Around the Writers’ Table

Unpacking what ‘Substacking’ means.

— Illustration by Kate Feiffer

I recently received an email from a writer I know asking me to subscribe to his Substack. Then a second request came from another writer, who also has a Substack. I ignored both these requests, as I didn’t want to get bogged down with one more thing to do when there were already too many things that weren’t getting done, but when a third request arrived in my inbox from yet another writer with a Substack, I decided it was time to find out what all the Substacking was about.

Substack is, as stated on its website, a “subscription network for independent writers and creators.” It is the vehicle that Heather Cox Richardson uses to send out her daily newsletter, the one that became a morning reading ritual for many of us before the last election. It has been reported that Richardson’s Substack was the most popular on the platform, and that her earnings from it would make it possible for her to purchase a house on the Vineyard, should she want to. (Impressive, as it was just reported that the average price for a place on the Vineyard is now a whopping $2.3 million.)

Substack is an intriguing way for writers to get their work out into the world, a perpetual and daunting challenge. While users own the copyright to their work, they need to generate interest and find their own subscribers. There’s always something.

Writer of speculative fiction and former Tisbury firefighter John Sundman uses Substack to distribute his musings in a column with the quasi-ironic title of “Sundman figures it out,” which is “an episodic autobiographical meditation. Stories from farms, cities, African villages, Martha’s Vineyard, Silicon Valley, molecular biology labs, truck stops, firehouses, construction sites, hacker meets — trying to figure out what it’s all about.” In the process, his readers learn a few things about Sundman — who grew up in the same town that fictional mobster Tony Soprano lived in; about AI — which we’re all trying to better understand these days; and about his forthcoming novel, “Mountain of Devils.”

Sundman says the service provides him with a useful tool to get more exposure as a writer. He has over a thousand subscribers. While that doesn’t get him close to Heather Cox Richardson territory — she has well over a million subscribers — he says it’s “better than a kick in the shins.”

Seasonal Vineyard resident Richard North Patterson is a New York Times bestselling novelist who took an extended hiatus from writing fiction to write political commentary. He has a new novel, “Trial,” and a Substack with a prepublication preview of the novel. Because I put together the writers’ festival Islanders Write for the Martha’s Vineyard Times, and Richard North Patterson will be speaking at the event this summer, I got an advance copy of the book, and it is gripping. Readers will enjoy the sneak peak on his Substack.

Children’s book author, science writer, and West Tisbury resident Gregory Mone uses Substack to write about the writing life. As he explains it, “Not the glorious, artistic, creatively free, and martini-soaked existence that most people seem to imagine, though. I’m focusing more on the grind.” In one of his posts, titled “How to make a story travel?” he writes that once he figured out the right pitchline for the book he was working on — It’s about an office worker who thinks he’s the reincarnation of Einsteinit freed him up to finish. “Once I’d settled on this one-line summary, the book really started to come together. I began cutting out anything that didn’t fit the one-line pitch. What I didn’t realize, though, is that this quick sentence had a different sort of power. It allowed my story to travel.”

When asked about whether it’s been a useful tool for him, he replied, “No. The platform is great, but it makes me feel bad, kind of like a dog you’ve neglected to walk, because I’m not publishing enough. But I think I’ve found a new rhythm, and hope it will be useful in the year ahead, as I use the newsletter to track my progress on a new novel.”

To find these writers’ columns, and become a Substackers yourself, log onto

After submitting this piece, I found out that this week was National Library Week. This is important because libraries nationwide are under attack. Books are being banned in shocking numbers. According to the American Library Association, 2,572 books were targeted for censorship last year, a number higher than ever before. Young readers in particular are losing access to books, particularly those with LGBTQ and BIPOC-related stories.

Let’s celebrate the Vineyard public libraries. We are lucky to have them and the books on their shelves!

“Around the Writers’ Table” is a column about writers and writing on the Vineyard. Please email with your writing-related news. 



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