After using Mailchimp, Mailerlite, and Substack for my newsletter, I finally made the move to Ghost, to turn Creativerly into a full-fledged publication. Read on to get insights into what reasons led to this move.
Before we jump into the story of why I decided to leave Substack and move over to Ghost, let us take a look at why Substack is actually a pretty good platform.
Substack is the easiest way to simply start writing and publishing either a blog or a newsletter or both. If you are looking to start writing as a side-project, Substack will provide you with an easy setup without any hassle, so you can start straight away.
Also, if you are looking for a hassle-free way to set up a publication that is monetized through paid subscriptions, Substack does exactly offer that. If you are looking for a place where you can just write and publish posts, send out a newsletter, and do not have to worry about anything else, sure go ahead and use Substack, as it is as already mentioned, the easiest way to set things up and just get started.
But, what if you start writing a newsletter as a side-project or hobby, but ultimately it starts to grow and you build an audience? You will probably think about how to attract even more readers. You think of the fact of extending your content sections. Maybe you want to do interviews or create a community for your subscribers. In the end, you are looking for complete control over your content and your email list. You can indeed export your content and your email list if you are using Substack. On the other hand, there are no ways to the extent your content sections, as Substack does not offer any additional pages. You have your landing page, an about page, and an archive, that’s it.
When I decided to leave Substack, I did not have the feeling that the platform is giving me the control I need, since I had ideas of how to extend the content sections of Creativerly. I started to do interviews. As I published them they were just landing on my homepage as any other post would do. I had no control to add a tag or a dedicated page to show my readers that this will become a new content section.
As a content creator, writing and publishing about different kinds of topics, I want to be able to tag my posts and add them to dedicated pages if needed.
If you are looking for more control and more ways to customize and extent your reader's experience, you better read on.
Also, as I am a fan and supporter of open-source software, and always looking for ethical resources and tools, an ongoing controversy regarding Substack’s lack of transparency regarding who they are paying to publish on their platform, and the fact, that there are certain writers who amplify hate speech among them, also led to my decision to move away from Substack. You can read more on that topic further down the post.
Let’s get into it.
My newsletter journey - from Mailchimp to Mailerlite to Substack to Ghost
I started Creativerly back in January 2019. I did not know much about ESPs (I had no idea what ESP stands for if you also do not know what it stands for, let me help you out, ESP stands for Email-Service-Provider), on top of that I had no clue how to operate a newsletter in general. Therefore, I dove deep into the internet and did my research about the whole newsletter topic. Whenever I searched for the technical part on how to send out a newsletter, Mailchimp was the one option that got recommend the most. Why? Because it was (and still is) the most popular ESP out there (at least regarding user number and revenue). When I would start over today, I would avoid using Mailchimp because there are better options that focus on creators and creating content, in my opinion. Mailchimp has been a popular solution for marketing emails for years.
I used Mailchimp for 11 issues of Creativerly. After that, I was forced to switch to another ESP. Mailchimp closed my account, without any warning or further information why it was closed. After trying to get in contact with their support for a few times (and getting back automated answers only) I was done with Mailchimp, and moved on to Mailerlite. Mailerlite is a great tool, I enjoyed using it, it has intuitive features, you can use it for free for up to 1000 subscribers, and it is super simple to use. Also, their customer support was top-notch, when I was using Mailerlite, they responded within a few minutes to my questions, which makes it an even better product.
Nevertheless, I still decided to make the move to Substack back in April 2020. At that time, Substack was about to blow up during the COVID-19 pandemic. There was one big reason why I decided to move to Substack. I was done with heavily designed emails, like most people send out using services like Mailchimp, Mailerlite, and others. Since those ESPs are template-based you kind of get forced to use building blocks to „design“ your whole email. I wasn’t a fan of this anymore. I wanted a more professional, minimal, and streamlined look. Substack delivered exactly that since their email newsletters look like blog posts you would publish online.
There are a lot of ESPs like Mailchimp, Sendinblue, ActiveCampaign, CleverReach, that mainly focuses on marketing emails. Revue, Convertkit, Substack, Ghost, especially aimed at creators, writers, and publishers, and therefore also offer better features and functions, for that kind of people in the first place.
On top of that, Substack is great for hobbyists wanting to have a place for their writing online. Creativerly has 1000+ subscribers (last updated June 8th), and while I still would call it my side-project, with no initial intention to fully monetize it, on the other hand, I would say that Creativerly is no longer a hobby, but a passion. And therefore, my passion needs a better home in my opinion, and that better home is Ghost.
The drawbacks of Substack
When you search online for drawbacks regarding Substack, you will come across people arguing about Substack’s fees. Substack itself claims to be aimed at professional writers (the platform is full of them and more and more journalists are getting on, actually.). They made exclusive contracts (called Substack Pro) with big writers and journalists, and over the last couple of months, quite a lot of top-level writers and journalists left their full-time job to become independent writers on Substack, just like Casey Newton, Anand Giridharadas, or Matt Taibbi. On top of that, Substack is continuing to offer more and more top-level journalists and writers exclusive contracts to join their platform as independent writers. Therefore, Substack also aims at writers who are planning to monetize their audience by paid subscriptions (of course, since that is how they make money). Since the whole platform is free, Substack is taking a 10% cut of your subscriptions. Rob Hardy from Ungated did the maths on that topic:
As of this writing, Matt Taibbi has the third most popular paid newsletter on Substack’s leaderboard, with “tens of thousands” of subscribers. Now, by all accounts, Matt’s super happy with Substack, so this’ll be hypothetical. But it’s instructive nonetheless.
For the sake of easy math, let’s say he’s got 15,000 paid subscribers at $50/year. That translates to roughly $750,000 per year, without yet accounting for fees or churn or new subscribers.
That means, unless Substack cut him some kind of deal (which they’ve been known to do with high-profile journalists), Matt Taibbi’s singlehandedly paying $75,000 a year in fees.
Can we let that sink in for a moment? But besides those fees, Substack does not offer any customisations regarding email or your landing page/website, you get no segmentations, tags, or list management. And now let me ask you one question: Would you be comfortable paying a significant amount of fees while using Substack, but getting zero to none comparable features of other ESPs? I do not think so.
Substack’s lack of transparency
Earlier this year, Substack was the target of an online rant by several writers and journalists. The reason was the fact, that Substack somehow made it a secret that they are paying their top writers through exclusive contracts. Hamish McKenzie, Co-founder, and CEO of Substack, wrote in a blog post that Substack is not disclosing the name of the writers with whom Substack did exclusive deals as it is their private information and up to them whether or not they want it publicly known. Nevertheless, there is a serious problem with that. As a writer joining a new platform, I want to know who is already publishing on that platform, but more importantly, I want to know who is getting paid by the platform to publish on that specific platform. There was one article that really stood out: Annalee Newitz, writer of The Hypothesis (started out on Substack but moved to Buttondown back in April) wrote a long-form post about the topic of why Substack’s scam worked so well. Why would Annalee Newitz call Substack a scam? Because of the fact, that Substack paid massive amounts to certain writers to join their platform, keeping it a secret, and tell the public that Substack’s most successful writers are all bootstrapped, although they're not.
Glennon Doyle notes in one of her posts, that it seems like Substack has a secret list of writers who are allowed to violate the company’s terms of service, which means they are allowed to publicize hate speech, and still remain on Substack’s platform with paid subscribers. And that is a big issue and one of the few reasons, I no longer want to use Substack. What concerns me, even more, is the fact, that Substack wants to make a secret out of it.
In response to a question from Peter Kafka (Recode, Vox), Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie, announced that the company is considering being more transparent about Substack pro deals in the future, but will not disclose which writers already have a pro deal. Peter Kafka even went further deep down the Substack Pro controversy and shared interesting details and insights.
Those facts were already reason enough for me to leave Substack, but additionally, as already mentioned earlier, there are also some technical limitations that led to my decision.
Substack's lack of content control and customization
People complain about the fact, that every single Substack post/newsletter basically looks the same. In my opinion, this issue is based on personal preference. Personally, I want to focus straight on content. As a designer myself, I often find myself overhauling the design of my side-projects over and over again, instead of focusing on the project itself. Since Substack does not provide any customization features, it helped me build up a writing habit and focus straight on constantly improve my content. Nevertheless, I am indeed missing the possibility to inject my personality while using Substack. Ghost solves that by offering Themes, so you can at least customize your landing page/website. You can create more pages and tag your posts. You have way more control over the content you create and share.
When a service just like Substack literally gives you zero possibility to express your brand, I do not think it is a platform I would like to use forever. Substack was great for some big wins in the first place, but it would be the wrong move, in my opinion, to stay and grow Creativerly on that platform.
Therefore, it was about time to finally make the move to Ghost.
Update May 27th: Over the last couple of months, Substack has been pushing forward with updates. One of those updates tackled on the lack of customisation. You are now able to change your welcome page, homepage, post, and accent colors, you can select from different font styles, and choose between two homepage layouts. it is still not much, but it is something.
They also added more detailed Subscriber analytics, as this was one of the most wanted features. Therefore, writers can now segment and sort subscriber lists, directly email a subset, give away free subscriptions in bulk, and prune your email list.
Moving away from Substack
I am not the only one moving away from Substack. Over the last year we saw a lot of people grow on their platform, but then make the move towards something else, all of them having their personal reasoning. Kevin Indig for example grew his newsletter to over 3000 subscribers, migrated to Substack, and ultimately left the platform after only three months, he published a blog post in which he shares insights about his motives. Jacob Donnelly from A Media Operator also left Substack and documented his journey through a post with loads of insights. Earlier this year one of the biggest bundles on Substack, The Everything Bundle, founded by Nathan Baschez and Dan Shipper left Substack‘s platform to create a custom solution which ultimately turned into a top-notch publication, writer collective, and full-fledged media outfit securing $600.000 in seed funding.
Both, some of Substack’s top writers but also smaller publications move away from Substack because of their fees, the lack of customizations, the lack of analytics, the lack of content control, and also for not providing transparency when it comes to the writers Substack are paying to join their platform.
Why Ghost is a great alternative (and probably the overall better solution)
First of all, Ghost is a non-profit organization building open-source software. I like to support open-source and privacy-focused software and companies, so that was immediately a fit. With Ghost you are not „locked-in“, whenever you decide to switch to any other service, you can export your subscriber list and your whole content archive. On top of that, Ghost is incredibly fast. Your website, posts, and everything else loads with lightning speed. This is a huge plus when it comes down to User Experience, because it will not look that professional, if someone finds your publication online, head over to your website, but the content will not load. If you are already using a certain kind of tech stack, Ghost will come loaded with hundreds of integrations to speed up your whole workflow. One of my personal favorites with Ghost, is the fact that their editor supports markdown, which boosts my workflow since I basically layout every single newsletter issue, blog post, and interview with markdown-based text editing. Therefore, I simply need to copy and paste my post from iA Writer to Ghost (I could even publish them straight from my iA Writer account), and all the text editing and formatting will be there.
Let’s get into more detail about why Ghost is a great (and probably the best) Substack alternative:
- Ghost Pro (the managed hosting service by Ghost itself) starts at $9 per month, with no additional fees, whatsoever, all the revenue you make is yours. Substack is free but takes a 10% cut (quick maths: e.g. for every $50k in revenue, you need to pay $5,000+ in fees).
- You can set up your Ghost publication using a custom domain, for free. With Substack you have to pay an additional fee of $50.
- The email newsletters you send from Ghost will have a custom from-email address you can choose and set. Substack’s newsletter gets send from a @substack.com email address.
- Ghost supports themes, so you can customize your site so it fits your brand. Substack has a very generic design and lacks customization features.
- Ghost offers a rich writing experience, supports markdown, features dynamic cards, and templates. Substack only has a very basic editor.
- With Ghost you have the possibility to choose from over 1,000 connected apps to integrate with your site. Substack does not offer any ways to integrate apps and extend your site.
- Ghost is completely open-source, has a developer platform, and offers an API. Substack on the other has none of these things.
Ghost gives me a powerful and beautiful publishing experience. It is pure joy to craft a newsletter issue, supporting beautiful image galleries, forms, videos, podcasts, bookmarks, Markdown, and HTML. Ghost built-in member feature has everything on board so you can kick off your publication, member management, native payments with recurring subscriptions, and email newsletters.
Additionally, Ghost is extremely flexible and a publication can be customized to your needs. You can choose from a variety of free and paid themes, and if you want you can even develop your own theme.
With the most recent major version of Ghost, v4, they introduced their new Starter Plan which will only cost you $9 per month (billed annually) and gives you 25k page views per month, 1,000 members, custom domain support, and everything you need if you want a beautiful publishing experience and are just about to start your writing business.
For more details and more insights on the comparison between Ghost and Substack, you can head over to Ghost’s website and read their blog post.
Self-hosting your own Ghost publication
Since Ghost is open-source software you can self-host it. The easiest way to do so is by using DigitalOcean’s* Droplet (if you sign up for a DigitalOcean account through the link provided by me, you will receive a $100 credit to use for your account). Using DigitalOcean’s Droplet installation of Ghost will bring down your monthly costs to $5, which is even lower than the Ghost Pro Starter Plan. The Ghost 1-Click App allows you to self-host your own Ghost instance up and running in two minutes. The setup is fairly easy and DigitalOcean provides guidance so you do not miss a step. But be aware, although the initial setup is fairly straightforward, I would say that a basic understanding of programming, terminal, and server management is needed if you decide to self-host your own Ghost publication.
I have a basic programming, terminal, and server-management understanding, but it was still a hassle to get everything working properly. In the end, I needed some assistance and decided to contact the Ghost(Valet) service, a premium support service by the Ghost Team. It needed some email back and forth, but I am super excited and thankful that everything is working now and you are able to read those lines here. My major issue with self-hosting Ghost was to get the Mailgun integration running properly. Mailgun is the email deliverability service Ghost is using for sending bulk emails. You do not need to use Mailgun since there are integrations for other ESPs, if you are already using something like Mailchimp, EmailOctopus, or Buttondown, to send out your newsletters. I just wanted to keep everything tied together, and since Ghost itself uses Mailgun for their managed hosting service Ghost(Pro), I also decided to set it up for my self-hosted version.
A superb starting point if you want to self-host Ghost using DigitalOcean is to read through Steph Smith’s blog post and guide on how to get things running and setting up Ghost on a DigitalOcean Droplet. It helped me out a lot, and I am pretty sure it will help you too.
At the core, Ghost will provide you with all the necessary tools to launch a paid membership business. I do not plan for now to add a paid version of Creativerly, but on the other hand, I also do not want to rule it out. Therefore, just having the possibility to easily integrate memberships and a paid version of Creativerly somewhere in the future, is great.
Excited for the future
I am excited about the future of Ghost and the future of Creativerly. As always, if you have any questions, feedback, suggestions, whatsoever, just let me know, my DMs and email are always open for you.
Here are some more articles about Substack, the whole controversy, and why other people moved off the platform:
- Why We’re Freaking Out About Substack
- Substack writers are mad at Substack. The problem is money and who’s making it.
- Switching to Ghost
- What Substack Is Really Doing to the Media
Some of the links in my newsletter and my blog posts are affiliate links. Those links are marked by an asterisk. "*". If you buy something through the link, the product will not cost you anything more, but I will receive a small commission which not only supports Creativerly and my work, but also helps me to keep this publication a sustainable side-project.