Why I Have Ads on My Site

This isn’t prompted by any particular inquiry, it’s something I want to post so I can refer back to it later–a little trick I learned from reading John Scalzi, who incidentally has no ads on his very successful blog.

The short answer to the question in the headline is “So I can make a tiny bit of money on something I invest a ton of time and work in making.”

Philosophically, I find ads objectionable, and for years I insisted I would never put ads on my site. I write and create to share ideas and participate in the online conversation, not to hawk some brand or product. My experiences in the last couple of years, however, persuaded me that the ads on this site are a necessary and worthwhile evil.

In September 2013 I drew a five-panel comic strip about Breaking Bad that happened to catch the cultural zeitgeist and go crazy viral. It got something like 10,000 retweets on Twitter, was reprinted (with my permission) on Salon, the Huffington Post, PBS News, Upworthy, and Buzzfeed, plus a bunch of shares on Reddit (before the post was shut down for being “too political” for r/funny). By my best estimate, it was seen by more than 10 million viewers online. I didn’t make a penny.

Which is fine–the whole thing was surreal and I didn’t go into it to make money, it was just fun to get my name out there. Also, because that comic went viral on Twitter and appeared in so many places, it really didn’t send a lot of traffic to this site.

In November of 2014, infuriated by the shooting of Tamir Rice, I drew a cartoon pointing out the similar strategies for surviving encounters with police and with bears. That went viral the following April, after Freddie Gray’s murder made news. Again, by my best estimate it was seen by several hundred thousand people, and again I made not one cent.

Well, that’s not quite true. After it went viral on Twitter, I was contacted by Matt Bors, then the editor at Medium’s comic magazine The Nib. He asked to run the cartoon, and unlike any of the outlets that ran the Breaking Bad cartoon, he paid.

He didn’t pay much (pay for cartoonists is astoundingly small, considering how much traffic their work drives), but that wasn’t the point. Matt is a bit of a personal hero, someone I’ve admired and tried to emulate in my own work, and just being asked put me over the moon. The Nib was also home to a who’s who of the best editorial cartoonists working, and I was dumbfounded to realize my name would be included. I still am.

I probably would have said yes for free, but it happens that after the Breaking Bad thing I read a couple of essays by Matt himself about why no cartoonist should ever let their work be used for free–and also, he made a point of offering payment right from the start.

And again, because that cartoon went viral on Twitter, and was reprinted at The Nib, I didn’t get a lot of traffic to this site itself.

However, the article about Caitlyn Jenner I wrote in February 2015 (before any of us heard that name) went viral on Facebook, which means traffic did come to my site. Specifically, more than 370,000 visitors came to my site, all within the span of a few days. Once again this was surreal and flattering and exciting…

until I woke up to an email from my web host, who had shut off my access when their servers crashed. It seems the $15-per-month shared hosting plan I signed up for wasn’t sufficient to cover the 8,000 visits I was getting per hour.

My host did offer to turn my site back on–provided I sign up for a new plan that would cost me several hundred dollars per month. They offered me the first month free (since spikes in traffic often die quickly–as mine did) but thereafter I would have to pay.

That was the day I put ads up on my site. At the time, the rate of traffic I was getting would yield something like $2,000 per month via Google ads. I figured if the traffic kept up, the ads would pay for hosting plus a little profit, and if not then the ads would help ameliorate my own costs.

I began blogging in 1996, when I started college. At the time there was no such thing as a “blog,” there were web sites where I had to write HTML each time I updated. Point is, by 2015 I’d had a presence on the web for nearly 20 years (holy crap!), and as you may know, a presence on the web is something a person has to pay for–there’s domain registration, hosting fees, and so on.

I would estimate that, as of today, I have spent something like $5,000 to maintain my presence on the web. That’s only on domain registration and hosting, and a few templates and fonts I’ve purchased. It leaves out any related expenses for producing content–laptop computers, cameras, drawing and editing software, etc. If I include all that, since 1996, it’s easily more than $20,000.

I can also tell you exactly how much I have earned, all-time, including all ad revenue from this site and from YouTube, and the little bit of money I’ve made from selling a few cartoons. It’s just a hair over $1,000.

Once in a while, someone will make a comment to me about my success. It’s true, I’ve had a few things that got a lot of attention, had a few spikes in web traffic, and I have a healthy Twitter audience–not enough to reasonably call “Twitter famous,” but more than 98% of users, according to the emails Twitter sends me suggesting I promote my stuff.

The simple fact is that Internet success, even Internet fame, loathe as I am to use that term, doesn’t necessarily pay.

So while I still find ads tacky and intellectually objectionable, they are a necessity. There are presently no other ways for me to earn revenue from the considerable effort I put into blogging, drawing, and cutting the occasional video, and I’m not exactly raking it in as is. In an average month, I make around $1.50 – $2.00, and since Google only cuts a check every $100, I don’t actually have much of that in my pocket–but should my traffic spike, the ads will help me recoup something.

If at some point in the future I find another way to monetize my creative endeavors–selling a novel, say–I plan to take the ads down. For the time being, if you find them bothersome, I hope you’ll consider the circumstances and forgive me.


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