On Breaking Even: Subsistence Blogging and other Loss Leaders

We have never been the kinds of people who live with a lot of debt. Of the two of us, I’m much the more frugal and anguish over money spent, especially when it has low direct-survival value.

Ann has helped me partially overcome my buyer’s guilt, and I factor personal satisfaction into the mix now at a much higher level than I once might have. (The gentrified and very high dollar deer-proof garden is one recent example where satisfaction won out over practicality and price.)

Now I have my own small economy to manage called Goose Creek Press and First Impressions Photography. That small purse of egg money comes from the work I do that isn’t from my “day job” (physical therapy.) It is a small pot indeed, but here too, I want to balance returns for effort while including personal enjoyment and creative expression in the credits column.

Here too, like many of my retired and nearly-retired age cohorts and friends, I wrestle with the devil of wasting time for little if any income against the angel of enjoying what I do with my time; I’m trying to come to a sustainable peace between the pleasure of the work and the pain of putting small and occasional numbers on a spreadsheet. Accountants are famous for crushing fragile Muses, you know.

And herein lies the issue at hand: I’m spending far more for The Biz than I’m bringing in so far this year: the Mac Pro and accessories; the Epson Printer, inks and papers; and now, a Roanoke conference (about which more this week.) In 2006 and 2007, I made enough from book sales to cover my meager expenses (the greatest of which was mileage).

This year, I’ve let Slow Road Home simmer (though there will be a few events this fall that might get books into readers’ hands and small coinage into mine.) And Book Two for various reasons is off the table for now–expense of production, then of travel to market being near the top of the list of reasons and/or excuses.

So look-it, said a friend. Your investments this year are seeds sown for next year and the next. The camera, computer, printer and meetings will bring back what you’ve spent and then some. Just give it some time, she said, and you’ll reap a crop of returns. And she’s probably right. The small things add up, too.

Even the blog is not entirely unprofitable beyond the (I hope) obvious enjoyment I find in sharing my photographs and daily rambles, even though I took Adsense crap off the blog more than a year ago after returns (nice and regular there for a while) fell off and the ugliness of the ads got under my skin. But here I need your feedback.

Ads do still appear–TextLink Ads–and at this point, they add to the egg money enough to pay the monthly DSL and have a bit left over for software tools or a pizza. Do you as readers notice them (on individual blog posts in the archive, not on the front page) and if so, do they detract from your enjoyment of reading the blog or do they seem to clash with the overall tone and voice of Fragments?

I’ve not done the kinds of things bloggers can do to get readership numbers higher (even though a higher visit count I imagine makes a blog more attractive for advertisers.) I don’t suppose I’ll start pimping for readers now. Build it, and they may or may not come.

But if it gives pleasure in the doing and maybe a bit of information and causes no harm, says the angel on my right shoulder, knock yourself out. Meanwhile, my accountant bites his fingernails, winces, and takes another blood pressure pill.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. This weekend Leroy Sievers who wrote the Blog for NPR called MY Cancer died. His blog is his life’s greatest work and gift to the world.

    When you go to that great country place in the sky Fred – your little business will be your memorial too

    It’s not that small really – it just doesn’t make you much money

  2. But it has made me rich–in writing opportunities, some little income stream through the newspaper columns; in visibility resulting in opportunities to meet Smithsonian and WaPo writers visiting Floyd; in lasting friendships that have sprung from local readings and writings; in service to community; and in blogger connections that seem like “real” relationships lasting years.

    I expect more of the unpaid payments ahead, and look forward to that kind of reward of blogging with great expectations. After all, I’ve never really given the accountant much attention except in April.

  3. Fred, don’t underestimate the true value of those non-cash returns on your investment. With that said, the ads aren’t all that much of an imposition on us, your readers.

    From looking at the sites of other bloggers, it seems that you have a choice in limiting some aspects affecting the quality of the ads allowed on your site. If you avoid distasteful ads and over-the-top animations (I hate those flashing ads that threaten to give the reader a seizure), I have no problem with you making a few bucks for the effort that goes into providing us with enjoyable reading.

    Sometimes the tried and true methods of drawing folks to your site are the best; search engine optimization and trading links with a variety of other sites come to mind immediately. It looks like you already avoid the ploy of creating controversy for it’s own sake in order to draw in more visitors. Those things tend to get nasty. I do enjoy your articles about environmental issues and they don’t seem to draw trolls out of the woodwork (probably because they aren’t “local” and they way you write them, they’re politically neutral).

    Good luck with everything– may your seeds grow into might oaks!

  4. Thanks for keeping the text link ads off the front page – they are such a huge affront to usability.

    I wish I had some wisdom for you, but I don’t, other than to say i know how this feels very well, and I suspect your photography may soon begin to yield very respectable financial returns.

  5. I find it very easy to ignore ads, no problem. I hope they give you some income.

    All my life I’ve worked at jobs almost guaranteed to keep me in poverty, farming, art, music, dog breeding, etc. While there are few monetary rewards, I feel I live in luxury because my time is spent in pursuits I love.

    Your contributions are many. Would you rather be remembered for your estate or for your words and photography? Follow your heart.

  6. Fred I recommend selling your photography to health care facilities. I’ve a friend who does very well at it. Apparently it as a huge volume business. He sells though interior design firms, some of which specialize in health care settings. Your work in health care may provide you with ready insight, motivation and interest in accessing this market. My friends blog:
    In his posts he has named designers you might want to contact. The post I’ve linked to features a conversation with a designer who happens to be his sister. Your digital images seem like they would perform very well in this market (not an insult!) If your printing framing and delivery come on line half as well I see rewards for you.

  7. I read your blog through my Google reader, and since the whole post comes through, I don’t actually click over to your blog except to leave a rare comment. I don’t see the ads!

  8. I would imagine that the creative drawback to selling to a hand full of designers is that you have no audience feed back. And god knows what the designer’s motives are for choosing to buy your work. The health care art industry seems to tie itself up in knots justifying their opinions on what it is that a patient wants in the way of art. A pretty sketchy and speculative field of study of the therapeutic benefits of art on a patient’s well being has sprung up, albeit based on the premise/prejudice that nature is best. Really, it’s a very dark business, business interests reaping great financial rewards by dictating taste, altogether shutting down any avenue for the artist to pursue quirky and unlikely interests. Forget I suggested it!

    The thing is, though, that there does seem to be many good people involved in this who simply care deeply about patients and are working to find a way to mitigate some of the anxieties that patients have during a dreadful time in a dreadful place. Compassion might be the ruling motivation. My fiend had always wanted to be an artist, but his spiritual teacher told him to become a doctor in order to help others. He’s now retired from that and very much hopes he’s helping others through his art. Certainly, though, he doesn’t mind that he is making more money than he ever did in a family practice in a rural area, and is having more fun.

  9. Fred: I mostly read you on the feed reader too and miss the ads that way. Though I think I’ve gotten quite adept at ignoring ads. This is not something advertisers want to hear, of course.

  10. I think of my blog as psychic income, for the enjoyment it brings me is far greater than monetary rewards would – if I allowed them.

    I ignore all ads seen anywhere on the computer.

  11. In my view of the world, there are two types of bloggers. A substantial number of people take up blogging for the sole purpose of making money, and most of them have very little to say. Thankfully the majority of these blogs have very short life expectancies, since readers are turned off by sites that focus on ads over content. The sites that do actually make money rely on pictures of celebrities who forgot their underpants, or they peddle bogus advice to other aspiring bloggers hoping to get rich.

    On the other hand, there are those people who have something to say, and they blog for the purpose of sharing their thoughts and receiving feedback from their audience. Within this group, there are a handful of writers whose work is actually worth reading, and with luck and perseverance they can rise above the masses and be recognized for their contributions. A few of these people are successful enough in attracting readers that they can eventually generate a small income, but these folks are the exception. While I believe that advertising is always a distraction from content, I am more likely to tolerate it if the content is truly exceptional.

    The reality is that it takes an enormous readership to make a living as a blogger.
    As much as I would love to be able to earn a living from my own site, I recognize that it’s never going to happen unless I can magically generate a thousand-fold increase in readership. Since that’s not likely to happen anytime soon, I can at least hope that through my interactions with readers, I might come across other opportunities to profit from my writing. I would rather reap the rewards of my blogging indirectly than rely on readers to click on Viagra ads.

  12. The Business Scorecard: How to measure business success by more than just the financial benchmark. I would say on a full score card basis (Cash Flow (-), Customer Satisfaction (+), Employee Satisfaction (+), Brand (+), and name your own key indicators) vis a vis your goals for these indicators, you are doing quite well.

  13. In this regard the world seems backwards: things of real value , good Art, Music, and Writing mostly go uncompensated, while flimsy toxic items from China are massively purchased. I would say that whatever income you can generate from ads or other means to support your blog is more than justified.