Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Blogging for Soup

Over at the blog My Three Sons, Daddio has raised some interesting questions about what he calls "blog begging." Excerpt:
Okay y'all, I may be stepping on something delicate here, but I've got to ask. I mean this in the nicest possible way, but why are people always begging for money on their blogs? I don't know why this bothers me, but I always get a little annoyed when I see those things, kinda like the never-ending PBS fundraisers. "You're enjoying our programming, now don't you feel guilty???" Ummm.. not really. Run a commercial. Or go off the air. I could care less. [...]

And it's not just those serious circumstances. Why are certain bloggers always asking for free books or other stuff on Amazon? Or soliciting donations for ordinary living expenses, or sometimes for literally no reason at all? Are we supposed to feel guilty for reading and not paying? If you want to be a writer, write a book. Sell articles to magazines. Put more ads on your blog. Or, if you really think you're good, sell subscriptions to your own website. Here's a hint: if people won't pay for it, you're probably not that good at it.

I'm sorry to be harsh, but couldn't they just spend less time blogging and get a real job if they are that hard up? I know you really really want to be a successful writer, or an entrepreneur with a home-based business, and only do what you love and only work for yourself. So would all the rest of us! But I, for one, will continue working for The Man, because it pays well and has good benefits.
Now, I was just going to leave a lengthy comment over at My Three Sons, but as I thought about it, I thought there might be a lot of people with similar thoughts or questions; anyway, I have trouble being brief enough for the average combox (no, really? you gasp). I think there's some general misunderstanding about Catholic bloggers, donation drives, writers' pay, and the like that perhaps I can help clear up.

So here are my thoughts, in no particular order:

1. Many Catholic bloggers are employed directly by the Church, or by various Catholic ministries, by Catholic non-profits, and the like. I don't think that any of us would want to see a situation wherein nobody but single people fresh out of college could "afford" to work in such positions, but at the same time we ought to recognize that these sorts of jobs are not glamorous careers with high compensation and terrific benefits. Especially in today's world, where the expectation is that a family will have two incomes and costs reflect that expectation, it's pretty hard for a man working as a parish DRE to make enough money for his growing homeschooling family's needs. If he manages to run a popular blog in his spare time, and people are willing to contribute to it to help make it possible for him to keep blogging, why not give them the opportunity?

2. Many Catholic bloggers are former Protestants who were employed in some way in their own churches before hearing and answering a call from God to turn to the Catholic Church and encounter His Real Presence in the Eucharist. A former Protestant minister may sometimes be able to become a Catholic priest, receiving special permission to do so if he is married and has a family; but the vast majority of former Protestant ministers, teachers, preachers, writers, speakers etc. who once earned decent livings in these fields may find themselves facing not only the ordinary ramifications of a conversion to Rome (e.g., family disappointment, pressure from friends etc.) but also the very real loss of their ordinary source of income. And though they may (and do) find other ways to earn a living, the chances are good that there will be a huge difference between what they earned before and what they can earn now. Imagine, for a moment, being a graduate of a school of theology, having a degree that is geared toward a life of ministry in a Protestant church or setting--and then becoming Catholic, and finding those jobs not only scarce but filled quickly by all the well-known long-time Catholic writers, teachers, speakers, non-profit managers, etc. out there. Your skill set, in other words, isn't in demand in your new faith home, but those corporations out there (that is, "The Man") are generally going to be dismissive of the resume of a person in the middle forties whose previous experience was all in church and non-profit work.

3. It is easy to tell someone that if they want to be a writer they should write a book (or write articles etc.) Most of those Catholic bloggers out there who do have a PayPal button on their blogs already are writers; they write copious articles, they have written books. Guess what? Writing for the Catholic market is a one-way ticket to starvation, unless you have some other source of income--but as writers know, a full-time job is usually a death-knell to any hopes of a writing career. I did the least amount of writing in my life when I worked in a corporate office; the mental tiredness at the end of a day of petty corporate tasks doesn't always provide the most fertile environment for wit and imagination to flourish. This is especially true for writers of non-fiction; a J.K. Rowling may be able to scratch enough Harry Potter ideas out on napkins during her job as a waitress to make an eventual go of it, but it's a little hard to research what third-century Church Fathers had to say about the Holy Spirit in between taking orders or waiting on customers.

There are two realities here that most of those who don't write for publication aren't necessarily aware of. The first is that while freelance work is out there, it doesn't pay especially well (from the standpoint of earning a living, that is). If I add up all the money I earned in freelance work last year, for instance, I might be able to pay for two weeks' worth of groceries--if the company who owes me the money eventually gets around to paying me for the work, which they have not done as of yet (which is the known, and most often encountered, bane of a freelancer's existence). Granted, with Mr. M.'s full-time employment I can afford to be patient--but not every freelance writer is in the same boat, and some of them, who work a lot harder than I do to submit articles of every kind to every publication imaginable while also maintaining lively blogs and working on books and other projects, are depending on those checks just to pay the ordinary bills. Any delay in payment means that you might have to postpone such luxuries as a trip to the dentist or a new pair of shoes for the child who has outgrown his old ones. True, the freelance Catholic writer could just stop writing and start working at Wal-Mart instead on the grounds that at least the checks will show up on time--but I think we'd all be a lot poorer without some of these people's thoughts and ideas helping to inform Catholic discourse.

The second reality, specific to Catholic writing, is this, and it's a shameful one: Catholics don't pay for Catholic media. Compared to the general Christian writing market, Catholic writers have little hope of selling more than a relative handful of copies of a book that may have taken them hundreds of hours to research and write. Few parishes have any kind of budget to buy and maintain good Catholic materials in a sort of parish library; few of those who attend Mass weekly ever purchase a single Catholic book or subscribe to a Catholic magazine or paper (aside from diocesan papers which are often sent to every registered parish family in a diocese), and few Catholic publishers will consider publishing a manuscript from a Catholic writer who has not already managed to establish himself or herself as some kind of noted Catholic personality without their help--because the Catholic publishers have almost no budget to promote a new writer, and know they might have some chance of selling an author's book if the author is someone the public already knows.

So with those two realities in mind, a Catholic writer almost can't afford not to write a blog. But the time he or she spends on blogging is time that can't be put towards paid writing, either, leaving the blogger in the position of needing to spend time on a public, visible activity which is wholly uncompensated.

If we really don't want Catholic writers to have to beg for money on their blogs, we could support them by buying their books. Many of us spend tons of money on various forms of expensive media entertainment, but how often do we think we need a good spiritual book to read, or a reflection on the Gospels, or some work encouraging us to persist in our vocations with humility and charity? If some Catholic writers have to put up a PayPal button in order to keep writing such good books, in a country with 60 million Catholics, 42% of whom attend Mass weekly, then doesn't this say something about us all?


Daddio said...

Okay, 60MM Catholics, and we should each spend, what $100 a year? A little more? Let's say the total market value of Catholic media is $10 billion. By my estimation, that's about $20 per wannabe blogger.


I'm going to stop now (and attend to my day job) before I get in any more trouble.

Daddio said...

Okay, I can't stop yet. Your comment that "Catholics don't pay for Catholic media" is interesting. Why is the Protestant market so much bigger? Maybe the difference is that Protestants thrive on novelty and emotionalism. They "consume" at a much higher rate. Every Protestant has a "new" idea. But saints only need a few items to last them a lifetime: rosary, catechsim, a statue or two... a bible is recommended but optional (the missalette in the pew is free). ;)

I think that those converts you mentioned are banging their heads against the wall trying to convince Catholics to consume their novelties in the Protestant fashion. By the way, I love those guys. I'm helping to host Tim Staples at our parish in a couple weeks. I go to the talks and events that are nearby. I buy an occasional book. I borrow the CD's from my friends when they're done with them... oops. What can I say, the Catholic way is to live our lives. The hard thinking has mostly been done for us. A few like to study and read and, well, blog about it. But most of them trust the Church to hand it down in the homilies, and focus on our normal lives.

Ellyn said...

You raise some very good points...

"'s a little hard to research what third-century Church Fathers had to say about the Holy Spirit in between taking orders or waiting on customers."

Or while answering phones in a rectory office! :)

Red Cardigan said...

Daddio, all due respect, but I think what frustrates some (perhaps not all) aspiring Catholic non-fiction writers is precisely that attitude: We have the Mass, the rosary, the Church, the writings of Church fathers and saints, so we don't really need anything else.

I understand that too much focus on modernity isn't always a good thing; Christ is the same throughout the ages. However, there are so many issues, problems, and challenges we face at this particular time in twenty-first century America as Catholics that I think we benefit from having talented writers consider some of these issues in the light of Church teaching, weighing carefully the thoughts of saints and Doctors of the Church and bringing their wisdom to bear on the challenges of our age.

Here are just a few of the topics I think Catholic writers can explore for us:

frozen embryo adoption
end-of-life care
gay marriage
the purpose and meaning of traditional marriage
vocations, and how to discern them especially given the competing voices of the culture
how Catholics ought to respond to certain cultural phenomena (e.g., the books written about the Da Vinci Code book and movie)
child-rearing, with a look at some of the damaging influences of our culture today
covetousness, and its role in the economic collapse we face
the Catholic response to a culture of greed (why "coveting our neighbor's goods," or determining to have all the latest, greatest, and best things in the world may be a sinful attitude)
avoiding despair in a time of job loss or other economic hardship
the evils of materialism
biographies of twentieth-century saints, some of which have yet to be written at all
Catholics and the New Media: what the pope's recent words mean for us all

...and that's just for starters.

Could the average parish priest do justice to all of these topics in addition to the ordinary exploration of Gospel principles and a focus on the liturgical seasons in the course of a year or two's worth of homilies? Any priests who may read this blog are welcome to weigh in here, but my guess is that it's not even remotely possible for them to tackle all of this in the ten minutes or so of our listening attention they have every week at Mass (and if you attend daily Mass, you can add another ten to fifteen minutes for the whole week, as daily Mass homilies are usually quite short).

A final thought: not all Catholic bloggers are trying to make a living as writers, and quite a few of us don't have, and don't plan to have, a PayPal button. The few who do usually are people whose writings have already helped people a great deal; I can't imagine what price Our Lord puts on a book that makes someone write to the author, "You changed my life; I am now a Catholic (or have returned to the practice of the Faith)." Some of these writers receive letters like this on a regular basis, and I find it sad that they could be told, in a sense, "Quit this silly nonsense and go get a Real Corporate Job like the rest of us instead of putting up a PayPal button on your blog." God calls us all to different ways of life, but there's no default mode that says that a certain salary and benefit level is the best way to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

Rebecca said...

I agree Red...although I must admit that besides buying hardcopies from Ignatius or Sophia, I think the only thing I've done in this direction is to Paypal a blogger fifty bucks once in a fit of compassion...but for the comment from Daddio, Daddio, have you read St. Augustine's comment that "ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ"? Or do you remember St. Paul's admonition to be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in you (or was that St. Peter)? I wouldn't describe the Bible as "optional", unless you have such a super-good memory that you've learned it by heart just by listening to the Mass readings. Anyone I know who aspires to be a saint aspires to know Scripture better, and because they aspire to know Scripture better, they aspire to apply it to their lives in this current world, and that's how both the writings of the Fathers and Saints as well as more current writers can be of great help.

Daddio said...

I didn't say it was silly nonsense. I do see your point there. I agree there is a LOT of material to cover and we should do more than show up at mass once a week and expect to be well-educated, well-rounded Catholics. I don't know why Catholics don't feel compelled to consume more books, magazines, music, etc. Why is Catholic radio only on AM in major markets, and constantly fundraising?

But these bloggers... the internet has inspired everyone (myself included) to share our profound insights with the whole world, and not a few seem to think they should be able to make a living at it. Is it pride?

This verse popped into my head.
Matt. 10:8 "Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give."

Daddio said...

Rebecca, the little smiley face thingy signifies that was a joke. I do have a bible and I do read it often (for a Catholic).


Rebecca said...

Yeah but St. Francis and his bros begged for their bread, right? It wasn't "cost", it was asking for necessities. Was it hubris of them to think their prayers and works of mercy are valuable enough for people to be handing over good bread to them?

If someone's work seems to be making a real difference or has the potential to do so, we should be inclined to support that work however we can. If it's fluff, or not very universal/applicable, or not effective, then it shouldn't be funded.

MommaLlama said...

As a manager of a Catholic bookstore for several years, one of my tasks was to read the advance copies of books we would receive from the publishing houses, then make recommendations to our owner when we would have a sit down about what we were going to purchase for the store. Time and time again we were given books that were based on many of the subjects you've listed above in the combox... problem was we already had 10+ titles on those same topics already sitting on our shelves. So our task was to decide which title we already had would get bumped for the new one... or if we would just pass on that new title. And more times than not, if what we had sitting on the self was written by a Saint... that work stayed and the new one would be sent back until at some point it was on a best seller list at which point we might reconsider a small order.

What we have very few of because they are hard to come by (except in children) are good fiction works! If this area of writing could expand maybe Catholic bookstores whould have a better chance catching customers and turning a profit.

All this is to say, I can understand that it is hard out there on writers... but when you are choosing to do something (non-fiction) that is based on our faith, more than likely SEVERAL other people have already beaten you to it (many of whom are Saints/Popes)... the likely senerio is 'starvation' as you mentioned Erin. But I wonder if that is a consideration to those authors, at all, when they set out on a book project... I honestly don't really know what one does before starting a writing project on such a magnitude as using it to provide financially for ones family.

To follow Daddio's question on why don't Catholics buy more hard copy? Well, what we see in the store is that people come in only when they NEED something. For whatever reason customers rarely came in to browse our books in general... which isn't really what you see in the big non discript bookstores where people spend hours walking around with coffee in hand reading anything with an interesting cover. Our customers are topic driven, and in my observation rarely veared off topic during that purchase (unless I knew them quite well and would recommend something to them that I felt met their particular reading style or life circumstances... but I'm sure that is really only afforded to smaller family owned stores where we generally know most of our customers by name).

I guess what sits funny to me in this topic is why do some continue to do something fulltime if they are unable to provide for their family without asking for financial help? For me (and me alone) I would really have to re-evaluate those choices and if that was what the Lord was calling me to. My first priority is my family... and my marriage which is my vocation. My job (or husband's in our case) is simply the way in which we are able to fulfill our vocation... the job itself is not the vocation (and not always our favorite thing for that matter).

I am not a writer by trade so this may or may not have made any sense, or provided anything to the conversation... but I thought I would share.

Daddio said...

What she said.

And, Rebecca, those friars you mentioned were preaching and administering the sacraments, in real life to real people. They had a vocation.

In the interest of full disclosure, I worked as a missionary for two summers in college, so I know what it is to beg for money. And I appreciated my supporters. But I was going out to share the Word, in person.

I'm struggling to put it in words, but there is a real difference between mission work and blogging (even really great and inspiring blogging).

By the way, thank you for the engaging conversation, I really meant it when I asked for help in understanding this, and I hope I do not sound uncharitable.

Rebecca said...

No you don't sound uncharitable. I don't mind arguing. Oh, and sorry I didn't notice the smiley face. How embarrassing, to have gotten all righteously indignant about it! Forgive me, I'm a former Protestant. :)

St. Francis wasnt' administering the sacraments because he wasn't a priest. My point is just that it isn't a novelty to preach and beg, or to instruct and beg. I don't think it automatically indicates pride/vanity. I think usually the begging happens only after someone has really noticed that their preaching or instruction has for whatever reason been making a lot of difference for a lot of people. But I don't know.

Sally said...

I'm with Daddio on this to be truthful. I read many blogs, but not the same ones every day. I do believe that some bloggers get letters about how much there work meant to someone, but was that really just their blog? Or was it a book, article, or speech they gave?
As for what to do to keep body and soul together and still be able to write? May I suggest the usual gig--teaching. Our schools, public, private, charter, are really crying out for intellectually rigorous teachers. And surely anyone who was a pastor, youth minister, or other in a Protestant church would not find the requirements to be a teacher too difficult.
Certainly folks can put a paypal button on their blog, but until I find that like my local public radio station (all classical music), I read every day and would certainly miss that specific writer, than I won't be contributing.