Cheri's Hypertext Monster

20 Sep 2021

Smells Fishy

Read: Substack reaches for the stars as Chuck Palahniuk and Salman Rushdie sign up to publish serialized novels

As much as I’m intrigued by new formats and new business models, I’m not at all enthusiastic about fiction serialization. At $6 per month, readers will pay $72 to read Palahnuik’s upcoming novel, week by week, over the course of a year. The addition of extra short stories and notes from the author does add something of separate value, and Chuck is a delightful writer, I like his stuff, but I keep coming back to: Who does this business model serve? Because I don’t think it’s readers being served.

When I read a book, I don’t want to receive it in little dollops, nor do I want to pay five times the cost for a book. The fact that Substack is paying Palahnuik to do this, rather than it being driven by reader interest, it makes me believe this system isn’t sustainable or desirable. This move is a pure marketing drive for Substack. The authors get a nice advance, which makes the risk worth it for them, but as a reader, I ask, why would you think I want this?

Substack has investors, which makes me suspect they are in their razzle dazzle phase, getting themselves associated with big names and building up their reputation for a potential IPO in the future. We’ve seen this story before. What future do they envision? One where a reader pays $72 bucks for a novel and it takes them a year to read it? Individual journalists seem like a fine user base for Substack, as the periodical nature of publication and the easy-to-use tools have a good synergy there. But fiction? I don’t see the appeal. Heck, even with the journalists I think the appeal is quite limited. Like Patreon, Substack offers a payment processor and some basic publication tools. They claim to offer discoverability as well. Yet we’ve seen this movie before. All the platforms do it. A few examples of already popular content creators, along with a rare few rising stars are held up as examples of how writers and artists are “winning” at commerce on that platform. Then everyone else believes that they too will be discovered simply because they’ve been included in the same directory.

But is that true? No.

We’re talking about a credit card payment processor glued to a set of basic publication tools. Blogs with credit cards attached. Truly, that is the “technology” here. There may be some value in that setup for writers who don’t want to roll their own stuff. Tools are handy! But I’m not buying the overall pitch on the value of these services. Is a blog with a credit card processor attached worth billions?

People read Chuck Palahnuik’s work because he’s a fantastic writer. If he set up some sort of self-pay system, even a newsletter, no doubt he’d get attention and readers. In this scenario, he is providing marketing and attention to Substack, not the other way around.

I spend a lot of money on books. I place a high value on fiction. But $72? That feels exploitative to me. Entirely unattractive. And reading it week by week? That’s way too slow. I’m just not feeling it! Again, I ask: who is this business model serving?

Not readers. No siree.

But hey, good on Substack in their marketing effors. They got some great PR from this announcement. And I suspect, really, that was the point all along. Also, if Chuck releases his book in standard format, for a standard price, I’ll be happy to read it. There are plenty of books to keep me busy between now and then.

It’s just… weird to be the audience for a service while realizing that I’m not the audience at all. We readers are just a convenient proxy for other shit happening in the marketplace. This play reminds me of credit default swaps. Those were supposedly packaged mortgage bonds, but in truth they had nothing to do with mortgages. They weren’t needed, and they provided no value except to those using them like government-backed poker chips. The houses and the loans and the real people living under those roofs… they were just symbols used to hold up the game. The illusion of real value.

Substack doesn’t seem to be a scam. But certainly, they seem to run on hype. I could buy what they were doing for journalism. It made a certain amount of sense. But their move into fiction makes me wonder if they’re more about hype than value. Why invest in something customers don’t want?

Usually, it’s because investor money is the real target.

Investors, tread carefully.