your payouts.
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I loved that Google would also crawl the article – great for SEO – but that the main link was back to my website. So it wasn’t taking up SEO juice but was increasing eyeballs to my writing and articles.
That was my main motivation for joining Medium – increasing the potential audience of my writings, the ability to engage with them and hopefully build a following as well as get paid.
Why I left Medium, Is Medium still worth it?
In those early days, things were wonderful. I didn’t see a huge sum from my writings, and honestly I didn’t publish there much as I already had my own blog, but the articles that saw a huge engagement – I actually saw a nice sum of money each month.
Definitely not enough to support any sort of living expenses haha, but nice to see a sum of money from your hobby/side hustle. However, these were the things that made me leave eventually:
#1 The constantly changing policies meant lesser people got to engage with your content
I haven’t been in touch much with the changing policies over the years, but I’ve seen it change quite a fair bit. One huge sign of that is that the engagement levels on my articles have dropped. Like literally trickled to nothing over the years.
If you are a business owner, one thing to always keep in mind is to never rely on one external platform as your main source of engagement/social media. These platforms always start off wonderfully, promising lots of things and making things super easy for you – because they are trying to build our their user base.
Once they have enough to sustain themselves, the policy and algorithms start creeping in and changing alot of things for their old userbase. See what has been happening/is happening to Pinterest? And it becomes frustrating and annoying. And you will never see your old engagement numbers ever again.
#2 Payouts were good initially but quickly trickled into peanuts territory
I recall one of my articles going viral and I was actually invited by the editorial team to publish on a specific publication that the Medium team had on the site. I received a nice payout – again it can’t replace a proper income – but nice enough as a hobby.
Monthly payouts were also still okay. But they starting messing about with memberships and partner (Writer) paywalls and stuff like that and I quickly saw my payouts dwindle to a few measly cents per article.
At this point, I was no longer interested in Medium and wasn’t posting there at all. But with the complaints that I frequently saw online and the amounts I saw being credited in my account – it just made me relieved that I didn’t invest more time there.
#3 The ROI on the time spent just wasn’t there
Like I’ve mentioned above, the amount of time you have to spend posting on Medium and the amount of money you get from all that time spent? The ROI is just not there. It doesn’t justify the time spent.
Yes, you get SEO traffic to your articles. Yes, maybe a couple of people will be so pleased they start following you as a writer. But that is a minority. And those who have seen alot of success on the platform already have a following elsewhere and have been more or less right there from the early days of Medium, posting INCESSANTLY.
You are better off exploring other options which I will mention below.
What got me into Substack then?
Well, substack was appealing – they all are initially 😉 They had a good premise – you could write and send out your writings to an email list. People could subscribe to it and if they wanted to, decide to pay for it after awhile.
It cut out alot of time spent posting on your own blog and then deciding what to send out to your email list separately. You could do both.
There was also the enticing option of getting people to pay for your newsletter, in a paid subscription type of model. You could post different things, including hosting your own podcast on the site. The interface was nice, clean and looked professional.
Why I left Substack in the end
I actually had a pretty decent following on Substack. None were paid, but I was able to build up to close to 100 subscribers although I wasn’t even posting regularly. It also gave me ideas for what resonated with people and what I could be writing for my mail email list. But again, the cons outweighed the pros:
#1 You will only see success if you already have a huge following elsewhere
ALL the writers that you see having a huge following and able to make an income on substack had a huge following elsewhere already and this is simply another platform for them to write on. Many are also former or current editors/writers/publishers/podcasters of various things and thus were already established in a sense.
Also, there was a certain elitist feel to it all – especially when it came to recommended substacks, shoutouts and stuff. It seemed to be just a bunch of already-established people with paid subscribers and huge followings recommending each other.
And thus building up their followings and subscribers even more. You will not likely see your newsletter get any organic mentions or recommendations unless you already know someone. So it’s like an additional platform for the who’s-who to build more relationships.
#2 There is no system for people to search for your newsletters and little incentive to join unless you are already huge
Building on the above point. The established and not-so-established gap is huge on substack. It’s like the rich-poor gap, the rich get richer, the middle class and low income get left behind. People with huge followings are more likely to promote other newsletters and writers on the same “level” as them. So this group just keeps building their income and followings and the rest of us have to scrimp for the leftovers.
And there is not much leftover as well, since there is absolutely no mechanism for people to search up newsletters in the app. You will see recommendations from time to time (also from other writers with a mid-or-high-following), but from obscure and new writers? Not at all.
Which runs against their whole promise of the platform being a great way to build a following, fast. You can’t build anything fast if there is no one looking/reading for your stuff and no way for people to search for it.
#3 Paid subscribers don’t earn you alot of money
I’m not too sure of the entire technicalities and mechanisms of the paywall, but there are calculations done around the net, and the additional amount of money you have to give Substack, on top of Stripe, is hefty. I couldn’t really justify that kind of thing. It was like having two middlemen eat into your income before you see any of it.
So again, you will only be seeing a sustainable income only if you have a huge following and only if you have a steady base of paying customers. Something to remember is that the people that pay for your services/products are always gonna be way less than the free subs. So having loads of free subs doesn’t mean they will all convert into paying customers.
In fact, don’t count on it. Paying customers and those who want things for free have very different considerations and posting more each month is not gonna turn most of the free subs into customers.
#4 Alot of the subscribers are inactive/dead
Many of them seem to read one or two stories and then never come back again. Substack is still a bubble on its own, it exists in a vacuum. You aren’t gonna find substack articles on google or social media or anywhere else. At least not now, not for awhile.
So the people will be on the app or website for awhile, happen to read some stuff that are interesting and never come back again, especially if there is little reason for them to do so. They may subscribe to your newsletter, get it in their email inbox and then never engage much.
I have no idea exactly why the subs are of a lower quality than elsewhere, but it just is. And I don’t know about you, but I have no desire to waste my time writing newsletters to people who will never read or open them.
So what do you do as a writer?
- #1 Create your own website
- #2 Find your own promotional outlets
Yup and there really is all there is to it. You just gotta put in the work yourself. Put in the hard work. And you will start to see results at some point. And be patient.
Yes, it’s a slow process, but really, that’s all you have to do. Instead of relying on these platforms to try and “speed” things up for you – hustle and do the groundwork. And remember as a writer, you’d want to be in control of your own work.
When you have your own website and promotional media, you have absolute freedom over how you want to post things, what you want to post, when and how to be creative in getting these writings in front of people.
When you rely on external writing platforms, all you are doing is putting in the time and energy to build up their platform, and you aren’t on the winning end at all. Why would you want that? Instead, spend that time and energy building up something that you have control over and soon you will reap the rewards, much bigger rewards than constantly churning out articles to keep someone else’s platform afloat and whose whims you are constantly subject to.