September 8, 2021

Salman Rushdie to serialise his new book with controversial online platform Substack


It seems serialisation could be making a come back. Widely popular in the Victoria era, writers including Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Henry James often saw their novels first appear as instalments in monthly or weekly periodicals. Now, in the twenty-first century, serialisation is getting a digital makeover.

Founded in 2017, Substack is an American online platform that allows writers to send digital newsletters directly to their readers. Anyone can publish for free, but writers who add paid subscribers will get charged 10% by Substack. The Substack Pro scheme also pays some writers up front to publish during their first year on the platform.

Mostly a tool for journalism, it seems the platform is now actively pursuing novelists too, with Sir Salman Rushdie recently announcing he will be serialising his next book on Substack. He joins the ranks of fellow fiction writers including Patti Smith and Etgar Keret. In a conversation with Shelley Hepworth at the Guardian, Rushdie shared that Substack directly approached his agent Andrew Wylie about the idea. It came about when he was looking to do something new; something he hadn’t tried before. He told the Guardian:
“I’ve never had that before, to be publishing something where people can say things about it while it’s going on.
“I think that new technology always makes possible new art forms, and I think literature has not found its new form in this digital age … Whatever the new thing is that’s going to arise out of this new world, I don’t think we’ve seen it yet.

Rushdie’s newsletter, Salman’s Sea of Stories, will come out approximately once a week. In it he plans to write about books and films, and feature literary gossip and short stories along with sections from his new novella. Entitled The Seventh Wave, the novella is about a film director and an actor slash muse, written in the style of New Wave cinema. This plays on his love of film: Rushdie told the Guardian that during lockdowns he rewatched films he loved from the 1960s and 70s, including from the French New Wave and the Italian New Wave.

“I always wanted to write about movies. There was one moment 100 years ago, when somebody at the New Yorker was taking paternity leave and I was asked if I’d like to step in for a couple of months to be their film critic. I thought that was a wonderful idea and I said, ‘yes, please.’ Then the critic in question ended up not taking the paternity leave so I got fired before I started.”

Substack is not without its controversies. The platform has been attacked for its lack of transparency and accountability. When launched, Substack announced:

“We make money only when our publishers make money … Democratizing this subscription-based future will enable more writers to earn more money by writing about what truly matters. It puts the media’s destiny into the right hands.”

However, their version of democracy includes enticing big-named authors to the site with large, one-off payments. For example, Vox write about their own journalist, Matt Yglesias, being lured to Substack by a $250,000 advance along with a promise of 15 percent of any subscription revenue he generates, increasing to 90 percent after a year. So let’s be honest, Rushdie’s advance must have been substantial. Problematically, Substack does not identify which authors are part of the Substack Pro programme. Vox highlights:

“Substack is aware that it now has a reputation as a platform for white guys who don’t want to or can’t work at traditional publications anymore, and the company is eager to point out when it has high-profile writers who don’t fit that mold.”

Writer Elizabeth Spiers, who used to use Substack, told Vox’s Peter Kafka:

“I think if you’re a progressive, you’d want to know if you’re publishing on a platform that is essentially subsidizing a Breitbart. And I’m sure conservatives would want to know if Substack was exclusively subsidizing leftists. … If they’re not embarrassed by who they’re publishing and see no problem with it, why won’t they make that list public?”

Substack has also come under attack for its weak moderation policies, allowing anti-trans views to be published. Melville’s own Jude Doyle, author of Trainwreck and Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers, told Vox that they had left the platform earlier this year, after using it since 2018, due to it allowing such views to be voiced by Glenn Greenwald, Matt Yglesias, and Graham Linehan, amongst others.

Rushdie has however defended the platform. He told the Guardian:

“The question about which voices get to speak … is a very important [one]… And potentially something like this, with its lack of gatekeepers, could also enable a more diverse set of voices … If you want a Substack you can start one, you know, you don’t have to be invited.’

 Allowing voices to be heard that otherwise might not be is positive, but allowing damaging hate to be expressed due to lack of moderation is not. Rushdie added a caveat saying:

“I don’t want to be their cheerleader … It was interesting for me to have a go with this and all I’ve done is make a 12-month commitment. A year from now, I’m going to see where we stand, and I’ll either go on with it, or I won’t.”

Problematic or not, Substack is growing in popularity and big tech companies are hot on their heels. Facebook launched their own newsletter subscription platform Facebook Bulletin at the end of June, and Twitter is currently testing their version called Revue. Where will we be in 12 months time, and will Salman Rushdie continue with Substack after his commitment is up?

Nikki Griffiths is the managing director of Melville House UK.