Sunday, August 29, 2010

Letters for Sale vs. writing for free

I have now seen three different instances of people selling letters on etsy. These are not old letters, but more like a "I write awesome creative hand-written mail-arty letters, and if you pay me I'll write one just for you!" kind of thing.

I am not linking them here, because, you know, I try not to be TOO snarky. (I really do.) And hell, part of me says, if somebody pays you for it, more power to you. But from a personal standpoint, I find the idea kind of off-putting. My letters are gifts to the recipient - some don't get too much effort or love put into them, and some get a hell of a lot, but they are all the product of a moment in time, my thoughts and effort for someone else. I can't imagine charging for them. This is not to cheapen the efforts of professional letter-writers who help craft just the right words for someone for a special occasion - again, not my thing, but I can see the market and the business for that. No, the stuff I'm talking about is just an etsy listing for the actual hand-written item, with artsy touches in some kind of a decorated envelope.

I grant you, this is coming from a woman who left a creative career for which she had years of specialized schooling, because she found the whole self-marketing process distasteful. So there's some perspective for you.

We're giving it away for free, people!

But for me... that's totally the point.



  1. Letter writing facilitates friendship. When you charge $16 for a letter you're writing in the spirit of greed, it's insincere and manipulative. And while i'm on my soapbox, i've noticed mail bloggers asking for "donations" to help them buy stamps - really? I'd like to know peoples thought on that as well.

  2. I was so curious I tried to go find them on Etsy, but I didn't have any luck (clues?).

    I have very mixed feelings about this - on the one hand I admire their spirit of enterprise and if you can earn money doing something you enjoy that's great. On the other hand, I feel like it is sad that some people feel they have to pay for letters... And I don't really get it. How can a paid for letter be heart felt and generous of spirit?

  3. I wonder if it's our shared astrology that makes us think so similarly on this issue, Felicity! My view on the donations-for-postage thing is that some folks who are more newly into letter-writing may not have budgeted for the cost of international postage, and get surprised when they find out how much it costs to send multiple lovely items overseas. (Also, I believe the cost of international letters is considerably higher, even given the exchange rate, in other countries than the USA.) I guess for me, letter-writing supplies have always been a part of my budget, and I would be aghast at the idea of asking anyone for money (again, a personality type thing)... but I don't have nearly as much of a problem with that as I do with charging for letters.

  4. I am happy to be giving it away for free. I do not understand why someone would want to pay for a letter, I guess that is me. I mean hey if someone pays her for it great for her..but it is one of those things that makes me go..REALLY?

    I am with you and felcity on the why ask for donations for postage thing. Now many moons ago when I began blogging in general I was told I could put a little donation button up and on one blog I did. But it doesnt say you have to it isn't even in a promiant place. I got one donation once....and sent them a thank you and they said they just felt like it. Good for them. But I wouldn't ask anyone to pay for my you Missive Maven I have it in my budgie.

    And a little off from our other comments..I have had 5 postcards from postcrossing in my last send just be out the air and will likely go lost. That scares me a bit. I am also having what I would call a Mini meltdown because I got your last letter...and it has gone AWOL on me. It is somewhere in my Mom In Laws house...but I will be darned if I can find it right now.

  5. At first I was surprised to read this. Then it occurred to me that we tend to view everything as a commodity these days. I have a neighbor with a persimmon tree that drops squishy fruit all over the sidewalk. You would think that to compensate people for the sloppy mess, she might share the fruit. Instead she has a big sign that forbids people from picking it and provides a contact number if they want to buy some from her. Literally and figuratively, it seems to me that extra fruit should be shared not sold.

  6. This is probably the most crazy thing I have read. I don't even understand why people would pay for something like that. I would really like to see one because this really doesn't make any sense to me. I'd also really like to know the thought process behind the person who started selling letters!

    Also, the donations for postage is so ridiculous. I guess it's in the same sense as paying for a letter if you donate money to your pen pal so they can afford to write you a letter.

  7. Felicity makes an excellent point - how can one foster an honest friendship if the written words are not your own??

    It's one thing to help someone put their thoughts together into a letter but another to write it for them. I recently helped someone gain an interview with a cover letter I wrote up, but I still used phrases that came directly from the individual that really spoke to why they wanted the job; believe me, they knew more about the business than I did and their phrases showed it!

    If the service was to assemble one's thoughts into a coherent message I think that might be okay (like copy-writing/ editing), but to pay someone to write an entire letter from scratch is a sad commentary on the written literacy of our age, IMHO...and I've just shown an example by using that abbreviated phrase =-(

  8. Sort of off topic.

    I know yours is a blog meant to be filled with pretty pictures alongside pretty words, but I just wanted to let you know that your text-only blog entries are also equally wonderful and I really enjoy reading them. They shed a little bit of light on this person that writes and receives so many letters in the mail.

  9. Like Felicity, I've always felt surprised and confounded by asking for donations for stamps. Stamps, of all things! Yes, okay, international post is a bit more expensive, but compared to many hobbies, this really isn't (unless you go crazy on the mail art, I guess). I bet people would freak out if I put up a donation button and asked people to donate so I could buy yarn and keep knitting. What? It's my hobby, so I need to finance it.

    So, is it a letter written for you to send to someone else or someone selling a letter that they'll write TO you? That's very, very strange... I wonder what kind of people buy those letters. Send 'em to me, I'll mail them a letter for free. :)

  10. It makes me wonder about the psychology of the people that are buying the letters. Why would someone feel that sincerety or friendship could be bought or sold?

  11. Missive Maven,

    I'm laughing! I have seen these same sites and told this story in utter disbelief to several friends the past year. Though there is an "insty" part of me that goes "hum..wish I would have thought of it first". And I bet we would craft a much more interesting and fascinating letter than most. That said, I'll continue writing a letter, not make a business of it!

  12. Having said that I could never ask for money, I do want to add a note of sympathy for those that ask for postage donations.

    I sometimes enclose stamps in letters to USA pen pals - either for fun, as a little bonus (as we all know, I have a LOT of stamps, many of them vintage!), or because they might be students or on a fixed income or something, and it could really come in handy for a return letter. I don't do it all the time, and I don't feel pressured to do it, but I picked up the habit from The Letter Exchange (LEX), where enclosing stamps is often the custom. So I don't make postage donations to anyone to whom I can send a stamp. In the spirit of generosity, though (and really, that's what snail mail pen pals are all about!), I have donated to a few favorite international pen pals. I can't send them stamps, so a PayPal donation is something little that I can do. I don't feel obligated, but... I was very poor once, and I am hardly wealthy but I certainly am not poor anymore, so I have sympathy for someone who wants to write letters but is really pinching pennies. I appreciate the luxury in my life that I can go out to dinner once a week, and buy new stationery when I feel like it, and I remember very, very well the days when I had to decline meeting a friend for coffee because I only had enough to pay the rent.

  13. Wow, I love the dialogue that this blog entry has generated! I wonder if any of the letter sellers will see it and give us their perspective? I didn't mean this to turn into an attack, and indeed I still think, heck, if someone is willing to buy it... and Stephanie hit on a great point. Who buys these letters? Must be someone who hasn't discovered all the wonderful letter blogs out there, with a ton of people just waiting to send lovely mail for free.

    Monica, thank you for your comment. I sometimes wonder if I am "cheating" a blog entry if I don't include a photo, because I so often peruse for eye candy and admit I might be more likely to read a post if I'm "speed-browsing" if it has an awesome photo with it. But I really, really appreciate that you express interest in my thoughts and words without photos. :-)

  14. As Monica wrote, I also love these photo-less posts! I'm more used to them than posts with photos, for a start, and while it's nice to glaze over and just look at the pretty pictures, I still really love the writing part. Hi, I'm the person that complains about mail art because it gets in the way of the written word of the letter. ;)

    The stamp issue probably bothers me because I don't understand how you could be pinching pennies and still go all out on making envelopes and stationery. When I'm feeling pinched I send out a lot more plain letters in plain Mead envelopes that maybe have been doodled over with crayons and colored pencils and still pay for the stamps. I don't have tons of art supplies because I have a box of 100 envelopes and I have lots of paper, so I can keep buying stamps and that's the important part for me.

    I'm probably misunderstanding things though. *shrug*

  15. Coming late to this thread and am astonished to learn about Letter Writing for hire. I flashed on a weird scene from a movie of a person sitting with a typewriter in a train station, writing letters for people, that's different since it has to do with illiteracy, but it was my visual. I can't imagine anyone buying a ready made letter. This is all DIY as far as I'm concerned or it doesn't make sense. I've sometimes offered to supply some stamps for people whom I know mail out a lot, though they never asked. Asking for money for stamps makes me cringe. I've never seen that, yet. We do have an excellent postal rate, having sent mail from other countries, I know this first hand. There are times when I have to curb my enthusiasm and not send as many PostCrossing cards as I'd like, but sending out mail to the U.S. troops via Booksforsoldiers costs only U.S. postage so that satisfies my need to send mail. Am I rambling? Sorry. Right now, I'm doing some Mom caregiving and not sending mail. I brought postcard stamps with me and never got any postcards before I became house-bound. Can't wait to return home to send write letters, myself, in my own personal penmanship.

  16. Wow! Selling letters on eBay? That's a new one. It seems like the way many things are going today in the US-- pay someone to walk your dog, pay someone to watch your kid, pay someone to write a letter....very weird. I say it is a good idea to do things for yourself....

  17. That's fascinating -- but surely not meant for any kind of real correspondence? I suppose I can envision a situation where someone might want help composing a formal letter, and we live in a society that offers service personnel for every whim. But I can't imagine one would keep buying letter-writing services -- although I have visions of a kind of Cyrano experience here...

  18. Amen to you Missive Maven...I'm with you...letters for sale!!! I don't think so...Yes who would buy these letters?!?!??! They are missing the entire point of what a letter is sad...lets all keep our pencils sharp...fountain pens full...typewriters in good working condition...etc...keep those cards and letters coming and going....:):):)

  19. Well, I just visited esty and searched 'handwritten letters' and found several, ah, offerings.

    Yick. I'll even go as far as uggh.

    These are letters to you (or a recipient of your choice) but do not seem to be a specific type of letter (I have seen letter-writing sites that offer professional break-up letters, for example) just a regular letter, which they all say is 'about one page'.

    Pfah! Anyone that has been lucky enough to get a letter from MM knows one page is a travesty, a long paragraph, it is not 'a letter'.

    These listings are just plain, well, nasty. (Now I know everyone reading this is going straight to esty and check; well, go ahead, but you have been warned.)

    I'm with the MM and others here who think that letters are personal and meaningful, not something you can add to your shopping cart.

    Oh, and before you think I am too opinionated, let me add that 'requesting donations for stamps' sounds very close to a plea from a prison pen pals site. (I actually researched some of those sites for a magazine article..Yikes!)

  20. Something else just occurred to me- say I go to Etsy and spend $16 for a letter "from the heart." What is the next logical step after I receive the letter that I paid $16 for? Am I allowed to respond? Do I write them back free of charge? Do I continue to pay the seller for her letters to me, but write back for free? Are the seller and I going to develop any sort of relationship? Do I keep buying letters, not reply and just have a one sided, paid for friendship? Or do I just buy that one letter, learn a page worth of info about them and move on. It's a dead end, it's totally preposterous!

  21. I'm happy to be giving the letters away for free--and receiving letters in return, too, to form a friendship. I really don't get the appeal of a one-time letter from a complete stranger, without any hope of building a friendship.

    Then again, I have absolutely zero marketing skills, and I can't even really "sell" myself in a job interview.

  22. Hello all.

    Squid's comment hit me in a sensitive area (my psyche):

    "It makes me wonder about the psychology of the people that are buying the letters. Why would someone feel that sincerety or friendship could be bought or sold?"

    It's so easy to pass judgment on others, isn't it?

    I am one of Those People who purchased a letter on Etsy (a couple of years ago; it was cheaper than $16.) I had absolutely zero intentions of purchasing friendship; I was simply curious. Implying that people who dish out cash for artistic experiments are psychologically corrupt is incredibly thoughtless and mean-spirited.

    I had just left a job that had delivered a severe case of burnout to me, my professional degree was looking like a big mistake and I was stunned at how much I hated that job, the degree, the student debt.... I was living in a city far away from friends (who have no interest in mail-related communication), I was lonely (my husband was working thousands of miles away, and I was unemployed when all my friends in the city were very much employed) and the idea of buying a letter seemed really quite novel to me at the time. I purchased it in the spirit of curiosity and exploring a new art form. And also looking for ways of making money myself: it was market research.

    When my package arrived, it left me feeling really quite empty. The letter writer actually called me by a different name halfway through, reinforcing my feelings of alienation.

    It was an experiment, not a very expensive one (ever blow money on a book or movie or concert that disappointed you?), and gave me much food for thought on the nature of commerce and art and entrepreneurship, etc.

    I considered selling my letter-writing "services/abilities/enthusiasm" on etsy, and even wrote up a listing description that detailed EXACTLY what the purchaser would be getting (time spent, thematic content, etc. -- none of the current listings actually do that), but am still sitting on the fence about it.

    So, yeah: there are lonely people in the world, and they come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and temperaments, and sometimes those lonely people lay out some cash for an experiment.

    Re: asking for donations for stamps, etc.? Tacky as hell. A person I have corresponded with a couple of times recently hinted that maybe I could make a PayPal donation. It was really quite upsetting. At least with an Etsy listing, it's straight up commerce, but once I've developed a bit of a relationship with someone, being asked for money makes me feel like I've been taken.

  23. Carrie, thank you especially for your thoughtful comments.

  24. Carrie, Squid did not say that people that purchase letters are psychologically corrupt. What we are trying to understand is what motivates a person to spend their hard earned money on something that the rest of us give/get for free. Again, we are all immersed in our little snail mail bubble, so it's hard to fathom. I think you explained it well. : )

  25. Yes, Felicity, you are correct, Squid did not say that and I did not say she said that. It was implied, and I could have read her meaning completely wrong, but that is how it appears to me. It was not my intention to pick on her exclusively, and it is kind of you to rise to her defense. (And thanks to both you and MM for kind words, too.)

    My point is that everyone is different. We all have different motivations, and it is dangerous to assume - I am guilty of assumptions as well. It is impossible to know why someone would purchase something, or why someone would make something, or why someone would choose to sell something. Clearly there is a market for it.

    What motivates a person to spend their money (whether it is hard-earned or easy-earned is also very subjective) on something that some people give or get for free is also pretty subjective. While you might not be monetarily compensated for sending and receiving personal mail, you get something out of it, for sure. Self-satisfaction, warm fuzzy feelings, learning something new, random cool things from strangers.... you ARE getting paid, just not in money.

    And of course, as Felicity mentioned with the snail mail bubble -- that's it exactly. The people who are selling letters on Etsy recognize that there is a big market out there for people who see letter writing as a quaint novelty. And the letter writing community that MM and her readers are in (me included, I've been giving away the letter love for over 30 years) is simply not the target market for such a business venture.

    I apologize for my long winded comments -- can you imagine how convoluted and endless my letters are? (ha. little joke there.)

  26. Carrie,

    My question had more to do with the people selling the letters. I too went and looked up some of the listings on etsy. One of the offered a "letter from the heart." I guess I was really wondering how something could be seriously from the heart if there was an exact
    dollar amount attached to it.

    I did appreciate your explanation of some of the reasons that people might be buying these letters. I did not mean to sound harsh or judgemental when I posted the comment. I was just curious about the psychology of it on both sides and what the sellers and purchasers expectations are.


    I think that the Internet ate my comment; if this appears as a duplicate, please forgive me.

    This topic got me to thinking: why not use the power of Etsy to advertise letter-writting. My listing will end up costing me $17.00 plus postage for anyone who takes it, but it's worth it for me to support LEX.

    What do you think of this? I was thinking first of advertising free letters and then I thought of LEX and how much it has meant to me. So I have charged a fee.
    Right or wrong? Appropriate or not? Good or bad? I'd love to know what people think. I know that I'm not worth much as a commodity, but I think that LEX is.

  28. As a fan of yours, and a long time snail-mail enthusiast (and penpaller), I don't like the idea of someone charging to write a letter for someone else. Its absolutely wretched, and I don't understand why anybody would do that.

    However, I have a listing up in my etsy shop for a "snail mail treat". This is not to make money with, but to share the art and love of snail mail with someone who may not have time to keep correspondence with a penpal. Also I find that it helps encourage people to break into the snail mail and mail art community. I don't charge a large amount, and rarely "get back" for the time and materials I put into it. I usually don't send letters, other than maybe a social commentary about current events (and usually not even that, you never know who you'll offend) so usually its a treat like a recipe, a few bags of tea, artwork (ALWAYS artwork), epehemera or little paper scraps to inspire to create your own art, or even a decorated envelope with stationery to pass along as your own mail to someone else.

    If someone who purchased this listing from me decided to write back, thats even better, but for me... its not about making money. Its about inspiring people to create their own snail mail.

  29. Thank you Squid for your kind response and for understanding that it was not my intention to attack you, at all!

    I agree the "from the heart" is a very curious term when it comes to selling anything, and especially when it concerns a handwritten letter. I think that is what caught my interest: "oh, from the heart, huh? I give you money and you give me something from your heart? hmmmm. I smell a rat." It piqued my curiosity at a particularly vulnerable time in my life.

    I think the support of LEX, as well as Kata's listing in her Etsy shop, are both really honest in their transparency and intent, as well as intriguing ideas for inspiration -- after all, my original purchase of a 'letter from the heart' inspired me to get writing more often, more sincerely, and to reach out to other like-minded folk.

  30. I didnt know people did this! I also didnt realise that people ask for stamp "donations".
    -start rant-
    That saddens me. I've been writing letters since I was 7yo and I've continued to do it because I love it. I love meeting new people through letters: There's something incredibly unique about that experience and I cannot believe there are people out there trying to "cheapen" it by charging for the privilege.
    I dont understand why someone would pay money to receive a nice letter anyhow, especially when, with a little searching, they could find a nice penpal who would do it for free.
    As for stamp "donations", I cannot believe people have the gall to ask for such things! All hobbies should be maintained within a personal budget: If you cannot afford what you have, then cut back! Dont ask others to pay for it on your behalf - that's just rude!
    -end rant-

    P.S. Lovely blog. :)