Ego and Self-Promotion on Substack: Why Writers Write
Recently two things collided: I started reading Michael Shelden’s biography on George Orwell (“Orwell”) and two Substack writers criticized me publicly on open threads about promoting myself too much.
One writer referred to my adding of (my own) links as ‘obnoxious.’ Another said something about how I only respond to fill-in-the-blank posts with a few words or a sentence and then self-promote.
Look: I get it. I’m self-aware. They’re not entirely wrong. I DO self-promote. I do add my own links sometimes. I do often add my name and a link to my stack. There’s a reason I do this. Many have commented in Substack Office Hours that you don’t need to add a link to your stack because by clicking on your stack it shows readers your page and you can link to it. This is true. However, what I’ve noticed—through experience—is that when I add links, guess what: I gain subscribers. There’s been a noticeable leap upward.
I don’t know why exactly this is, but my guess is that it’s simply easier and more obvious, especially for new readers/writers on the platform who may not know that you can directly click on a stacker’s name to link. Whatever the reason: It clearly works. That’s why I do it.
I own this much: I probably do this too often in too many places. Fair enough. I’ll slow down. That said: I don’t think it’s fair to say that my method is totally spammy or 100% self-promotion or marketing. In fact: Not even close. Since the beginning—six-plus months ago—I’ve read many, many articles and have left often long, detailed responses. Over time I realized that 98% of these lengthy tomes never got a reaction. Therefore, in order to both save time and gain subscribers, I started whittling down my responses, and adding links. Again: This has generally been very effective. But, that said: I should probably slow down a bit and try to comment a little less while adding a bit more to the dialogue.
It brings me to the question: Why are we here? Why are we writing on Substack? Yes, of course there’s the community aspect. Absolutely. That’s crucial. I’ve mentioned other writers on my stack and linked to other writers. I’ve joined other writing groups on here and added to the conversation. I’ve responded to new writers on Office Hours and tried to explain how the platform works when they have questions. Etc. All this is good.
But let’s be honest. We’re also writers: We’re not on here to just be part of a community. We want—most of us, not all, I get this—to gain subscribers, get a readership, cultivate an audience, and ultimately get paid for our work. It feels almost *taboo* to say this for some reason, but it’s the truth. None of us is pure of this tendency and desire. And why should we be? We’re humans. We’re creative people. We’re writers. Isn’t this precisely WHY we’re on Substack and not traditional paths? So we can speak our truth and find readers to support our work directly, without a middleman?
One of the stack writers who criticized me made me laugh due to hypocrisy: Scrolling the lengthy thread of the stack in question (which I’ll leave vague and unnamed) I noticed that he’d responded to many, many other writers’ responses. The majority of his comments sounded angry, judgmental and crude. My thought was: Psychological projection, anyone?
Here’s where the Orwell biography comes in. (Which, by the way, is fascinating, unsurprisingly.) The author at one point describes Orwell’s hypocrisy, his contradictions: His referring to himself as a Socialist while all his life criticizing and mocking Socialism; he worked incredibly hard at writing his novels yet before he died he claimed he wasn’t a ‘real novelist’; he called himself a gardener and grocer instead of a writer; he reviewed books and writers constantly yet said that literary criticism was terrible for serious authors; he loved praising some good in bad books and vice versa; he always looked at something from ‘both sides’; he fiercely felt he was ‘right’ yet consistently found fault with his own work; etc.
My point is this: We’re all hypocrites, when you get honest about it. We claim to support animal rights but we eat meat. We claim to be against child labor yet we buy iPhones. We admit we’re not experts but then explain ‘how things work’ to the world online. We tell others to be pure yet when our past gets revealed we’re found to be hopelessly imperfect and messy and human. We tell ourselves we’re only on Substack for ‘community and connection’ yet we market ourselves and ask for new subscribers and for readers to pay us.
Here’s the thing: There’s nothing wrong with all of this. We’re human; flawed, weak, vulnerable. We all do the very best we can. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to be successful, wanting to get paid for your work, marketing yourself. Now, if all you’re doing is copy-and-pasting your links into threads with no contribution to the writer or the responses to a piece: That’s different. That’s spam. I’ve had three stackers I’ve unfortunately had to ban on my stack simply because they were posting crazy and really negative comments on everything I wrote. They were clearly just bots or spam-artists, or cyber-bullies; these types waste everybody’s time.
We’re here to support each other. For sure. We’re also (most of us) here to succeed. Let’s be honest about that.
Thank you for this Michael. What you share here is such a valuable, well rounded perspective. For whatever it's worth, I've always respected how you left your link by your name. You're doing great things, you're confident, you give a damn, and you inspire me.
I really like your transparency. Thanks.