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Substack, Patreon, and Medium: What You Need to Know About Content Monetization Platforms

Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing advocate and author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. She is a former trade newspaper editor.

Here's what you need to know about Substack, Patreon, and Medium content monetization platforms.

Here's what you need to know about Substack, Patreon, and Medium content monetization platforms.

Recently, I’ve been seeing a renewed interest in doing paid subscription email newsletters. As well, I got a question from one of my TikTok followers about how Substack, a newsletter and writing monetization platform, asking how it fits in the self publishing ecosystem.

For authors, paid subscription email newsletters and content monetization platforms can be an additional non-book profit center or income stream. Some authors may even use them in lieu of publishing books or blogs.

But are they really moneymakers? Let’s explore the facts and fictions about them.

How Do Substack, Patreon, and Medium Fit in the Self Publishing Ecosystem?

Substack and Patreon are content monetization platforms, meaning that authors can solicit payments for the content they self publish. However, unlike self publishing platforms such as Kindle Direct Publishing, Substack and Patreon are designed to sell subscriptions to access continuing content such as articles and podcasts, not finite products like books, though authors could offer subscribers access to book type content.

Though Medium is also a content monetization platform, authors do not individually solicit subscriptions as they do on Substack or Patreon. Subscribers pay a fee to Medium which allows them access to all the content on Medium.

What are Paid Subscription Email Newsletters?

Most authors are familiar with email newsletters. But most offer subscriptions to them for free, often using a reader magnet to encourage opting in. They’re free because the purpose of the email newsletter is to market and sell books, products, and services. Who would pay for that? No one.

Paid subscription email newsletters are different in that they deliver valuable and exclusive content via email, often through platforms such as Substack and Patreon. However, the actual content will probably not be in the email itself. Most likely a preview and link to the paid content will be in the emails that subscribers receive. Then the paid subscriber would log in to consume the content. Without this type of safeguard, what would prevent subscribers from forwarding the content to everyone on their email list to read for free?

Every now and again, excitement around this paid email newsletter model surfaces in the digital and content marketing realm. It’s nothing new. It’s been around for a very long time. It is sometimes called a paywall or gated content. You could even call this blogging. But since blogging isn’t as cool or lucrative as it once was, this is just a new term for an old idea.

Paid subscription newsletters are even older than the internet itself. One of the most popular and longstanding of these in the personal investment world was (and is) the Kiplinger Letter which was started as a postal mail newsletter in 1923. That was about a century ago. As of this original article publication date, the newsletter is about $100 year retail for either or both the print and digital editions.

How are Email Newsletter Subscriptions Done?

While paid subscription email newsletters can be done through standard email marketing platforms such as MailChimp, Constant Contact, etc., it is more likely that they will be managed through platforms such as Patreon and Substack. These platforms help creators monetize their content and creative endeavors with services such as payment processing, signup forms, and tools for content creation, hosting and delivery. Some authors offer both free and paid content through these platforms because the platform is good at sorting out subscribers’ free or paid status. For these services, a fee (flat or percentage) is collected. Whatever platform is used, subscribers receive email alerts when new newsletter content is available for viewing.

The Myth About Content Monetization Platforms

Over the years, I’ve seen a number of creative people get all charged up about offering their content on the likes of Patreon or Substack, only to abandon it. They bought into the dream that their content has high value and, by golly, they should get people to pay for it with a subscription.

Here’s the problem. Authors value their own content. Their readers may value it, too, but just not enough to fork over a few bucks a month… forever. There are too many other free content substitutes available all over the internet. Few people sign up and pay, usually limited to the author’s most loyal family, friends, and fans. So the Patreon or Substack account, and any content published through it, dies quickly and quietly.

Though they are legitimate and valuable services, read the promo pages for sites such as Patreon and Substack carefully. You’ll notice that they emphasize how “you” can monetize “your audience” by signing on there. Monetizing your audience is not the same as building your audience.

That’s the myth of sites like this. They showcase how collecting as little as $5 a month from each of your subscribers will make you a living wage that’ll pay your bills, just like the creators they feature who may now be able to quit their day jobs. But these featured creators have already built an audience before they signed on. You have to have an audience in order to monetize it by selling subscriptions to it. Yeah, I know. There’s that four-letter word that authors hate: sell.

These sites do nothing to help you build your audience, save for providing you with the tools to manage your subscription program. They won’t promote your program to anyone. That’s all on you. If you don’t already have a sizable base of fans eager to pay you for your content, don’t expect that signing on to a content monetization platform will make them magically appear. That takes a substantial and sustained investment of effort and expense on your part.

Can You Make Money on Content Monetization Platforms?

As with self published book authors, there are superstar authors on these monetization platforms who report making lots of money. But for the vast majority, the income wouldn’t pay for a single monthly utility bill.

What prompted my friend on TikTok to inquire about Substack were reports on the success of on Heather Cox Richardson, a historian who writes a popular newsletter on political issues. A 2020 New York Times article claims she has 350,000 subscribers (side note, she also has over a million followers on Facebook). If subscribers want to participate in comments, they pay a $5 monthly fee on Substack. The article notes that this could make Richardson a million dollars a year. If you did the math, and all subscribers were paid subscribers, she’d actually make about $21 million a year. Here's another myth busted. Only a small proportion of subscribers may actually shell out a monthly subscription fee for an individual author. If the income estimate noted in the article of around $1 million newsletter income is accurate, it looks like only around 5 percent of her Substack subscribers are paid ones. That doesn’t surprise me.

Let me ask you right now how many paid newsletters or paid content programs you subscribe to right now? I’m guessing it might be zero or a low single digit integer. There’s only a handful of newsletters or podcasts I’d be willing to pay for if they weren’t free. Even at what seems like a low rate of $5 a month per author, it adds up fast as you subscribe to more authors. Doing the math at that rate, that’s $60 per year, per subscription. You could quickly rack up hundreds of dollars in subscriptions annually. So the number of readers who will become paying subscribers could be very low.

That’s why Medium is a good deal for subscribers who currently pay about $5 a month to access all the content on the site, but maybe not as good a deal for authors. According to a 2019 TechCrunch article, there are 30,000 writers on Medium. Earlier in Medium’s history, writers were compensated on the number of “claps” (similar to a “like” on Facebook). A few years ago, I even saw an author friend suggest that authors band together and clap for each other’s articles to get paid. Unethical, but likely a reflection of how little authors are earning. In late 2019, Medium changed to paying based on the amount of time a subscriber spends on the article content. You can imagine why that change was needed. The system was too easy to be gamed.

Costs and Commitment of Content Monetization Platforms

Some of the reason why authors gravitate to content monetization platforms is that they are not supported by advertising. Maybe they believe advertising besmirches the integrity of their content. Maybe they’re not making enough through their advertising supported content. Or they’re seeing the trend toward ad-free subscription streaming, such as for Netflix, and want to be a part of that.

But here’s the thing. The content that is paid for must be exceptional and substantial for subscribers to justify the cost. Subscriber expectations are high. What you may have produced previously that would be acceptable as free, may not be enough in terms of quality or quantity for paid consumption. Just putting your content behind a subscription paywall doesn’t mean that people will be anxious to pay for it.

Creating exceptional content is a high investment for authors. Creating exceptional content constantly, as would be expected by monthly subscribers, may be more than commitment than some authors can handle.

Though it still requires promotion of content, authors who are not up to that consistent challenge might find sites like Medium a more comfortable content monetization option. Or they can continue to create book content at their own pace, enroll in KDP Select, and offer their books to Kindle Unlimited subscribers. Neither one will make them rich, but they take less investment.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2021 Heidi Thorne

Comments

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on January 28, 2021:

Adrienne, true, experts do have a better shot at monetizing their content than others. The problem is that there are so many adequate substitutes, available all over the internet, especially for the creative arts.

Thanks so much for adding that aspect to the conversation! Hope your New Year is getting off to a great start!

Adrienne Farricelli on January 27, 2021:

Hi Heidi, these content monetization platforms have grown in popularity. There are pros and cons and they may not work for everybody. I agree that people won't feel tempted to pay when so much info is available for free. The only exception I can think of is if somebody is really an expert on something and that super-niche info is difficult to find.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on January 27, 2021:

Donna, in theory, these are perfect platforms for creators. But with the iTunes, Spotify and Amazon juggernauts, these subscriptions are really for those super fans. Some may still distribute through the big guys, but then offer this additional super fan opportunity. I like the idea. Sadly, I only see stories about the super successful ones. The creators I know who are on these sites have a handful of subscribers (like less than 10).

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, as always! Hope your New Year is off to a great start!

Donna Herron from USA on January 27, 2021:

Hi Heidi - I know of a few independent musicians who are offering music subscriptions through Patreon, Each month they promise to release new songs on this platform to their subscribers. I have not signed up for any of the memberships, but I can certainly understand how it would be a cheaper way to distribute their music to a smaller fanbase than putting out a new CD. Some of these musicians have enough devoted fans who are willing to pay to hear their new music. I think this arrangement makes the fans feel like they are getting access to something that the wider public won't hear. It sounds like a win-win, for now.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on January 26, 2021:

Denise, indeed Patreon and sites like it have given artists and creators of all stripes a way to share their talents. Yes, Patreon is built on the sponsorship or patron model of old. And you're right, not everyone is willing or able to support artists in this way.

I'm glad you feel Patreon works for you. Hope you can gather more patrons over time. Your work is deserving.

Thanks so much for sharing your experience about these platforms! Hope your New Year is going great so far!

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on January 25, 2021:

I have a Patreon account and have only 2 subscribers at this time. However, the content I put in is about art and not writing. I share my process and progress on finite art pieces that I sell on Etsy. I'm grateful I have those few so far. To me, Patreon is the equivalent of the patrons of old who supported artists so they could be freer to create great works of art. People support me not for the content as much as the idea that they are supporting an artist. Not everyone is going to be able to do that or even care to do that.

Blessings,

Denise

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on January 25, 2021:

Flourish, as much as I want to support all writers, I just can bring myself to shell out hard dollars for much of the content that I consume on the web. It's just not that valuable.

I, too, get annoyed at the paywalled content. In fact, if it's under a paywall, I refuse to share it on social media because I think it will annoy my followers.

As much as people say they hate advertising, it's easier, in my opinion, to pay the "advertising attention tax" than it is to cough up cash.

I have paid courses and books. I feel that if people are interested enough in what I create, they'll be the ones that actually buy something.

Thanks, as always, for adding your perspective to the conversation! Have a wonderful week!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on January 25, 2021:

Hello Linda! Glad it was helpful. Thanks so much for reading and commenting, as always. Hope your New Year is going great!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on January 25, 2021:

Hi John! Glad it clarified things for you. Thanks so much for reading and commenting. Happy New Year!

FlourishAnyway from USA on January 24, 2021:

I'm glad somebody said this! As more and more press is given to Medium and related pay-for-play services, who doesn't want to make more money? But it's not as simple as that, as you point out. I myself would never shell out money for paid content when I could get all kinds of excellent content for free. I get very annoyed when I get search results that tease an article that is hidden behind a paywall, even well-known sites or even those that require me to join first to read.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on January 22, 2021:

Thank you for this useful and realistic look at the three sites, Heidi. I appreciate your advice.

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on January 22, 2021:

Thank you for sharing this information. It makes it all much clearer.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on January 22, 2021:

Hi, Peggy! Building an audience is super tough, especially for paid content! That's what these sites don't tell you. There is way too much quality free content online to justify paying.

Honestly, it's just a little too late in the internet evolution to establish a pay-to-play content world.

Thanks for reading and commenting, as always! Have a lovely weekend!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on January 22, 2021:

Pamela, I think we've all dabbled on some of these sites. But I know I've settled into HP as my main content site. The others are just too much work.

Like you, I don't pay for any newsletters or podcasts, though there are a few I might if they put them behind a paywall. But for most content, I'll put up withs ads on the sites instead of paying for it.

Thanks for chiming in! Hope your New Year is going well so far. Happy Weekend!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on January 22, 2021:

Liz, glad it clarified the situation for you. Thanks so much for reading and commenting. Hope your New Year is off to a great start!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on January 22, 2021:

Bill, I'm not jumping up and down about these opportunities either. It's just sad to see some author friends get all ramped up about these sites, then be disappointed.

Write whatever and wherever you want!

Have a relaxing weekend and thank you for reading!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on January 22, 2021:

Heidi,

You always tell it like it is! It is hard work to accumulate a great number of followers. Most of them would not wish to pay for information when so much is available for free. Thanks for writing another informative article.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on January 22, 2021:

This is a very interesting article, Heidi, and I always learn so much your articles. I have done some writing on other sites, but I just don't want to put the work in anymore. Also, I do not get any paid newsletters, etc.

Liz Westwood from UK on January 22, 2021:

Thank you for demystifying these platforms and giving a comprehensive and honest review of them. I have learnt a lot, as ever, from reading your informative article.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on January 22, 2021:

Honest to God, ten years ago, when I started as a freelance writer, I would jump all over this article with both feet and go find out what this is all about. Now, 2021, I'm just tired of freelancing. I just want to write novels and fade into the sunset. :) Thanks for the information. I have no doubt it is spot on and valuable.

Have a great weekend!