Before Substack, there was Medium — and its network is about to get bigger

Substack has become synonymous with writers looking to go independent. But for many years prior, there was a different go-to place for self-publishing: Medium.

Medium, launched in 2012 by Twitter cofounder Ev Williams, has been the platform of choice for public figures to air newsworthy moments: Hillary Clinton used it to endorse President-elect Joe Biden and Chrissy Teigen wrote a moving essay on Medium about losing her son that went viral last fall. Its network of publications broke news on the controversial practices of facial recognition company Clearview AI and shared important investigations on domestic violence in Puerto Rico. Colin Kaepernick joined Medium’s board in June. Throughout the year, Williams and his team of engineers refined the company’s products, including newsletters.

“What we really think about is: How do we engage people, pull them in, and get them feeling that reward, that feedback cycle for spending time on reading, writing and thoughtful content?” Williams told CNN Business in a recent interview.

Now through a new acquisition, Medium has another way to entice people to read its content and write for its network. Medium is acquiring Glose, a digital platform for buying, reading and discussing books. Glose’s 20 employees, most of whom are based in Paris, will join Medium. Glose CEO Nicolas Princen will become vice president of books at Medium. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.

“The vision is to create an experience where you can go from one to the next,” Princen told CNN Business. “You can read an article and then just one-click purchase a book that connects to that content if you want to go deeper.”

Glose is Medium’s tenth acquisition. But the deal is arguably Medium’s boldest step in expanding to new formats — in this case, books — while still focusing on its mission to make publishing and reading easier and more rewarding through its minimalistic website and social sharing abilities. Both companies have similar missions: Encourage people to read more and to pay for content.

Versus Substack

Medium has been recruiting more writers to regularly contribute to the platform. That investment comes amid the rise of Substack. Last year, a string of notable journalists with strong followings left their corporate jobs to focus on their own paid newsletters on Substack. One of Medium’s selling points is a built-in audience, a feature absent on Substack, where the onus is on writers to solicit subscribers.

“Medium is really about working together to create more value,” Williams said. “If there’s already millions of readers and hundreds of thousands of subscribers on the platform, you can tap into that. It’s much easier, especially for new writers, to build a following and get paid.”

Both Medium and Substack support subscription businesses. Medium changed its focus from advertising to subscriptions in 2017, a move that resulted in cutting one-third of its staff at the time. But whereas Substack requires consumers to pay for individual authors or publications, Medium is betting on a bundle of content, more like a traditional magazine or newspaper.

Medium charges $5 per month or $50 per year for access to all of its content, from both contributors and its own publications. Medium said it distributed $11 million to writers last year in its Partner Program. Books, however, won’t be covered by a Medium subscription.

Susan Orlean, an author and staff writer for The New Yorker, told CNN Business that she was approached last year to be a regular contributor by a Medium editor who pitched her by comparing the experience of writing on the platform to using Twitter, except “going a little bit longer” and making money from it.

Medium “feels conversational, almost as if I can begin picturing people who are reading it,” Orlean said. “It’s nice to have a way to write that is really fun.”

Orlean said she was not interested in launching her own newsletter on Substack — at least not at the moment.

“I think that there is more responsibility if you are promoting a subscription-based newsletter. That comes with a different kind of pressure,” Orlean said. “But they both go to the notion that it’s an opportunity to monetize a certain kind of writing that we’ve all been doing on social media for free to some degree.”

Better reading experience

Williams and Princen met by email introduction in 2014 through a mutual friend who thought the two shared a vision. Princen said the inspiration for Glose came from his time working for former French president Nicolas Sarkozy.

“My job was to have a very high level view on how technology was going to impact basically everything, at the time of the huge rise of social media,” Princen told CNN Business. “Reading seemed to be one of the places where there were holes on the internet that could be filled… that there were actually ways to make reading better.”

The company name is a reference to the Latin word for “annotation.” Like Medium, Glose features a social component to reading. One feature, available on both platforms, allows readers to highlight and share passages of text.

Glose also sells ebooks and audiobooks, offering more than 1 million books through partnerships with more than a thousand publishers including Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster. The service boasts one million readers globally and serves as the ebook provider of choice for over a dozen colleges including Stanford University and Columbia University.

Six years into building the product, Princen said his team had planned on raising money to start marketing the company — until Williams reach out. The email exchange eventually led to the acquisition.

Williams said he envisions Medium users blogging more easily about the books they read and starting discussions about them. He also thinks connecting Glose and Medium will help readers discover authors and writers.

“If I’m reading a book and some particular passage speaks to me, I can very seamlessly take that to my blog, maybe write about it, maybe have a discussion about it,” Williams said. “If that’s all an integrated, seamless experience, it checks so many boxes in terms of adding value for me, the reader.”