#245: Ghost recon

Hit Points has a new home. Here's why.

#245: Ghost recon
I think I have to put images in emails now if I want them to show up on the homepage? Not sure. Pls bear with me while I work this stuff out

Hello, Hit Points crew! I hope this email finds you well. In fact, scratch that — I hope this email finds you, full stop, because things have changed a bit around here.

Since we last spoke, Hit Points has packed up its belongings, given its Substack digs a deep clean in the faint hope of retaining its full security deposit, and set sail for new pastures, its collection of mixed metaphors firmly in hand. After two-and-a-half years on Substack, Hit Points is now powered by the open-source newsletter software Ghost. We have a new website, you know. Custom URL, the works. Welcome, one and all! Assuming the migration went as planned, anyway. (If all’s gone as it should, you shouldn’t need to do a thing; even paid subscriptions should have carried over automatically. I suppose we will find out together in the coming weeks and months. If you run into any problems, please let me know.)

I have been thinking about making this move for some time — I had a brief conversation with Ghost about jumping ship in the summer of 2022, when I first got properly annoyed with Substack — but the tipping point came over the holidays. If you’re already up to speed with Substack's latest misery, feel free to skip the next couple of paragraphs. For everyone else, here’s a quick recap.

In late November, The Atlantic published a story about the growing presence of Nazi-supporting — and actually outright, straight-up Nazi — newsletters on Substack. A couple of hundred writers penned an open letter urging the platform to remove them; a hundred or so signed another one urging the opposite. Substack sided with the latter, proclaiming for approximately the 812th time its unbreakable commitment to free speech, which is of course a convenient get-out for content moderation being difficult and expensive, the Valley VC community that funds Substack skewing the worst sort of libertarian, and the fact that money made from extremists is worth the same as money made from normal people. Substack has, over the years, proven itself perfectly comfortable hosting transphobes, anti-vaxxers, assorted conspiracist nutjobs and election deniers beneath the convenient comfort blanket of the marketplace of ideas. It was inevitable we would end up here one day, yet still somehow shocking and surprising that said day has finally come. 

“We don't think that censorship (including through demonetising publications) makes the problem go away,” Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie parped in a post on his company’s screamingly terrible Twitter 'competitor', Notes. “In fact, it makes it worse [...] We are committed to upholding and protecting freedom of expression, even when it hurts.”

The rallying call, one repeated ad nauseam in the comments beneath McKenzie’s post, is that sunlight is the best disinfectant and, well, no. This line is only ever trotted out by extremists and people who are super into raw denim, and I am afraid we are talking about something far more urgent and depressing than the best way to get sick fades on your Japanese selvedge bootcuts. Besides, as my fellow Substack ship-jumper Molly White pointed out the other day, we are surely long past the point of being able to pretend that the only reason Nazis still exist in 2023 is that we just haven’t, like, debated them enough. Honestly, if you really believe this then I invite you to look out of the window. Read a single newspaper article! Behold the state of contemporary political discourse for just five minutes. (And once you’re caught up, please, please clean your bathroom. I assure you sunlight is not doing the job you think it is.)

To be honest, all the above completely passed me by. I have never really thought of myself as part of Substack in the platform sense, have never kept up with its goings-on; I used its technology to send people my silly little emails, and never really considered myself part of a wider 'community' of independent writers. I only found out what was happening when the notification emails started arriving. Within 24 hours of McKenzie’s post going live a small, but unignorable, number of people had cancelled their paid subscriptions. Many of them gave Substack’s refusal to clamp down on Nazi content on its platform as the reason for their cancellation. And who could blame them, really? This was, quite obviously, really, really bad, and it was immediately clear I was going to have to do something about it.

And so I spent far too much of what should have been a restful Christmas and New Year weighed down by angst and misery, considering my options, looking at the various Substack alternatives and working out just how badly abandoning the platform would hurt. I decided to give it some time, to see if the furore McKenzie's post kicked off would perhaps prompt a change of heart amongst the Substack C-suite goober squad. Finally, this week, after Platformer’s Casey Newton compelled Substack into the most pathetic non-climbdown I think I have ever seen — it is removing a specific handful of newsletters, but insists this is not a change of policy; it will not be proactively seeking out more publications to ban, but is working on a reporting system, offloading the moderation duties onto its users — I decided enough was enough. 

Welcome, then, to the new Hit Points, which to the untrained eye, and even to my reasonably trained one, is pretty much exactly the same as the old one — though there are some important differences. Ghost is open-source, though I pay the nonprofit behind it to manage all the tech nonsense I am too dim and time-poor to handle myself. (Setting up a custom URL this morning required the assistance of half the Hit Points Discord. Thanks, gang.) Crucially, Ghost appears to have no pretensions to be anything more than a technology solution for sending lots of emails. There’s no app. No Twitter-ish thing, no chat feature, no attempt to knit Ghost's various users together into some sort of community to juice its next funding round. I know the square root of fuck-all about its founders’ political ideologies and, frankly, long may it stay this way.

To be perfectly clear, while I am resolute in my conviction that this is The Right Thing To Do, and feel much, much better for having done it, I am taking a pretty big risk here. Substack’s Recommendations system has been absolutely huge for me in terms of audience growth; a little over 70% of my 8,500 readers signed up through it. By making the move now I am essentially accepting that signup rates will tail off sharply. Eventually I suspect my total audience may even start to fall. Substack Recommendations gave me growth for free; now I will have to put some actual effort into actual marketing, which is bad news because I am simply terrible at it. Apologies in advance for begging for shares a little more often as we move forward.

But there are advantages, too, beyond the obvious one of actually, like, sleeping at night. Substack took a flat 10% cut of every paid subscription. Ghost levies a flat monthly fee that scales with the size of your readership, and on today’s numbers at least the latter equation puts more money in my pocket. Marketing should actually be a little easier now I’m off a platform that picked a pointless fight with Elon Musk — a man who, for all his evident flaws, has not explicitly professed his admiration for Nazi money — and got its URLs blacklisted on not-Twitter. Ghost also allows me to offer subscriptions in multiple currencies, allowing readers to support Hit Points in the most convenient and cost-effective manner available to them. (At the moment, I offer subs in GBP, USD and EUR; I have room for a couple more. If you’d like a specific currency added, please let me know.)

But the biggest benefit is a personal one. Man, did this feel great. I woke up this morning unburdened from the mental load of knowing that I am funding, and legitimising, a company whose beliefs, principles and actions I have found it progressively harder, and eventually impossible, to align myself with over time. That, I can assure you, means much more to me than 100 new signups a week. 

I came very, very close to jacking Hit Points in at the end of last year. While my total audience ballooned during 2023 thanks to the Recommendations feature, my revenue from paid subscriptions ended the year pretty much exactly where it started it. Yes, 70% of my audience found me through Recommendations. But only 13% of my paid subscribers did, and I hope you will understand my saying I care far more about the latter cohort than the former. I love having you all along for the ride, don't get me wrong. But it's the people who pay that keep the engine running, and on whom I intend to focus more of my attention in the coming year. (This mission begins right now: the first interview for the next instalment of Hit Points' longform interview series Max HP is happening this evening.)

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I wonder whether all that growth was doing me more harm than good. It was making me worry about the numerical, and financial, side of Hit Points to such an extent that I was focusing less on the creative side; I thought too much about the business, which is boring, and forgot about the work, which I love. All the while, the constant flow of new-signup emails made it feel impossible for me to leave. How does one walk away from a number that keeps going up? By realising, however belatedly, that the number doesn't really mean anything when you're not selling ads, or seeking venture funding, or whatever.

I never wanted an audience, per se. I have no desire to be big. (I made a magazine for a decade, remember.) I started Hit Points so I could write my nonsense in my own quiet little corner of the internet, for a readership of however-many people enjoyed it enough to think it worth paying for. Now I get to focus on that again, and I feel pretty excellent about it. In that sense, I suppose I should be thanking my former business partner's dumbass overlords for making it so abundantly clear who they really are, and finally giving me the push I needed to move on. So long, Substack. Thanks for helping me get started, like, but you really were a bunch of absolute clowns.

God, sorry, that went on a bit didn’t it. Free readers, I'll be back with you next week, when I promise to actually talk about the game industry; apologies for kicking off the new year with so much inside-baseball bobbins. Paid subs, I’ll be back in your inboxes tomorrow with the usual Friday edition. If the rest of you would like to join us... hmm, I assume I can put a subscribe link in a button just below this? Let’s find out. Cheerio!