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I Don't Think You Should Publish Your Book on Substack
Ted Gioia recently published a list of ten reasons that he’ll be releasing a book on Substack. I encourage you to read his post, especially if you’re a writer, because he does a good job summarizing what a lot of writers feel nowadays. If I had not spent the last half-decade in book publishing, I would find Gioia’s reasoning very compelling. In fact, I would probably be tempted to read something into his post that isn’t there: namely, a logical argument to abandon traditional book publishing altogether and focusing on cultivating an online audience. Why would I be tempted to do that? Because 1) traditional publishing is very intimidating and very laborious; 2) success in book publishing is uncommon and seemingly becoming even rarer; and 3) the directness with which I can access positive responses to my writing online offers the kind of encouragement that writers need and often struggle without.
However: I have spent the past half-decade in book publishing. Consequently, I do not believe Gioia’s approach is the best for most writers. I say “most” because I want to be careful. Ultimately, the question that matters is what a writer wants to accomplish with their work, and not every writer wants to accomplish the same thing the same way. That’s fine! I do think one benefit of the online writing economy has been to give an outlet to a huge swath of writers who for various reasons would not have achieved visibility in the writing economy of thirty years ago (I’m one of these). So I want to be realistic and honest about the advantages online publishing can and does bestow. And given a certain set of desires, a writer may very well benefit from focusing on the online space to the exclusion of traditional publishing.
That being said, I do think my sentence above is correct. Publishing a book on Substack is not the best approach for most writers. Let me offer a few reasons why, which will roughly correlate with Gioia’s own ten reasons for his decision:
Substack’s growth as a platform and its attendant profitability are both real phenomena, but like all digital platforms, there will be a tiny percentage of authors who benefit the most from this, and then a massive number of authors for whom Substack publishing alternates between mediocre, kinda good, and good.
This is the story of every digital publishing medium ever. If you started a blog in 1998 and kept with it for fifteen years, there’s a very good chance you achieved something considerable. The folks who were blogging at the dawn of the medium benefited immensely from the growth of the technology. Like the first investors of a company that blows up, digital publishers who get way out in front of a particular platform see growth simply because.
But the vast majority of people are not like that. Further, the growth that comes from being a part of a new platform has slowed way, way down. No one cares that you have a blog. No one cares that you have a Twitter account. Those technologies have peaked. I don’t believe Substack has peaked yet, but I do think the effect of benefiting from getting to new online writing platforms first peaked a long time ago. If you think you can Substack your way to a large following, you are probably wrong, and you are certainly underestimating how long this will take and how much of your own time and effort will have to be sunk costs before you see anything resembling success.
Traditional book publishing is not, as Gioia describes Substack, an “accelerating platform.” But in my view, that’s a strength. A book is a product. It’s a product that can be sold in any number of ways, amongst any number of people, for (mostly) an indefinite amount of time. A book exists independent of the flow of trends that surround it. Thus, with a book there is a distinction between the work and the author that is more collapsed when it comes to online writing.
The slowness of physical publishing is not, as Gioia suggests, a sunk cost, but is reflective of value added to the book over time.
Yes, it takes a long time for traditional publishers to produce a book. But consider the reason for that. Books have design and construction. You have to physically put together the paper, the binding, the typesetting, etc. The cover of the book has to be designed by someone (even if the cover is a public domain image, someone has to figure out how to adapt that image onto a cover, how to present the title, etc.). Most importantly, book publishers (at least, the ones worth working with) edit work, proof the work, and then market the work—and all three of these processes are designed to help the reader, not the author.
My concern with the way Gioia lays out his logic of online publishing is that it focuses entirely on one-sided financial interest of the author. In his calculation, the reader disappears. It does not matter how well they can find the book (marketing), how clear the book is (editing), or how free of mistakes and reliable it is (proofing). These are not sunk costs that the author is asked to bear simply because of institutional delay. These are value-adds to the book on behalf of readers. As a person who not only wants to write but to read, I think that matters!
The adaptability of online work (e.g., how easy it is to edit or change) is an expression of its weightlessness. Online work is simply not the same kind of language as printed work.
Here I would once again direct readers toward the work of Nicholas Carr. In a chapter on the epistemological and social significance of printed work, Carr reflects on the changes that online publishing will create in the way we think about writing:
The provisional nature of digital text also promises to influence writing styles. A printed book is a finished object. Once inked onto the page, its words become indelible. The finality of the act of publishing has long instilled in the best and most conscientious writers and editors a desire, even an anxiety, to perfect the works they produce--to write with an eye and an ear toward eternity. Electronic text is impermanent. In the digital marketplace, publication becomes an ongoing process rather than a discrete event, and revision can go on indefinitely. Even after an e-book is downloaded onto a networked device, it can be easily and automatically updated-just as software programs routinely are today. It seems likely that removing the sense of closure from book writing will, in time, alter writers’ attitudes toward their work. The pressure to achieve perfection will diminish, along with the artistic rigor that the pressure imposed…Our indulgence in the pleasures of informality and immediacy has led to a narrowing of expressiveness and a loss of eloquence. (The Shallows, 107-108)
Gioia’s argument about the speed of delivering content to the market strongly suggests that Carr’s analysis is true. Because of traditional book publishing’s prolonged timeline, writers must consider how well their work can stand independently of, say, a social media controversy, or a particular news item. When traditional publishers chase after ephemeral Internet trends, the results are usually not compelling. The best, most well-executed books—and the ones that tend to retain relevance even after their initial launch—are the ones that can speak to broad issues and evergreen questions. Digital publishing’s context collapse and emphasis on immediacy negate this. In so doing, it not only short changes the reader, but also the writer. The writer is not challenged to look deeper into the issues he tackles to find the foundational issues at work. Instead, he can write immediately to surface controversies. To the extent that digital book publishing becomes dominant, we can expect thinking itself to become less rigorous and more reactionary.
So, all in all, I don’t think you should pursue publishing your book as newsletter installments. While the world of traditional publishing is often difficult and there’s certainly no guarantee of success, the effort you put into creating a physical book—a book that can withstand the sands of electronic time—is worth it. If you’re interested in writing a book, start out by writing a Substack or a blog about topics you like. Read books and interact with them on your platform. Share your work with other writers. And then work on putting those thoughts together in a format that a publisher can add value to, and a reader will find helpful even long after your digital presence is no more.