Substack Decoded

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What Substack wants you to know – and what not

Just a couple of months ago, Substack-founder and CEO Hamish McKenzie boasted of 1 million Substack subscriptions. The ten most successful newsletters together earn an astonishing total of $20m per year, the company informed the public at the same time.

The collective success of its biggest newsletters and best earning authors since long are what Substack likes the world to know. Much more discretion is applied when it comes to the question of how much averaging creators earn with their Substack newsletters; not to speak of the long tail, where probably the vast majority of newsletter authors earns next to nothing.

Substacks’ info policy is very restrictive. Instead of publishing a ranking by subscription numbers over all its newsletters, Substack publishes lists of the most successful newsletters (“Top paid”) only per category. And instead of detailing the numbers of subscriptions to each of those top newsletters, Substack only gives roughly clustered quantities.

example of Substack listing the top4 newsletters in the ‘Politics’ category

Substack publishes 24 rankings of top paid newsletters, 23 of them bundling together newsletters from the same category (politics, sports, music…), one of them being a list of ‘featured’ newsletters. For many of those top paid newsletters, Substack quantifies their success by adding one of three quantifications:

  • Tens of thousands of subscribers’
  • Thousands of subscribers’
  • Hundreds of Subscribers’

End of November, beginning December 2021, I did a count: how many top paid newsletters were presented in each category (mostly, but not always 25), which info on the quantity of subscribers was given (if at all), and at which price the subscriptions were sold (again, an info which is listed only for most, not all the top paid newsletters).

This was the result:

At least one thing already became obvious when putting together the data for this table: there is no such thing as a ‘typical’ price. Yes, some prices are frequent ($5, $6, $9.99). But many newsletter subs are sold at very different price points. What also became apparent: pricing levels depend heavily upon the category of the newsletter.

Unsurprisingly, newsletters on culture, literature, fiction or education are much cheaper to subscribe to than newsletters on finance, business, or crypto. The latter being the category assembling by far the most expensive newsletter subscriptions.

Also it is obvious, that not only those newsletters sold at low prices find the biggest numbers of paying subscribers. E.g., in the politics category there are 11 newsletters with “tens of thousands” of subscribers, although it isn’t a particularly cheap category at an average price per subscription of $9. And the even much more expensive category technology comprises 10 newsletters with “tens of thousands” of subs each. Even the most expensive category, ‘crypto’, counts 2 of those. On of them is the ‘Bankless’ newsletter of crypto expert Ryan Sean Adams, which is sold at $22 per month.

What’s Substack’s attitude toward grammar?

Adams therefore should have at least 10,000 paid subscriptions. If Substack is to be taken seriously when it comes to grammar, he even should have at least 20,000 (tenS of thousands). That means that Adams generates at least $220k or even $440k newsletter subscription revenue per month. Per year, that are $2.5m or $5.3m. Adams should be one of those infamous Top10 authors mentioned above, who collectively earn $20m per year.

Starting with the above tabled figures, I’ve dared to produce a highly speculative though very conservative calculation. I speculated like this:

  • “thousands of subs” on average should signify at least 1,500 subs
  • “hundreds of subs” on average should signify at least 300 subs
  • “tens of thousands of subs” on average should signify, well, 10,000 subs. I don’t think, the plural should be stressed too much.

With this speculation, my table above can be transformed into an estimate for revenues.

My conservative speculation results in a total of 657,000 subscriptions for the top 25 newsletter in 24 categories. I think, with respect to 1m newsletter subscriptions altogether, this isn’t unreasonable. Therefore, it might be fruitful to draw more conclusions out of this.

  • By far, newsletters on technology are the one category with the most subscription revenue. Top of the tops here is Casey Newton’s newsletter Platformer
  • Very close together top2, top3 and top4 are the categories politics, business and crypto
  • Counting the number of paid subscriptions, politics is the top1 category
  • Together, this calculation comprises info on 528 newsletters. These 500+ top newsletters together stand for nearly $100,000,000 annual subscription revenues – at least! Remember, that my assumptions, on which this calculation is based, should be rather conservative.