Blog Insider: So, How Do People Make Money From Blogging? [$2 Challenge]

by Latoya Peterson

Blog Insider is a short series designed to illuminate the challenges and opportunities around working in new and legacy media. It’s open reading to all, but will be particularly useful for those trying to make a living in the media world. – LDP

Short answer: They don’t.

Often, when I am traveling or speaking, I get asked a lot of questions about Racialicious. The most common is, “so the blog’s your full time job?” (Answer: nope, not even close.)

The second most common is, “How much money do you make from ads?” (Answer: zero – no ads on site.)

That’s when people tend to get a bit confused. How do these people that I see with big bylines, or published, or featured places, still complain about being so broke?

Darren Rouse, of Problogger fame, does a semi-frequent survey that asks people how much they make from blogging. Here is the 2007 survey:

Most folks don’t make much at all.

For most, that’s fine – a lot of people blog as an outlet. Blogging to express yourself, to stoke your creative juices, to finally finish a novel (or in my case, to finally finish an academic paper) are all great uses of time. However, some people eventually want to make the transition between blogging for fun or for themselves and making a living at it.

The most common way to monetize your blog or site is through ads. I’ll talk a bit more about the limitations of this model in another post, but think of it this way: ads require a lot of traffic and growth to make it worthwhile. If you a running a blog that is outside of popular norms, is superniche, or is controversial, ad revenue can be helpful, but won’t be enough to live on. Especially if you have a group blog. Outside of straight monetization through ads, there is another way – your blog as your platform for exposure.

That is how Carmen and I worked it. As Racialicious grew, we were exposed to more people, and able to identify ways to make some money on the side. For Carmen, the increased exposure from Racialicious led to media appearances, which led to speaking engagements, consulting work, and her experiments with monetizing the blog experience, most notably with Addicted to Race Premium and The Racialicious Experience.

For me, Racialicious was a platform to achieve what I didn’t think was possible – to become a working writer. (If there’s interest in how to become a freelancer, I can write about that as well.) The first few editors to work with me knew me from Racialicious – from there things just grew and grew and grew, to the point where I stopped being a contractor for a while, and just freelanced. I also speak, but not as frequently as Carmen did.

Renina sent me an article about the Awl, noting that one of the biggest takeaways in the piece was that the site’s mantra wasn’t to make money at all costs, but just to make enough to eat. I noticed one of their best known posts was a screed on freelancing by Richard Morgan. In his piece, “Seven Years As a Freelance Writer, or How to Make Alphabet Soup” he lays out the harsh realities of the business:

Editors like to talk about how much they need freelancers and how much they envy our freedom and our work ethic and our Rolodex. Whenever a friend loses his staff job at a magazine or newspaper, his ensuing panic reminds me that they put all their eggs in one basket and that I am cushioned because I have my eggs spread across so many baskets (which is a different kind of panic). Freelancing has great rewards, but trajectory is not really one of them. You do not go from being a freelance writer to a freelance editor to a freelance deputy managing editor. Essentially, I’m doing the same thing I was doing in 2003. The market for my vaudevillian sales of wonder tonic can dry up at any moment. An editor leaves. A magazine folds. And poof! Gone. [...]

Freelancing is pitching two ideas to a new editor at the Times, after having written for the publication for five years, and being told (quoting exactly here): “I think you’d have better luck pitching your stories elsewhere.”

It’s paying your own way to Boston after securing an interview with a famous, millionaire recluse, only to have the story live in limbo until the day you read the latest issue of the publication and see, oh!, they have a feature about the very phenomenon you were writing about-which means that your editor hadn’t mentioned your story to anybody.

Freelancing means walking from the West Village to the Upper East Side and back because you don’t have enough money for the subway. Freelancing means being so poor and so hungry for so long that you “eat” a bowl of soup that’s just hot water, crushed-up multivitamins and half your spice rack (mostly garlic salt).

Freelancing is being woken up on a Monday at 8 a.m. by an editor who gives you the following assignment: “Put together everything interesting about all the city’s airports by Friday,” doing it, and then not getting credit when it runs… as an infographic. [...]

Freelancing means having to chase down checks every time, even when that means waiting two years for $1000. It means having stories killed and being told that the editor-in-chief gave no reason, but that the same editor would love to work with you some more.

I laughed, bitterly and out loud, because I can relate.

Or, to put it another way, I have an amazingly talented friend who could definitely be one of the great writers of our time. Seriously. And he dreams of being a writer, of leaving his somewhat cushy but unfulfilled desk job and striking out into the world. But then, he always asks me how I’m doing and what I’m working on, and decides against it. And here’s what he says: “I couldn’t hustle as hard as Latoya.”

It’s rough to be someone else’s cautionary tale, y’all. But that’s pretty much what it takes to “make it” independently. Lots of work, lots of disappointment. But it is possible.

Still, creating outside opportunities for funds poses some major problems, particularly when running a group blog. In 2008, 5 out of 8 Racialicious correspondents were struggling, out of work, or laid off. (I was one of the five.) And we couldn’t support them. No money coming in. In addition to that, a lot of being able to make money from a blog revolves around your personal equity. When Carmen left the business, she tried passing along her remaining speaking engagements to me and Thea. But a lot of places knew Carmen, not us, so they canceled many of those engagements. It’s difficult to run a group blog when one person is the “face” of the brand – I carved out a different type of niche for myself, but again, these kinds of activities wouldn’t be something I could just pass along to Arturo if need be. Making sure that everyone gets a piece of the pie is a struggle without direct monetization. And while there are a few avenues for revenue we haven’t tried yet, the overall model is dependent on a lot of things working in tandem, or a huge infusion of capital upfront. So there is this constant struggle with maintaining what we have built, and expanding on it, which I’ll talk about in other posts.

In sum, writing/blogging for a living is exactly as Choire Sicha says:

Sure, I went broke trying to start it, it trashed my life and I work all the time, but other than that, it wasn’t that hard to figure out.

Previously: Introducing: Blogging Insider [$2 Challenge]

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