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October 2, 2011

What's the point of being a sell-out if you're not getting paid?

I have never, ever blogged for free. Well, except for the times I did, here and elsewhere, but it’s different, and I will tell you why. But first, I want to underline how much I appreciated Russell Smith’s column last week about his bafflement with young writers who have no qualms with slinging words for nothing. Writers, I suppose, like me, who’ve spent the last decade slapping my life up online: “Ever since they were teenagers, they had clever thoughts, they posted them online, people reacted immediately… They can get famous fast this way, and it’s gratifying to have a huge audience.” (Or a tiny audience, or any audience at all. Hi Mom!)

I appreciated Smith’s article because it’s good to have occasion to step back and question the absurdities of one’s own life. And also because I think he’s right, in particular in the case of online magazines like the Huffington Post, “the cash-cow possession of a giant media conglomerate. There is no question that the HuffPo can afford to pay, and pay well.” And I’m sure he’s right, because when I blogged for the literary journal Descant from 2007-2009, they could afford to pay me.  Not a whole lot, no, but no one pays me a whole lot for anything I do. But no one who pays me has a whole lot either, and I have even less, so it actually comes to be not insubstantial in the end. (And isn’t that the great thing about living on little– it doesn’t take much to make you feel rich.)

Anyway, my experiences have actually been the fulfilment of what Smith so scathingly rebukes. Though I promise you that I’ve never given a thought to my “brand” (because such a thought, I think, would undermine the fact that I’m a person), much of my writing career has come about as an extension of the work I’ve done for free. Indeed, it’s paid off pretty well. (I used to have this theory that perhaps I’d done okay because I was a person instead of a brand, but then I discovered there exists this wildly popular circuit of bloggers who do nothing but go to parties and wear ridiculous shoes, and realized that beating hearts, in fact, count for little.)

But I am sure that I have had some success as a blogging writer precisely because success as never been my primary objective. (This is going to be a discussion we return to many times in my blogging course, which starts on Tuesday. [I realize now this looks like product placement. It isn’t. I’m just excited, and have blogs on my mind].) When I stared blogging, no one did it to attain anything, except maybe a weird boyfriend on the other side of the country who looked like a hobbit. I’ve blogged for so long because I like the platform, yes, but mostly my blog has been useful to me in all manner of ways beyond that– my blog is a record, an infinitely valuable catalogue of memories, it has made me into a better writer and a better reader, it has allowed me to tap into communities of readers and writers who’ve become my friends (some in my neighbourhood, even!), it has allowed me to write rambling pieces (ie this one) that develop my ideas and has clarified my world, and it’s also a fine way to keep in touch with friends and family near and far. If no one was reading my blog, I would still be doing it.

But of course it’s a minefield, trying to answer these questions of why do we blog exactly. A less nice way to phrase what I wrote in the preceding paragraph is that blogging is inherently self-indulgent. Of course, I like getting positive attention. But I really do like to think that I’m serving the books I read, the authors who wrote them, and their readers. For me, it always come back to the Virginia Woolf quote: “The standards we raise and the judgements we pass steal into the air and become part of the atmosphere which writers breathe as they work.”

Last week, I read another article about blogging, this one about women bloggers who wield enormous influence, and are paid in consumer goods by companies who are hungry for some online attention. These women appear to be more frustrated with the system than Russell Smith’s bloggers, but it’s remarkable to me how much these women are corporate slaves as much as the HuffPo bloggers are, how much blogging has come to have everything to do with furthering corporate interests and making people spend more money on shit. It seems remarkable how many bloggers are compromising their integrity to be courted by corporations who really don’t seem to make the best suitors– I mean, what’s the point of being a sell-out if you’re not getting paid?

This isn’t blogging as I’ve come to know it. These women are doing it wrong.

And yet. I mean, I’ve got my own corporate relationships here. For years, publishers have been sending me books for review, and this has been something it has been tough for me to negotiate. Initially, I was pretty bad at it. Initially, I thought these publicists were doing me a favour, and this is probably reflected in a review or two in which I went a little too easy. I didn’t understand that our relationships were actually reciprocal, and I’ve slowly figured it out, I think. That I’ve got to keep buying books in order to exercise my power as a consumer and my independence as a reader, and that I’m allowed to criticize the books that come my way, and that I deserve to be taken seriously as a reader and reviewer (but I’m not to be an asshole about it. I’m a blogger after all. I get that too.). I claim the right not read certain books, and to stake out my territory as a reader– it amazes me to see bloggers reading totally out of their comfort zones because a publicist “was kind enough” to send a book that didn’t suit them. I guarantee you the publicist was less kind than kind of lazy.

But I also appreciate the publicists who do take the time to highlight books that are up my alley, and who care about good books as much as I do.  I like to think there is an important distinction between books and the vast amount of unnecessary crap that mothering blogs, or gadget blogs, and the advertisements accompanying both are always trying to convince you that you need. The difference is that books aren’t stuff, they’re culture, and when book bloggers are doing their jobs right, that culture is enriched.

9 thoughts on “What's the point of being a sell-out if you're not getting paid?”

  1. Clare says:

    “When I started blogging, no one did it to attain anything, except maybe a weird boyfriend on the other side of the country who looked like a hobbit.”

    This is a great line!

  2. Panic says:

    it amazes me to see bloggers reading totally out of their comfort zones because a publicist “was kind enough” to send a book that didn’t suit them
    Ha! Well, in my case, when I used those words — “kindly sent me a review copy” — it’s because I’d raked someone totally over the coals, and I thought in the interest of all things fair and good, I should really read what else that person had going on. He didn’t have to send that, he could have anonymously pissed all over the comments section. It was a bit of a risk on his part, really! Anyway…

    Further thoughts:
    I blog because I really like writing, but I’m not at a level where I would be paid for it. My blog is my practice field. I think that’s why I feel so bad when I abandon it, or don’t update enough. I don’t think I have some rapt audience, or something, but that I have a duty to myself to try and get better. For me.

    As far as books from publishers, I get emails from the publicists, but I only ever ask for books I think I’ll read. ie I’m interested for some intangible reason (though the notion of comfort zone in reading is all but negligible: I read pretty much everything). I find it a bit unseemly when people take things just because they’re free (this was expressed in its worst form on the BEC floor every year).

    1. Kerry says:

      No, no, Panic– that review made sense in context. I wasn’t talking about you at all. I’m bascially talking about the number of times people try to send me YA Fantasy novels… And I think our blogs ARE practice fields. Blogs are inherently works in progress. I think of mine the same way. But I think it’s unethical for companies to profit from the work of bloggers who aren’t making money at all. As in, I will blog for me for free, but I’d like to be compensated if I’m going to do it for you.

  3. Panic says:

    I wasn’t talking about you at all. I know, it’s why I laughed.

  4. steph says:

    Great post.

    At the same time as I agree with so much of it, I’m a little confused. It’s making me sincerely question, Am I doing something wrong with my blog? Am I blogging stuff I should be getting paid for? I still think of myself as getting paid in free books, which of course saves me quite a bit of money. Am I one of THOSE women, then? Seriously, I’m not sure! I don’t consider myself a sell-out; no matter what, I read what interests me and I blog what I think, not what is going to make people happy, but still. Am I selling out in terms of not getting paid for the (with any luck good-quality) reviews I produce?

    I would love to be paid to review, but I’m not sure that will happen, or I don’t know how to make it happen. I’ve never submitted my reviews anywhere, not yet (I haven’t written many essays to speak of), mainly because I always feel as though they’re a moot point by the time I write them.

    This has really got me thinking. Again, great post.

    Boy, I wish I was in TO. I’d take your course.

  5. melanie says:

    I used to have marketers contact me about pushing their goods on my blog but I just can’t do it. I did agree to one thing once (a store opening) because they were so insistent AND they called me one of the hippest blogs in Calgary – which, really? When they first contacted me I sent them to a couple other blogs that actually are hip and culture oriented and told them that they would be better off there. I also told them that I had a very small child (only one at the time) and couldn’t even commit to brushing my teeth every day so chances weren’t good that I would get around to reviewing anything on my blog (and I didn’t but I did get some free boots out of the deal that are mostly too nice to wear). I’m not interested in blogs that are selling things since I believe we all own too much stuff anyway. For a while I was getting books sent to me to review but they were always the wrong sort of book and so I cancelled all books and don’t really want to be a book blogger anyway… which doesn’t make sense considering I just started up my book blog again. Of course, I don’t really want to be a mommy blogger either but I’m going to go write a post about breastfeeding now so obviously I am crazy and don’t know what I want.

  6. Carrie says:

    Great blog, Kerry. I really enjoyed it. Wish I’d read Russell Smith’s piece in the Globe, too, to hear his arguments.

    I have nothing but good things to say about my own blogging experiences. I’ve figured out my boundaries as I’ve gone along, and if something doesn’t feel quite right at a gut level, I’ve pulled the occasional post.

    You’re probably writing a blog for the same reason I am: because you really love to write. It does give access to an audience (no matter how big or small), and an audience gives feedback, which can be helpful, not to mention heartening, given that traditional publishing is an extremely slow process that requires vats of patience and self-sufficiency to negotiate.

    I am absolutely positive that the blog has made me a better writer. And I don’t think it has undermined the other writing that I do–the long-term commitment to fiction. Blogging doesn’t require the same focus or intensity to create, and it’s more like a place to play and to explore. I used to be a journal-writer. Now I’m a blogger. And of course, on my own blog, that does mean being an unpaid blogger.

    But I should add that I categorically DO NOT blog for other media outlets without payment (and not payment in freebies). I consider those blogs to be commissions, just like a newspaper or magazine article, and I expect to be paid for my time and my work.

    I hope you’ll post occasionally about your course! I’d love to eavesdrop on the conversation.

  7. As I wrote in various social places online, I think Smith and his contemporaries must have selective memories if they really have no recollection at all of writing for little or nothing at the beginning of their careers.

    I don’t consider myself much of a blogger, but attribute much of the initial success of the Imagining Toronto project to unpaid writing I did for a now-defunct (and non-monetized) city blog. Those posts, which were where I tried out many of the ideas that later ended up in the Imagining Toronto book, led to speaking engagements, paid publishing opportunities and … my publisher, who’d been reading the bits and pieces of my work available online, got in touch and asked me to write a book for his press.

    I agree there’s value in the kind of unpaid ‘apprentice’ level work many of us (and most of Smith’s contemporaries) do at the beginning of our careers. But the difference , I suppose, is that we wrote for folks/places who weren’t making money from our work either. The Huffington Post is a different matter entirely, and it’s my guess that many of its unpaid writers are going to feel bitter about the experience down the road — unless they (as so many hope) manage to grab the brass ring of a paid media position elsewhere.

  8. Excellent, well-written post, Kerry. I, too, love blogging, and do it because I love it and I love to write. I enjoy finding another soul who would blog even if nobody was reading it. 🙂

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