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Is Substack the future of book consumption?

The future of book publishing may in fact be a throwback to the past. The reason is that Salman Rushdie is to publish his next book in serialised form on Substack. Rushdie is an award-winning author and the man at the centre of The Satanic Verses controversy. This was where Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwā, or ruling on a point of Islamic Law, demanding that Muslims assassinate him in revenge for his writing. The controversy left multiple people dead or gravely wounded after attacks from religious adherents following the Ayatollah’s order. In 1998, President Mohammad Khatami said the Iranian government no longer supported Rushdie’s killing. Although, current Ayatollah Khamenei did tweet about its continued existence and was locked out until he deleted it.

Substack, meanwhile, was founded in 2017 by Chris Best (a co-founder of Kik Messenger), Hamish McKenzie, and Jairaj Sethi. Ben Thompson’s Stratechery, a subscription-based newsletter/podcast about technology and media, was a major inspiration.

Whether or not Rushdie is successful could signal a shift in the consumption of literary works and their publication

Substack is a subscription newsletter service, although it is much more than that implies. The idea is that users can provide free and/or paid content on a subscription basis to readers. This can be read on the site or sent via email to readers. A simple but powerful system, which has everyone from essayists and YouTubers, to journalists and authors amongst its users. By 2018, it had 11,000 paid subscribers, reaching 250,000 in August 2021. It also allows you to monetise your work.

Whether or not Rushdie is successful could signal a shift in the consumption of literary works and their publication. It is reminiscent of old-style newspaper and magazine serialisations. But this time control is placed firmly with the author. It allows the readers to pick and choose what they want to read and who they want to support. It is not decided by a media boardroom or corporate algorithm. It opens a new avenue of freedom after censorship or cancellation.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes short stories were famously published in The Strand Magazine and his Hound of the Baskervilles was serialised in it. Agatha Christie serialised some short stories, including Hercule Poirot ones, in The Strand. P.G. Woodhouse, Leo Tolstoy, H.G. Wells, and Rudyard Kipling were among other contributors. 

The Telegraph recently showed this form wasn’t dead when they serialised the first volume of the diaries of the scandalous and enigmatic MP Henry ‘Chips’ Channon covering 1918 to 1938. Previously deemed too salacious for full un-edited publication, Simon Heffer edited and serialised an unexpunged version, with two volumes to come.

Gizmodo sneered at Substack and the service they offer. Calling their users ‘contrarian-heavy’ and a ‘hive’ for the controversial. This just shows how powerful and important such a service is, compared to them. The real freedom of expression Substack offers is why it’s home to a literarily and politically diverse range of users. It makes it an interesting and potentially revolutionary force for good.

Perhaps we will see more authors take advantage of this site and the serial format to bring them closer to their audiences. There is something magical about the freedom to write and speak as you please and deliver it straight to the palms of your readers. It can also build a community of you and your readers in a way traditional print or Twitter actively avoids.

With the relentless drive to force everything online, the more I want to hold on to the true importance of physical mediums

Books moving into serial, weekly or monthly, formats isn’t something entirely new as seen above. Historically it has produced some of the most famous literary works – Japanese manga is realised chapter-by-chapter in serial form in magazines, and sites like Medium have existed for years. But what Substack and Rushdie’s latest move shows is that freedom in writing and publishing is important.

However, I don’t think this is the ‘death of the novel’ as some have wondered. The Channon diaries and Sherlock Holmes shows that serialisation and physical print aren’t mutually exclusive. Being able to hold your books in your own hands is a feeling that will never get old. With the relentless drive to force everything online, the more I want to hold on to the true importance of physical mediums.

Ebooks were hailed as the death of physical books, but that never happened. Publishing houses will likely still get the physical publication deal. But what Substack offers is a way around the management, moderation, and stranglehold that society’s publishers, platforms, and censors have over discourse. If done correctly, it could be a fresh new path. If the momentum of getting Rushdie onboard can be harnessed, we could be seeing something important. Or it could fall flat on its face. As Rushdie said of his new adventure: “It will either turn out to be something wonderful and enjoyable, or it won’t.”





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