Stumbling into a Glorious Writing Community and the The Evolution of Online Education

One of the several weekly email digests curating popular blogs posts and articles included the headline: Always wanted to write? Booker winner George Saunders on how to get startedI clicked on the link and it took me to a Guardian article that sat in my browser tab for a good week. As that article sat in the tab, I finally read it…and what a rabbit hole did I discover! 

Early in my career, I spent two years marketing B2C software for real time study help for students. During those years, I became intimately involved with OpenCourseWare programs, MOOCs, Khan Academy, and dozens of ways to democratize learning. Over a decade later, it’s shocking to see the price of traditional education, but that is neither here nor there. However, anytime I stumble across a new way to learn online in an organized process, I normally take a peak, particularly if the topic is writing. This could be anything from an online course on copywriting, a book, professional development community organized through Slack, an ebook, or those ubiquitous and popular Twitter thread that seem to grab my attention lately.  

The Guardian article reviewed award-winning, renowned writer and teacher, George Saunders. The article reviews his latest book and in addition to the launch, George started a Substack. Huh? This didn’t sound like the Substacks I’m used to reading which is normally of a former journalist leaving their traditional publisher to opine on technology, markets, and software. No, this Substack is way out of left field with exercises to write short stories and analysis of individual pages of short stories mixed with a comment-laced, vibrant community of writers and other professors. Imagine walking into a pub of intellectuals and writers, but online. It is simply glorious. 

How did this professor and accomplished writer find Substack and why did he start a community on it? The first question is answered in this podcast interview with George from Vox where he shared that Substack actually reached out to him! Brilliant. To my un-erudite, obliviousness, George Saunders not only is an iconic professor but he has a world-wide following from his novels and short stories. One of the many reasons he started the Substack, besides having the opportunity presented to him, is the format works well for how he teaches his students at Syracuse: bite-sized exercises and analysis which is how he structured his book, A Swim in a Pond in the Ran. I immediately purchased it after going through the 5 posts or exercises of Hemingway’s “A Cat in the Rain.”  

Like I mentioned earlier, a rabbit hole was discovered and it includes short stories, analysis of fiction, online education, and even growth marketing.  

So besides reading short stories at night with an expert’s analysis on storytelling, where does it leave us? A few places. 

First, reading a story and discovering the “why” behind each decision is more rewarding than when I had to memorize responses for a test in high school. Also, maybe it’s where my personal journey stands regarding writing, but these exercises and examples are like the coach needed at the right time. Other favorites over the years include staples: Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, Stephen King’s On Writing, Hardy’s Understanding Show Don’t Tell. 

Second, this is another example of online education morphing monetarily from brick and mortar to virtual with the help of new technology. I haven’t paid for George’s Substack yet, however, once I get my fill from the book and crave more, it’s only a matter of time. As the community grows, it would be fascinating to explore the economics for George and his Substack community. Nationally known professors are the perfect market for Substack to enter. The probability would have been extremely low for George, or any professor, to build a website, put up a paywall, collect payments via Stripe for premium users, and promote that to the world beyond his students, for example like Ben Thompson’s Statechery.

But today: “Oh George Saunders, started Substack – that’s cool. How much is it? $6/month? Steal.”

Even in the first 10 posts, George alludes to the content being inexpensive compared to the full-time MFA program at Syracuse. Cost-benefit analysis: true. Disruptive technologies get that adjective for many reasons, but one that is often overlooked is the new market created. George Saunders is a perfect example of the new market demographics and all their potential customers and readers like me…which is likely why Substack is reaching out to him in the first place. 

Lastly, if I put on my go-to-market hat on, how different is A Swim in a Pond in the Rain from an ebook? Could we make the leap that an ebook could turn into a free-downloadable piece of digital content for an annual subscription to Substack? I could. An elite professor would never stoop to sell digital lead gen content to students or anyone else. I’ve already paid for the book. Everything I’ve read in it so far has helped me become a more educated, thoughtful writer, while pushing me along the sales process – dare I call it that. Years down the road, we’ll be reading case studies on how Professor XYZ from a prestigious university is making millions of dollars a year through their online marketing machine. Or, do we see Substacks forming around every major educational book launch?

The feature I’m waiting for Substack, or another software company to come out with is the private session and review with George to go over personal short stories. I believe he would have a waiting list well past Syracuse University for that. 

When capitalism and higher-ed meet online, the atoms still don’t know how to connect, but technologists keep creating concoctions that open minded, higher-ed are willing to taste, and for the sake of Story Club’s community of writers, I’m glad the ingredients were right.

Show Comments