Substack’s reputation problem Substack has a growing problem. It is quickly developing the reputation that fiction authors can not succeed on this platform. I’ve seen this expressed by several of my author friends whom I have tried to convince to use Substack as a place where they should share their fiction. “Why would I go to Substack when everyone is already using Patreon?”
Adding my comment and expanding it as per your request lol.
As I said in an earlier note, Substack's UI is not set up to favour fiction writers, so they will have a harder time sharing their work or for them to be found.
Here are my recommendations from a content design and UI standpoint:
- Enable chapter and series posts
- Under categories, fiction should be subcategorised to genres
- Have an ongoing and completed option as well as readers look for that
- Enable an authors page, like what Amazon has for authors, where their works/novels are listed. Each work should have its own page with chapters listed. This enables casual browsers to take a chance on the story as it's well organized. Currently they have to dive into the archives and it's not efficient.
- Have a just updated timeline rather than an algorithmic one to ensure everyone, small, big, famous can have a fair chance of being seen.
Personally I find Wattpad’s UI to be great for fiction. So you can have a look there to get what I mean by "good UI for fiction".
That said, Substack was built with the email newsletter in mind. We may not be able to implement any of my suggestions.
Also, from a tech company's standpoint all this takes huge resources to implement, something they may not want to do. It takes a lot of work to even add ONE feature let alone a slew of them. So, they may not think it's a priority right now. However, one can dream.
So what can authors do in the meantime? Wait for Substack to take action?
No, I urge you to be mercenary, selfish and platform agnostic. I do like some asepcts of Substack, for one I appreciate that they enable me to have an email list without burning my bank account. So, stay on Substack if you like, but don't forget other platforms.
It is more work, for sure, to be at more than one place at a same time. But be mercenary about discoverability - don't think Substack only.
Unfortunately, a platform will always have its "preferred genre". It is usually hard to change. Therefore, go where your readers dwell and be there.
PS: I have a background in content design, journalism and tech writing. So I'm very nerdy in that aspect.
I really appreciate this piece, John. You did a fantastic job and I'm really excited you found Ream. We actually only launched out of Beta in May, so about 7 months ago. We went into Beta in Mid-January last year. We are a small bootstrapped team, but that allows us to focus on our fiction authors. A lot of other players in the space have raised lots and lots of money from VCs and have very high expectations and thus have to chase bigger and bigger markets to just keep the lights on for their next fundraising round. Thus, it is not a surprise that fiction is overlooked. We wanted to change that. And by fiction authors for fiction authors, means that. The authors you see on the home page all joined Ream before we launched to the public and many of which were Emilia's friends. We've grown beyond that to nearly 4,000 authors on the platform now. And we are excited to highlight the depth and diversity of the authors in our community with discovery coming very soon. Excited for what's to come. Storytellers Rule the World!
Hear hear! As co-organizer of Fictionistas (fictionistas.substack.com), a community of fiction writers on Substack, I am astounded at how little attention the platform pays to fiction. We have well over 2000 subscribers, and we created our community specifically as a response to this issue. A couple of years ago, there wasn’t even a fiction category on Substack, but with our numbers, we were able to change that. We truly believe that fiction is a viable category of writing on Substack, and in fact, lots of fiction authors are having a lot of success. Getting paid subscribers is a harder sell than with some types of writing on the platform, to be fair, but that shouldn’t be the only measure of success. Fiction writers have found that it is a great platform to get more exposure for your writing, and meet fellow fiction writers to collaborate with and be inspired by. And despite what some people say, it is a great way to build an author platform.
I was sent this and I figure it’s worth offering my two cents as someone who is actually already serializing romance fiction on Substack and doing modestly well at it (currently hovering around 4K subs).
I got on Substack on the back of Dracula Daily, which I think made an oddly small splash within Substack despite being massively popular. Maybe because its readership is largely not people coming from within the site? But it has somewhere over 250 000 subscribers - people are reading fiction on Substack, they’re just signing up from other places.
And I might not be very useful to anyone who’s doing most of their marketing within Substack as well, because my readers are coming primarily from Tumblr. I get some people coming in via recommendations from other Dracula Daily-adjacent serials, but I do all of my actual marketing elsewhere.
(The Substack team wouldn’t like me much because I use their platform to publish things but chose to go with Patreon for my payments anyway. Patreon takes a smaller cut of my money since I have one of those pre-update accounts I set up years ago in a fit of uncanny foresight.)
I hope Substack does something to court fiction writers more. Just having more categories to choose from would be nice if that's all they did.
I've only been here about 6 or 7 months, but this has been my main gripe. Thanks for this piece John and thanks for the advice. Like you, I feel Substack has a lot of potential, but in my first week I realized how difficult it was to search out fiction and poetry. I quickly realized it would be an uphill battle to grow my stack, given that I write mostly fiction and poetry. My personal essays are easily the most viewed pieces. I am hopeful that things improve, but as you allude to, how long will fiction authors wait? I've become a bit discouraged, but I mainly started this page to push me towards my writing goals, so I'm trying to focus on the writing and not the numbers.
A lot of this has been said time and again for months, as you wrote yourself. People will grow tired of waiting for Substack to fix their shit, excuse my French. Of course, there are priorities, would be good, as a user of Substack to know these, and see a roadmap, Substack needs to manage expectations here. Right now I go into Fiction and there is NO Fiction, 99% of things I do not want to see and then these get promoted and chosen as Top of the Week in FICTION. Delirious. Fix the Categories, Fix the Leaderboard Algorithm, Curate User entered categories and reassign them accordingly. Or do nothing. Now, where's that Roadmap, also, where are those change logs?
Well, I’m certainly willing to throw my hat into the ring, romance fiction wise, but it’s gonna get weird because I’ve never written that sort of thing before and if I tried I'd probably end up laughing and honestly it's probably better off if I don't, really, all things considered. ;)
I agree with most of what you've said, except I think the fiction genre Substack would most benefit from aggressively pursuing would be Mystery/Thriller. EVERYBODY wants a piece of the Romance pie. Romance readers, as you've pointed out, are voracious and flexible, and romance authors are savvy businesspeople. But there's already Wattpad, Kindle Vella, Ream, Radish... and probably a half dozen smaller apps and sites focused on the genre. As far as fantasy/sci-fi/litRPG goes, Royal Road owns that genre in terms of serialized fic. But where is the "Wattpad for Mystery" app? Mystery is a HUGE market of mature readers with disposable cash. The nature of mystery stories lends itself well to serialization (think about the commercial break cliffhangers in every mystery TV show, and the fact that every cozy series seems to go on FOREVER). And Mystery is a genre that covers nearly every demographic - from cozies to hard-boiled. It also, to be frank, fits in better on Substack. Mystery is the genre of the "airport novel." The same people who turn up their noses at Romance and spec fic don't have the same hang-ups about Mystery. But nobody (that I know of) is courting these authors. And there are so many mid-list mystery writers out there! Unless there's something I'm missing, I don't know why there isn't someone courting that audience and those writers.
As an author new to Substack, your take is valuable and insightful. I hope your words take root here and fiction gets its due. Thank you for highlighting Ream. I will definitely check it out today.
I'm doing an experiment this year with a free serialized romance advent calendar -- I'm sending subscribers a new installment every day from December 1st to December 25th. I'm five days in and getting good feedback from readership, but it has been a challenge attracting people from outside Substack, because if you've never been on the platform before, it's all a bit daunting. I'm using a section to separate my romance from my regular newsletter, but even that has taken a lot of tinkering and I'm not sure I've nailed it yet...
Thanks for sharing Ream, John. We are new, and love how easy it is to publish and design here on Substack. I think your observations make it clear the audience is primarily readers of nonfiction, where Ream has the fiction readers. If the audiences do not crossover it might make sense to diversify and publish on both - to your point there is no exclusivity clause. So it’s really just a matter of the marginal extra effort to post two places. Just thinking out loud...
Excellent post, John. I’ve been holding out hope for evolution of the platform around fiction. I think Substack would be well served to tip their hand a little for what authors can expect to help them build and grow an audience in the coming year.
I love Substack, but I have to admit I am growing increasingly more frustrated with the platform. This article sums it up nicely. Well done, John.
I'd heard of Ream though I've never looked into it. Might be time I did. Sounds intriguing, in any case.
This was an interesting read.. as a newer fiction author I came to Substack because of the functionality and I’m now learning about this for the first time.
I think these are all really good points, and there are also many in the comments too.
I might look into Ream as a way of diversifying where I post, as currently I'm purely using Substack. (Mostly as it was an experiment, but I think the subscription model will work for poetry, its just hard (as it has always been!) to get people to pay for it). I've been toying with the idea of Patreon (everyone knows about it, it's familiar), but I may try Ream for now.
I hope Substack is working on features to help support fiction writers. I like Substack, I'd like to see more come from it in this area.
It will also help trickle it down to Poetry, which is always a lovely bonus!