Boston College’s website somewhat understatedly describes its history professor Heather Cox Richardson’s Substack as having “a cult following.”
In fact, Letters From an American—which situates a day’s events within their historical context—is widely considered to be one of the most successful newsletters on the platform. Various estimates have put its author’s annual revenue from 1.2 million subscribers at anything between $1 million and $5 million.
Although Cox Richardson was previously a respected but little-known academic who lives in Maine with her lobster-fisherman husband, the site has also catapulted her into the limelight; last year she was named “woman of the year” by USA Today.
Buoyed by such successes, Substack, which started as an email newsletter platform in 2017, has been targeting academics of late, offering a chance to build a profile—and sometimes a livelihood—away from institutional affiliations and prestige journals.
It says academics are one of the fastest-growing categories on its platform, and, in the last year, paid subscriptions for U.K.-based academics have grown eight times faster than the year before, while free subscriptions have tripled.
Clyde Rathbone, partnerships manager at Substack, said he saw this as the early stages of what he predicted would be “aggressive growth,” particularly as scholars look for new ways to share their work online as academic usage of Twitter declines.
“We think we are the perfect fit for the kind of work academics want to produce on the internet,” Rathbone said. “We have academics who want to build media businesses or people who have decided a long-term career in academia might not be for them and want a more creative outlet. We have lots of people earning over six figures, a few well into the seven figures.
“For others it is not their full-time professional focus, but they want a secondary income stream or to reach a new audience. I think it will get to the point where it is unusual for an academic not to have a Substack.”
Even academics who work in very niche areas could “build a very powerful business,” Rathbone said, because they now had direct access to the “few thousand people on the planet who care deeply about the subject and will pay the equivalent of a cup of coffee a month” to read about it.
University of Kent politics professor Matt Goodwin has been one of those building an audience on Substack after being approached to bring his writing to the platform in the summer of 2022.
In that time he has grown his subscriber numbers from 6,000 to 20,000, attracting readers with his political insights and criticism of so-called cancel culture; one of his most popular posts is a copy of a speech he gave to the controversial National Conservatism Conference, which was held in London earlier this year.
For Goodwin, it is not income but influence that he feels he gets from his newsletter.
“I have two former prime ministers on the list, a former leader of the Labour Party, [members of the European Parliament], [members of Parliament], No. 10 [the prime minister’s residence] people, quite a few academics and lots of members of the public,” he said.
“It is primarily people who are very interested in politics but want to go further than what they read in the newspapers. You are able to build an ongoing conversation with your audience and tell a story over a much longer period of time.”
Goodwin said he saw Substack as a tool used by an “increasingly hybrid model of academic,” who split their time across university, policy and media work, but he would be wary of going “all in.”