The most we can say about earnings of Substack's top writers

Substack (a) brands itself as a “place for independent writing” where the writers can “start a newsletter” and “make money from subscriptions”. Most recently, Substack was in the news for becoming the new home of several famous journalists who (often with a scandal) left the publications they were writing for, in order to write independently.

Substack maintains a list (a) of its top writers where it features 25 publications that earn the most amount of money on its platform. For example:

  • 1st biggest paid publication is The Dispatch and it has “Tens of thousands of [paid] subscribers, $10/month”
  • 13th biggest paid publication is The Pomp Letter by Anthony Pompliano and it has “Thousands of [paid] subscribers, $10/month”
  • 25th biggest paid publication is Slow Boring and it has “Thousands of [paid] subscribers, $8/month”

Naively, we can estimate those publications' earnings as being somewhere between

  • $1.2 million and $12 million per year
  • $120 thousand and $1.2 million per year, and
  • $96 thousand and $960 thousand per year

Can we improve on those estimates? Yes we can. For The Pomp Letter, for example we can determine that it actually makes somewhere between $240k and 600k per year (before Substack’s 10% commission), big improvement on the Substack’s original estimate.

The reason we know The Pomp Letter makes at least $240k per year is that Substack also lists The Diff on 20th place and it has “Thousands of [paid] subscribers, $20/month” meaning that it makes at least $240k per year. Since The Pomp Letter makes more than The Diff, we can know for sure that it makes at least $240k.

From the other side The Pomp Letter is bounded by The Corners which is at 12th place and has “Thousands of [paid] subscribers, $5/month”, therefore making no more than $600k per year.

We can further improve those estimates by observing the changes from “hundreds” to “thousands” to “tens of thousands”. Assuming the wording changes exactly at 1,000 and 10,000 paid subscribers, the uncertainty is completely eliminated.

Below is the full table of the best possible earning estimates of all the top Substack writers, as of 2020-11-15, based on both bounds-based reasoning and the changes in orders of magnitude of the number of paid subscribers in October-November 2020.

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Lower bound is from here (a)

Further reading

Appendix: bounds-only table

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