#6: Announcing Premium Subscriptions
The next step in leveling-up my writing game.
This week I’m officially announcing premium subscriptions, available through this Substack. Thanks to those of you who have already purchased one. Your support means a lot!
I’m playing around with different pricing and discounts schemes on the site, but the main one I’m offering to kick off premium subscriptions is one year for $29.50. With this paid subscription, you get access to two additional series. In Re-Viewed, I revisit the works—books, podcasts, movies, TV shows, etc—that have made the biggest impact on me. In Cog Rev Redux, I revisit episodes from the back catalogue of my podcast to go over what’s stuck with me from a conversation years later. For now, I’m planning for each of these to come out at least once a month. Maybe more, depending on how my other projects shape up. You can use the button below to purchase a subscription. Thanks!
I’m not gonna lie. It’s a strange business proposition, writing for money. Whether through the spoken or written word, communication is what we all do—pretty much all the time. Writing as a job has always for this reason struck me as a kind of grift. Like, it doesn’t make sense. I enjoy doing this way too much. You shouldn’t be allowed to derive that much enjoyment from your means of making a living. At any rate, putting a price on my work isn’t an ask that comes naturally to me. So I’ll say a little about how I’m structuring my writing revenue streams going forward. There are three mains ones.
The first stream is through this Substack. If there are any writers / podcasters you’ve followed for a while, you may notice that there’s been a huge shift toward these kinds of direct-to-inbox newsletters over the past couple years. It’s a big part of the modern author platform. The main reason for this, from the writer’s perspective, is about owning distribution. Essentially: whoever owns the distribution gets the biggest share of the profits.
In the traditional distribution scheme, a (freelance) writer publishes a piece in a magazine or an online venue. (The payment scheme is a bit different if you’re a staff writer for, like, The New Yorker or The Atlantic or something, but not that different.) The writer gets paid a one-time fee for contributing their piece. The publisher puts it in their magazine or on their website. This creates two problems for the author.
The first is that no matter how good their piece is, no matter how many eyes it brings in, they can’t earn more money from it. Sure, they can negotiate to get more for their next piece. But any additional revenue that piece brings in goes to the publisher, not the author.
The second—and more important one in my opinion—is that readers tend to attribute the quality of a piece more to a publisher than an author. In other words, if I publish a piece in a magazine like Nautilus and people really like it, they don’t necessarily go: “Hmm, who wrote this?? I’m going to go check out his other stuff.” They say: “I like Nautilus. They publish good content. I think I’ll subscribe to Nautilus.” There’s a debate worth having about whether our society’s information ecosystem is better off with the institutional-subscription model versus the author-subscription model. But from the individual author’s perspective, the traditional set-up is undoubtedly suboptimal. If you like my shit, I want you to follow me.
In short: in the traditional set-up, the publisher controls allocation of both the cash and the eye balls. The author controls neither. The newsletter format gives that control to author. Any money that a reader is willing to pay goes directly to the content creator (minus a small Substack fee). Any interest the reader has in engaging in more content results in a deeper dive into the author’s own catalogue of existing work and an easy route to consuming any work-yet-to-come.
That’s the micro-economic incentive for why so many authors are moving more of their content to platforms like Substack. I’m willing to bet that this mass migration will sort of be like the market for podcasts. The newsletter market may seem over-saturated at the moment. But so did the market for podcasts in, like, 2014. Yet it turns out if you started your show in 2014, you got in the game before the vast majority of what exists today. So me trying to build up my subscriber base through this newsletter is a bet on the continuation of that economic trend.
The second revenue stream is through freelancing. In this, I’ll include other side-hustles (like high-end tutoring, and other endeavors which feed the wallet more than the soul). But essentially, this is participation in the traditional publishing scheme described above. There are several really good reasons to do this.
At the present moment, it does pay more for me to publish an essay in a legit venue than on Substack. One day that’ll flip. But while my platform is still admittedly rather modest, I’ll still make more from publishing long-form pieces in an organ like Nautilus or Scientific American. Also, this exercise does bring in more viewers to my own work in the short term. It is a decently effective short-term audience acquisition strategy; it just isn’t the most efficient pipeline over the long-term.
Also: a good editor is invaluable. Even just any editor at all. Someone who has to scrutinize a work before it gets publish. Someone besides the author who asks herself, does my little corner of the information-ecosystem really need to see this? That’s one of the big things we’re going to see a lot more of as authors move toward the publish-whatever-you-like-whenever-you-like-it model: the proliferation of bullshit.
At any rate, I want to be a better writer in the future than I am now. One solid strategy for doing that is having an editor give you unfettered feedback on what is shit and what isn’t. Honestly, I am totally unreliable when making these kind of judgments in my own work. It’s like the Necker Cube. You start seeing the square in one orientation, then it flips to the other; but you can’t see both simultaneously. My work is either the most profound waste of human energy imaginable. Or it is God’s most sincere and precious gift to the intellectual cultivation of humanity. A third-party editor is able to judge my work with a bit more level-headed moderation.
The final piece of the puzzle is a book deal. I’ve been working towards this, in various guises, for the last five or so years. This is the thing I care about most. This is the ultimate goal. I came into my PhD with the (entirely unlikely) goal of walking out with a book contract from a major publisher in hand. That’s the kind of thing that doesn’t happen until it happens, but let’s just say I’ve got some irons in the fire with my current book proposal. We’ll just have to see what happens and take it from there. But if I can get this first deal, that opens up the doors for me later on. It gives me a bit more monetary flexibility. And the first deal is the hardest to get. So once I have the first one underway, my goal is to turn the crank, keep ‘em coming, and continue in the process until one of my books turns out to be really, really good.
At any rate, in the long-run what I’d like to be able to do is make enough of a baseline wage from all these endeavors in the near future to buy myself some time to make those longer-term projects (i.e., the books) as good as possible. If I can find a way to scrape by on what I’m doing now, then that will allow me the space to create what’s really important to me, and what I think is most meaningful in the bigger picture. That, in short, is what your subscription money is going to. It supports my ability to pursue those longer-term projects, the ones I really want to do. That’s why your support means so much to me. Like I said, no one should be allowed to get this much enjoyment from what they do for a living. But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to try.
P.S., this week’s episode Cognitive Revolution features a conversation with Sam Gershman. I worked in Sam’s lab for two years at Harvard, and he’s undoubtedly had the biggest academic influence on my own thinking—at least when it comes to cognitive science. I haven’t talked to Sam in a couple years, but it definitely felt a bit full-circle-ish to be able to dig into some of the things we covered in this conversation. I’ve asked him about a lot of these more personal aspects of his life before, but he always resisted delving into them. But on this occasion, I had him locked-in to talking with me for an hour. So I probed a bit deeper than I was able to previously. Good times were had by all. Or at least they were had by me.