Designing a platform for indie writers who want to monetize their content

How Ghost became an alternative to Substack.

Let’s say you’re a writer who wants to publish your work to the web and eventually monetize it. These days you have plenty of options. You might open a Medium account and join the platform’s partner program. Or maybe you’d launch a Substack newsletter. If you’re really ambitious, you could throw together a Wordpress website and integrate it with a payment tool like Stripe.

Or you could just launch an account on Ghost, a publishing platform created a few years ago by a designer named John O’Nolan. Before founding Ghost, John was the deputy head of design at Wordpress, and though he was always a fan of the open source CMS, he thought he could create something a little bit better and simpler to use.

So John launched a Kickstarter campaign, and after raising tens of thousands of dollars, he developed Ghost. Today, it’s used by some of the world’s largest brands, and his hope now is that independent writers will use it to monetize their content. I spoke to John about the platform and why he thinks a writer should choose it over a competitor like Substack or Patreon.

To listen to the interview, subscribe to The Business of Content on your favorite podcast player, or you can play the YouTube video below. If you scroll down you’ll also find some transcribed highlights from the interview.

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This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Why publishers are moving away from Wordpress

Wordpress is a well-regarded, open source platform with a vibrant user base. It powers a huge portion of the web, and for a while the thinking in the publishing community was that you shouldn’t reinvent the wheel by building a CMS from scratch, and instead media companies should just customize a Wordpress site. Lately, however, that thinking has changed, and we’ve seen a number of new platforms enter the market that are focused on servicing news publishers -- Arc, Chorus, Ghost. I asked John why publishers are moving away from Wordpress. “I think it's probably less about moving away from something that's open source and more about moving towards something that is modern and fits in with a current feature set. It's sort of a natural progression of markets over time that you often start out with one general product and end up eventually with lots of very specific products. As the web has gotten bigger and bigger and the population of the internet has grown, we've ended up with lots of new platforms that do more specific things. You have Shopify for e-commerce, you have Squarespace for generic website building, you have Ghost for publishing online. So I think it's a natural progression to some extent, but also that the competition is just a lot more comprehensive than it used to be.”

In some ways, Wordpress’s open source nature hurt it, in that too many of its features were buggy and not well maintained by the community. This left many publishers feeling burned when a particular plugin would break their site. “When some plugin breaks or some security issue takes their site offline, centralized platforms have an inherent advantage in just being able to manage those types of issues more easily. Whereas with the open platforms, it's much more of a challenge. The new platforms like Medium and Substack are just incredible for getting started. Within a couple of clicks, without an understanding of what PHP or JavaScript is, you're just up and running and publishing. Whereas with open platforms, there will always be more advanced technical aspects to it that require a larger baseline knowledge. I think the open platforms will always let you do more, but they inherently have more requirements, and the central platforms will always be easier for beginners or nontechnical people to get started with.”

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How John launched Ghost

John had the idea for a better publishing platform, but it wasn’t until he wrote a blog post summarizing the idea that events were set in motion that would lead to him actually developing the software that would become Ghost. “The blog post went to number one on Hacker News and  got a quarter of a million views within the space of a week of people saying, ‘yes, we want an alternative that is focused on publishing.” His blog post called for a platform with a clean experience, speed, security, and stability. “I had an email capture page at the bottom of my blog posts saying, ‘this idea is not a reality, it's just a concept, but if you'd like to know if it ever turns into something, drop your email here.’ And so I ended up after a week with a lot more people following me on Twitter and about 35,000 email addresses.”

Excited by the response from his blog post and feeling validated in his beliefs, John launched a Kickstarter. “Our initial funding goal was about $30,000, and we hit that within 11 hours. And then over the course of a 29 day fundraising campaign, we went on to raise about $300,000 in the Kickstarter. We also had partner level sponsors that came on board really early.”

Designing a platform that was publisher focused

In its early years, Ghost was embraced mostly by brand publishers like Tinder, Mozilla, and DuckDuckGo, but within the last year it’s rolled out more features targeted at publishers that want to monetize their content via subscriptions. “The demographic we care about the most consists of independent writers and publishers, people creating content and trying to have it be distributed and that being their professional thing that they do on the internet. It’s not really that revolutionary to point out that the biggest issue faced by that group of people is a lack of business model because, for the last decade or two, advertising revenue on the internet has been in decline as Google and Facebook have systematically eaten it all from newspaper companies.”

So why choose Ghost over, say, Substack or Patreon? “So if you sign up to Substack, you can send a newsletter and that's all you can do. You can change the text in the newsletter, that's it. If you need a custom website, if you want to have different navigation, if you want to change the design, if you want to have different opt in forms, if you want to have integrations with third party systems, if you want to do anything custom at all, then you can’t do that on platforms Medium or Substack beyond changing some colors.”

John also thinks many of these platforms’ terms are too onerous. “Platforms like Substack and Patreon basically take a percentage of the amount you make. So if I'm ever making $10,000 a month on Substack, they would take $1,000 of that. We have 0% fees forever, which becomes more and more relevant over time, because when you're at $10,000 and giving Substack $1,000, it doesn't seem that crazy, but when you get to $1 million and you're spending $100,000, and the product is still doing the same thing, it starts to feel a little different. With Ghost, our software connects you directly to your Stripe account, and we are in no way involved in the transaction at any stage. So there are no fees from us at any point.”

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

Creative Commons image via Needpix