Veteran Kiwi writer Simon Sweetman tried Substack – here’s his verdict

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

Since March 2021, music and pop culture essayist Sweetman has been publishing on Substack multiple times a week – often nearly every day. He told theBit it all began when a friend said to him, “You’re missing out if you’re not publishing on Substack.”

There was an all-is-lost moment before he discovered Substack, though.

“All the money dropped out of reviewing, blogging and opinions for me2015/16 through to 2020. It was pretty hopeless trying to find paid work writing about culture stuff in NZ.”

2006 to 2012 had been the Golden Age for Sweetman and included the highs of being paid to review music on Good Morning. Then, after the NZ news industry dried up between 2012-2018, there were the lows of having album covers mocking him, having The Spinoff attempt to humiliate him in articles, and having Stuff.co.nz unable to pay him for his work.

Sweetman – who describes himself as a “basic internet user” – said after being introduced to Substack in February 2021 by friends including Emily Writes, he was sold on “the ease, the usability, and good capability for embedding and dragging clips in.”

“I used to write on Word docs; now I know a lot of people who write directly into Substack and it autosaves. It’s pretty cool. It’s a perfect storm: the brand name is recognisable; setup minimal and easy. I even emailed creator Hamish directly and he said it’s great news that I’ve joined Substack and good luck, and if you need anything let me know. That felt like a nice assurance – that one of the inventors would take your call.”

Substack hasn’t “changed the game” for writers, Sweetman reckons, but he feels it is a “nice alternative” to other writing platforms.

“It has its critics, like anything. Some criticisms are fair; like anything else it can feel like a gated community with one side missing out. But it’s a good framework, good setup. It’s refocused me. I keep thinking the whole newsletter culture in the last couple of years reminds me of how comics and cartoons were unfashionable for a bit then rebranded as graphic novels and allowed people to take them more seriously.”

“I did 8-9 years of five blogs a week for Stuff. I felt very burnt out by that and didn’t miss it when that opportunity fell away. In terms of pushing things under people’s noses, I slowed down. Now Substack format allows me to give equal weight to books, music and movies. I feel refocused and re-energised… It was harder for me to drag an arts and culture audience over to Substack, and I don’t know what audience prioritising is but I think the way to get a following is to write something not found anywhere else.”

On top of the reward of getting read, getting paid has been a major reason to stay with Substack.

“The sky’s the limit if you get the subscribers. As a writer, you can constantly tweak which posts you make money off. I charge a $50 annual subscription, or $5 a month. A few people initially gave donations, like $150, that was encouraging; every now and again I’ll get an email with a one-off payment of $500 or $1000 and that certainly gets you going. In some cases it’s a back-payment from people telling me “Man, I’ve been reading you for years and I’ve never paid you anything, so I’ll support you.”

“Also, the subscription model lends itself to a troll-free environment, free of comments. You’re not going to get someone paying fifty bucks a year to write in and say ‘I think you’re a c*nt.’”

Want another excellent article about Substack? We interviewed the Kiwi co-founder.

Plus Greg Fleming explores David Slack’s use of Substack here.  

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