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section heading icon     blogging for dollars?

This page asks whether individual authors can make a living from blogging.

It covers -

It highlights broader questions about 'blogging for dollars' in the 'gift economy' and print embodiments of the blog. A discussion of syndication and salaried blogging - for example hacks employed by the Gawker group - appears later in this profile.

section marker     introduction

Can individuals make a living as bloggers?

As an earlier page noted, visions of 'blogging for dollars' - whether through donations from kind-hearted readers, some form of subscription by readers, patronage by a maecenas, subvention by a corporate sponsor or sale of advertising space - have provoked disagreement among the blogerati.

They have also provoked hype from some commercial services, with one for example shrilling

Start Blogging Now
Publish, be read, and get paid.
Begin writing instantly!

and quoting a satisfied customer who proclaimed

I was happy living with writer's block. Now I am constantly reading other blogs, and looking for new things to write about. Life hasn't been the same since!

Michael Malone gushed that -

Five years from now, the blogosphere will have developed into a powerful economic engine that has all but driven newspapers into oblivion, has morphed (thanks to cell phone cameras) into a video medium that challenges television news and has created a whole new group of major media companies and media superstars. Billions of dollars will be made by those prescient enough to either get on board or invest in these companies.

Clay Shirky enthused in the 2002 Weblogs & the Mass Amateurization of Publishing that -

weblogs mark a radical break. They are such an efficient tool for distributing the written word that they make publishing a financially worthless activity. It's intuitively appealing to believe that by making the connection between writer and reader more direct, weblogs will improve the environment for direct payments as well, but the opposite is true. By removing the barriers to publishing, weblogs ensure that the few people who earn anything from their weblogs will make their money indirectly.

Blog evangelist Meg Hourihan was characteristically more upbeat, enthusing -

Think of what some of the best bloggers could do if they were financially able to do focused, full-time blogging? Pick a topic you're interested in, now imagine someone had 40 hours per week to cover everything related to that topic, and you get the idea.

The notion of corporate support through sponsorship or advertising has been attacked as "selling out to the System", provoking Tony Perkins of Always-On (the 'super blog' badged as "the insiders network") to sniff that he had heard such "religiously libertarian anarchists with ponytails screaming and yelling before" - one of those comments that secured attention from all the 'insiders' in the echoing blogosphere.

Mark Dery offered a dose of realism, questioning -

Who, exactly, is making a living shoveling prose online? Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds? Jason Kottke? Josh Marshall? To the best of my knowledge, only a vanishingly tiny number of bloggers are able to eke out an existence through their blogging, much less turn a healthy profit.

For now, visions of getting rich through self-publishing look a lot like envelope-stuffing for the cognitive elite — or at least for insomniacs with enough time and bandwidth to run their legs to stumps in their electronic hamster wheels, posting and answering comments 24/7. As a venerable hack toiling in the fields of academe, I love the idea of being King of All Media without even wearing pants, which is why I hope that some new-media wonk like Jason Calacanis or Jeff Jarvis finds the Holy Grail of self-winding journalism — i.e., figuring out how to make online writing self-supporting.

section marker    advertising and subscriptions

The notion of using blogs as platforms for advertising has attracted attention because of perceptions that the readership is loyal and is associated with desirable demographics.

Those perceptions are largely untested. Few bloggers have disclosed detailed information about their audiences. Most accounts of traffic are anecdotal and many don't extend beyond the comment that another blog has linked to the particular site or that the author has received feedback.

Few bloggers have had much success in calling for money from readers. It is unclear whether initial enthusiasm for paying Andrew Sullivan, often characterised as the prototypical commercial blogger (with claims that revenue is around US$6,000 per week), has been sustained. Claims in the July 2006 Pew Internet & American Life Project report that "8% of bloggers earn money on their blog" are problematical.

In questioning some of the hype about performance and the 'busker economy' we have suggested that some people could make a living reading from a telephone directory ... but that those people are exceptional: enthusiasm and a keyboard, irrespective of an online tip-jar, is unlikely to provide a living for most bloggers.

One blogger somewhat sourly commented -

Ever since Andrew Sullivan conducted his "Pledge Week" and made damned near $80,000, bloggers everywhere have become panhandlers and squeegie-guys, telling their heart-rending stories of brokeness while pointing to their Pay Pal buttons and tip jars. When hookers do that on the street, they get arrested for the crime of "solicitation." And the hookers usually offer a more valuable commodity than most blogs do.

before going on to comment -

I work a 10-or-more hour a day job five days every week and every 7th weekend. I have a 30-mile commute back and forth. I blog because I enjoy doing it, but I make my living from that job, so I BLOG ONLY WHEN I'M NOT WORKING. If I had to make a choice between blogging and work, guess what it would be? Hint: one pays the bills and the other COSTS money.

I crave attention, adoration, lots of traffic and a loyal following, but I don't want a dime of your money. If I can't afford to do this, I SHOULDN'T BE DOING IT. I should be doing something that pays me money.

In practice those bloggers who gain tangible revenue are those whose online writing has attracted sufficient attention for them to secure gigs on the lecture circuit (such as Mr Shirky), deals from commercial publishers or appointments to academic faculties and institutional boards or other posts. Busking, rather than blogging, is the way to go.

Entrepreneurs such as Nick Denton of the Gawker group, echoing 'old media', have sought to market blogs as a commodity - employing teams of writers on advertising-supported sites.

section marker     walled garden or blogging ghetto

US start-up BloggingNetwork (BN) - "write and get paid!" - more daringly promotes a walled garden approach, with readers paying a monthly fee to access a collection of blogs.

Authors receive a share of that revenue and can also gain referral fees by securing other bloggers for the BN Community. Apparently around 50% of revenue goes to "support the web site, marketing, customer service, and payment processing".

The ongoing success of the venture for the BN operators and the bloggers within the garden is uncertain.

It is unclear whether the operators will secure sufficient readers and authors for sustainability and whether provision of data to third parties will be commercially attractive.

One observer commented that -

as long as people insist that web content, and especially independently created web content like blogs, isn't worth paying for, the Web will never reach its full potential. After all, a free web (or an ad-sponsored web) ends up favoring traditional, corporate media: they're the ones who can afford to subsidize consistent content creation over long periods of time; they're the ones with the scale to make advertising at least potentially viable; they're the ones who can buy up the best talent that emerges.

Critics have argued that BN is damned - if not doomed - because it has established a blogging ghetto. Placing content behind a firewall (whether a whole blog or premium content) will deter some readers. As with free versus pay access to online journals and other sites, some readers will simply refuse to pay and will instead seek free content, which is readily available. Others may be willing to pay for access but ask whether the BN content is more attractive than that on other subscription sites.

Those authors who secure sufficient revenue through BN to make blogging commercially worthwhile are presumably those who would make as much, if not more, money writing for commercial journals or through appearances.

section marker     regulating blog ads

2004 saw allegations that - "one of the most popular blogs on the Net" - has been selling preferential placement of links. By late 2006 it was clear that individuals and blog networks were busily touting particular products, services and individuals on a commercial basis, often with no disclosure that payment was involved. That is reminiscent of the 'cash for comment' scandal involving Australian radio shockjocks.

In December 2006 the US Federal Trade Commission reminded companies of the need to disclose relationships in which people are compensated to promote products to their peers, including blogs and other 'word-of-mouth marketing'.

Such marketing is covered under regulations that govern commercial endorsements; the FTC the FTC opinion was to formally note that it could be deceptive if consumers were more likely to trust the product's endorser "based on their assumed independence from the marketer".

Ethics and legal requirements aside, critics have suggested that covert promotion through blogs and other media may simply be bad business practice, given adverse responses if consumers discover that the 'recommendation' has been paid for.

A 2005 survey in the US by Intelliseek for example reported that 29% of participants in the 20 to 34 cohort and 41% of those in the 35 to 49 cohort indicated that they would be unlikely to trust recommendations from a friend whom they later learned was paid for making a recommendation.

Other bloggers might instead use discovery (or suspicion) of payment as an opportunity for the denunciation that fuels much of the blogosphere.

section marker     blogospheres offline

One of the first major efforts to embody a blog in offline print is the UK Guardian's opportunistic Salam Pax: The Baghdad Blog (London: Guardian Books 2003) by Salam Pax - aka the Baghdad Blogger - who as noted earlier in this profile has been promoted as "the Anne Frank of the War ... and its Elvis". It is perhaps just as well that low teledensity in Rwanda spared us the horrors of a blog during that nation's ethnic massacres.

We can, however, expect to see print and filmed versions of real and faux blogs, building on works such as Klein's Primary Colours, The Secret Diaries of Adrian Mole, Bridget Jones' Diaries and Nicholson Baker's Vox that are highlighted later in this profile.

They in turn trace their lineage to epistolary novels and redacted reportage such as Pierre Choderlos de Laclos's Les liaisons dangereuses (1782) and Goethe's Briefe aus der Schweiz (1779).

Examples include

  • Straight Up & Dirty (London: Ebury Press 2006) by Stephanie Klein
  • The Blog of War: Front-Line Dispatches from Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan (New York: Simon & Schuster 2006) by Matthew Burden ... "All the officers in the book are competent; all the enlisted men and women are brave; and all the husbands love their wives and vice versa"
  • Baghdad Burning: Girl Blog from Iraq (New York: The Feminist Press 2005) by Riverbend
  • Never Threaten to Eat Your Co-Workers: Best of Blogs (Berkeley: Apress 2006) edited by Bonnie Burton & Alan Graham
  • We Are Iran: The Persian Blogs (Brooklyn: Soft Skull Press 2005) by Nasrin Alavi
  • The Mammoth Book of Sex Diaries: Online Confessions and Call-Girl Adventures - The Best of the Sex Blogs (New York: Carroll & Graf 2005) edited by Maxim Jakubowski
  • Belle de Jour: Diary of an Unlikely Call Girl (New York: Warner 2006) by Anonymous
  • Anonymous Lawyer: A Novel (New York: Holt 2006) by Jeremy Blachman
  • Ultimate Blogs: Masterworks from the Wild Web (New York: Vintage 2008) edited by Sarah Boxer

Journalists are increasingly peddling hardcopy of their blogs. One example is Margo Kingston's Not Happy, John! (Ringwood: Penguin 2004), based on her Fairfax blog and criticised by the great Max Suich as having

the weaknesses of a lot of material on the web - little or no editing, overblown language and personal rage or frustration masquerading as moral criticism. It's therapy rather than thought for a lot of the webbies.

The genre has inevitably been colonised by those in search of something that is hip or merely amusing.

God's Blogs: Life from God's Perspective
(Sisters: Multnomah 2005) by Lanny Donoho asks "How would you feel if you thought God wrote a personal note to you ... on His website" (presumably as nonplussed as if She sent us an SMS). We were somewhat more engaged by Paul Davidson's The Lost Blogs: From Jesus to Jim Morrison - The Historically Inaccurate and Totally Fictitious Cyber Diaries of Everyone Worth Knowing (New York: Warner 2006).

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version of January 2008
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