Both Substack and Medium Can Benefit Authors
But they’re not interchangeable
I realize that Substack has been around awhile, but my novelist friends only started buzzing about it last December, when George Saunders launched his Story Club. More than a newsletter, more than a blog, Story Club is basically an online chat about the construction, meaning, and love of fiction. It was inspired by the feedback Saunders got to his last book, and it will doubtless help him sell a whole lot more copies of that title and his others. In many ways, his Substack enterprise is a communal fan-building project — encompassing fans both of his own work and of literature in general.
After checking out Story Club, I began to read the many posts about Substack on Medium. Many of these position Substack as an alternative to Medium. Most revolve around the money to be made on one platform versus the other. But that angle doesn’t interest me. My goal in blogging is to broaden, diversify, and deepen the audience for my books. And, with Saunders in mind, I wonder if it even makes sense to think of Substack and Medium as competitors. Don’t the two platforms offer entirely different sets of tools for authors?
It took some nosing around the site, but I finally began to understand just what Substack offers that Medium does not, and vice versa.
It’s a newsletter, Stupid!
My first major realization was that Substack replaces MailChimp, not Medium. For several years I’ve used MailChimp to send out periodic newsletters to my subscribers. I’ve always found the interface exactly the opposite of user-friendly. It’s designed for businesses, not writers. But Substack is made for writers and designed to send out newsletters whenever I want. I’m not very tech-savvy, but I found it simple to transfer my subscriber list and add a new link on my website inviting readers to subscribe:
Now, I don’t use Medium as a newsletter or blogsite. I view it as a collection of publications that publish my work. I try to connect with my Medium readers within the body of crafted essays, but I don’t address them directly or announce author events in Medium posts. I save the chattier updates on my books and writing life for my newsletter. Which meant that shifting my newsletter over to Substack would change nothing in my relationship with Medium.
The platforms can cross-pollinate
Once I began to set up my newsletter on Substack, I realized that it gives me a great opportunity to expand the reach of my Medium stories.
Substack gives you the option of posting stories to your page without emailing them to subscribers. Since many of my newsletter subscribers also read my Medium posts, I don’t want to inundate them with stories they’ve already read, but by sharing Medium posts on my page at Substack, I can expand their reach. Substack does not distribute stories the way that Medium does, but plenty of avid readers explore Substack. Also, this gave me a quick way to populate my page even before I relaunched my newsletter.
A word of warning if you follow my example: make sure to include a canonical link back to the original with a line at the bottom. Otherwise search engines will get confused. There’s an example at the end of this post:
Culture Shock Can Wake Up Your Fiction
By the same token, when I post essays originally on Substack, I can share them on Medium. Republishing your own work on Medium is even easier than on Substack, thanks to the handy canonical link feature in Medium’s Advanced Settings.
But really, it’s a NEWSletter, Stupid!
The more I cruised around other Substack pages, the more I understood the biggest advantage this platform offers. If I just wanted to use it to send occasional author updates to my readers, I could do that. But most writers on Substack specialize their newsletters, targeting specific readers by appealing to specific interests. In other words, they offer added value for a select community, like George Saunders’s fiction mavens.
For me, this is the defining difference between Substack and Medium, where I write about everything from psychology and health to writing tips and reflections on dating and eldercare. I have a dozen very different homes in Medium publications, and I love the freedom this gives me to write about almost anything I please. But Medium does not offer the kind of one-to-one personal connection that Substack does.
It so happens that I’m just returning to work on a long-term memoir project that gives me an ideal focus for my Substack newsletter. In a way, I’ve been preparing for it on Medium with a series of stories about my mixed-race Chinese-American family:
Aimee Liu on Race, Family, & Relationships
What I’ve found as these stories go out is that there’s a dual audience of memoir writers and readers interested in Asian-American heritage , and they seem to hunger for more. I’ve also found that it serves my project well to excerpt sections of the memoir and try them out on readers.
Those trial runs gave me the idea of framing my Substack newsletter around this project. Here’s my pitch:
My plan for this newsletter is to share the wealth that I’ve gleaned over more than 30 years of publishing. I’ll also be posting installments from my new memoir in progress, an exploration of the multi-generational fallout of my father’s experience as a Chinese-American immigrant.
To clarify my purpose, I changed the name of the newsletter, from “Aimee Liu’s Latest News” to:
Legacy & Lore
The work that works for you
Whether I’m writing on Medium or Substack, I strive to produce work that serves me as an author. Not only do my posts help me clarify my thoughts and sharpen my prose, but the nearly instantaneous feedback from readers tells me what’s working and what isn’t, what’s exciting and what’s meh. It keeps me honest and motivates me to keep going on my book projects.
Legacy & Lore could be especially important in helping me reach potential readers before my book is published. With luck, they’ll feel that they have a vested interest in the story after working through it with me. Some may contribute insights from their own family histories. And I hope a number will find it helpful to ride along with me as they work on their own memoirs. This relaunch post was my invitation for subscribers to join me:
New Year, New 'Legacy & Lore'
So, what about the money?
As I said, I’m not doing any of this for the money. My Substack newsletter is free. But the platform does encourage writers to think about the value of a pay wall after growing a sizable readership. Apart from any delusions of making real money, that advice makes a kind of counterintuitive sense. We live in a capitalist society where people believe that they get more bang for their buck. If “you get what you pay for,” then free newsletters must be worth less than those that cost money. And subscribers are more likely to read newsletters they’ve purchased because they feel they ought to “get their money’s worth” by actually consuming them.
A pay wall is not an all-or-nothing feature at Substack. You can reserve a select few posts for paying subscribers and offer the others for free. That means figuring out what might incentivize readers to pay for a subscription. The way I see it, people will pay to belong to elite clubs, so a paid subscription should entitle readers to chat more directly with the author and get a deeper view into the subject of the newsletter. Saunders is clearly going to treat his elite club like an unofficial writing class. I have yet to decide whether I’ll go this route, but I’m mulling it over.
The final benefit that Substack offers is deadlines. You don’t have to set a schedule, of course. I don’t keep one for my Medium posts. But Legacy & Lore is different because it’s tied to my current book project. By setting a monthly deadline for each newsletter, I’m also holding myself to account for progress in the memoir. The two will move forward in tandem, supporting each other. I hope my subscribers and I will do the same.
A year from now, we shall see. I hope to have my memoir finished by then. Perhaps I’ll be launching another newsletter to support a different book. In the meantime, read and write on!
This story was originally published on Medium here.
Thanks for writing this, Aimee! I hadn't thought about the differences to be honest. I have a Medium and I simply repost my stories from the Substack over there because Medium makes it super easy to do that. But deep down I focus on the Substack because I've sort of arbitrarily designated it as my home base of operations. I'm working out some other niche ideas to really utilize the Substack features, but really it just came down to the timing of it all. I'd had a Medium for years, but for some reason Substack really got me excited to write again and build a new audience. I like the name change by the way, Legacy & Lore is really bold and intriguing. Great choice!