Dev Foxes

Hello, little fox. How did you get all the way out here?

The good news is it's perfectly safe out here. The bad news is I'm just as lost as you. Technology is eating the world, but technology didn't bother to ask the world how it felt about that.

No matter. Let's figure out how to tame it together. I have a name, but I don't use it out here for reasons I'll reveal as this story unfolds. You can call me Dev Fox, for now.


A sample newsletter mailing to give you an idea of what to expect. Note: I've since put up something on the domain: what you're looking at now!

Don't shave the yak: Why I started a newsletter on Substack

Hello, Foxes!

Today, I get a little meta. Publishing stuff in a place where others can see it brings different forces into conflict.

  1. It's hard to publish consistently because other priorities get in the way, and the benefits of doing it in public over stuffing it into a private folder are abstract and uncertain before you've built an audience. Most people are not natural public speakers.

  2. It's hard to make time to create to a standard expected by modern audiences. Even the most grindy MMORPG has a consistent reward for your effort. Music feels good to listen to as you make it. Art is nice to look at in most stages of refinement. But the path to getting your work seen, and the path to making it pay more for that time than other things, is unclear in a world where getting paid is the same as staying alive.

I regularly purge old tweets, but my last round of 180 got over 70,000 impressions according to Twitter's analytics tool. Wow! That's a lot of eyeballs. There are clear ways to reach those numbers: mention someone or post with a popular hashtag. I get thousands of views any time I fling a bad pun at someone. Easy.

But nobody pays for it. It's fun right up until context collapses and someone gets the wrong idea about something I posted, and they bombard me with thousands of views and mentions from people primed to see me as an asshole from the context breaker's framing.

Sometimes they're even right. Rarely.

The small, easy space of Twitter values punch, and punch means points without space for context. More room to run, like in a blog or newsletter, means more room for context. It means you get to frame your words, and be confident you didn't screw up. You can look at your words and say, "yeah, I got it right." And the framing someone else tried to apply is wrong: "here's the context I put around that punchy point they mangled with their own framing." Or maybe they're right, and you wrote out your thoughts with enough detail to find where intent and reception diverge.

It's so much harder to get people to look at a well-framed point. You have to build or find the gallery. Find a way to pay for the space and time. Convince people to come inside. Convince people to look at your piece instead of that pretty one two feet away. Not easy.

The fix is to decide how much control you need, and how much work you're willing to do to keep that control. For Dev Foxes, I let Substack control the platform and take a cut if I decide to turn on paid subscriptions through them. They own the domain. Not great, but...

In exchange, I can export my email list. If I turn paid subscriptions on, those subscriptions are handled in my Stripe account. I can export the list, set up a new platform on foxes.dev (which I own), migrate paid subscriptions, and do the work of fixing the inevitable dip in trust that comes from moving a blog or newsletter community to a whole new platform.

Substack earns its cut by providing a platform that tackles the hard work of getting people to sign up to an email list. They do A/B testing, the research, the trust building, the bridging of convincing people to pay with processing of payments. The list goes on.

Here are some platforms I explored, the compromises you make with them, and how to mitigate the risks: Substack, WordPress.com + a paid plan, Patreon, Ghost Pro.

Substack

Substack used to let people add their own domains. Removing that concerned me. This is less of an issue for a newsletter where the primary mode of delivery and reading is email. You lose links if you move, but the web-facing part was always just lead generation: the list is what matters. They create real plans and subscriptions with Stripe's own functionality for that. This is an improvement over WordPress.com.

I would recommend posting everything on a static site, then always make a point of linking those on social media. You don't have to use the web side of Substack; it's an option with each mailing. You can even put a Substack subscription form on the bottom of public posts on your static site.

The open source Publii plus the free Netlify (or GitHub Pages) make this easy even for the technical-averse like me. Publii is great because it will build your public site and upload it to a wide range of static site hosts with the press of a button. I've opted not to do this since Substack puts in the work of building a brand, and I can benefit from that to build my list—my escape hatch. You might choose the safer option of only using it for the email side. Valid.

WordPress.com

Some people can run their own self-hosted WordPress.org confidently. I can't. I've tried twice and anxiety over updates and security get me every time. The downside of WordPress.com's membership system is it doesn't create subscriptions on Stripe. It sends payments there, but everything else goes through their platform.

WordPress is backed by Automattic. It's a real company with a real business model and real staying power (15 years!), so if you're going to risk letting someone else control the relationship between you and subscribers, it's a good bet. The downside is that aside from a handful of formats, every attachment has to go in a zip file. Music producers who want to share their Serum presets and Ableton Live drum racks will have to zip it up to attach them. You can get their platform fee all the way down to 0% with the highest plan, but that costs almost as much as Ghost Pro.

Patreon

Patreon. It always come back to Jack (Conte). Like with Substack, you can export your list, but payments are handled entirely by Patreon. They pay out to your PayPal or bank account. The upside here is they (currently) eat chargebacks, handle sales tax where applicable, and handle currency conversions. You can upload just about anything as a post attachment with a limit of 200MB. It has a lot of integrations, most through Zapier, and is painless as long as you and your patrons have fast enough computers to not notice how poor the site's performance is.

The downside is no one really knows where Patreon is headed, seemingly even Patreon itself. They keep taking on huge funding rounds while the website continues to be slow, unreliable, and difficult to navigate without adding much to account for it. I get hit with captchas and Cloudflare error pages all the time. It's worst around payday. Like so many startups with no clear course, it could be headed toward a "liquidity event" that will change the platform in fundamental ways, assuming the acquirer keeps it up.

Patreon is a good option if you intend to make everything free and publish somewhere else, using Patreon as a recurring tip jar that handles all the messy financial stuff.

Ghost Pro

Ghost! Spooky. OoOoooOooo. You can spin up an instance of the free, open source version painlessly on Glitch. Seriously. Try it. You don't even need an account. This is an easy way to get a working install going and see how you like working with Ghost. Jenn Schiffer keeps it updated and works some magic to make it work within the limits of a free Glitch app. You can raise those limits considerably with a plan priced comparably to other cloud hosting. This is good for a personal blog, but maybe not for running a paid newsletter.

Ghost Pro is the compromise. It's...pricey. They price it with a Business to Business model, so it's quite a bit more expensive than a basic WordPress.com plan and offers support for business features, like adding staff members, to make up for it. Ghost Pro uses Stripe's subscription model and doesn't meter storage. One caveat is I can't find any evidence it has a media manager like WordPress, so I don't know how or if it handles uploading anything other than images. It didn't have anything like this when I tried it on Glitch. That would be a problem if you want to upload stuff like eBooks or music.

There are so many other platforms: Revue, Memberful (owned by Patreon), and so on. Those I detailed here are platforms I have extended and personal experience with, so it's what I feel confident talking about. Feel free to share your own platform experiences in the comments, or bounce off this with your own blog post/newsletter about your experience!