February 14, 2013

In defense of Maria Popova


It’s not advertising if he’d have been wearing that anyway, right?

If your website is part of an affiliate program and you potentially earn money by linking to books — either on Amazon or Indiebound or others — are you ethically obliged to share that fact with your readers?

We’ve discussed affiliate programs here before, most recently as the central topic in a case still being decided in New York State Appeals court. In that case, Amazon is arguing that affiliates in New York are advertising for Amazon every time they post a link, and thus do not represent a “nexus” or reflect an obligation for Amazon to collect sales tax. It is extremely worthwhile for Amazon to characterize their affiliates as advertisers: some estimates would put their sales tax burden for New York alone at almost $100 million a year.

The language on Amazon’s affiliate program page reflects this: “Earn advertising fees from Qualifying Purchases, not just the products you advertised,” they write, and “Choose from over a million products to advertise to your customers.” Questions about why “Qualifying Purchases” might be written in the title case aside, their message is clear. It is also clearly self-serving, a bit absurd, and not, I believe, accurate about how people are using affiliate programs.

Today a one-off tumblr made the rounds calling Maria Popova of the site Brain Pickings to task for her advertising policy. We’ve written about Popova in the past as well, in regards to a fiery screed she wrote excoriating a publisher about the extent and, funnily enough, image resolution of a book excerpt she hoped to use. This recent blog, which runs to a few pages of text, is unsigned. It accuses Popova of misleading her readers by claiming proudly that the site is ad free and using that claim as an excuse to solicit donations, while at the same time making, the author assumes, considerable money off of the affiliate links in her posts. Perhaps worse, it accuses her and any that use affiliate links of writing to those links, in essence, writing only to drive sales.

The Affiliate form of advertising invites more detriment to quality writing because it actually requires an author to interrupt the reader with a link and it incentivizes authors to change their tone such that they convince the reader to go all the way through with the purchase (which is necessary for them to receive their kickback).

I too dislike Popova’s requests for donations with every post. I dislike her strident insistence that she is a curator. I dislike the credence she’s being given for it — since last fall she’s had adoring pieces about her in the Times and the Guardian, and in fact this very afternoon she’s a keynote speaker at the Tools of Change for Publishing Conference. All of which makes it distasteful, but I feel driven to defend her.

The rambling j’accuse of an anonymous blog post is simply wrong. It’s quite paranoid and indulges in questionable math as well, but that’s just the colorful, mistaken icing on a confusion-flavored cake. Recommending books on your site is not advertising. It is recommending books. Links to retailers are a service to your readers. Or rather, links to Indiebound are a service to your readers. Links to Amazon are a disservice to all of literary culture. But that’s another dispute.

The distinction I’m trying to make is hard to codify. Perhaps it has to do more with something so fleeting as intention or regard. If your links are because you genuinely have an interest in seeing your readers enjoy the books you are pointing them to, your links would seem to be, to me, something other than simple advertising. Or perhaps it has something to do with where the agency lies in the retailer/market/consumer ecosystem.

Certainly there are bloggers who might only be out to make money off of affiliate programs. Maybe they are advertisers or, as state lawyers for New York would argue, solicitors. I do not think that Popova is among them, and her success has not changed that.




Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.