Writing for Relevant Magazine Is Not a "Donation"

Relevant magazine -- a publication many of us appreciate for the voice it has occasionally given to post-Evangelicals and other Evangelical types of a certain age, and indeed a publication I consider to have been groundbreaking in the Evangelical media world for its coverage of "secular" music, movies, and other cultural products -- has had the following sentence in their writers' guidelines for years:
Submissions to the website are on a donation basis (byline and bio are compensation).
I appreciate Relevant on a personal level -- their website ran an excerpt from my book, and their print edition ran a favorable review of it -- so I don't really have a reason to be mad at them (well, there was that time they didn't pay me for an album review, and that time they asked me if I wanted to write features for them but never got back to me, but I digress).

But I would like to say this -- not, I hope, in a spirit of name-calling or negativity, but just honesty:

People of Relevant, this line on your website is insulting to writers. Specifically, the words "donation" and "compensation."

I'm not a bigshot writing for one of the $1/word glossy magazines, if those still exist. But writing is a thing I do professionally -- not for a ton of money, but for businesses (newspapers, magazines, etc.) who pay me for the work I do for them. Sometimes I write for no money, like on blogs (like this one!) that are doing something cool or give me better access to an audience I want to talk to. But I've never considered this a "donation." It's a decision I make because I want the benefit of the platform, even if I'm not getting any money. Relevant is a business, and I don't feel great about making a "donation" to a business.

On the subject of compensation, I kind of get it. As I said, the benefit I get if I work for free is that I have access to a large audience someone else has carefully built. I appreciate that. Two hundred people commented on that book excerpt of mine; those are not readers I could have reached before -- great! Thanks! But: putting a writer's name on an article is not "compensation." It's just the way people know who wrote the article. Calling it compensation further devalues the writer's actual work, as if this piece, while it was not good enough to pay for, is at least sufficiently adequate to warrant putting the author's name on. This feels weird and kind of wrong to me.

I don't think that whoever wrote this sentence intended to be insulting when it was written some years ago. And I don't even think that not paying the writers who submit articles online is wrong -- plenty of print publications run blogs and other web features partly or mostly sustained by unpaid contributors. But I hope Relevant will reconsider those words -- donation and compensation -- and change the way they solicit and describe contributions to their website.


  1. If it's really a donation, I should redo my taxes from 2004 - 2008. But then Relevant would probably send me a 1099 for my byline, so it would be a wash.

    Like a lot of people, I built up a portfolio and a base with Relevant. I'm grateful to them for that. Also, like a lot of people, I stopped submitting for two reasons: (1) Except for those who connect with an editor and form a relationship, writers for Relevant are like cows that get milked once in a while, and (2) Relevant doesn't seem that interesting anymore. They don't take risks. They cover evangelical hipster culture, not "progressive" culture, as they claim. That's fine and I appreciate the role they play, but I think a lot of writers outgrow them, and not just because they get older.

  2. Joel-

    As a former editor at Relevant (and one who had the privilege of working with you a handful of times!), I'm hardly an apologist for the magazine or the company. Far from it, in fact. But I feel like, as someone very, very familiar with how the website was run and maintained, I want to weigh in a bit.

    I feel like "giving an entity an article to use free of charge" is sort of the definition of a donation. You are, in essence, "donating" your voice, brand and ideas to the website to use for their profit and growth. I don't think it's particularly belittling to label it as such—I don't think that "contribute," for instance, is particularly more or less complimentary, though I suppose it carries with it a more cooperative subtext.

    As far as "compensation," that was always, in my view, a fine word as it carries with it the understanding that the "value" of giving your article to us was that we would increase your brand and your recognition. That was the all the payment I could offer to authors—a byline, and then a bio with a link to a website, their book on Amazon, and a personal website.

    Overall, I think the bigger point is what writing is worth. I think it's worth quite a lot if it's done well and if it's done thoughtfully. As someone who freelanced nearly full-time for about 10 months after Relevant, I also know how frustrating it is when you hear of a project that you would love to do, but it doesn't pay anything. I think that publishers (particularly websites) need to understand that it's not okay to expect professional writers to write for free unless it's tied to some sort of specific brand or marketing push. Or, if it's something they feel like they just *want* to write--which, I suppose, is another way of branding.

    On the other side of that, as a writer I always realized there were hundreds of people who wanted to break in waiting just behind me, who would do it for free because the exposure (and the ability to post it on Facebook and say to friends "Look at me! I got published!") is totally worth it to them. And it should be! I remember how great that was when I first started out, but the reality of needing money to write hits later and brings with it the need to more selectively choose when and how and why to write.

    In any case, I understand that I am, in essence, arguing semantics. I guess I just don't necessarily think RELEVANT's particular terms demean writing or writers. I think the mass democratization of web writing does so, but I think that's a much broader problem than any one magazine. For writers and editors out there trying to make a living, it's incredibly frustrating that a blog post has as much monetary value as a carefully thought-out piece by a professional. But I don't necessarily think magazines will make that distinction unless they're forced to by writers or by an internal commitment to quality that may or may not result in additional revenue. Right now, neither of those is happening.

  3. It sounds like the verbiage is probably legal language to protect them from lawsuits. They want it to be clear that you are not going to be paid. I'm not sure if anyone is ever "compensated" for a "donation," though. That seems awkward.

    That said, even as a non-profit, they run on subscriptions and advertising. Those only function with readers and clickers. Being told you are giving a "donation" when you are in fact the fuel of the whole operation does feel demeaning, I agree.

    1. Ah, but they are not a non-profit, which is the problem. If Relevant were a registered charity instead of a business with advertising revenue, this wouldn't really be an issue.

    2. Ah, that is interesting. And troubling.

      I'm more familiar with literary mags, which typical function with an understanding of mutual sacrifice.

  4. As someone who has "donated" at Relevant and who "contributes" here and gets paid equally well by both entities, I'm not bothered by Relevant's nomenclature in the least. Ryan's closing paragraph identifies the bigger problem quite well.