For a while now, I’ve been unhappy with WordPress. Their new editor is effectively unusable, and I’ve been using first Google Docs and recently LessWrong’s editor to compose new posts.
Last week, I was approached by a representative from Substack who pitched me on moving my blog from WordPress to Substack. This is my attempt to break down the pros and cons and decide whether to do it.
The advantages of Substack are:
The ability to sell subscriptions. It’s right there on the site, and many people who would subscribe have already entered their information subscribing to another Substack. Right now, if you want to support my writing (which to be very clear I absolutely do not need in any way, and if you are constrained by money please do not do this, but which is appreciated and motivating), you have to do so on Patreon. If I was bringing in more, I would be able to use some of that to improve quality (buy more subscriptions to other things, potentially hire editors or researchers to help, or simply justify devoting more time). At the extreme, there are worlds where this becomes my job, although no reasonable estimates have me close to that even if my other obligations were to wind down cleanly.
Email newsletter as a form of distribution, and a way to collect contact information. WordPress lets you subscribe to posts so you can get notified, but that’s one step removed and I don’t get those people’s contact information. This would likely get more people reading and give me a method of contacting people if it ever seemed worthwhile. You also get open rates and clickthrough rates on the emails, which is good data.
Actual human support to help their writers seems to be available, at least at the level I’m currently on, which is nice.
Their default comments formatting is superior to what I currently have on WordPress, except for the baseline ability to like comments, which I hate, but which I would be able to (and would) remove.
Some amount of extra discoverability via leader boards and via a link to my Twitter account. Some people are still subscribing to my mostly defunct Aikido Sports Substack that way. Some potential for additional promotion in the future, or other synergies with other Substack writers, although not now.
If I had to guess, I’d guess that Substack was more likely to improve over time relative to a default WordPress setup I’d get if I don’t do any work.
Poll said it would likely improve the blog’s value, and many seem to think the layout is cleaner/better.
The disadvantages of Substack are:
Switching costs are real, although over time they only go up. I’d have to choose whether to continue posting things to WordPress, and the old site would need to continue existing to avoid broken links, although the content could be copied across, but then it would be in three different places (as it’s already at LessWrong, which I am very happy about and have no plans to change). I’ve been told this can hurt search engine traffic for a while, although I don’t get much of that. Also, although I’ve tried out Substack, there’s presumably stuff I’m used to that I’m not thinking about now.
If we do end up with three copies of everything, then there would be three distinct comment sections and pseudo-communities. Right now the comments I get at WordPress are pretty good unless the public gets brought in (when that happens, the internet will be the internet) and Substack might degrade that?
WordPress can be customized yourself, Substack is trying to keep things standardized and doesn’t let you do that. If I got sufficiently big it might make sense to pay people to do custom work, or I could use tools created by Lightcone.
WordPress offers some useful statistics in nice form, including what posts got how many hits on which days from what sources, views per visitor and a few other things.
WordPress standard front page layout gives you the opportunity to select where you’re going to cut (add the Read More button) so you can let people grok the essence and decide whether it’s worth proceeding further. Substack seems to limit the space here more than I would like, not allowing you to communicate the gist unless you can do it in two lines or so.
Substack so far has not engaged in any censorship, but it seems more likely that there will be future censorship at Substack than WordPress. That would hopefully cause a mass exodus of writers, but various pressures likely will build over time. Given that my writing would likely have already been censored on Facebook or YouTube, this is a serious concern for me, even though I would have backups in place. Even a relatively light censorship regime likely would force me out, if only to avoid future ramping up.
Might make post auto-copying to LessWrong less trivial, although we think it mostly doesn’t.
There will be the temptation to put some amount of content behind paywalls in order to increase monetization. This isn’t a pure negative, since money is good, and there are advantages to gated discussions, and people who pay for something value it more. But mostly the whole point of writing and discourse like this is to make it widely available to people, so it’s important that the content that matters stay completely free, both free as in speech and free as in beer. This could easily be a situation where choices are bad, or I might end up putting things behind paywalls when I shouldn’t.
The money could exert pressure on me to write more than I want to be writing, or worry too much about what people want, in ways that make my life (and writing perhaps) worse.
So far most people have almost entirely thought switching was a good idea, so I’m inclined to do it. But it’s a big decision, so it makes sense to put up a post, write out the pros and cons, and give people a chance to think of things I may have missed. It’s also an opportunity for someone from WordPress to make the case against leaving, if such people exist. I’m not going to make a final decision for at least a few days (and of course, creating the Substack doesn’t force me to actually use it going forward if I realize I’ve made a horrible mistake, there’s no contract or anything).
Massive conflict of interest: I blog on ghost, know and like the people at ghost, and work at a company that moved from substack to ghost, get paid to help people use ghost, and a couple more COIs in this vein.
But if you're soliciting takes from somebody from wordpress I think you might also appreciate the case for ghost, which I simply do think is better than substack for most bloggers above a certain size.
Re your cons, ghost:
1 - has a migration team and the ability to do custom routing, so you would be able to migrate your content
3 - supports total theme customisation
4 - supports analytics add-ons which would give you these details
5 - supports custom excerpts - doesn't even have to be the first bit of the post
6 - is built on open-source software, and you have the option of self-hosting
Some other pros:
really nice post editor
the upper limit of what you can do with add-ons and custom html injection is really high
Notable points against would be:
no mechanism for discovery like substack's
harder to set up than substack
analytics, commenting, and email click-through are not native, they're separate add-ons (although imo pretty easy to add)
I am not personally sure how hard migrating comments from wordpress would be
I don't know how to compare what degree of support you'd get from substack versus ghost
below a certain subscription threshold, more expensive (unlike substack's percentage fee ghost charges a rate that scales with subscribers)
just the big meta point that I am really biased here - I really don't want to give the impression of neutrality
Strong upvoting after our conversation so more people see it. Raymond made a strong case, I'm seriously considering it and would like everyone else's take on Ghost, good or bad. Getting the experiences of others who've used it, and can verify that it works and can be trusted (or not, which would be even more useful if true!), would be very helpful.
The basic downside versus Substack is lack of Substack's discovery, such as it is, not sure of magnitude of that, and that people won't be used to it and won't have already entered CC info, which will hurt revenue some (but again, how much? Anyone have estimates?) and the start-up costs would be more annoying.
In exchange you get full customization, open source that can easily be self-hosted in a pinch, lower costs given expected size of the audience, better analytics, better improvement in feature sets over time given track records, etc. But I'd have to do at least some work to get that (e.g. you need to add a comment section on your own).
Is 'can be self-hosted in a pinch' also a feature of Wordpress? Also, how does Ghost and WordPress stack up against 'has anyone ever self-hosted?' (More people doing that, might make it easier to find out how.)
I think you can self-host WP in a pinch as well. I've been chatting with someone from WP trying to better understand what it is offering. It does seem like I'm missing a lot of simple knowledge of how to use WP better, and it's possible that WP is 'good enough' if things were explained properly, and then there's a bunch of deep functionality and customization potentially hidden. Yet that doesn't do any good if I don't use it.
Thank you for being up front. My basic answer is that I'm vaguely aware Ghost exists, and I'd be open to a pitch/discussion to try and convince me it's superior to Substack or Wordpress, although it would be an uphill battle. If there's human support willing to make the migration and setup easy and help me figure out how to do things, then... maybe? Could set up a call to discuss.
The main thing I care about, as a reader, is getting the full text of your posts in my email inbox. It seems WordPress and Substack both offer that functionality, but LessWrong doesn't, for some reason.
I’m surprised to hear you are concerned about censorship at Substack. I read this link https://on.substack.com/p/substacks-view-of-content-moderation a while back and thought it suggested a pretty strong commitment to not censoring. I don’t really know anything about WordPress though, so maybe they’re even more committed in this regard?
I'm not Zvi obviously, but my model is something like this: Wordpress is very boring. It's not "a thing". Nobody blames Wordpress for content published on Wordpress; they blame whoever wrote it. Probably the fact that every Wordpress blog has its own style contributes to this; there is mostly no unified "Wordpress brand", except the brand of people who haven't gotten around to picking a real theme yet.
Substack talks a good game about anti-censorship, but Substack is NOT boring. They are trying to make a name for themselves, they force common branding across all the blogs on their site, and they generally want Substack itself to be "a thing", not just a neutral platform that fades into the background. And they are likely to attract controversy, and then as a result attract pressure. Usually people eventually fold under pressure. Promises not to fold under pressure are just meaningless marketing copy.
I blog on wordpress and the impression of substack I get is that moving over would mean giving up creative control over the presentation. Although I hardly use 95% of the creative options available on wordpress, it still seems like quite a disadvantage.