Art and Commerce

Business as usual abounds, here and everywhere.

This money sign magnet—displayed on every refrigerator we’ve had since The Secret originally aired in like 2006—is pretty much my entire retirement plan.

Yesterday I was considering moving my newsletter away from Substack to some other platform, but the truth is, I don’t know whether there’s really any better place go.

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I got all fired up after reading Jude Ellison S. Doyle’s latest post (and I remain so), about the direction Substack seems to be moving in, in terms of the business model for Substack Pro.

It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while. Then I learned from Jude’s post that a few years ago, Substack had recruited him and a few other popular feminist and queer writers, not with any advance, but the prospect of charging for subscriptions and making money proportionate to the audience the writers themselves built.

Now—ostensibly with some of the money its drawn from those newsletters—the platform (which insists it’s not a platform) is offering advances in the ballpark of $250,000 plus benefits to an increasing number of knee-jerk contrarians and hot-take machines, some of whom have a tendency to harass women and LBGTQ and trans people like Jude.

They're doing this so often, it's practically becoming Substack's brand. If they're offering money and perks to people who are not controversial lightning rods, they aren't being vocal about it. In fact, they're not being at all transparent about what motivates their choices regarding who warrants funding through Substack Pro, and who doesn't. They just keep insisting that they aren't publishers, and that they don’t make editorial decisions. But they are very much deciding whose voices are more valuable to them.

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I’ve been corresponding with a few people about this, including some who disagree with me on a few points. One suggested Substack is making a simple “business decision,” based on whose newsletters will yield the greatest number of subscriptions, the income from which Substack takes a cut—a cut that’s bigger on those newsletters they fund.

I responded by musing whether it’s an ethical business decision. Is profit by any means necessarily justifiable? In this economy?

That same person also suggested that what Substack is doing isn’t so different from what the big publishing houses do—and pointed out that Jude has also published with Penguin Random House. True. But I had high hopes that Substack, as a relatively new platform (or whatever it categorizes itself as) would depart from business as usual. I’m not sure why I thought that. Maybe because I saw that writers with values I admire—like Jude—seemed to feel good about publishing there.

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That last point made me realize how many places I’ve published, over the course of my career, that have made countless problematic choices—from the New York Times, to an imprint of Simon & Schuster, to glossy women’s magazines, to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

During the run-up to the 2020 election, I justified maintaining an account on evil Facebook by trying to use a “bad” thing for “good”—posting as persuasively as possible that we should do everything in our power to unseat an authoritarian monster. By my last count, I had heard from three Facebook friends that I’d persuaded them to change their votes, and from ten that I’d persuaded them to write postcards, phone bank, or text bank. This makes me hope that I can still use this newsletter for good, even if the company that hosts it is making some choices that I consider bad. Can I? Maybe?

Other questions I’m wrestling with: under capitalism, are all media and tech corporations inherently corrupted by profit motives? Are more upstanding and ethical alternatives possible? Can they be successful? By what measures?

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I’m at a loss for answers to these questions. I don’t have much understanding of business, or any kind of acumen for succeeding at it.

What I do have is a newsletter I’ve enjoyed writing and publishing. I do it for free—I stopped charging for “Adventures in ‘Journalism’” within 24 hours of launching it because I didn’t want to feel pressured to post a certain number of times, or in any particular way, to keep subscribers happy. But I’ve considered adding paid features in the future, and also starting other newsletters I’d charge for. I’ve found Substack easy and frankly pleasurable to use, and I’ve toyed with trying some of the functions I’ve yet to explore, like the podcasting feature.

Being on Substack has been satisfying and fun—it’s a place where I’ve felt surprisingly inclined to keep expressing myself, at a time in the world when thinking and expressing myself have been difficult. It’s also been a great way to publicize classes I teach, essays I’ve written, anthologies I’ve edited, and more. This all makes some of their choices especially disappointing for me.

Can I still enjoy being here? Can I overlook the direction the company has been moving in with its Pro program? Would I feel better if I moved this newsletter to Revue (now owned by Twitter), or Ghost, or Buttondown, or another platform?

The truth is, I have no idea what any of those other platforms stand for, or whether they even know yet what they stand for—or if any of them would have qualms about building their brand with the voices of vulnerable people, then turning around and prioritizing the very people who threaten the first group, to turn a profit.

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I’m going to keep thinking about this. In the meantime, I’ll just link in each installment to an organization that supports a marginalized and/or vulnerable population. This week, I suggest making a contribution to the Hudson Valley LBGTQ Center, if you can.

Some stuff I’ve got coming up:

  1. An new, updated edition of Goodbye to All That landing April 6th with seven new essays by: Leslie Jamison, Emily Raboteau, Lisa Ko, Ada Limon, Carolita Johnson, Danielle A. Jackson, and Rosie Schaap. Please consider preordering from Bookshop!

  1. My long-form essay writing intensive at Catapult May 22nd and 23rd.

  2. My anthology editing workshop at Catapult, four Wednesday evenings in May.

  3. I’ve got an essay in the March/April issue of Writer’s Digest about not feeling obligated to write about trauma.

  4. People seem to be enjoying my Skillshare class.