Skip to content
Photo by Arif Riyanto / Unsplash

Substack frustrates me like only a lover can get frustrated with his beloved.

It Suffocates. I get frustrated when I can't breathe. Substack frustrates me. It buries me with unknown authors who I want to read, but I can't possibly get to all of them.

Access Isn't Intuitive. I get frustrated when I can't figure out a site's interface. Substack frustrates me. I recently read a great essay about Penelope Fitzgerald, who is a great-niece or something to the great Catholic convert Ronald Knox. The piece is published at The Common Reader . . . or is it published at Substack? Are they the same thing? Why can I find the essay on the web but not on my Substack app?

It's a Maze. I get frustrated when I can't find stuff. Substack frustrates me. After I finished the breathtaking 30-hour analysis of the first 50 years of the Jewish conquest of Palestine at the beginning of the twentieth century (here's a link . . . or not . . . it's the page where the series can be found, but I couldn't find the series . . . keep reading this paragraph), I decided to subscribe to the Martyrmade Substack so I could hear all Darryl Cooper's podcasts. I gave up after a few weeks. It was a jumbled mess and I couldn't figure out what was free on Spotify and what wasn't, what I'd listened to and what I hadn't. I dropped the subscription immediately.

Its Unfortunate Pricing. I get frustrated when I want to show appreciation but the only option is exorbitant. Substack frustrates me. It's like those automatic tip options on credit card charges. I wouldn't mind dropping in a few coins after I get my food, but $4.50 is the only option? Screw that. I'd love to patronize two dozen creators at Substack and get access to all their content, but the only option is $50 (or is it now $55?) a year. That's as much or more than annual subscription for dozens of high-quality publications that have decades of archives.

My Narcissism. I get frustrated when I see dozens (scores? hundreds? thousands?) of creators better than me and . . . Well, I guess that's all there is to say about that. Substack frustrates my narcissism.

But I Love Substack

But oh, do I love it.

I am in awe of it.

For starters, see "My Narcissism" above. It never occurred to me that there are so many uber-talented and uber-knowledgeable people, who are great stylists who don't use fad prefixes like "uber-." It seems like they're all going to Substack.

And how do I know they're uber-talented? Because other talented people are constantly referring to the Substack essays. Just this month, I've seen or heard Econtalk, Cultural Debris, Arts & Letters Daily, and a few other podcasts or websites link to or build an episode around a Substack essay.

Contrast that with Medium, where no one I respect has ever (not once) recommended a essay. And for good reason. Medium is filled with folks who are hacking away for pennies (your TDE scribe included). They're kids playing to a leftist algorithm (your TDE scribe excluded).

Substack doesn't play to a partisan crowd. As far as I know and as far as I've been able to discern, Substack doesn't care about politics. It just allows people to create. The site is a blank slate. Contrast that with Medium, which sits on the far left of the political spectrum and relentlessly algorithms its leftist agenda (remind me to tell you the story once of how my Medium publication's receipts dropped to zero when one of my articles merely referred to "Matt Taibbi" . . . I'm guessing Medium programmed its algorithm to throttle down traffic to any site that even mentioned his name).

Three Substack Recommendations

No, this isn't my list of recommended Substack publications. It's my list of recommendations to the Substack management.

The biggest recommendation: Provide pricing options. A few ideas:

  1. If it's Matt Taibbi, allow him to demand $55 a year. A lot of people are paying it, so let him demand it, but lesser-known writers? Would it kill the financing model to provide an option for $10 a year?
  2. Let writers opt into a bundle option. A reader could agree to pay $55 a year, but he would get, say, ten subscriptions for that price, then each publication would get $5.50 (after Substack's cut). (Maybe this is possible already, if a group of writers were to form a co-op on Substack and start writing for it . . . I'll have to consider that option: LATER ADDENDUM: This is an option. The Free Press, for instance, has a stable of writers.)
  3. Allow readers to buy individual essays.

My second recommendation: Come up with a way to make the interface more accessible. Maybe an index? Or maybe a way to sort things alphabetically? The heck if I know.

And third, allow writers to add footnotes. I don't know why the online publishing world fears footnotes. Nassim Taleb has observed that the best stuff is in the footnotes. David Foster Wallace valued footnotes. Footnotes allow readers to delve more deeply and to validate what the author is saying, without gumming up the text. LATER ADDENDUM: Substack allows footnotes.


Substack: You're the man. I have, literally, shaken my head when I survey the avalanche of quality literature you're allowing people to publish.

But the experience could be a lot better.

I'm pulling for ya.