Finding Success with a Fiction Substack
Learn to captivate readers and keep subscribers as a Substack fiction writer
The first creative writing class I took was in high school, and the first lesson I learned was how to write dialogue, focusing on how it’s interpreted, and not necessarily how it’s spoken. When we speak we fill in conversational gaps with awkward filler words — um, uh, like, so — rarely a device used in fiction unless you’re trying to emphasize a character’s speech.
While earning my journalism degree, I learned that every medium has its own rules for effective communication. There wasn’t just a difference between the spoken and written word. Television, radio, movies, blogs, social media — they are all opportunities to tell the same story a little differently. Substack is no different. Especially as it pertains to fiction on Substack, a reader’s comfort level and commitment can hinge upon how well you take advantage of the platform.
The following recommendations should help. While this may not be an exhaustive list, it will provide you with the essentials. Think of your Substack like you would a well-polished, traditionally published book. It’s not just the story that draws in a reader. Everything including the binding, cover image, back cover blurb, title, and even the font are all a personal invitation to escape on an imaginary and captivating journey.
Your welcome message is the first thing readers see on the Discovery categories, Search results, and Landing pages on Substack. This is your elevator pitch. Exciting fictional characters and worlds await the reader, and now you need to convince them in a single sentence. It helps set the tone, and immediately answers the question, what kinds of stories can I expect to be entertained by when reading this writer’s work? Witty is nice, but witty and informative are even better.
While your welcome message helps grab a reader’s attention, your About section is an opportunity to get them reading their first story on your substack, and then to subscribe. Don’t leave the stock template in place when you launch. If anything, the About section is a chance to hear the same voice subscribers hear when they read your stories. It’s a bit more professional, but can also be engaging. These aren’t all required, but each offers a glimpse into your Substack.
If you’ve been published, have a career in writing or related fields, or are teaching or mentoring, then be sure to mention this! If potential subscribers know that other outlets want to publish your work then they understand they’re getting a qualified storyteller.
Are you speculative only, mystery only, literary, or a mixed bag? Be sure to let subscribers know what to expect. Do you occasionally write poetry, or add an essay infrequently? These are all important details to include. You can change it later, but think this through carefully.
While not set in stone, you should set a clear expectation on how often you’ll send emails. With fiction, once a week is sufficient enough to whet an appetite, while not drowning a reader in emails. If you’re serializing a novel you may get away with twice a week, but remember that means they’re getting 8 emails from you every month.
Want subscribers to immediately sample what you have to offer? Give them a taste by linking to one of your favorite or most popular pieces of fiction. Get a reader hooked immediately. Make sure any samples provided aren’t behind a paywall.
If you’re serious about making a career out of writing then it’s important you provide some contact details. Agents and editors are on the prowl, and not being able to get in touch easily can be an unwanted distraction.
Just like the welcome message is an elevator pitch for your Substack, the subtitle is the elevator pitch for your story. It’s surprising how many authors are still not taking advantage of subtitles. The title can be creative, intriguing, or downright mysterious, but your subtitle should be a single sentence so persuasive it pulls your reader immediately into the story. Never leave out the subtitles!
Some writers bristle at the mention of including photos with their stories. Why include a photo — shouldn’t the story sell itself? The hesitation is understandable, especially when tracking down a quality photo that complements the story can be such a headache. Finding a photo that doesn’t require payment, or that has loose licensing agreements used to be a barrier as well. However, since the rise of websites like Unsplash and Pixabay, it’s never been easier to find a photo that’s a good match.
Every story on your Substack should include a photo, either one you’ve taken yourself, or one freely available. If you need a wider variety of options then both Unsplash and Pixabay offer discount codes for stock photography websites. Whatever option you choose, a good photo, just like a good subtitle, can draw your reader into the story. Don’t forget to credit the photographer in the photo caption, even when it’s not required.
Post Publish Editing
You may not be aware, but Substack does allow you to modify your post after publishing, and it will not resend to your subscribers. This can be a touchy subject for controversial essays or news, but editing fiction after publication in order to fix spelling mistakes and grammatical errors is an advantage of using Substack. While changing a story’s plot or character names can cause confusion among readers returning to your story, buttoning up a sentence for clarity is useful. You want to make the best impression possible on potential subscribers.
Story length is one of the greatest debates among fiction writers on Substack. How long is too long? When do I serialize, and are readers turned off by serialization? Those are all valid questions, and in general, it depends on your audience. The trend is leaning toward shorter is better for two reasons. The first is that reading email using a smaller font on a mobile device puts a heavier strain on the eyes, and the second is that email programs enforce limits on email size.
Looking at Gmail, the receiving limits are clearly defined, and that doesn’t account for the bandwidth limits that some users may surpass (that you can’t control). The great news is that you can verify the receiving limit by sending yourself a test email before publication. Getting a sense for how long is too long may require trial and error. A good rule of thumb is to keep stories or chapters capped at 2,500 words, which is approximately 10 printed pages. A novel chapter can easily surpass that, but the good news is you have greater control online.
If you decide to publish your Substack via print then there is no rule against grouping multiple serialized posts into a single chapter. It shouldn’t change the dynamic of the story, and it’s more likely to keep faithful online readers coming back to your Substack. Regardless of what length you decide is appropriate, label chapter divisions consistently, and always provide a link to the previous chapter in the next chapter. Because you can edit a post after publishing, go back to previous chapters and add a link at the end to the next chapter you just finished writing. Your new readers will greatly appreciate the ease with which they can navigate.
Although it’s only anecdotal, building a community around fiction is very difficult. Substack is not like social media, and engaging socially is not always first on a subscriber’s agenda after reading a satisfying piece of fiction. Just like with traditional publishing, readers are most interested in the story, and less so in the author or community. The best way to engage is to ask a pertinent question at the end of the story that is addressed to the reader. It could be about a character or plot point, a prompt for future stories, or general questions about reading and writing. It doesn’t always work, but it’s a step in the right direction.
Fiction authors are especially nervous about moving to a paid model on Substack. The cost of a single Kindle novel is approximately the cost of the lowest monthly subscription tier on Substack. Unless you’re putting out a new novel every month (kudos if you are), then it’s hard for readers to justify the cost. That is, until you consider there are more options than simply to pay or not to pay. If you’re interested in what the official Substack has to say about going paid you can read A guide to paid subscriptions.
Model 1: Total Paywall
This is the model most often referenced, and it’s the most restrictive. There might be a single story or chapter available for free, but everything else is behind a paywall. One recommendation is to use this when the aggregation of content is sufficient. For example, it’s possible you serialized your first novel freely, and have decided to start another paid Substack for a second in the series. The argument could be made that a reader is paying for one novel, but getting two in the bargain. Another example would be an archive of short stories available freely, but future short stories are for paid subscribers.
Even if you decide on all content moving to paid, be sure to include the first several paragraphs of any chapter or short story freely. Substack allows you to insert the Paywall anywhere within the story (under the More button), and this gives you the freedom to tempt a reader, drawing them into a story and hopefully making a paid subscriber out of them. Without that the only incentive they have to pay is your name and previous publishing history.
Model 2: Partial Access
The second model is the most recommended and utilized. This is similar to how Patreon works with tiers. Readers who subscribe to the free tier get limited content, but paid subscribers get the entire catalog of what you have to offer. As it relates to fiction this works best with short stories. For example, if you publish one short story every week, four of those will be sent to paid subscribers each month, but only one will be sent to free subscribers.
This model gives you the most freedom, but it’s harder to manage with serialized fiction. A few ideas to incentivize readers when serializing are early access to rough drafts, story notes, alternative chapters, and even community posts where you actively solicit feedback from paid subscribers. If you can give them the sense that they are actively participating in the crafting of a story it can create a strong sense of community. This leads into the next model.
Model 3: Extras Only
This model is slowly gaining traction, and provides an alternative that’s sure to make both your free and paid subscribers happy. Free subscribers get the entirety of the fiction, but paid subscribers get all of the add-ons. A few options were already mentioned, but depending on your comfort level there are plenty of extras. Patreon could be a better fit if you don’t mind managing multiple platforms and audiences. Here are a few ideas:
Offer story or editorial advice. This can be one-on-one, or through a community experience. Think writer’s group.
Add a discussion group on Discord or YouTube where you meet up with paid subscribers and chat about fiction, writing, and reading habits.
Add videos or podcasts to supplement your fiction. You could have other authors on as guests, or just talk about the characters and worlds you’re trying to build.
Model 4: Charitable Giving
This model is gaining traction fast, and it’s similar to the Buy Me a Coffee alternative. Paid subscribers and free subscribers both get all access. One advantage of this approach is you recognize immediately who will be your most faithful readers and supporters. They’re paying even though they aren’t required, out of the goodness of their heart.
If you’re nervous about getting paid, or you don’t feel you’ve built up a community that can support you yet, then this is the most favorable model. Having a few free subscribers convert to pay is a huge encouragement and a welcome surprise. If it takes longer there’s nothing lost, and you’re gaining an archive of entertaining fiction while you improve as a writer.
Brian Reindel is a journalism graduate who opted to write code instead of hard-hitting news. After a twenty-year absence, he is now writing speculative fiction and slice-of-life essays on his Substack Future Thief.