Nobody loves a paywall, but everybody loves Substack
Increasingly, it feels like paid memberships for web content are not only a viable alternative to surveillance-driven ad revenue, but one that readers are eager to embrace. The success of Substack demonstrates this. This success is often framed as a preference for reading in the inbox rather than on the web, which is some feat considering how much people have come to loathe email in general over the last couple decades.
But I don’t think it’s the inbox per se that people like; it’s that the inbox gives people what the web used to — and no longer does, but could — give them: an ad-free and distraction-free reading experience. Medium was supposed to do this, but has, perhaps predictably, caved and started showing upsell popups and “related content” sidebars all over its article pages to get your money and keep you on the site.
Patreon, like Substack, has seen a lot of success, but for whatever reason isn’t really thought of as a place for longform writing. Its content tends to be audio, video, art, and access to Discord communities.
All of these services — plus Substack clones like Buttondown and Ghost — require that creators use the associated platforms. This comes at some obvious costs, such as not controlling the means of distribution of your content (although for many, of course, not having to worry about that is a benefit), but also some non-obvious costs, such as having all your content held by a company whose politics or business decisions you may learn later you vehemently disagree with, or unwelcome changes in pricing structures. Migrating this content can be an enormous headache, as the platforms benefit from this lock-in.
(Ghost, because it is open-source and self-hostable, I should add, can be used in a way that doesn’t hold your content hostage on someone else’s servers.)
Paywall-like services that allow you to supply your own publishing platform include Flattr, which takes a monthly subscription and distributes it across the participating sites you visited based on articles read. These sites, presumably, notice your Flattr membership and abstain from serving you ads. For a number of reasons, this hasn’t really taken off, likely a combination of the payout to content creators being pennies, and the unclear value proposition to readers.
For sites running WordPress, Memberful is a popular option. Six Colors, MacStories, and Relay FM, Comedy Bang Bang, and Jason Kotte all use it. For written content, its focus is WordPress, but it does offer an API for people interested in rolling their own integration with their CMS of choice.
But for all the control that Memberful gives you, I think it lacks something that the more ubiquitous Substack and Patreon lack: a unified billing portal.
Memberful’s product page boasts: “If we’ve done our jobs, your members won’t even know our name.” I understand why this might be desirable from a branding angle for a large and well-known organization. But for small creators, this may actually be a detriment.
Memberful memberships are all independent of each other. I subscribe to several sites using Memberful, but I have no single Memberful login. If I find another site I’d like to subscribe to, and they use Memberful, I have to create a new login and supply my payment info again.
On the other hand, if you’re a Substack reader, and you come across a newsletter that looks interesting to you, subscribing is quick and feels safe. You don’t need to re-enter any payment info; the subscription is billed to your Substack account. The writer to whom you’re subscribing doesn’t see any of your billing info: card number, full name, address, etc. If you want to cancel, you know you can do so easily on the Substack account page. And you can see and manage all of your subscriptions in one place. Patreon works the same way.
This is something I’ve grown to love about subscribing to content through the App Store. All of those subscriptions are visible and manageable from a single place on my phone, and I never have to give additional third parties my payment information. Whenever possible, I will choose to subscribe in this way.
What I would love to see, and what I don’t believe currently exists, is something like that, but for independent publishers: some trusted third party that manages subscriptions to many different sites on many different platforms; Substack, but for WordPress/Ghost/Drupal/Craft CMS/whatever. This would have some of the benefits of Substack and Patreon, and fewer of the drawbacks.
Counter to Memberful’s value proposition, I would want readers (were I a small, little known publisher trying to sell subscriptions) to know and trust the third party through whom their subscriptions were being handled. And as a reader, I would enjoy having a central place where all my website subscriptions could easily be managed.
I’d love to know if something like this exists, or if it’s been attempted before. What would some of the drawbacks be? Who would be well-positioned to do this? Why do Memberful subscriptions operate in such a fractured way? Could this be a Substack/Patreon thing, or are they too reliant on lock-in to explore this?