Fair Trade Writing – A Hope?

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There’s a conference I want to go to in April. I spent an hour dreaming-and-surfing about what it would take to get me there. Between flights, accommodation and the cost of the conference, I would be looking at around $1200. If I wanted to make my blog a little prettier and update its very-amateurish-composition, a web company would be happy to help me refresh my look with quotes starting at $1000.

That’s a lot of cash for a gal who makes no money from writing. Writing is partially a hobby, and mostly a ministry for me. I write for joy and in service, and for now – that is plenty of reward for a vocational mama. However, making zero money as a writer helps me pay for zero miles towards a writers conference. Website updates and conferences are things that business people get to do, not hobbyists.

This is exactly the problem: writing is treated by the world at large as a service and a hobby, rather than a professional skill. Tim Kreider’s excellent piece in the New York Times last week “Slaves of the Internet Unite” lamented the pitiful situation where even decades into a writing career, writers are still promised “exposure” rather than actual compensation. Many, if not most, online publications do not pay contributors at all; and those that do rarely pay well. “Artist dies of exposure”, he ruefully comments.

In her thought provoking piece, “Recognizing a wordsmith’s worth” in Think Christian, Caryn Rivadeneira appeals to Christians to consider our response to this trend. She writes “Christians need to ask if James’ words about the cries of the unpaid workers reaching God’s ears apply to writers.”

“A workman deserves his wages,” said Jesus (1 Timothy 5:18). And writing is work.

However, we live in the “I want it for nothing” age. Why pay for a newspaper when you can read online? Why pay for the movies when you can stream them online? And so why then pay writers when there are others willing to craft words for free?

Which leads me to a crazy thought: what if there was some kind of  “fair trade” stamp for online publications: something which indicated to readers that “this content was ethically sourced, and no writers were exploited or left malnourished as a result of producing these words?

fair trade writing


Consumers will do what consumers will do. There is an increasingly ethically-minded group of coffee consumers who don’t want their perfect cuppa joe to be brewed on a slaves’ back, and they will pay extra money for a bag of coffee labelled as being “fair trade” sourced. Maybe there are readers out there who would value (monetarily) a website which values (monetarily) their writers.

It’s a crazy idea. I’m just throwing it out there. If you like the idea, would you give it some exposure and share it? And if you don’t like it – well, you got what you paid for.

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24 thoughts on “Fair Trade Writing – A Hope?”

  1. This has ever been the conundrum of artists and writers…so I sympathize! One writer I subscribe to asks his daily subscribers to consider donating $5/month (or $50/year)–plus he has a special commentary project that is by (the promise of paying-) subscription only. He also solicits donations for specific purposes, so that he can attend conferences. Because I value his insights, I do not consider this excessive, nor his (well-written) requests tasteless. Another way that a couple of bloggers I know get paid is by soliciting (more) advertisers. But the paycheck depends on the number of “hits” you get–so ultimately “exposure” can pay off.

  2. I don’t know whether this is on topic or not, but . . .

    This reminded me of a talk I heard from painter/writer/totally-brilliant-guy Makato Fujimura. He said that when cultures began treating artists (whether writers, visual artists, etc.) as market commodities, then the entire culture suffers. But when these artists are treated with respect and supported financially, rightly appreciated both FOR their gift and AS a gift from God to the culture, then the culture flourishes and artists thrive.

    Like I said, I don’t know if that is totally on-topic with what you’re discussing; but it did feel relevant to me, so I thought I’d mention it!

    1. Laura, I think that’s totally on topic: writing (like painting, illustrating,playing a musical instrument) is an art and cultures ARE enriched by their presence. Thanks for commenting 🙂

    2. This is such a great comment! It made me think of something Karl Marx wrote (but I no longer remember exactly) along the same lines. Culture *needs* artists. We help incite a sense of wonder.

      Well, that’s what I think…but I’m a writer too.

  3. I think this is a tough topic. I have pitched articles for a magazine and written articles on request and published in peer reviewed academic journals and not been paid a cent/penny/dime. I have spent more than 60 hours (of my own time, no additional funding) working on an article to have it accepted and then rejected and none of my costs met. This is a very wierd situation but I accept though that this is how the world currently works. There is a movement in academic writing where people are trying to boycott the big scientific journals for the very sizable profits they make, while nothing goes to the authors, editors and reviewers. I do however think that there are forums where professional writers do make significant money from their writing when people consider it to be valuable. I think it is like acting or art, those who are very well regarded earn very significant sums of moneys (stars/ block buster authors), other make a living off it (regular job/ journalists) and others struggle despite significant talent. The internet gives far more people far more opportunities to be heard, and of course self-publishing exists. I am happy to pay a premuim for the books, magazines and films of those I really enjoy, assuming from their past performance that their current performance is going to be worth it. I think though that these are professions where you have to prove your worth and develop a reputation over time to be able to earn from it. think you are a very talented writer, who I really enjoy reading. However from my understanding blogs are not really the way to earn money from the writing (unless you use advertising)? What about going “professional”? Following the more traditional routes, submitting to magazines etc? Your reputation is certainly growing, you have had great recognition and acknowledgement.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Tam. I had not really been thinking about professionals like yourself and my DH, who write for academic journals, although you raise a good point. I suppose with my hubby, he considers that writing and publishing papers to be a corollary of his (paying, other) profession. I was thinking more of those who want to make a career out of writing itself, and who find that to find paid writing gigs are a little like finding hens’ teeth. I’m not in the category of needing compensation for writing, but am friends with an increasing circle of writers for whom this is a daily bread kind of issue.

  4. The problem lies in the difference between a professional and amateur writer. Most bloggers are amateurs. Even those who write well. They are a dime a dozen. And most bloggers write in their spare time and aren’t being ethically exploited or trying to support their families – unlike the coffee bean pickers, for example. Unfortunately, but more fortunately, the nature of the internet is the ‘free access for all’ aspect. For it to remain ‘fair trade’ in that sense, then the balance needs to lie in favour of free articles written especially by volunteers who are experts in their field. That way all people with internet access can access quality education and information no matter their background, knowledge and socio-economic status. So, even professionals often treat the internet with more of an open hand than other outlets like print. However, having said that, there are paid options available to those who need to make money. There are websites that harvest paid content from writers who sign up with them. If one needs to make money via writing, it’s also worth approaching print publications who pay, using one’s online content as a resume. When money is needed to fund a personal ministry outside of a tithing context, it’s seldom the ministry that funds itself without coming across as / being a conflict of interest. Hence Paul choosing tent making. I understand the frustration of not having the funds to support a growth in a personal ministry, but the Lord is bigger than our attempts! 🙂 so pray about it ! And in the meantime enjoy the process and ministry you already have both online and, more importantly, at home. Blessings!

    1. Ellen Painter Dollar

      I’m not sure the line between “professional” and “amateur” is quite as clear as you imply here. I could be considered an “amateur” blogger precisely because I rarely get paid to blog. I blog for a respected web portal that pays based on traffic, which means sometimes I get paid and often I don’t, depending on how that month’s traffic went. But I have published a highly regarded book and have been paid to write for some established magazines and web sites. I write when my kids are at school, which is, and isn’t, “spare time.” I’m not trying to support my family single-handedly, that’s true, but a decent income from writing would provide some needed breathing room in the family budget. I firmly believe that quality writing should be paid for. So if an idea like Bronwyn’s were to take hold, those who are truly “amateur”–who don’t have the skills, the time, and/or the perseverance to compete for paid writing gigs–would remain unpaid and therefore amateur, by a combination of choice and talent (or lack thereof). But those whose work is high enough quality and who commit adequate time to honing their skills to compete would have more options for paid work. And I believe that would be good for everyone, including readers, who might begin to understand that much paid work is better quality because the writers had to prove that they deserve pay.

      1. Hi Ellen, you’re absolutely right – the lines between amateur and professional are quite blurry. And unlike other industries like medicine, an amateur writer can be far better at the craft than a professional one. Like you, I am a writer, both online and with a published book. I’ve had the paid and unpaid gigs and understand the difficulties of squeezing in writing time around our kids (midnight oil for me! Lol) My greatest concern with the ‘fair trade for writers’ idea is that it will cause a lot more content to be open only to those who can afford to pay premiums. And, as with all things that start out free but then start including a price tag somewhere, it will snowball until it costs everyone. That is counter the origins of the Internet and counter the freedom culture it promotes. I live in South Africa where even Internet access is a luxury for many. But through libraries and schools that have Internet people can become educated in ways they have never been able to. The gospel is reaching far and wide in this. For the first time in history information *can* be available to all through the genius of the Internet. The costs are comparatively low and can be kept that way. To segment off quality information for paying users only would be a great shame. So, yes, while it would be nice to be paid for all my articles that, as we agree, can take hours of work to craft and polish, I feel that equating our lack of payment to exploited workers or blood diamonds or whatever other industry that carries a ‘fair trade’ option is not really like meeting like. It sounds like we (and Bron!) are in the same boat. I don’t have to write. I choose to write. For me, in many senses, it is a luxury and an enjoyable past-time. It’s a way to serve others. These things are good in their own right. As is being paid for my work. But, in the context of the Internet, for the most part, I support ‘free for all’ even if that means I don’t get paid. My advice to those who need to make an income is to use the other avenues that are open – there are sites that pay per word for content, there’s print etc. At the end of the day, excellent writing of excellent content eventually gets recognized and paid more regularly with enough hard work and favorable circumstances. 🙂

    2. Hi taryn, thanks for commenting. I posted this to float an idea on behalf of the world of writers, rather than a personal comment on not making any income myself. If my comments about the conference fees were confusing, I apologize. Personally, I am not pursuing becoming a “professional blogger” selling advertising space or making money. Just like I lead a bible study voluntarily for free, I write voluntarily for free, for me – this is ministry and joy.
      I am thinking more beyond the realm of personal blogs, where online publications (even widely read ones) often do not pay writers at all. Of the handful of places I have had articles accepted for publication (in the past or the future), only one offered compensation. As it happens, this is a moot point for me since I am not allowed to accept any money for writing due to my visa status in the USA. But since I don’t have a “dog in the fight”, as it were, I feel some freedom to throw this idea out on behalf of wonderful, talented writers out there.

      1. P.s. And you’re totally right: if I a want to go to the conference, I need to pray 🙂 God has provided ways to get to ministry conferences in very unexpected ways before! I prayed a wild prayer to be able to go to EMA about ten years ago, fully expecting a “no”, and within two weeks someone had offered to “pay my conference fees, if I ever wanted to attend”, and someone else had offered me a flight to London!!!

    1. I did misunderstand you in the beginning – I thought you did have a dog in the fight 🙂 thanks for clearing that up. It’s an interesting concept and it’s really good to air these thoughts and discuss them thoughtfully – another positive aspect of our internet culture. I read almost all you write and have been challenged many times. This is good! So thank you! 🙂 I realize tone doesn’t come across clearly in these things so please know (and Ellen too) that my tone is light, yet thoughtful and not at all antagonistic even though we disagree. 🙂 I’m not out to convert anyone on this issue either. It’s not a kingdom issue after all! 😉

  5. Ellen Painter Dollar

    I’m definitely in and will share this. (And if you want the name of a guy who has helped many of us Christian writers/bloggers to upgrade our web sites for far less than $1000, email or Facebook message me!)

  6. Interesting post. Speaking only for myself, blogging is a ministry that I rejoice to be able to do. There are opportunities to receive a probably very small income from ads at the bottom of my posts. This doesn’t feel “right,” so I don’t do it. As I said, “speaking only for myself….”: As far as writing “professionally,” I’m not really interested in going that far. Besides, you read my blog. I’d probably have trouble finding a job! 🙂

    I always enjoy your posts. I read “professional” stuff that’s not nearly as well-written or interesting as yours very often.

    1. Thanks, Clarence 🙂 I love the medium of blogging: it feels like conversation with friends from all over the world!
      And I totally agree with you, the whole “ad at the bottom” thing doesn’t feel right to me (although wordpress is doing it anyway now because I have a “free” site with them!)

  7. Pingback: Pick of the Clicks 11/16/13 | bronwyn's corner

  8. I know this post is old, but I still wanted to comment.

    I absolutely love writing for online magazines and websites. I wish I could do it more often! But I very rarely pitch because I know how much work I’ll put it and know that I won’t get paid. I can’t afford to do that every week because it requires usually requires paying a babysitter for a few hours and requires my complete focus for many hours. Perhaps when my son is in school I’ll have more time to pitch…but it still seems like my time (my hard work) isn’t valued.

    I’d be interested to know how those big, Christian magazines/websites are doing financially. If an article we write does well, how much money are they making off of it? And shouldn’t those editors decide that the ethical thing is to pay us for our skill?

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