Why authors are turning down lucrative deals in favour of Substack

The newsletter platform has poached big names including Salman Rushdie along with a slew of comic book authors from DC and Marvel

The subscription newsletter platform Substack announced on Wednesday it had signed an exclusive deal with Salman Rushdie – but he is just the latest in a growing number of authors making the leap to write serialised fiction delivered straight to the inboxes of subscribers who pay a monthly fee.

Several comic book writers and artists have announced lucrative deals to provide exclusive content for the California-based company founded four years ago, in some cases eschewing contracts with Marvel and DC to do so.

Among the comics writers making the move is James Tynion IV, whose star is certainly in the ascendant, and who turned down a three-year contract writing Batman for DC in order to write for Substack.

Tynion, who was earlier this year named best writer in the comic industry “Oscars” the Eisner awards, has two series in development as TV shows, and scripts The Nice House on the Lake series for DC’s “mature readers” imprint Black Label, as well as penning Batman.

It’s the success of those creator-owned titles, in which he and the rest of the creative team retain the rights, that prompted him to turn his back on the caped crusader.

On his blog, Tynion wrote: “DC had presented me with a three-year renewal of my exclusive contract, with the intent of me working on Batman for the bulk of that time … And then I received another contract. The best I’ve ever been given in a decade as a professional comic book writer. A grant from Substack to create a new slate of original comic book properties directly on their platform, that my co-creators and I would own completely, with Substack taking none of the intellectual property rights, or even the publishing rights.”

Also signing up with Substack are Molly Knox Ostertag, Skottie Young and Scott Snyder. Marvel writers Saladin Ahmed (Ms Marvel) and Nick Spencer (Amazing Spider-Man) are also on board.

This differs from, say, creating content on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, through which many comic projects are financed and delivered straight to pledgers. Substack is paying advances to content creators. And that’s how they’re hoping to lure big-name prose fiction authors such as Rushdie to the model as well.

Lulu Cheng Meservey from Substack says the company calls this a “pro deal”, with advances on a sliding scale depending on a writer’s profile. She says: “We do have several authors in our sights who are currently traditionally published, and are proactively approaching writers we think would do well at Substack. Over the next couple of years you will see some very recognisable names.”

Other authors currently using Substack include Maggie Stiefvater, who publishes one exclusive fictional short story a month for paid subscribers, and music writer Zack O’Malley Greenburg who is serialising his book We Are All Musicians Now.

Substack takes between 10 and 15% of an author’s earnings from subscriptions, and offers editing, proofreading, art and design, and legal services as part of their packages.

While comics have a strong independent, DIY ethos, with prose writing there’s still a divide between traditional and self-publishing. Can Substack overcome what many see as a stigma attched to the latter?

“Substack is very liberating for authors,” says Meservey. “They can publish directly to their readers, they have total control, retain all their rights. We build a community around them so they can have direct contact with their readers. They can publish serially, just like Charles Dickens did.”

And that, says broadcaster and cultural commentator Mark Lawson, is the bait that might just bring in some of the big names.

He says: “Most novelists have a fantasy to write a serial novel at some time. The most famous example is perhaps The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe, which was written as a serial in Rolling Stone. But then there was always an understanding that it would then be sold to his regular publisher and appear in book form.”

Several comics creators have said that they will release their serialised digital comics in physical form and at least one of Substack’s existing prose authors, nonfiction author John McWhorter, who is serialising his work The Elect on the platform, has a traditional deal to release it as a book after its Substack outing.

Writers flirting with the Substack idea would be better seen, says Lawson, in footballing terms: they are probably going out on loan from their existing publishers, not transferring for good. He doubts that big names will turn their backs on traditional publishing.

“If you take crime fiction, which sells hugely now,” he says, “the big names have long-established series, so if Substack signed up, for the sake of argument, Ian Rankin, Peter James and Val McDermid, they might get a new book out of them but they couldn’t have their backlist. And that’s where the value is for a lot of crime authors.”

That said, Lawson thinks readers would definitely shell out for a Substack subscription if it was the only way of reading their favourite author’s newest novel. But he wonders if the model is sustainable.

“Even with their own publishers, writers aren’t on exclusive contracts. They sign up for two or three books at a time, and they do other things. Substack might get them to do one novel as an experiment or to try out the serial fiction they want to do,” says Lawson. “And if it does work incredibly well, what is to stop the mainstream publishers just taking the idea and releasing their own authors’ serialised fiction through their own paid-for newsletter service, rather than letting Substack do it?”

For Rushdie, the Substack deal is about finding “a slightly more complex connection” with readers, and to give him the space to talk about things that “are just too big to discuss in tweets … I think that new technology always makes possible new art forms, and I think literature has not found its new form in this digital age,” he told the Guardian earlier this week. “I’m just diving in here and que sera sera, you know. It will either turn out to be something wonderful and enjoyable, or it won’t.”


David Barnett

The GuardianTramp

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