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The wine blogger as $hake$peare

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One of the big questions that’s hovered over the wine blogosphere is this: how long will bloggers continue blogging if they’re unable to make any money (or much money)?

The idealistic answer by many of the bloggers is “Forever.” They do so with no expectation of getting paid for it. Blogito, ergo sum (to mangle Descartes).

That may well be. But a column in yesterday’s New York Times suggests that the reading public may eventually lose the best, most talented bloggers if the remuneration issue isn’t soon resolved.

The column, by the author Scott Turow and others, argues convincingly that the renowned English Renaissance dramatists Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, Ben Jonson and Shakespeare probably would not have pursued their literary crafts had not the theaters that produced their plays began charging money for admission—the first time in Europe that had been done. “Money changed everything,” the authors write. “Almost overnight, a wave of brilliant dramatists emerged…the stark findings of this experiment? As with much else, literary talent often remains undeveloped unless markets reward it.”

I don’t see why blogging should be any different from the atmosphere of the 16th and 17th centuries. Writing is writing, whether it’s with feather quill on paper or with a keyboard into cyberspace. And not all writing is equivalent. There must have been bad writers in the early 1590s, when Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, only their works have not survived because nobody thought them worth preserving. It’s the same with wine blogging today. There are bad bloggers, good ones and very good ones. I’m not saying any blog ever written is the equivalent of a Shakespeare play or sonnet. But people wanted to attend Shakespeare plays because they experienced value; they learned something from them, were entertained and uplifted. A good blog can have the same impact.

We already see some of our best bloggers making this tentative move toward making money. Steven Tanzer, James Suckling (more of a vlogger than a blogger) and Joe Roberts have made overt moves toward making their sites profitable. But there’s a problem. If you think about it, the blog-reading audience is in the same position as the American taxpayer. On the one hand, the taxpayer refuses to pay more money to government and would prefer to pay less. On the other hand, that same taxpayer insists on getting his government perks, whether it’s Social Security, Medicare, a government pension plan, Veteran’s benefits, or basic security services such as police and fire protection. And let’s not forget a strong national defense.

It seems to me that people who love to read their favorite wine blogs are going to have to make a decision, sooner or later, concerning what that blog is worth. Talent is fungible. It will flow to wherever it can find the greatest reward. If talent is being financially abused in one place, it likely will find another place that respects it enough to pay for it. The best bloggers, in other words, might gradually find reward in places other than blogging, leaving readers with a pretty dismal selection.

In Turow’s column, he describes how, in the mid-17th century, “Dramatists’ ties to commerce were severed” when the fee-for-service model evaporated, for a variety of reasons. With it, “the greatest explosion of playwriting talent the modern world has ever seen ended. Just like that.” It could happen to wine blogging talent, too, “just like that.”

  1. Can’t help feeling that Arianna Huffington’s remarks on unpaid bloggers (in an interview in today’s Guardian) have some relevance here:

    “People who blog blog whenever they want – some of them blog every two years, they blog because they have ideas that they care about and they want to express them. It’s no different from people going on TV to promote their ideas. We’re hosting people who express their ideas and if they want to write, fine, and if they don’t, fine. We get thousands of submissions so it’s not like anyone is pursuing people to write for free.”

  2. Does the blogger need to get money for actual blogging, though?

    In theory, a successful blog can raise a writer’s profile — making him or her a sought-after writer, speaker, educator, etc. I think we see this quite a bit in the world of political blogs. The blog itself might not pay the bills, but the blog opens plenty of doors for paid articles in magazines, paid speeches/analysis, and the like.

  3. Exactly Ms Huffington’s point: “It’s no different from people going on TV to promote their ideas”

  4. I agree with Terrorist. I don’t imagine making money from blogging but it has opened doors. That said, I hope the good voices in this over crowded game such as those already mentioned find a way to make their efforts economically sustainable for the benefit of the rest of us.

  5. Had I but died an hour before the blog’s demise,
    I had liv’d a blessed time; for, from that instant,
    There’s nothing serious in mortality,
    All is but toys; renown and grace is dead,
    The wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees
    Is left this vault to brag of.
    W.S. (1564-1616)

  6. All the world’s a stage,
    And all the men and women merely players:
    They have their exits and their entrances;
    And one man in his time plays many parts

    W. S., As You Like It

    Will knew his bloggers.
    We are but bit players,
    Wandering through life,
    A Chardonnay here,
    A Tweet there.
    In the end, it matters not.

    ============

    There is no way that most of the 3,000 wine bloggers are ever going to make a nickel out of their literary contributions. The smart ones know that.

    Steve Tanzer may or may not make any money out of his blog, but he also has an online wine newsletter with thousands of readers paying him about $100 per year each for his wine reviews. He makes his living from his newsletter. If his blog ever pays off, it will unlikely pay off big-time unless he moves his newsletter over to it.

    Joe Roberts (need I add again that he is my adopted winosphere son?) is trying to turn a hobby into a career. He is not unique in that regard, but there are very few bloggers who can even come close, and, ultimately, in my view, Joe will either launch a for-pay site with far more fungible information or he will get scooped up by one of the existing publications if he is ever to make a real living at winewriting.

    It is not hard to figure out that most of the leading bloggers already have day jobs in the wine business–Mr. Heimoff, Paul Gregutt, Tom Wark, Eric Asimov, Jon Bonne’. Yet not one of those folks has a blog that costs it readers anything.

    As the oft-heard cliche about the wine biz goes, “What is the way to make a small fortune in the wine biz?”

    Start with a big fortune.

    For wine blogging, I am afraid the story is different. “What is the way to make a small fortune in the wine blog biz’?

    Get a job somewhere else.

  7. Carlos Toledo says:

    Steve, a few lines from where i currently live:

    1. Bloggers who exist here to drink for free. They keep going from tasting to tasting events aiming to get noticed by importers and drink for free (“please send bottles to this address for i’ll evaluate them later, for posting”). They’re not interested in making money, just getting some trips for free here and there, now and then.

    2. Bloggers who write just for the sake of it. Good and bad ones. These are a dying breed (hooray). They say it takes a lot of time to criticize seriously wines – they can’t drink and appreciate the wine-, to post, to keep up a website and so on. Thank gawd or whoever for the matter, that these people are going away. I fear new ones will fill in the void, though.

    3. Bloggers who want to use their blogs to draw attention and see if they can make a buck from importing companies or national wineries to promote their wines. Nothing new here.

    4. Bloggers who just want to be famous and then from that ‘fame’ jump to commerce. They want someone to invest in their shop[s]. Sometimes these folks start promoting events wherein everyone should attend in order to get their wines promoted more efficiently for some fee….

    I’ve said before i’ll say it again….i read about wine in a handful of languages. What you put on my computer screen day in day out is GREAT material. Not many like you out there.

    CT.

  8. Carlos, so which of your four categories would you place Mr. Heimoff?
    You are forgetting a fifth category.

    5. Bloggers who care about wine and want to share their enthusiasm with others.

    And while most bloggers don’t fit nicely into just one of your categories, you can’t just dismiss them (us) all.

  9. Category #6: Blogging about wine impresses the ladies a lot more than angry political commentary or arguing about comic books. ;)

    Winebloggers are hamstrung by the bizarre mix of laws surrounding alcohol in this country. Unlike writing about movies or books, you’re writing about an individual product that a reader in a certain state has no legal way of acquiring. If you are in the business of selling wine and have a physical and/or online store (e.g. Gary Vaynerchuk) you’ve got a great way to make money with wineblogging. If you’re just making pennies on the dollar from Amazon sales of corkscrews and glasses, it’s a different matter.

    I’d love to set up a bottle-of-the-month club or similar service, but there are so many state by state roadblocks that prevent something like that from being workable or profitable. In the meantime, I applaud the wineries and PR agencies whose samples make it possible to at least break even in this game.

    Agh… It took 2,000 years to go from Aeschylus and Sophocles to the financially successful Shakespeare and Marlowe. We might be in for a bit of a wait here.

  10. Steve, let’s turn this subject around a bit for a different perspective. Let’s posit that you were going to a subscription basis for your blog — what would you charge for the privilege of reading your writings? I’m curious as to where the tipping point occurs for your readers — $2 a month, $5 a month, $10 a month? Readers, how much would you pay per month for the privilege of accessing Steve’s thoughts and opinions? Would you expect something more than what you’ve been receiving so far via his blog? Perhaps we can gauge the potential by getting a feel for the realities of “making a blog pay” by using this forum as an experimental lab –

    I’ll start off by saying that I would pay $24 annually ($2 a month). I’ve based that on the value that I perceive in traditional hard copy subscriptions, such as Wine Enthusiast, which is currently $24.95 annually for 13 issues.

    Any one else care to contribute?

  11. Sherman, I would pay $25 year to read my blog 5 days a week. And if I had enough people paying that, I could afford to throw in extra stuff. Like naked pictures of me. ONLY KIDDING. But something.

  12. Greg Brumley says:

    Once again, a dinosaur rears his head. Once again, he looks around and wonders why all those furry little creatures seem to be taking over. Once again, he sees the meteor streak across the sky and assumes it can’t be a very important phenomenon.

    You don’t get it, Steve. And, on top of that, you blame the marketplace because you don’t get it. By comparing blog readers to people who want government services but don’t want to pay taxes, you insult that readership. (What a great way to make friends and increase one’s revenue!)

    Nobody begged you to start a blog. You did it of your own accord. One assumes you did so to expand your audience or raise your profile, and perhaps hoped it would become profitable. Well, 99.99% of blogs have not. And they will not. You offered your effort for free. Now that its clear that’s the price readers will pay, you want to call them cheapskates.

    The NY Times — with your blog in the chorus – claims top bloggers today are like Shakespeare, Johnson, Marlow!?! If that isn’t the height of self-absorption, there’s no such thing. There’s no nice way to say it, Steve: Nobody will be reading your work 400 years from now. Nor Laube’s. Probably not R.W. “Johnny” Apple’s, for that matter. The core of this foolish analogy is writers’ complete inability to grasp the reality everyone else sees: the financial value of published material has dramatically declined. Threatening to hold one’s breath until one turns blue won’t raise it back up again.

    The Times is undoubtedly pushing this silly Shakespeare argument because, this month, it will again try to make people pay for its online content. Their last attempt was an utter failure. Did they learn from that? Here they are again with essentially the same product. Watch as the marketplace again pees all over them.

  13. This is so wrong from so many points of view. Sorry Steve, but you’re missing it.

    Okay, let’s get started.

    Bloggers are not writers. Bloggers are publishers. They might also happen to be the only writer on their blog, or they might be one of a group of writers on a multi-writer blog. But the bottom line is that bloggers are publishers.

    What does that mean? It means trying to fit a writing model to blogging is missing the point. Publishers will, or won’t, make money the way they always have. They will sell advertising. They will take advantage of modern media to add direct marketing through email, RSS feed, Twitter, and Facebook, as well as banner advertising. They will draw readers the way publishers have always drawn readers, by attracting the best writers and publishing the most provocative stories.

    What does that mean for self-publishing writers, people writing on their own blogs? It means they need to approach their websites as a way to hone their writing skills and audition for paying publishers. This will require that they set some of the “I have my own blog and I have my own voice” ego aside and learn to (a) produce what the publishers and readers (not their own readers – the broader audience of the publisher’s readers) want to see, and (b) work with editors.

    The subscription model is dead. Sorry folks, but people under 30 will NEVER pay for content.

    The individual focus needs to be on honing writing skills, developing expertise, developing a unique voice, and learning to work with editors and publishers. The blogger-world focus needs to be on identifying and supporting publications that can pay for quality content.

    That leads to one other observation. New publishers are more likely to pay per story than to pay regular staff. Everybody will be a free-lance writer, meaning the “blogger” will compete with the “writer.” The result? Everybody will be a writer, all competing to get published. The best writers will shine, if they are willing to embrace the new model.

    As for the people noted in the story, Joe Roberts is a modern example, but Suckling is a vestige of a dying age. He isn’t speaking to new readers, but older ones still clinging to the authoritarian bestowing points and telling people what they SHOULD be drinking. Tanzer is similar. They are selling points, not writing.

    The bottom line? The idea that blogs can go subscription is wrong. If it didn’t work for the New York Times, it’s not going to work for even the best, like Good Grape.

  14. “people under 30 will NEVER pay for content.”

    What makes you think that’s representative of the wine audience?

  15. People under 30 will someday be 40. I know this to be true.

    People under 30 never paid for subscriptions to wine mags. Steve may be too young to remember the Summer of Love here in SF, but I am not. The mantra of the day was “never trust anyone over 30″. And then we all turned 30. Sometimes shit happens. It happened to us. It will happen to the current generation.

    Some of us became remarkably middle-class, bought homes in the suburbs, raised 2.2 soccer players and became wine geeks.

    Joe Roberts is a personal favorite of mine. His writing is very good. I have predicted several times that he will make the transition to a more lucarative gig of some kind–or some combination of lucrative gigs, but there is not enough free-lance in the world to keep Jor Roberts or anyone else in rice and beans for long.

    It remains to be seen if the “free to Internet readers” model can survive. It is certainly no sure thing. Notice that the WSJ, Tanzer and yes, my own rag, Connoisseurs’ Guide, are flourishing on the Internet with a combination of free and subscriber content.

    Mr. Honig, your model is interesting. You have some good writers and good content. It has become better and better. How many writers will it support long-term? Do you predict that you are the new Wine Spectator? Are you telling us that you will not try ever sell anything direct to your readers like books, wine clubs, tasting notes, wine glasses, Belle Epoque wine posters?

    And of course, you are right that things have changed. But it is simply too doctrinaire (self-serving) to declare the subscription model dead. There are millions of folks all over the planet buying subscriptions to publications. For sure, few of them are under-30. But then again, subscribers to wine pubs never were.

  16. Steve: Last year I spoke by Skype to a university class on “Writing for Social Media.” The professor invited me as an example of a successful blogger; I do have advertisers, I get fringe benefits, etc.

    Later each student had to write a blog post about my presentation. My favorite was by the guy who said he could see the faces of his classmates fall as I crushed their dreams of making a fortune from blogging.

    I think that was the best deed I did all last year.

  17. rabble rabble rabble.

    love ya Steve, but missed the mark in a few areas I think.

    The poorly named NTY article was aimed more at the short attention span of Millennials, not reading blogs.

    The ‘idealistic’ answer of ‘never’ isn’t a token answer, its the sentiment of most bloggers, at least all I talk to. A few extreme cases you point out do not the majority make.

    Colorado Wine Press “5. Bloggers who care about wine and want to share their enthusiasm with others. ”
    Indeed I think, unlike the jaded comment before, is where many follow.

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