I’ve got a big announcement: next week will be the last week OGs and OFZs runs on Substack. I will be migrating all of my subscribers to Ghost and using that platform from now on. After next week, I’ll be on hiatus until about August 15-16 while the backend migration gets sorted out, we take a much needed honeymoon to Chicago, and I think more about content going forward. I wanted to also write today about what I hoped to accomplish with this newsletter, what I haven’t accomplished, and what I’d like to do with it personally and professionally as well what the last 9 months of writing has helped me clarify for myself as well as what I think it’s value proposition can be as it moves to a new platform.
Substack has the benefit of being free up front, charging no fee, and providing a streamlined interface with a tiny bit of marketing capabilities. The trouble, as usual, lies in the fine print. Substack takes 10% of whatever you charge and passes on an addition 2.9% to Stripe for processing your payments. In other words, their profits off your labor scale regardless of the relative costs for them to manage your account. That’s great when you’re just starting and not worried about paid subscriptions, but adds up quickly once you decide to make the pivot to paywalling more content and expanding your paid subscription base. Ghost is a different story. They charge flat fees that don’t scale too much. Since this will always be a niche publication, doesn’t quite fit into a purely business mold, and I don’t have the pedigree to be a Matt Klein or some similar analyst and commentator, I don’t need a huge mailing list and it benefits me to hold onto every cent I can since I can’t charge too much.
That also goes to a decision I’ve made that I need to begin paywalling content and increase the cost per month from $5 to $8 with a 20% discount for an annual subscription ($76.80). It adds up fast on my end, believe me. Reality is that it usually takes me about 4 hours of “good” work or 5-5.5 hours of “bad” work to finish on most days. Sometimes it zooms by quick, occasionally it takes a little longer, but that’s the general timeframe. Sometimes that work directly overlaps with another project I’m on so the extra time isn’t an issue. Regardless, that’s half of most people’s official working day and it represents a distillation of a fair bit of scanning and reading, occasional data pulls (though I reduced that over time), and now 5 years’ professional experience, two master’s programs’ worth of content knowledge, self-study, and crippling Twitter addiction to pull together. It’s always been and will be a labor of love, but it has to be properly monetized going forward. Anyone who’s already paid for an annual subscription will retain that subscription until the year elapses at which point they’ll have to renew. Anyone on a monthly subscription at $5 will be free to email me at email@example.com to request a promo code for Ghost that will give another 4 months at $5 before the upwards adjustment kicks in. For anyone on an academic discount, please email me and I’ll send you a new promo code to keep the % rate adjusted to the new base cost of $8 a month or $76.80 a year — $1.60 a month or else $15.36 a year. Anyone otherwise on a gift promo from when I launched can similarly contact me to extend it.
When I started this, my real aim was just to keep myself busy. I’d been unemployed for abut 5 months at that point and had only just realized I could still legally work in the UK as my visa application was being processed. It was as much about keeping my mind active and getting back in touch with work I’d really enjoyed when I did it with FPRI as anything else. It also was an excuse to get back into the kinds of analysis that had inspired my initial book idea, a process that led to over 30,000 words’ worth of drafting and redrafting ideas and sections until I realized the parameters of the project and the gap in the discourse I wanted to fill in the last 3 months. My eventual hope was to bring back daily coverage on Russia with non-Russia stories since there aren’t many outlets doing that work for English speakers from a political economy perspective. The energy transition and COVID storylines were salient issues that I either had a particularly keen interest in and continue to be defining features of how we should be thinking about Russia and Eurasia as a set of interlocking economic and political interests, systems, classes, and institutions. I wanted to be on the ground floor of that conversation. I think I succeeded, but failed to do nearly enough self-promotion. It became all the more difficult once I started doing regular project work in November-December 2020.
I haven’t made nearly as much progress trying to expand the conversation on Russia, including challenging the bizarre degree to which Western observers, frequently from non-economics backgrounds, internalize the economic logic the regime’s institutions and leaders provide uncritically all the while ranting that the US Congress or UK parliament have been beholden to the neoliberal turn in policy and so on. We’ve ceased to think seriously about Russia and Eurasia as an economy and economic system, and become far more comfortable thinking in terms of security or sociology or political science or whatever equity analysts want to talk up. All of these disciplines and areas matter. But when it comes to economics and to a lesser extent our historical understanding and contemporary analysis, there’s been a collective failure to integrate the Russian and Eurasian experience into broad discussions of macroeconomic theory and the evolution of economic policy consensus over time. It wasn’t necessarily my initial intention, but it’s become more and more apparent to me that policymakers, analysts, and academics do amazingly fantastic work on the region and on the rest of the globe that isn’t synthesized often enough. A US stimulus bill, German regulatory imperative, Chinese steel giant’s default, lawsuit in a London court, and Japanese development loan to Tajikistan can all be linked by visible or else palimpsestic chains of asset custody, political will, supply, and consumption. As much as academics have done a great job expanding and reframing our understanding approaches to Central Asia to push back against the orientalizing tropes of what I calll peripheralism, the same logics need to be applied more openly to Russia. And the analyses of the link between economic interest groups and security policy in Russia equally apply across Eurasia and come into deeper conversation with the remarkable work done in economic history and there disciplines now actively engaged in the project of reshaping developed economies after COVID.
I also haven’t broken through to a large enough audience yet. Paradoxically, not paywalling content has probably contributed to that for the simple reason that everyone’s already inundated with newsletters and posts. When something’s free, it’s disposable. People take for granted the huge amount of work that goes into it. Mass matters but occupying a niche is more important and exclusivity can help. Regardless, I have to do a much more proactive and better job “selling” the output. Paywalling carries the obvious risk that lots of people unsubscribe when they can’t get their fix for free anymore. That’s why I’ve settled on an approach intended to build on what I think the real “value-add” of what this has morphed into over these last months. Friday newsletters will go out to everyone regardless of their subscription status, I’ll occasionally unlock others when major stories break, and will post one non-newsletter item a month for free with each additional one subsequently paywalled. Here are a few ideas I’ve been kicking around about what those non-newsletter posts look like:
- Collaborating with specialists and academic friends, putting out weekly and monthly roundups of major news from the Duma and Eurasian parliaments, including a bit of analysis around things like changes in taxation when applicable
- Doing interviews with a wide range of area experts as well as people from other disciplines and area specializations, whether by email or recording a Zoom/Skype interview and posting it with a transcript of either everything or salient bits
- If this reaches enough people, hosting an event and using that as a launchpad for collaborations and threads to follow
- Posting draft excerpts of book writing — I’m finally soliciting feedback on my chapter outline, refining the pitch, and about to go for it so might as well!
- Building out more regular data analysis and updates, but in a more targeted manner and also drawing on international context, US, EU, and China macro and so on rather than just posting what Rosstat, Belstat, or other agencies have published in a (relative) vacuum
- Book reviews, but more in the style of the LRB — trying to bring works from varying fields into conversation with each other
- Posting roundups of differing viewpoints or even debates between experts from Russia, the US, Europe, China, and Asia-Pacific more broadly on economic, political, and security issues
The work and broader circle of contributors likely needed will probably end up changing the pricing structure over time depending on the size of the readership, but for now I’m limited by Ghost. Unlike Substack, you can’t launch multiple newsletters and pricing is fixed instead of having a tier system. My ultimate goal, however, is to make Russia and Eurasia “interesting” again by bringing the space into broader conversations taking place right now. What began as a personal project to keep me sane feels like it needs a more directed purpose now. I know that some people will unsubscribe or else are too busy to read regularly. I’m happy to discuss ways to make the product useful for you and projects that might be of use to you, potential collaborations, or else chances to promote your own work on the platform. My hope is to find ways to make staying on as valuable as reasonably possible acknowledging that the sheer amount of time this work can take and opportunity costs of doing it rather than other things add up.
I’ll include a link to this a reminder about the change at the top every day next week. I really hope you stick with OGs and OFZs as it transitions. You won’t regret it.
Like what you read? Pass it around to your friends! If anyone you know is a student or professor and is interested, hit me up at @ntrickett16 on Twitter or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll forward a link for an academic discount (edu accounts only!).