Starving Artists and Entitled Bullies: The Economics of Book Blogging

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The aftermath of Stacey Jay’s cancelled Kickstarter, which we discussed here, quickly went from a relatively calm conversation to a full-on eruption full of a number of misconceptions and disappointing assumptions. For the millionth time, the ‘bully blogger’ label was thrown around, with claims that readers are somehow entitled, don’t want to pay for anything, glory in receiving free stuff and enjoy destroying the careers of hard working creative people. The floodgates opened in a way that was disappointing but not at all surprising, and to say it has made a lot of bloggers feel extremely uncomfortable is an understatement.

We’re going to do something that’s considered impolite in many circles. We’re going to talk about money, specifically the cost of being an unpaid book blogger. The economics of this issue are so often misunderstood, wilfully or otherwise, so perhaps this will enlighten some individuals.

The two of us founded Bibliodaze almost a year ago. Our time together so far has been a fascinating, enlightening and often exhausting journey. We’re both experienced book bloggers, having worked on our own sites over the years before joining forces, so we didn’t come into this venture with any misconceptions of how this all works. We knew all about the costs of web hosting, domain names, servers, site themes, and so on, and that’s before we come to the general funding of the books themselves. Sometimes we receive ARCS (or did in the past) but we also buy a significant portion of the stuff we review on the site ourselves.

In short, this hobby is expensive.

Our domain name cost £13.19 to purchase, an amount we recently repaid for renewal, equalling £26.38 in total (around $40 according to the current pounds to dollars exchange rate). This is pretty standard if you want a unique domain name over a Blogspot or WordPress subdomain.

Our web theme cost $58. The average WordPress theme will set you back between $40 and $60. And if you want any premium plugins, be prepared to fork out for those too (like we did).

The basis of our logo cost $29. We are fortunate in that one of us is a graphic designer and that we don’t have to pay a third party for any design work, such as logos, buttons and business cards. We’re even more lucky that she also is trained in web design/development, so we don’t have to pay for edits to the code of our site.

Hosting is where most of our money has gone. We run a self-hosted WordPress site which gives us some necessary freedoms but also added costs. As our visitor numbers increased, we had to upgrade our 24 month paid up plan in order to deal with it. The amount left on that plan was for not quite a year’s worth of hosting – after the upgrade that credit covered only one month.

By the time we celebrate our first anniversary, we will have spent around $1000 on Bibliodaze, and that doesn’t include the costs related to books we’ve purchased for review.

This hobby is a luxury.

Another part worth calculating in all this is time. The pair of us both have jobs (although that was not always the case) and as such our blogging time is limited. The time and effort from picking up a book to finishing the review is something that’s hard to put a price on. It is work, make no mistake about it, and we make no money from it. even ARCs we get for free come ostensibly at a price and it can take a long time to establish oneself sturdily enough to be seen by publishers as a worthwhile investment to give ARCs to.

We have advertising on the site and offer ads to those who desire them at a cost, but it is nowhere near enough to match the investments we’ve paid into the site – the few adverts we have sold is not even enough to reach the payout amount. There are a great number of misconceptions surrounding online advertising, partially exacerbated by numerous news stories centred on the tiny minority of YouTube celebrities and bloggers who have made extreme fortunes due to their popularity. It’s highly rare to make the kind of money someone like PewDiePie makes. Even online favourites like the Channel Awesome crew are turning to sites like Patreon to plug the gaps left by falling revenues.

A lot of these problems will be ones authors have encountered, ones with far busier sites than ours (we are in the uneven middle ground of being popular enough to require hosting upgrades yet not enough to bolster them with ad revenue). Authors need an online presence to establish themselves and their brand, but the key difference is that it’s a money making venture for them. For us, it’s more like a money spending one.

More than a few bloggers have left the community due to these mounting costs. Couple the increasing price of basics with the decreasing profits from advertising and it looks like a grim prospect. We discussed how art shouldn’t be limited to those who can independently afford to do it, and we feel the same way about blogging and criticism.

We feel that it’s important to discuss the cold, hard economics of this topic because what we do is often devalued. Very few individuals enter this field solely for profit (they’d be naïve at best to do so). This is a hobby but it’s also a key part of the publishing ecosystem and one we’re happy to be part of.

Amongst the discussions of Stacey Jay’s Kickstarter were a number of disappointing straw-men arguments that depicted bloggers as entitled harpies who do nothing but claw at free stuff while rejoicing at the exploitation of low paid authors. Our efforts were seen as inconsequential compared to the work of authors because we aren’t paid for it, and our criticisms as proof that we see no value in authors’ work. Of course this is untrue, yet it highlights a growing gap that needs to be acknowledged.

The Starving Artist trope is not without merit, particularly as profits fall at a staggering pace, even for established names, but while it’s an unnecessarily romanticised notion by some, it’s not a model any of us wish to worsen. We value writers. We support culture and the arts. We support being paid for the work that you do. None of the criticisms of that particular Kickstarter are an entitled demand for your output to be given to us free of charge.

The problems with this costly system are clear to all, yet solutions to them are not so forthcoming. We contemplated including a donate button on our site or setting up a Patreon account to help with such costs and ultimately said no for now. It’s hard to ask for money. Our society has been taught to loathe people who dare to ask for a helping hand, even if such a thing means life or death. We’re not in such a desperate circumstance, it should be said, yet it’s still incredibly difficult to work up the nerve to stand up and say “We need help, we need this weight off our shoulders”. We admire Jay for working up the guts to do it with her plan, even though we had concerns with the business plan itself among other things. A lot of readers are passionate about supporting the authors they love but are a little more hesitant about doing so with bloggers, and we understand why. This field we’re in is not seen as legitimate enough to warrant such a support system.

Our hope is that our honesty does not discourage bloggers from continuing to participate in this community and that everyone understands the economics of this system a little better. The cold hard realities of this hobby we love so dearly are tough to swallow and open up a lot of questions about the value we place on unpaid labour. This is an issue that applies to work outside of blogging, of course, and one that becomes all the more relevant with the rise of zero hours contracts, part-time work and falling wages. This is not an authors versus bloggers situation. This is one we can work together against and support one another in, and equally one we can offer succinct and passionate criticisms of. Taking on the system is not taking down the person. We inhabit an entirely wasteful and unfair capitalist system and sadly we have no choice but to participate in it to survive. What we can do is find new ways to make it fairer and more viable. It’s the least we can do.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Ceilidh,
    I think this is important inside information on book blogging economics for the reading community.

    I’m a new author with three books out. With every release I have gone to my genre bloggers with ARCs and guest posts. I’ve been overwhelmed with their generosity, professionalism, and absolute welcome to me and my stories. I’m very grateful for my book blogging peers, who not only read my stories, but then take the time to share their assessment (good or bad) with their followers. There is no way I could reach their readers on my own. I know it and appreciate it very much. I always communicate my sincere thanks for their effort.

    Blogging is a valuable service to the reading community, especially in light of the glut of material available. In my opinion, the role of bloggers will become more and more important in the future. A choice-overwhelmed reader can find a blogger who jives with their taste and avoid a lot of DNF moments. Win-win. Except, as you rightly point out, the win on the bloggers side is mostly pleasure, and not financial gain, except w huge sites. I agree with you that this fact might not be well know to most non-bloggers.

    My observation with my fiction writing peers, is that the financial end for them, (at least those starting out) is also negligible. This is true with any business and I think most accept the outlay as start up costs. It takes about $2,000 to bring a well crafted book to market. I know a lot of writers do it for free, but for those that take the extra steps for editors, cover art and copy proofs–you really do spend that much per book. For most, this outlay will not pay off for many years until they have built a readership and produced many (like 20) books. It takes a long time to craft 20 stories, for some 5-10 years!

    This is important information too. Why? Because the financial stresses that both groups of writers (bloggers and storytellers) are facing are the same! We’re symbiotic partners facing similar challenges. We love the same things and have similar passions. I’ve an outside job to support my passion. You’ve an outside job to support yours. We both love good stories!

    Blogger authors and storytelling authors should be on the same team, not at odds with each other.

    That is not to dismiss the recent atrocious behavior of a small group of authors. I’ve cringed many times in 2014 over the numerous author meltdowns. So much so I’ve put together “don’t do this” case material on 6 meltdowns for an author class. I’m not defending badly behaving authors. But, I do want to speak up for the 98% of us who go about our online and story crafting business respectfully and love our blogger peers.

    Whether an individual author should or should not have started a Kickstarter campaign, is a legitimate topic of debate in the community. More important however, is the discussion about why it might be necessary, ie the financial constraints we are all facing.

    While I have my hand raised, I hate to see the trend for every single topic of conversation in our community dissolving into author story tellers vs author bloggers. I really like what Dear Author said recently on her blog about believing the best of intentions of each other. It is easy to jump right back into the record groove of the last contentious topic. It is harder to stop, reset, and clear to a tabula rasa.

    Here’s to 2015, the 98% of us (all of us), and being able to do what we love!

    • While a lot of initial costs for authors and bloggers – such as web hosting, domain names etc. – are the same, there is something that divides them. For authors those things are spent in the hopes of increasing visibility and thus sales. For bloggers there is no “I will make money off this” in the distance.

      If the increase in visitor numbers which forced a plan upgrade that Bibliodaze had early on was for an author site it would hopefully mean a corresponding increase in the number of books being sold. Money would be flowing back to the author. For a blogger an increase in popularity would mean an increase in expenses – money flowing away from the blogger, while their hobby (and success/respectability) should hopefully increase the visibility (and thus profits) for the authors featured.

      (I hope all of that makes sense!)

  2. This is so true. I’ve just bought my domain name and while I’m probably not techy enough to try and use plug-ins or my own CSS/PHP, I know from another friend of mine just how expensive running a site is, especially if you’re not on WordPress and have to do everything from scratch. (Like actually buying the Macromedia and Adobe software suites and teaching yourself how to use them.) x_x

    • I think that’s something I touched on with a few comments I added into Ceilidhann’s post. We get to save money because I have qualifications in web development and graphic design. How did I get those? A few thousand dollars added to my student loan, of course.

  3. THANK YOU for this post. I’m not a big blogger (and doubt I ever will be), but I’ve been book blogging and reviewing for 3+ years. It’s discouraging, sometimes, that book bloggers get labeled as the bad guy for getting “free” books. Or that we’re bad guys for expressing an opinion contrary to an author’s or publisher’s. I’m kind of generalizing here, but you get the point.

    I’m just happy this post points out the expenses and time a book blogger puts in, and how it doesn’t really bring anything financial back.

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