Why David Kushner is serializing his next book on Substack
Kushner is publishing a sequel to Masters of Doom, his bestselling debut book.
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David Kushner has had the kind of journalism career that most freelancers today can only aspire to. Starting in the 1990s, he wrote for high-profile magazines that included Rolling Stone, Wired, and Spin. His reporting on the video game industry culminated in the 2003 publication of Masters of Doom, a book about the founding of id Software, one of the most influential companies in game development.
The critical and commercial success of Masters of Doom opened the doors to even more opportunities, and his works have gone on to be translated into dozens of languages and adapted for the screen. In February 2021, Lionsgate released Silk Road, a crime thriller film based on an article Kushner wrote for Rolling Stone. Later that same year, A24 debuted Zola, a film adapted from another magazine piece of his.
Given Kushner’s level of success, it made trade industry headlines when he announced late last year that he would begin serializing his next book on Substack. While he isn’t the first mainstream journalist to join the platform, his decision is peculiar given that he doesn’t make much of an effort to maintain an online brand. He has 4,700 followers on Twitter, for instance, and only posts there sporadically. I couldn’t find public profiles for him on all the other major social media platforms, and a search of the Internet Archive found that he didn’t have a newsletter signup form on his website prior to the launch of his Substack.
How do you build a successful creator business when you don’t have much interest in the marketing aspect of running such a business? That’s one of several questions I put to Kushner in an interview. We talked about his history in internet publishing, his plans for book serialization, and his desire to own his IP.
Let’s jump into my findings…
An early bet on the web
Substack isn’t Kushner’s first foray into experimental internet publishing; in fact, one could argue that his entire career stems from a single bet he made on the early internet.
Kushner discovered his initial interest in journalism when he began writing for his college newspaper, and in the early 1990s he moved to New York with the goal of writing for Rolling Stone. While that goal wasn’t entirely realistic — at least not at that point in his career — he got a job in 1994 for SonicNet, a bulletin board service that focused on music.
Bulletin board services — or BBS for short — were early internet message boards that users could dial into directly. People would pay to subscribe to SonicNet, and that not only allowed them to chat with each other directly, but also granted them access to reviews and other content produced by the company’s staff. “I was hired full time and my job was to actually bring artists in and interview them,” recalled Kushner. “We didn't even call it ‘chat’ back then; we were calling them ‘happenings,’ and I would just get whoever I could to come down to our rat-infested loft in Tribeca and then answer questions over a computer, which felt very much like science fiction at the time.” Perhaps because of the novelty of the venture, he was able to convince members from bands like Radiohead and No Doubt to sit down for interviews.
Kushner left SonicNet in 1996 to become a full-time freelance writer, and that same year he wrote his first big feature article for Spin Magazine. “It was about these ‘clans’ of computer game players who teamed up to play the game Quake,” he recalled. “That was really, for me, the moment when I integrated all of my interests that included gaming, the internet, and magazine writing.”
From there forward, Kushner became a kind of go-to writer for pieces about the internet — not that it was easy to get his pitches accepted at first. “I just think back on that time as having to convince a lot of people about why they should pay attention to the internet and gaming,” he said. Eventually, of course, the web’s importance became more apparent. In 1999, he was the first journalist to profile Napster, and the dot-com bubble was soon minting new millionaires and billionaires by the day. By that point, Wired had become a household name, and editors started to take his pitches a lot more seriously.
But while Kushner covered all things tech, his real forte was gaming. Masters of Doom came out of his reporting for several pieces, starting with that original Spin article about Quake clans. “I was at a Barnes & Noble and just looking around and wondering why there weren’t any books on gamers,” he recalled. In his view, video games had just as much cultural significance as music and pro sports, and yet you would never know it when perusing through the store’s biography section.
To pitch the book, Kushner needed to find a good narrative hook, and he eventually settled on John Carmack and John Romero, the designers behind iconic game franchises like Wolfenstein, Doom, and Quake. “I pitched that they were like the Lennon–McCartney of video games, which basically sold that book,” he said. He spent several years researching Masters of Doom, going so far as to move to Dallas so he could be closer to his sources. “It ended up being a very far-reaching story that's still rippling through the culture now.” In the two decades since Master of Doom’s publication, some of the biggest luminaries in tech — including the founders of both Oculus VR and Reddit — have credited it with inspiring their innovations.
A changing industry
To understand why Kushner eventually moved to Substack, it helps to know a little about how the magazine industry has evolved over the last 20 years.
You may have heard the legendary stories of 90s-era glossy magazines, with their celebrity editors, round-the-clock car service, and extravagant expense accounts. But as with most print mediums, magazines didn’t fare well during the Web 2.0 era when print circulations and advertising rates cratered. Other than Anna Wintour, most of the celebrity editors either retired or pivoted to other industries.
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With dwindling revenues, magazines have shifted their focus toward a new growth area: exploitable intellectual property. Media companies are now plowing billions of dollars into expanding their original programming, and there’s now a veritable gold rush as Hollywood producers try to lock down the rights to any longform narrative that can be adapted into a film or, even better, 10-episode streaming series. In a 2020 Baffler piece, James Pogue argued that this creates perverse incentives for both journalists and editors to pursue narrative stories at the expense of substantive explanatory reporting.
Kushner said he felt this tug toward narrative storytelling. “Working for these magazines, I kind of went through an unofficial graduate school where I learned to write a certain way, which was cinematically,” he said. “ …The conversations that I would have with my editors focused on questions like: who's the main character? What's the scene? What's the conflict?” Kushner quickly found out that his own writing style catered to this type of story structure. “That was just how I wrote anyway. And what I didn't know is that those are the stories people in Hollywood are combing the pages of magazines looking for so they can turn it into a movie or TV show. So [my work] just lent itself to that kind of treatment.”
This trend also had a massive impact on how magazine publishers structured their contracts. Suddenly, they wanted a lot more control over any intellectual property associated with an article they published. It used to be that the writer benefited the most whenever a Hollywood studio chose to option and/or develop their story, but that’s no longer the case. “Very recently — I would say in the last two years or so — that business strategy has spread where almost every magazine now wants to keep either all or some of the intellectual property of the stories that they assign,” said Kushner.
That didn’t sit well with Kushner, and so when Substack reached out to him last year about joining the platform, he was extremely open to the idea. Not only did Substack have no interest in locking down any IP rights, but it also offered Kushner an opportunity to break away from the confines of traditional publishing. “I had been thinking about this idea of intellectual property, but it wasn’t just that,” he said. “It was also just about the freedom and flexibility to tell stories in ways that I wanted to tell them.” With most magazine pieces, he’d first get an idea and have to write up a convincing pitch. If the pitch was accepted, then it took months of research and writing, followed by months more of editing and production. “It can then sit for months or over a year, depending on current events and what else is in the magazine.”
Substack was offering complete editorial freedom and a cash advance, but Kushner had one chief worry: marketing. “I'm just not active on social media,” he said. “I choose to write about the internet as opposed to writing for the internet.” He also looked at Substack’s leaderboards and noticed it was dominated by opinionated columnists who attracted controversy and attention. He wasn’t sure whether the Substack model would work for his brand of deep reporting.
But after speaking with Substack employees, it began to dawn on him that many of the people he’d profiled over the years were among the most influential people in the world (he had even written one of the first mainstream profiles of Mark Zuckerberg). What once was considered niche content now appealed to a mass audience that included journalists, tech workers, and politicians. If he could leverage his source access to tell newsworthy stories, then his Substack newsletter would generate organic interest from the public.
So Kushner pitched an idea to Substack for a sequel to Masters of Doom, a serialized book called Masters of Disruption: How the Gamer Generation Built the Future. They went for it, and so on September 22, 2021, he published the very first chapter.
Writing a book in real time
While the serialized book is the main attraction, I should start by pointing out that it’s not the only type of content Kushner is publishing to his Substack. In fact, there are three main categories.
The first is the Masters of Disruption book itself. Each individual chapter is only around a thousand words and operates mostly as a standalone article. That first chapter published in September 2021 revisits John Carmack, one of the two game designers Kushner featured in his first book, and gathers his thoughts on present day efforts to build a metaverse. The second chapter does much the same thing, except it’s with John Romero, the other game designer featured in Masters of Doom. “I haven't written a book that I'm just breaking up onto the internet,” said Kushner. “I'm kind of writing it in real time. I'm able to bend and pivot based on current events and also the people I speak with.”
Kushner also produces longform, magazine-like features that are often split up into multiple parts. In November, for instance, he published the first part of “Lunch Ladies: The All-American School Cafeteria Heist.” Published over a period of three weeks, it tells the true story of how the cafeteria staff in a Connecticut school district stole $500,000 from their own department. “Some of these stories are ones that I had been working on for a while before I started Substack, and I was figuring I'd do something with them anyway,” said Kushner. “ ... I write a lot of crime stories — kind of offbeat heist stories — and this is one that's very much like that.”
Finally, there’s what Kushner calls his “reporter’s notebook.” These posts take readers behind the scenes of his writing. Sometimes it simply involves reprinting an older article of his. Other times he offers up previously unpublished chapters and excerpts from his work. And then finally he also writes often about the research and writing process itself. “I've taught at NYU and Princeton, and I have a lot of people following me who are interested in writing,” he said. “The strategy is really just kind of focusing on what has gotten me to where I am now and how can I continue to build on it.”
One of the things you’ll notice pretty quickly when visiting Kushner’s Substack is that none of the content is locked behind a paywall. “There is a subscription, but right now this is still early for me, and I just want to put everything out there for free and just build an audience and go from there,” he said. He’s also disabled Substack’s comment functionality. “I decided early on not to do that because I felt like if I'm not going to engage in that and maintain it and participate in it, then there's no point in doing it.”
Will any of this work? Do people actually want to read serialized chapters or longform features in newsletter form? We’ll know more after Kushner’s advance runs out, but for now he’s still excited about the possibilities — the most excited he’s been since his early days working at SonicNet. “I believe in the future of journalism, but I also believe that people have to take risks. Like I think that longform writers are going to have to come and take more risks with the kinds of stories they're telling, and see what happens from there … I think that anybody can come to this medium and find an audience and get all the subscribers they want as long as they focus on the right stories to tell. And maybe that's a bit of a contrarian point of view, but I do believe that it’s true, and I think that we'll see more examples of [it working] as the medium matures.”
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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For a full bio, go here.