Eight Thoughts on That Big, Crazy Substack Deal

That Substack announcement is wild. Let’s break down what it might mean.

Depending on your perspective, Substack can either be perceived as a miracle of journalistic freedom and monetization or a problematic platform with substantial transparency issues and a penchant for bringing on voices with hateful views. 13 Some might perceive it as neither. It might be both. One way or another, it’s become a hot button topic in the larger world of online media, as this newsletter platform operates solely within the Venn diagram of being a great hope of profitability for writers and being deeply questionable.

That’s been the case for comic writers as well. While someone like James Tynion IV has thrived with his The Empire of the Tiny Onion newsletter on there, others like Kieron Gillen quickly migrated off it because of the skepticism surrounding it. To date, though, it’s been a minor player in the comics world, as only so many comic creators see real benefit from regularly updating readers about what they’re up to in such a way.

Until now.

Yesterday, Substack announced a substantial effort to break into the comics space, recruiting superstar creators in Tynion, Scott Snyder, Jonathan Hickman, Molly Knox Ostertag, Saladin Ahmed and Dave Acosta with Substack Pro deals to become their own publishers, effectively. And that’s just the first wave, with a whole lot more still to come in the near future. 14 All of this stemmed from efforts writer Nick Spencer — a controversial figure at the center of this, for a wide variety of reasons — has been taking on as part of their Partnerships team, a relationship which apparently came from the scribe pitching Substack on his vision rather than the other way around. The deals that are being made have been defined to me — and confirmed by both Substack and Tynion — as “grants,” or effectively lump sums of funds given to each participant, with the only requirement for each recipient being that they post a set number of times a week on their Substacks, with readers subscribing to each for a set fee monthly. 15

Now, here’s an important note: these creators are not required to post actual comics. Some will! Tynion is 100% going down that path. Others won’t be, at least not at first. Snyder can solely use his platform for comics writing classes if he so desires. Others might write about their process, behind the scenes details, larger thoughts on the industry, or whatever tickles their fancy. From what I understand, those that receive grants have the freedom to do whatever they want, so long as it’s at the agreed upon frequency.

Effectively, they’re being paid to make newsletters, whether said newsletters include comics or not. Shocking stuff from a company built on newsletters, right? Also, because of that, Substack isn’t interested in the intellectual property these grants will assuredly fund, making this, for all intents and purposes, the underwriting of comic creators in exchange for their presence acting as ongoing advertisements for Substack as a potential platform for their peers. 16

And it’s worth noting that these grants are not inconsiderable either. While I’m not sure if they continue past the first year – in exchange for the Pro deal, Substack takes 85% of the subscription earnings from these creators in the first year, with creators retaining 90% of subscriptions going forward — that upfront revenue is unheard of, acting as an advance without a finished comic necessarily coming at the end. 17 Creators I’ve spoken to have suggested these grants could be used for a variety of purposes, whether that’s paying their creative partners for the work they’re doing together on creator-owned books or even turning said grant into a grant of their own, supporting other creatives in their comic book endeavors. The possibilities, like the comics themselves, depend largely on the imagination of the person behind it.

If that sounds idyllic to you – free money for creators to develop whatever they want, with said developments being retained in full by the creators as well – then you’re in luck. You sound just like every creator I’ve talked to privately about this deal. It’s been described as the best deal in comics to me. But more than that, it’s a big deal for comics going forward, and something I think that’s worth addressing from a variety of perspectives. It’s going to have a substantial impact on not just those who receive the grants, but a wide variety of players and ideas within the industry as well. So here’s eight thoughts on the subject, starting with a question I saw asked a whole lot yesterday.

Wait…how the hell am I going to read these?!?!

The biggest question I have about this whole deal has nothing to do with its wider impact or the creator deals or anything like that. That’s because, despite how it may seem sometimes here on SKTCHD, I’m a reader first. I want to read comics! And I truly have no idea how that’s going to work on Substack.

Some of that isn’t going to be an issue, if only because some creators are not actually going to publish their comics on Substack. Snyder isn’t, at least for the time being, and it seems as if Hickman’s deal will result in a mix of process and maybe comics in relation to Three Worlds, Three Moons, his upcoming shared universe series with writers Al Ewing, Tini Howard and Ram V as well as artists Mike Del Mundo and Mike Huddleston. Others, like Tynion, will be. And that’s where the confusion for me lies.

A piece for Three Worlds, Three Moons, art by Mike Huddleston and design by Sasha E. Head

How will I be able to read it? Is the Substack app going to have a comics reader in it? Are we going to get PDFs or CBZs or CBRs or some other file? Will they just be like the webcomics we get from folks like Emily Carroll where they’re put into a webpage itself? Will they develop a native reader like Webtoon? I have no idea! And that’s maddening because, as much as this does open the opportunity for creators to do what they want, it also makes the act of reading what they create…hard to process. I’m not going to say more difficult yet, because we don’t know enough about it to determine that. But how we’ll do that is certainly unclear. That’s why I think you saw a real divide between the initial reaction from creators and readers. The appeal is obvious for the former, while the latter is left with question marks.

Part of that is a dearth of information. Despite a deluge coming out about the deal on announcement day, I’ve yet to see anything about how the mechanics of reading the comics will work. That’s day one, though, and there were a lot of larger considerations to make when announcing this, because it’s sort of a big deal. From what I’ve heard, a variety of options will be offered, from images via email to downloadable PDFs. Others may be considered as well. Again, it’s early. But the simple idea of how you read these comics digitally remains a major unknown, which is a weird place to start.

Reading in print, however…

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