Substack 101: how to use and enjoy the platform

Since I moved my business newsletter over to Substack in November last year, I’ve been getting some questions about Substack. Most of the time the person asking the question looks at me slightly sheepishly and asks, “But, uhm, what exactly is Substack?”.

I love getting this question! As I wrote here, I did a deep-dive into all things Substack over the summer, and it’s one of my very favourite places to hang out on the internet. But I also know that Substack is still new for many people, so in this post I’m giving a little Substack 101 for anyone who is curious about what it is, and especially for how to use and enjoy Substack as a reader.

In this post I use the words “newsletter” and “post” interchangeably to mean the same thing: an individual issue of a newsletter. I also use “publication” to refer to a newsletter, as in someone’s small business newsletter, not the individual issues.

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What is Substack?

I like to describe Substack as the lovechild of an old-fashioned blog and a newsletter.

It’s a platform that allows you to create and publish newsletters. But, unlike with a regular newsletter, you needn’t necessarily be signed up to read the newsletter. Of course, you do want to be signed up if you want to make sure never to miss an issue.

Every writer on Substack has their own page, like a kind of mini-website, which shows all of the newsletters, or posts, that they’ve written (here’s mine).

A view of my Substack homepage, helping you understand how to use and enjoy Substack
The page for Female Owned, my small business Substack publication.

I first found out about Substack through Anne Helen Petersen’s Culture Study, which is a Substack I love. Culture Study is also the publication that I first became a paid subscriber of.

As a writer on the platform, you can choose to make some (or even all, or none) of your posts available only to paid subscribers. The ones I follow have a mix of free posts and paid posts—like my own does, which has two free newsletters a month, and more behind-the-scenes posts, threads and quarterly guides for paid subscribers.

Paid subscriptions allow writers on Substack to spend more time and energy on their writing—and they allow readers to pay for the content that they value. Substack’s business model relies on paid subscriptions: they take 10% of every paid subscription. The benefit of this is that they are very much invested in supporting their writers, from being highly responsive to questions and requests, to handling everything about payment.

If you’re curious about the history and aims of Substack, this post explains more.

How do I subscribe to a Substack publication?

You can subscribe to a Substack by hitting the subscribe button in a newsletter, or on the homepage of the publication.

How can I read Substack posts?

Personally, I find reading in the Substack app the easiest way to read Substack publications. The app shows you the newest posts of the publications you subscribe to—in the order in which they appear (no algorithm!).

It also allows you to save posts, comment on them, forward them, and like them. I love how the app is like having my own highly curated little magazine of posts by people whose work and words I value. It’s such a great alternative to the over-scrolling of social media.

The default option is that you receive posts via email, so you don’t need to install the app if you don’t want to.

Once you’ve installed the app, you can choose not to receive emails as well (which I did): you can find the instructions here.

The app is like having my own highly curated magazine of interesting reads.

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How do I comment on a Substack post?

One of the main reasons why I moved my newsletter to Substack is because I wanted more connection with my subscribers. Of course you can always reply to a newsletter, and some people do, but Substack makes it so much easier to leave a comment and even to have a conversation.

The comment-threads of the Substacks I read are some of the most generous and friendly places I’ve ever seen online—nothing like the horrible threads on newspaper articles for instance. I’ve had actual online conversations with people around topics from burn-out to favourite clothes to houseplants.

You can comment on a Substack post by either clicking the “leave a comment”-button that many newsletters/posts include, or by clicking on the little speech button at the bottom of a newsletter or post, whether you’re reading via email or in the app.

How do I become a paid subscriber to a Substack publication?

Paid Substack subscriptions start at €5/$5/£5 a month, or €50/$50/£50 a year. Most of the publications I subscribe to charge this much. So far, it’s been absolutely worth it for me—I have annual subscriptions currently to 8 Substack publications, and I love them all and regret none of them.

The reason why I become a paid subscriber is a primarily because I value the work that someone does, and I want to read more of it. Some of the publications I pay for are by people doing very specific work that I feel deserves more attention and money (like Virginia Sole-Smith on anti-diet culture), others are written by people whose words are so beautiful to me that I just can’t get enough of them (like Alice Vincent’s savour).

You can become a paid subscriber in a few ways.

The easiest is by clicking one of the buttons that writers tend to include in their newsletters: if you’re already a free subscriber, this button usually says “manage my subscription” which sends you through to the Substack website.

Once you click on “upgrade my subscription” (or sometimes “manage my subscription”) you’ll be redirected to a page where you need to enter your email address. Once you do, you’re not yet paying for anything: you’ll be shown a page with the different subscription options (including staying on the free plan) and what they include, see the image below. If you choose to subscribe, this is where you’ll enter your payment info.

The screen showing the different payment options for a Substack subscription.
This is the screen you’ll see once you’ve entered your email address

Alternatively, you can go to your own profile, and then go to settings to find the publications you’re subscribed to. If you click on a subscription, you’ll find a new screen with a button that says “upgrade to paid”.

This post explains more on how to upgrade your free subscription to paid.

If you’re thinking about starting a Substack publication, or if you’re thinking of moving your existing newsletter to Substack, read my post on whether or not to move your newsletter to Substack.

Do I need an account to use and enjoy Substack?

You don’t need a Substack account to read posts on Substack and you can subscribe to newsletters just with your email address. You do need an account to become a paid subscriber, but creating an account is super-simple, and really only a matter of sharing your name, email-address and payment details.

Once you’ve done that, becoming a paid subscriber for other publications takes only one click. You can even choose whether or not other people can see which publications you read and/or pay for to have a little more privacy should you want to.

In the past you didn’t need an account to like or comment on a post, but you do need one now. Once you click on the heart (to like) or the speech bubble (to comment) you’ll be prompted to set up an account (or profile) which requires very little personal info and takes only one minute of your time.

You can always, easily, update the privacy settings of your account/profile.

How do I discover other Substack publications to read and enjoy?

Another favourite thing that I love about Substack is how easy it is to discover other amazing publications. It’s like asking someone who’s reading a favourite book of yours what other books they love.

There are a number of ways to discover more Substack publications to read:

  • in a comment thread, click on someone’s name. This will show you if they have a publication and what it is and, if they made this info public, which other publications they read;
  • click on the profile of someone whose Substack you really enjoy. If you click on mine, for instance, you’ll see the list of Substacks I subscribe to;
  • subscribe to the Substacks that others recommend. Often, when you subscribe for a new Substack publication, you’ll get a little pop-up telling you which publications this writer recommends. Recommendations are a hugely powerful feature of Substack, and the primary way in which I grow my side-project Substack A Houseplant Journal;
  • you can check out the explore-tab in the app, or online. Substack will show you their featured recommendations in various categories;
  • finally, the Substack team also writes Substack Reads, which features articles, publications and interviews, and On Substack, which has news and info, as well as examples of how people are growing their Substacks.

I hope that this answered your questions about how to use and enjoy Substack. If not, feel free to reach out.

For me, the platform fits in perfectly with a slower, gentler and more profitable way of doing business–as well as with a slower and gentler way of consuming information.

I’d love it if you’d tag along on my Substack adventure: subscribe here. I’d love to have you there. And, if you’re curious about starting your own Substack, this post lists the pros and cons.

Please feel free to share the post with business friends, in your newsletter or on social media. 💛

I’d love to support you in all phases of your business, including when you’re thinking of changing up your marketing, wanting to set up a Substack publication, or are simply aching for a slower, gentler and more profitable way of running your business.

Providing clarity, focus and next steps is something that my clients tell me I’m really good at. If you’re curious about how we can work together through 1:1 mentoring, check out what I offer or send me an email–no strings attached. I have payment plans available, and flexible options for mentoring calls (30 or 60 minutes).

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