field notes

Ghost vs. Substack vs. others for starting a paid newsletter: why I chose Ghost, why you might not

A few weeks ago I launched my letter series nothing to say, which is functionally a paid email newsletter (if much more than that, in spirit!). When I was first looking into which platform or service to use for it, I assumed, like many people probably, that Substack was almost the only option for such a thing. But then when I tried to google something about Substack, I stumbled on Ghost (which means they’ve already done a good job with their SEO game!), and after considering the differences between the two, I ended up going with Ghost. This post goes over all the factors I considered in my decision.

TL;DR: If you’re not going to charge readers for your newsletter, or you’re not sure whether you will, probably go with Substack. If you are going to charge, either one may work. If you just want to write, and don’t want to have to think about anything else, consider Substack. If you want more control and flexibility, and to make more decisions, consider Ghost. There are arguments for both platforms, depending on what’s important to you. Read on.

For context, you might like to know that Substack launched in early 2018 out of Y Combinator and, as far as I’m aware, has pretty much been what it is now (“paid email newsletters”) from the start. Ghost launched around 2013 out of a Kickstarter campaign, and has been primarily a blogging platform, which more seriously ventured into paid newsletters around a year ago in fall 2019 with its launch of Ghost 3.0. One of its founders, John O’Nolan, came from WordPress.

Note: Ghost is actually two different “products”: Ghost(Pro), the hosted version, and self-hosted Ghost, in which you use their software but install and host it on your own server. (WordPress has the same hosted vs. self-hosted distinction.) I’m using Ghost(Pro), so the rest of this post will be referring to Ghost(Pro), but for short I will just call it “Ghost.” For more on self-hosted Ghost, see the section on Other options that weren’t seriously considered at the end of the post.

The factors I’m going to talk about are:

  • Pricing
  • Custom domain
  • Customization of your site
  • Prettiness
  • Discoverability
  • Feature development process
  • Source of company funding
  • Documentation and support
  • Company transparency

These are roughly in order of importance to me: potential dealbreakers first; nice-to-haves later on.

Pricing: Ghost and Substack use completely different pricing models.

Substack takes 10% commission on your earnings, with no minimum or base fee. That means if you run a free newsletter, Substack takes nothing so it’s free for you. Ghost charges a flat fee of $29/month (billed annually) or $36/month (billed monthly), at the time of this writing, whether your newsletter is free for readers or not—but no commission. So if you’re running a free newsletter, it’s quite a steep hosting fee when you don’t have any revenue coming in. However, Ghost’s flat fee (which increases after 1,000 subscribers but is still flat) means that as you have more paying subscribers, it’s a better and better deal compared to Substack.

At the price point of my newsletter, it would take just a few subscribers for Ghost to pay for itself, and it would take around 90-100 paying subscribers to become cheaper than Substack. Which I feel is feasible enough for me to shoot for in my first 6-12 months. As the subscriber numbers increase beyond that, Substack quickly becomes multiples more expensive than Ghost; we’re talking 10x the cost and beyond. So I’ll go with Ghost and see what the costs look like in a year or two.

Both platforms use Stripe for payments, with the same Stripe transaction fees: 2.9% plus $0.30 per transaction, at the time of writing. I believe that with Ghost, you can technically set up a different payment processor than Stripe (via integrations)—which also means Ghost is usable in more countries, where Stripe isn’t available—but I haven’t looked into it. I just use Stripe.

Conclusion: Substack’s pricing is better for just starting out and experimenting, but you probably don’t want to scale with it. Do the math before you choose.

Custom domain: Both platforms let you connect a custom domain, which has implications for SEO.

Ghost lets you connect a custom domain, included in the plan. Substack didn’t use to let you connect a custom domain at all, but now does, for a one-time fee of $50 (at the time of writing).

If you want to really build something lasting (a brand, a community), then you want your own domain. Because having your own domain communicates that intention to visitors, but more practically: because when you have your own domain, any SEO “equity” (ie. from links that point to your site, signaling to search engines that your site merits attention and improving your ranking) accrues directly to your site. But if you’re on then any links that point to your site are boosting Substack’s SEO, not yours.

It’s good that Substack decided to allow custom domains, but their resistance/hesitation to the concept (they only just started offering this in October 2020) signals to me some ambivalence about whether they want to encourage authors to own their own homestead, in a sense (more like WordPress), or instead encourage authors to “sharecrop” (more like Medium), where the platform gives you all these free tools and (maybe) some publicity/discoverability, but your writing benefits the platform at least as much as it benefits your own brand.

Conclusion: Both platforms offer the option to connect a custom domain, and you should use it!

Customization of your site: Neither Ghost nor Substack allows you to customize hardly anything about your site’s layout or look and feel without touching code. However, Ghost still has three big advantages here.

  1. Ghost allows you to swap out the theme for another one. Themes can be developed by third parties, so there are lots of them around, both free and paid. If you don’t need to change anything within your desired theme, you still don’t need to touch any code.

  2. Ghost allows you to add custom pages and custom links to the nav bar, so for example you could add pages for a bio, “how it works,” a contact page, an external link, or whatever you want. (You can also do this without touching code.) Substack only lets you have a landing page, an archive page, and an “about” page, and you can only change the content of certain sections within them, not how they look.

  3. If you are willing to fiddle with the code, Ghost allows you to change and customize whatever you want. However, I’d only recommend this to people who feel comfortable with a technical workflow (read: using the terminal). It’s not like other platforms I’ve seen where you can just log in, tweak some code and preview the changes. You need to download the theme, tweak it on your computer, zip it up and upload it, which immediately updates the live site. The only way to avoid an arduous process that involves changing code blindly and then “previewing” it when it’s already live, is to run Ghost locally and preview changes locally—which involves cloning the repo and starting the server on your machine. If you don’t know what those words mean, it’s going to be more stuff you have to learn in order to customize your site.

I actually use all three of the above. I have a different base theme than the default; I have custom pages; and I have heavily modified my base theme in a number of ways.

Conclusion: Substack offers basically zero customization. Ghost has more options; and with Ghost, if you feel comfortable working with code, all possibilities are open to you.

Prettiness: Perhaps it’s subjective, but if you ask me, Ghost is just prettier.

On external-facing elements: Ghost’s default theme is maybe slightly nicer than Substack’s, but I don’t really like either of them, so I use a heavily customized version of a Ghost theme (which I can do because, see the above section). Neither Ghost nor Substack lets you customize the email template for the newsletter (aside from a few header/footer options), but Ghost’s email template is much prettier and cleaner in my opinion. It’s really important to me that the post page AND the email are as readable, free of clutter, and pleasing to the eye as possible, because I write long letters intended to be enjoyed slowly, and some of my readers literally print them out and read them over coffee. (And they take photos of this and send them to me.)

On internal-facing elements: Ghost’s admin interface has dark mode—a big plus for me. It’s also very pretty in general, with settings nicely organized into different pages and sections, unlike Substack which just has a pile of settings on one long page. Ghost’s post editor is gorgeous and really nice to use. Substack’s editor I would characterize as.. “meh.”

(Not strictly related to prettiness, but regarding editors: Substack’s post editor doesn’t support Markdown, which is an instant dealbreaker for me. Ghost’s does.)

Conclusion: Concerning prettiness, Substack is functional and uninspiring. Ghost sparks joy.

Discoverability: Ghost doesn’t do anything to make your newsletter discoverable. Substack nominally has some stuff, but it doesn’t seem that helpful as of yet.

When it comes to discoverability or reader community, Ghost is more of a pure host and doesn’t have any central place where you can find publications/newsletters to read. Substack has some browseable stuff: lists of top publications; some categories; and a search bar. I don’t know that it would really be that much help to a fledgling newsletter, unless it’s on a niche topic that someone can easily go and search. And I haven’t heard Substack users mention discoverability as something that Substack is good at right now. Some of the things I listed (categories, for example) they just launched in the past couple of weeks, so I gather they are interested in working on this area.

Conclusion: Neither is particularly great at this, at the moment.

Feature development process: Ghost is open-source (so, transparent) and clearly developing features very actively and quickly. Substack isn’t open-source, so.. who knows?

Ghost’s memberships/subscriptions functionality is still in beta, so it doesn’t claim to be done or perfect. In fact, I run into minor bugs somewhat often. Nothing catastrophic, but I’m in the habit of double-checking everything and that has definitely paid off. Refreshing the site tends to resolve some wonkiness (usually after I’ve had the tab open for a while). I haven’t used Substack seriously enough to know if it seems buggy or not.

But Ghost is open-source and you can find all the code in its GitHub repo. The two elements of the repo that I find most beneficial are:

  1. Issues: If you run into a bug, you can open an issue on the repo and report it, and they seem to generally respond before too long. (I just recently opened my own issue on a bug that has been the most serious one I’ve encountered, and am waiting for a response, so let’s see how that plays out.) These issues are public, so it holds them more accountable than filing a support ticket. It also means you can see if other people have run into the same issue.

  2. Releases: The releases page shows every little change to Ghost, every bug fix and improvement that’s rolling out, so you can always keep track of what the team is working on now and recently.

From watching the releases page, I can see that memberships (which is the piece I most care about, personally), is being very actively worked on and changing pretty fast. It has happened more than once already that I think to myself, “I wish there were [feature]” or “I wish they would fix this little thing,” and then within a week or two that very thing is addressed in the latest release, and the change is in effect in my account within a couple of days after that. Not bad. There are features I’ve been relying on that I realized were released just days or weeks before I got started—which was only a few weeks ago! So it’s really new stuff. (They also have a changelog which is more like a feature blog, less granular.)

As a side note: Ghost also has an explicit security policy, a security@ email address for reporting vulnerabilities, and a stated process for how they handle these reports, which is dear to my heart because I used to work in the cybersecurity industry, where such things are a signal that you care about security, basically. Substack doesn’t have any of the above (that I’m aware of).

Conclusion: Ghost’s memberships functionality is less built out (and potentially more buggy) than Substack’s at the moment, but Ghost’s feature development process is transparent, responsive to input, and may be moving faster than Substack’s (can’t prove that last point, it’s just an impression).

Source of company funding: Ghost is a nonprofit that gets its money from customers. Substack is venture-capital-funded.

Ghost is a nonprofit funded by customers—though I don’t know if they have big donors as well—and has been profitable from very early on. (The profits go back into the product. They are set up such that it’s not possible for anyone to “cash out” the profits.) Substack is VC-funded, with the latest round (Series A) led by Andreessen Horowitz.

Having worked for a number of startups myself, I just don’t believe that everything is better off VC-funded. In fact, I think there’s a whole lot of things that aren’t. VC money is great when building something potentially world-changing, where the company needs to spend a ton to hit a critical mass or tipping point, beyond which the benefits to the whole world become abundantly clear (or so the story goes). But I think it often disincentivizes a company from listening to its customers and users. This was the case at every startup I’ve ever worked at. Who needs to address little customer nitpicks, when you have a GRAND VISION to build out—which is what the investors really care about?!

That works great for social networks, AI, driverless cars, getting us to Mars, etc. But for taking some payments and sending an email newsletter? I’d rather have my service be clean, functional, and do the things that I want, correctly—more than I need it to be grand. I’d rather have the engineers listen to me when I have an issue—yes, little $29/month me—and not ignore me in favor of the people who just put in $15 million.

Maybe paid newsletter platforms are going to revolutionize (“disrupt”) the digital publishing industry. Do they need a massive expenditure of capital to do that? Unclear. Personally I feel that the “traditional” digital publishing industry is slowly bleeding itself out, and needs no help from the VC world to wither into oblivion, but that’s just my opinion. Time will tell.

Conclusion: As a customer, I feel better about going with the company that’s profitable and that relies on revenue from customers, which is Ghost.

Documentation and support: Ghost’s docs are far better and more thorough than Substack’s. Ghost has lots of places you can go to ask questions; Substack doesn’t.

Though at first glance they look somewhat similar (compare Ghost’s help page and Substack’s help page)—a section for each topic, with questions listed under each—I’ve found Ghost’s docs to be far more helpful in practice. Ghost’s help articles are more general, with each one serving as a guide to a certain section of the app and the things you can do in it. Substack’s are more like an unorganized pile of questions on every little feature, mixed in with troubleshooting of specific issues.

As a real use case: in deciding which service to go with, I was trying to find some sort of “how it works” page for paid subscriptions: how it works, what it would mean for my readers, how I would go about setting it up, what it all looks like. In other words: “Help me picture this thing that I’m thinking of doing. How would I use your thing to do my thing?” Ghost had an easy-to-find introduction to Members which answered all of the above questions for me, including lots of screenshots and links to more guides. Substack offered only platitudes (“build your audience,” “get paid to do what you love,” etc.), a button to sign up, and the pile of troubleshooting questions I mentioned above. I didn’t even know they used Stripe, because that fact is buried somewhere. That opaqueness and being totally unable to picture that process was a big turn-off for me. (And no, I don’t want to give you my email address before I learn how it works.)

Compare this Substack help article with this Ghost help article on the exact same topic: setting up paid subscriptions. Maybe they’ll be different by the time you read this, but as of today, there is no comparison: Ghost’s is thorough and super informative, with up-to-date screenshots. Substack’s is short and sad. This is all $15 million in VC money gets you, apparently.

(Ghost also has developer docs which are even more comprehensive—but unnecessary for Substack, because you can’t develop on it.)

On the support side, Ghost links to a bunch of different ways to ask for help from employees as well as from fellow users: a support@ email address, the GitHub repo (as mentioned above), an official forum, and a subreddit. Substack has none of those, that I could find. Where do you go with questions that aren’t covered in the Help section? No idea.

Conclusion: Ghost wins.

Company transparency: Ghost is more transparent, in business metrics as well as feature development. Substack is not transparent at all.

I’m kind of charmed by the fact that Ghost keeps a mini dashboard of some key business metrics on their About page. Admittedly it’s of little practical value to me—I don’t know enough to have any opinion on the company’s run rate or churn rate. And who can say if they’re fudging the numbers or if they have other, more telling metrics that they’re not sharing? Still, it’s a nice gesture. And, as I explained above under Feature development process, what they’re releasing, the entire history of what they’ve released, and bugs currently being reported by users, are publicly available for all to see.

Substack has none of that. In fact, you can’t even tell from browsing the site who works there or even who founded it.

(Speaking of founders, for what it’s worth, Ghost has a woman cofounder/CTO. Substack doesn’t.)

Conclusion: Ghost wins.

That’s a wrap for our Ghost vs. Substack comparison.

The above is by no means an exhaustive list of the differences between Ghost and Substack, just the ones that factored into my decision. There are plenty more things to look into that I’m not currently using for my newsletter (e.g., Substack’s analytics, podcasting, discussion threads; Ghost’s integrations), but hopefully this gives you a good start in terms of understanding some of the major differences between the two.

I know I said “Ghost wins” a bunch of times, but I don’t hate Substack. Do I think it might be overrated? Maybe. But I’m seeing it from the perspective of the aspects I happen to care about most, which may differ from yours.

Other than pricing, I would sum up the biggest difference between the two as follows: If you just want to write, and don’t want to have to think about anything else, consider Substack. If you want more control and flexibility, and to make more decisions, consider Ghost.

Finally, it’s time to go over a few of the…

Other options that weren’t seriously considered.

Ghost (self-hosted): Because Ghost is open-source, you can totally install and run it on your own server for free, and thereby skip the $29/month. You just have the costs of keeping your own server running, of course. It’s an option if you’d be comfortable e.g. running and maintaining a Node app on a DigitalOcean droplet, or the equivalent (or if you really want to learn). For me, that type of admin work isn’t really what I’m into. How much time do I want to spend configuring my SMTP server so that emails get sent properly? or upgrading Ghost so that it stays on the current version? Ideally none at all. I just want to write my newsletters. So the annual cost of Ghost(Pro) is well worth the time and frustration it would save me.

(On the other hand, there are definite benefits. Ghost is developing new stuff at a good clip, so some features are buggy or not fully developed, and there have been times where I’d love to be able to change the code myself, or at least go into the DB and fix some records directly.)

MailChimp: Being primarily an email marketing service, MailChimp is WAY overkill for a humble newsletter, plus it can’t manage paid subscriptions out of the box, so you’d still have to integrate it with something else. I find their UX convoluted and maddening (read: actually hell), and I feel it’d only be worth it if I needed segmenting, heavy analytics, or something else that MailChimp is optimized for. Since I don’t, it just has no strengths here.

TinyLetter (free newsletter only): I like TinyLetter (which btw is owned by MailChimp); my personal newsletter Poste Italiane Sunday Edition is still on TinyLetter because I feel no great need to migrate away. A few years ago TinyLetter had its brief moment in the limelight as potentially the next big thing, but it soon settled into what it still is now: a very simple little service for sending out free newsletters, not actively developed on for years now, with rumors every now and then that it will be sunsetted. That last bit is why you might not want to start a new thing on TinyLetter, as you may have to migrate to something else later anyway. But for now, it exists, it’s still there, being tiny.

WordPress: I consider WordPress among the best-in-class for running a blog, especially at low cost, which is why this blog is on WordPress. For some time now (I think), it’s been possible to set up paid memberships for a WordPress site by adding a relevant pluginbut only on one of the pricier WordPress-hosted plans ($25/month), or self-hosted. Now you can also set up paid memberships and gated content without a plugin, just by using their “Premium Content block” and connecting Stripe.

The thing is: I see Substack as a newsletter first and a blog second; Ghost, as a blog first and a newsletter second. But both are highly specific to, and optimized for, publications and authors. For WordPress, serving as a newsletter must be, I don’t know, 16th or something, way down on their very long list of priorities. The last time I saw a WordPress post-as-email (a few months ago), the email template was seriously ugly. I doubt it lets you customize anything at all about the email that goes out. I doubt it has any newsletter-ish features such as open rates or a dashboard to manage members and subscriptions. So, it can technically be done, but I don’t find it a compelling option in any way.

“Roll your own” by integrating a bunch of services: What we’re talking about, essentially, is a few components connected to each other: a website + something to send out emails + a payment processor + a subscription management service (something that keeps track of what goes out to whom, based on who has subscribed and who has paid). There are lots of smaller services that handle each of these, so you could skip Ghost/Substack which bundle them all up, and just integrate them yourself. But again, as with the Ghost self-hosted option, that’s way more setup and maintenance than I want to do.

This is the real end of the post.

Yep, we’ve finally arrived. Honestly, despite the heftiness of this post, it’s not the end of the world if you choose one service or another. It’s just that this is an emerging sector that I happen to be personally interested in and following closely. Try both/all of them, or start with one and migrate to another if you don’t like it. Happy newslettering!

Sources: Each platform’s own website; Wikipedia; Crunchbase; Hacker News; Stratechery; Newsletter Crew.