Kit Ward


Grub Street 4.0

William Hogarth The Distressed Poet

I signed up for a paid Substack subscription for the first time last month and I chose Ed West’s Wrong Side of History. I’ve been an admirer of Ed’s writing for some time, partly because I share his pessimistic-conservative outlook on the current state of the world and partly because he covers current affairs with a historical angle which I enjoy. The subscription cost me £50 for a year. In return I get about three articles a week from Ed, which works out at about 33p per article. I’m happy to pay that but it did get me thinking about the economics of Substack.

I have a digital Times subscription which costs me £312 a year, for which I get a daily newspaper and various add-ons. The standard price for a Substack subscription seems to be £50 (or $50). Now there are lots of interesting writers on Substack, mostly, or so it seems to me, journalists who are trying to make a better living from their prose. I could easily find another ten or twelve writers that are worth reading, but can I afford to spend £500+ a year on them all? No, I can’t. And the quality as well as the quantity of writing I get from that Times subscription looks like pretty good value in this context.

One result of the over-production of humanities graduates in the last thirty years is that we now have an abundance of wannabe cultural critics and political commentators, all focused on the same narrow range of Anglo-American trends and talking points. They all want to be heard but few of them have anything original or insightful or interesting to say. Once upon a time they’d start a blog. Now they start a Substack. I imagine that only a few of them will make any kind of living from it. Substack is the intelligentsia’s Only Fans, and as with Only Fans, it’ll be the top 1% who make almost all the money.

Grub Street was a street in the City of London where disreputable publishers and impoverished writers once congregated. The name became a metonym during the eighteenth century for the trade of hack writing. Grub Street as a specific locale had disappeared by the time George Gissing published his novel of impecunious writers, New Grub Street, in 1891, but the hack writing it denoted certainly hadn’t. Indeed, the late Victorian era saw a boom in cheap, popular journals of the kind that needed content (though they didn’t call it that then) produced by writers paid by the yard.

Grub Street, as a notion, had a further iteration during the golden age of the pulp magazines, when an army of (mostly) American writers hammered out (mostly) formulaic short stories on their manual typewriters for weeklies like Argosy, Black Mask, and Amazing Stories. That golden age ended in the late 1950s. Writing of all kinds gradually became more professionalised and, importantly, began to require some form of credential. There were fewer disreputable, low-budget publications and journalism somehow became a noble pursuit. Hack writers, in the traditional sense, were squeezed out.

It took the web revolution to institute the fourth age of Grub Street. Fifteen years ago, every writer had a blog. But hardly anybody blogs seriously these days — there’s no money in it (I still do, obviously — see also my post ‘Five years a blockhead’). Around the time that blogging took off, there was a lot of talk about the potential of micropayments on the Web. The idea was that readers would be charged a very small amount, say a cent or even a tenth of a cent, to read a piece of writing on-line. The idea seemed to solve two problems: how to enable writers to be paid for their work (a cent or a tenth of a cent doesn’t seem much but a piece that goes viral will be read by thousands of people) and how to get a little money out of punters hooked on free content. Who, after all, would begrudge paying a writer a cent or less?

Micropayments never happened. There were, from what I can gather, a host of technical issues that weren’t easy to overcome. I haven’t looked into this aspect of the problem so I won’t say any more about it. But there was also a behavioural issue, first identified, as far as I know, by the polymath Nick Szabo. Szabo dubbed it ‘the mental transaction cost barrier’. The paper in which he set out his argument is available here. His argument is a complex one but there are two strands I’ll pick out here.

The first relates to the complexity of the billing system needed: imagine getting your monthly statement of micropayment charges and attempting to check it. Most of us would give up after the first ten lines, if we ever got started at all. In this situation, transaction costs become very obscure, to the point where buying or selling behaviour cannot respond to the market. There is also the huge potential for what Szabo calls ‘salami fraud’, in which spurious micro-charges are added to bills. Across millions of customers, these would soon add up.

Then there is the purchasing decision itself: in Szabo’s words, ‘since there has been no chance to browse the content, there is no way to directly ascertain whether it meets tacit preferences: there is no accurate customer observable explicit preference. Browsing a preview or book cover is still inaccurate, and entails increasing mental costs the more accurate it is’.

In the years since the micropayments bandwagon went into a ditch, other solutions to the how-to-pay-creatives problem have come along, among them Kickstarter, Patreon, Buy Me a Coffee, and now Substack. I say ‘now’, though it’s been going for five years already. But I didn’t notice it until I read about Bari Weiss leaving the New York Times and starting a Substack a couple of years ago.

Fiction writers too, are ‘doing’ Substack. A recent article on the BBC news site featured Elle Griffin, who’s publishing chapters of her novels on Substack. Digging a little deeper, it turns out that Chuck Palahniuk also has a Substack. Both have taken the approach of putting out a mixture of fiction and non-fiction. Palahniuk is a well-established author and it’s no surprise that his fans are willing to pay out $40 a year for his stuff. Griffin charges $50 a year i.e. 20% more than the much better-known Palahniuk. My first reaction was sceptical. Is this really a sustainable approach? Will readers pay $50 a year over the longer term for an annual serialized novel when they can pick up a complete novel for $4.99 on Amazon?

But of course, what Griffin is doing is building a salon, or a community as it’s called these days. It’s the social features — comments, chats, recommendations — that readers are (literally) buying into. Substack has found a way to make social media pay without having to blast readers with adverts and Griffin has used it to build a readership. She’s clearly done her research and is doing very well. How much of that is down to the good old early-adopter factor, I don’t know. But good for her — her story is inspiring for other fiction writers struggling to make money.

I looked into fiction serial publication a couple of years when I heard about Amazon Vella. I’d been nursing an idea for an SF/fantasy/thriller (I still haven’t nailed down the genre) series for a while but didn’t find any of the existing on-line options enticing. I thought I’d have a go at it when Amazon launched Vella in the UK. Which still hasn’t happened. So I’m going to give it a go on Substack. All being well, I’ll post an update on that project next month.

[Image of William Hogarth’s The Distressed Poet courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.]

About Me

Writer. Londoner. Wayfarer on the rolling English road.

the other place

Egyptian Avenue

I write about British places and history at

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