In our Ask the Experts Series, we feature interviews with people on the other side of the PR and digital marketing world. This time, we’re diving into the world of Substack publishing. Founded in 2017, Substack is a relatively new online platform that helps writers design, publish, and if they choose, monetize digital newsletters. Here at Darby, we’ve noticed a growing number of our writer friends using Substack to share their thoughts, advice, recent work, and even PR opportunities with their subscribers. That prompted us to ask a few of them – what’s so special about Substack?
Meet the Publishers
Our group of publishers include an NYC-based freelance journalist who writes about food, travel, and other lifestyle topics, the owner of the oldest and most-read hiking blog on the west coast, an outdoor gear editor, and a freelance journalist who writes on the intersection of humans and nature.
An NYC-based freelance journalist, Walansky has over two decades of experience writing about food, travel, and other lifestyle topics. Her work can be found in Forbes, Today.com, The Kitchn, Food Network, and Southern Living, among other outlets. Recipe creation is one of her passions and she often cooks live on Instagram for her followers. Her culinary interests are not limited to food — she even created a signature cocktail called The Dirty Aly that is on a menu at an NYC hotel bar. When she’s not cooking and cocktailing, she loves hanging out with her beloved pups, following news about the royal family, and traveling in pursuit of interesting new ingredient and flavor discoveries. Check out her eponymous Substack here: https://alywalansky.substack.com/
Schreiner founded Modern Hiker, one of the oldest and most-read hiking blogs on the west coast, and is the author of three best-selling books on the outdoors. He is also an outdoor contributor to the Los Angeles Times, Emmy-nominated television writer, producer, and presenter, and occasional poet. He lives in Portland, Oregon with his husband and elderly pitbull. When he’s not hiking, he can usually be found getting his hands dirty in his certified backyard habitat native garden. Check out his Substack, also named Modern Hiker, here: https://modernhiker.substack.com/
A Montana-based writer, editor, and outdoor gear expert, Slepian is an avid backpacker, bikepacker, climber, and horseback rider. She has toured thousands of miles on long-distance trails and bike routes and is the co-founder of BackpackingRoutes.com. Her writing has appeared in outlets including Lonely Planet, Outside, Runner’s World, TripAdvisor, Women’s Health, Backpacker, and the Huffington Post. Check out her Substack, Unpublishable, here: https://unpublishableandunedited.substack.com/
An award-winning Portland-based freelance journalist and creative, Arvesen mostly writes about outdoor recreation and the intersection of humans and nature. Her work appears in Outside, Backpacker, Men’s Journal, Via Magazine, and Texas Monthly, among others. As much as she loves outdoorsy pursuits like climbing with her husband and trail running with her pup, she has learned to embrace her indoorsy self recently by returning to hobbies like sewing and interior design. She believes a happy life is a balanced life. Check out her Substack, Honing Her Craft, here: https://honinghercraft.substack.com/
How long have you been creating and sharing content through Substack?
Walansky: I’ve been on Substack for about two years.
Schreiner: I’ve been running an email newsletter since 2016 and switched to Substack in January of 2023.
Slepian: Six months.
Arvesen: I launched Honing Her Craft in September 2020. Coming up on three years! At first, I interviewed self-directed creative women about their different mediums, from journalists to graphic designers to formulators, many in the outdoor recreation space. We talked a lot about compensation, negotiation, inspiration, and other more business-y topics. It was really rewarding, but each send took a lot of energy and I was getting burned out. So in late 2022, I pivoted to focus more on my own creative practices. I write a lot about learning through experiences, following curiosities, and taking care of mind and body as a creative human. Since then, the work has felt a lot more organic and natural.
What first drew you to the platform, and what sets it apart from other self-publishing options like Medium, Ghost, or Beehiiv?
Walansky: I had been using various methods for many years of sending out my source requests — HARO, Facebook groups, once upon a time. But people kept on asking me if I had a distribution list, and I felt the responsibility to make things easier for everyone — no one should have to chase me down to find out what I’m working on or how to pitch me. My source requests and story leads could be right in their inbox every single day, and available to them if they want them. But, I wanted to be interesting and fun too while I was at it.
Schreiner: I was attracted to the platform’s simplicity and ease of use, its ability to cross-post other writers I liked, and drive subscriptions. I was also at a point where Mailchimp was going to charge me over $100 a month, so not having an upfront cost was also a big selling point!
Slepian: I wanted an open platform where I could write and send pieces out to subscribers, and this was the one I was most familiar with.
Arvesan: A lot of my peers were starting newsletters on Substack at the time (and still are), so I wanted to get in on the action. I had used TinyLetter back when I was a magazine editor, but as my freelance writing business was taking off, I wanted an outlet to share my work and connect with other writers and readers. Substack, even at the time, offered a lot more features than its competitors in a super navigable, user-friendly platform.
It’s been said that Substack is made for writers. Why do you think it works so well for people in your line of work?
Walansky: It’s so easy and accessible. I’ve written posts from the back of vans while on a press trip to remote areas of the world. All I need is wifi!
Schreiner: My newsletter has always been a compilation of new content from the Modern Hiker website with some personal commentary and takes — in many ways, it’s how I started blogging back in 2006 when I started Modern Hiker. Substack gives me a great way to bypass all the social media algorithms that have choked content across the web and interact with the people who actually want to read what I’m writing. I also like that the platform is very simple and easy to use — I don’t want to have to spend hours formatting things, I’d rather spend that time writing or reading.
Arvesen: I would agree with that. I think many writers are fed up with being underpaid, undervalued, fit into boxes, and controlled by publications and platforms. Readers, on the other hand, are hungrier than ever for factual, intelligent, and unique perspectives on topics they care about. They’re willing to follow a writer or content creator they like, wherever they go. Substack allows writers to keep and build their following while also getting compensated for writing about their areas of expertise. As a reader and writer, I get to directly support writers I care about and get supported by readers who care about me. It’s a really gratifying space.
Do you have a paid subscription option on your Substack? Why or why not?
Walansky: Yes – but MOST of my posts are free and public. I share what I’m working on and newly published links, among other content, every single day for free. Once a week I do a supplemental paid edition with industry insights. I also offer Zoom AMAs, where people can ask me anything about pitching, follow-ups, events, or anything they want. It’s almost like consulting or coaching for the cost of a monthly latte.
Schreiner: I do. I feel strongly that writers should be paid for their work — that’s why I’ve always paid contributing writers to the Modern Hiker site, even if it’s not always what I wish I could pay them. Most of the money I make on the website goes toward paying its maintenance costs or supporting other writers, so I wanted this more personal writing on Substack to be a way for me to have a steadier source of additional income. I am still early in the subscription game and am figuring out how to balance the desire (and need, really) for paid subscriptions with a healthy amount of content that is still available for free. I’ve been very upfront with my readers that this is a great experiment, so I think everyone is willing to come along for the ride to see what works and what doesn’t.
Slepian: I do have a paid subscription, but it’s not necessary to read my essays. I had a few people ask to subscribe and pay for my coffee habit, so I turned the option on.
Arvesen: Yes, I started offering paid subscriptions in November 2022. I did this for a couple of reasons. First, I was wanting to publish more personal essays and experimental content, but I didn’t want to overwhelm or abandon my subscribers who were there for the interviews or casual catch-up. I decided to keep sending one, sometimes two, free newsletters every month. Second, I was publishing interviews with creative women about how important it is to be compensated for your labor. I figured it was about time I held myself to the same standard. Third, the paid option offered a greater sense of community. I can trust that the people who are paying me want to be there and that they won’t rip me apart when I share something vulnerable. I have freedom, within a safe container, to grow as a writer and thinker.
We’ve seen an increasing number of writers using Substack to source stories they’re working on. Have you used the platform that way and if so, have you seen a shift in your relationships with PR folks as a result?
Walansky: Yes, I use it every day. It’s been amazing because I get new assignments every single day and sometimes I have pretty immediate source requests – I might need a certain type of expert in as little as an hour. Being able to just send an email has been incredible.
Slepian: I have never used Substack to source stories…it’s all for my own essays that I didn’t feel like pitching anywhere else, or I didn’t want to risk having my voice changed by a branded voice.
Arvesen: Yeah, you know, I actually started a Substack newsletter before Honing Her Craft for this exact reason. I won’t even mention the newsletter’s name because I’ve since deleted it. I mostly report on outdoor recreation, which includes everything from gear to people to travel to environmental news. I often tap my PR network for gear pitches and source recommendations. Now I’ve just folded those asks into my free monthly updates newsletter. I’ve had a lot of luck with that.
What methods have you used to grow your subscriber following?
Walansky: Honestly, it’s been fairly organic. I’m so excited to see people sharing my posts on their LinkedIn and social media, and I have absolutely seen growth through that.
Schreiner: I imported an established email list to begin with, but my growth has all been organic. Since I switched to Substack, I’m also keeping up with a weekly publishing schedule — consistency is key! I do cross-post links on social media and have a signup form on my website, but the overall idea with this email newsletter was to take the time I was spending on social media with little to show for it and try to channel it into this project instead.
Slepian: I promote my Substack on my social media platforms, and I see the essays getting shared throughout the community. I wish there was a way to spread it more, but we’re limited by the all-powerful algorithm.
Arvesen: I try to regularly share my newsletter on Twitter, Linkedin, and Instagram. I also have a link in my email signature. In my newsletter’s early days, I did a few interviews like this one. I’d love to do more of these, so I’m thankful for this opportunity!
What kind of content do you focus on in your emails?
Walansky: What I’m working on, what I’m doing. If I’m going on a press trip or to an event, I’ll share a little about my takeaways from it. I’ll share newly published links as well, and often give commentary about things going on in the industry.
Schreiner: Right now it’s a weekly roundup of news stories and outdoor issues from around the web and around the world, along with original writing and commentary, updates from the Modern Hiker website, and other content I find interesting.
Slepian: My Substack is called “Unpublishable,” and it’s entirely focused on the essays I couldn’t get published in my usual outlets, or I didn’t want to follow their rules or have my voice edited. I started it with my writer friend Andrew Marshall, and our essays run the gamut from writer insider info to house-buying tips to Andrew’s short-lived basketball career.
Arvesen: I write about showing up as a creative person in this overstimulating and overwhelming world. I write about the delights and challenges of being a freelance journalist. I write about how emotions and seasons impact my work. I write about whatever comes up that feels related to writing, creativity, and connection. I’m trying not to restrict myself too much so I don’t burn out again. One of my favorite newsletter sends to date is a recorded interview with my husband, who is also a writer. I had so much fun trying something new.
Which Substack newsletters would you recommend (other than your own)?
Walansky: I love so many of them!! I read Jill Schildhouse’s and Alice Dubin’s religiously. We collab a lot on Zooms, AMAs, and projects as well. And on another note entirely, Amber Katz has a brilliant one related to beauty products she loves, and it’s my favorite read. It’s just so interesting and I consider her my MUSE in shopping for beauty/hair products (she’s a genius!). On a similar note, Jenn Rice has a brilliant food/travel Substack that I always get excited to see pop into my inbox!
Slepian: coldhealing is about pop culture.