Substack newsletters versus self-hosted alternatives


Let me begin by saying that I recognize what Substack is attempting to do for journalism.

The promise of the hosted publishing platform is that anybody can begin a subscription-based publication—primarily as a e-newsletter—with out having to fret about constructing a web site, establishing a membership system, and fussing with design. Simply put good phrases in, and in case your viewers is devoted sufficient, cash will come out. For a rising variety of writers, it’s a welcome reprieve from feeding the algorithms of Google, Fb, and Twitter—and an opportunity to make some first rate cash alongside the way in which.

However one factor I’ve realized in almost 5 years of publishing my very own unbiased newsletters is that doing issues the exhausting means has its personal rewards, from retaining extra of the cash to sustaining a stronger sense of independence. As extra writers begin increase their very own e-newsletter companies, I believe a variety of them will uncover this for themselves.

Ranging from scratch

If we’re being sincere, I most likely would have jumped on board with Substack myself if it had been obtainable after I began writing a newsletter about cord-cutting in 2016.


Almost each e-newsletter service again then was targeted on electronic mail advertising and marketing as a substitute of editorial writing, they usually all charged excessive costs in case your mailing record grew too giant. As I began to outgrow Mailchimp’s 2,000-subscriber restrict free of charge customers, self-hosting appeared like the one possibility that didn’t price upward of $30 per 30 days. (Mailchimp did have its personal writer-friendly service referred to as Tinyletter, however it, too, had a 5,000-subscriber restrict. As Simon Owens points out, Mailchimp missed an enormous alternative by letting it languish.)

For the reason that finish of 2016, I’ve been utilizing a service referred to as Sendy, which fees a flat price for e-newsletter software program that runs by yourself web site and hooks into Amazon Easy E-mail Service (SES) to ship the emails. Sendy’s software program was crude in comparison with Mailchimp’s, and establishing SES was a trouble. Nevertheless it promised limitless development for virtually no price. Even now, with greater than 25,000 subscribers, my invoice from Amazon is about $10 per 30 days.

Sendy lets me ship newsletters for about 5% of what Mailchimp fees.

The timing for Substack additionally wasn’t fairly proper after I began fascinated about a paid subscription tech-advice newsletter in 2018. On the time, the service was nonetheless in beta—removed from being the phenomenon it’s now—and I used to be deeply cautious of tying my publication’s destiny to an unproven startup.

So once more, I did issues the exhausting means, spending weeks wrapping my head round Stripe Checkout and gluing collectively a subscription system utilizing an automation service referred to as Zapier. Like Sendy, all of it felt a bit crude, however it labored. (I had a dialog with Substack cofounder Hamish McKenzie about becoming a member of the platform in mid-2019, however at that time it didn’t fairly match with the way in which I had issues arrange.)

My system has matured a bit since then. I moved my subscribers over to Patreon-owned Memberful final fall, which let me arrange a members-only WordPress website and subscription portal. And a few weeks in the past, I began utilizing a WordPress plugin referred to as Newsletter Glue, which lets me immediately ship out WordPress posts as properly formatted newsletters.

Publication Glue affords loads of customization potential for newsletters.

That’s not the one approach to do issues now both. Automattic, the maker of WordPress, just lately launched its own plugin for sending out newsletters by way of WordPress, and Memberstack affords a extremely customizable means for WordPress customers to handle subscriptions. Simply this week, the self-hosted publishing service Ghost launched a major update that makes constructing newsletters and membership packages a lot simpler. And people are just some examples; the e-newsletter revolution Substack helped spark has in flip prompted a growth in instruments for doing it your self.

Write as soon as in WordPress, put up to the net and to readers’ inboxes.

In fact, it hasn’t all been clean crusing for me. At one level Amazon threatened to droop me as a result of an issue with spam sign-ups that I needed to remedy myself, and I needed to swap net hosts a few years in the past when my previous one stopped letting me replace my e-newsletter database for causes it by no means fairly defined. However after 5 years, I’ve primarily constructed my very own private, self-hosted model of Substack, and I find it irresistible.


Definitely worth the effort

Why undergo all of that trouble when Substack guarantees to make issues a lot simpler?

In fact, it’s partly concerning the cash. Substack’s lower (10%, plus Stripe’s transaction price) is rather a lot steeper than what I initially paid to take subscribers by way of Stripe, and even Memberful’s lower (4.9%, plus $25 per 30 days) places me forward with the roughly 500 paid subscribers I’ve now.

However over time, the less-tangible advantages of rolling your individual e-newsletter answer have additionally turn out to be clearer.

The instruments for doing issues your individual means hold getting higher over time.

With Publication Glue, I can customise the appear and feel of my newsletters in ways in which Substack doesn’t permit, and I can construct out my members-only web site precisely how I would like. Final week I completed including the whole archives of each my newsletters completely for paid subscribers, one thing that will have been tougher to drag off with Substack’s inflexible formatting. In contrast, all Substack publications appear like Substack publications, no matter who creates them. Better of all, I can disable monitoring for opens and hyperlink clicks in order that subscribers can read my newsletters in privacy.

It’s additionally simply good to not be related to any specific model aside from my very own. Substack likes to say that it’s not a writer, and that writers take pleasure in full independence on its platform. Nevertheless it’s nonetheless a platform in the long run, which implies it has to wrestle with quasi-editorial questions of how to moderate incendiary content and who to lure onto the platform with up-front funds. Substack’s most distinguished voices will inherently coloration folks’s perceptions of the platform, which in flip makes me glad to have a model that’s mine alone.

That’s to not say each e-newsletter author on Substack ought to abandon the platform in favor of hacking collectively a system like mine—or worse, going with no matter Fb and Twitter are cooking up. Each answer has its downsides, and never everybody has the time or technical capacity to arrange a web site, a WordPress web page, and a cost platform.

However one factor I’ve seen firsthand is how the instruments for doing issues your individual means hold getting higher over time. In the meantime, the prices of taking the straightforward highway will solely proceed to pile up.