At first it was Salman Rushdie. Now it’s Janet Winterson. Literary stars migrate online and for a certain amount, they will appear in your inbox. But do not be afraid: this does not mean the death of the book.
Either way, the attraction is Substack, a newsletter subscription service launched in 2017 that until recently featured journalists rather than fiction writers. Rushdie changed that with his plan to shoot a short novel, Seventh wave, as well as short stories, book and film reviews, and literary rumors over the next year. As he points out, this is a very old idea: writers like Dickens used to arrange their novels in today’s magazines sequentially.
Meanwhile, Winterson became Substack’s first resident writer for the month of November, sharing a series of ghost stories and a memoir essay about the inspiration behind them. She loves the immediate feeling of going straight to the audience: “Substack’s mission to connect readers and writers is one that appeals to me.”
Although she feels that she can’t write at the level that she wants to write on a weekly basis, a weekly letter publication is quite different. “The point is, there are a lot of possibilities,” she said. She’s spent the past four years exploring the world of artificial intelligence, so she’s featured in ghost stories as a welcome change: “I wanted to lighten the load on my brain and have some dark, fun, and chilling nights.”
Another literary star testing the text online is Margaret Atwood, who has written a semi-autobiographical story, two burnt men, available as an e-book and as an audiobook on the Scribd Originals imprint, is an exclusive story program available as a reading subscription service.
Other writers have been exploring digital options for some time. Stephen King has released his first novel bullet ride as an e-book. Some of the fictional work of writers like David Mitchell and Neil Gaiman has started on Twitter.
As with most social media, the new platforms are not without their critics. Substack’s values have been called into question, even though it claims to be impartial, describes itself as a platform rather than a publisher, and has policies for moderating content.
Substack monetizes paid subscriptions and pays select prominent writers a large upfront. In some cases, it has placed journalists on staff without disclosing their salaries, arguing for confidentiality. This has led journalists to claim that it is a two-tiered system.