Blogonomics, Maria Popova edition

By Felix Salmon
February 14, 2013

Back in May, Kickstarter looked as though it was moving upmarket. Following Bob Lefsetz’s lead, I said that “while Kickstarter was originally embraced by the undiscovered and impecunious, its greatest potential, in the music industry, is actually with established acts who already have a large following”.

I said that in the first days of the now-famous Amanda Palmer Kickstarter campaign — something which not only massively exceeded its target, but which also got Palmer a key slot on the TED 2013 roster. But there have been few established music-industry acts following in Palmer’s footsteps. Indeed, when Björk recently tried something similar, she quickly discovered that she was never going to get anywhere near her £375,000 goal, and pulled the plug. There were various reasons why the Björk project failed, but one of them was undoubtedly the fact that Björk is a rich person and therefore doesn’t “need” £375,000.

It’s entirely natural to want to funnel money where the need is greatest. Andrew Sullivan’s readers are supporting him, for instance, because they know that the the only source of income keeping his blog going. And Maria Popova’s readers are also reportedly quite generous. Anne-Marie Slaughter, for instance, is on the record as giving $25 per month — that’s $300 per year — to Popova, saying that doing so is “a lot like giving to your public radio station”.

Popova doesn’t claim poverty. But she does have a tip jar, prompting her readers to give between $7 and $25 per month (that’s a lower bound of $84 per year, well above the cost of, say, the New Yorker). And she explains on every page that “Donating = Loving”, and that “bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month”. The tip jar is more explicit, saying that “Brain Pickings remains ad-free and takes 450+ hours a month to curate and edit”, and Popova has said in the past (although not recently) that Brain Pickings is “not for profit”.

The messaging here is clear: I work hard, I put all my time into this, and I have no other source of income, so please give generously to support what I do. And Popova does work hard. But she also has another job, editing Explore, and it’s hard to see how she can spend 450 hours a month on any job and still have time left over for that. More importantly, while Brain Pickings might technically be ad-free, it also provides a substantial income to Popova before she gets any money at all from donations.

The secret is affiliate links: if you follow a link from Brain Pickings to Amazon.com, then a big chunk of any money you end up spending on Amazon that session is going to make its way back to Popova. Affiliate links can be very lucrative: the Wirecutter, for instance, makes $50,000 per month, with that number “doubling every quarter”, according to David Carr; it gets that money from a readership of less than 350,000 unique visitors per month.

Brain Pickings claims 1.2 million readers, and while they surely don’t buy as much stuff on Amazon as the Wirecutter’s readers do, even if they only spend one fifth as much, that would still work out to an income to Popova of more than $400,000 per year from Amazon alone. An anonymous blogger on Tumblr (update: he has now named himself as Tom Bleymaier) has done the math a couple of different ways: one comes out to $432,000 per year, and the other comes in at $240,000 per year. However you estimate it, Popova’s Amazon income would seem to be more than enough to keep her blogging even if all her tip-jar income dried up entirely.

The blogger, who will say only that his name is Tom and that he Bleymaier, who runs a startup in Palo Alto, is not offended by Popova’s income: rather, he’s offended by the way in which Popova is being deliberately opaque about what she’s doing. Affiliate links are a form of advertising, which does somewhat put the lie to Popova’s claims of being ad-free. And as Tom says, if you’re making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year from such things, that gives authors a pretty strong incentive to “to change their tone such that they convince the reader to go all the way through with the purchase” of the book (or whatever) that they’re writing about.

What’s more, the affiliate links don’t end at Popova’s website: she links to Fab sales from her Twitter feed as well (here, for instance), and gets a percentage of all those revenues too. With more than 300,000 followers on Twitter, a 0.1% conversion rate means 300 sales, and potentially thousands of dollars of income from just one tweet. On top of that, as recently as a couple of months ago, Popova was found to be behind skeevy SEO sites like curesleepapnea.com, gastricbypassrisk.com, and liposuctionrisksinfo.com.

All of which makes the tip jar on Brain Pickings seem less like an honest request for readers to help keep the site going, and much more a cynical attempt to maximize income from a business which is already extremely lucrative. Andrew Sullivan is being very open about how much money he’s making, and where it’s coming from; Popova, by contrast, is being very opaque.

That’s sad, because Popova provides a valuable service to the web, and she also seems to have worked out a highly-successful business model. We should be celebrating the kind of money that Popova is making — I certainly don’t begrudge it — rather than seeing her try very hard to make it seem that she’s less successful than she is. If Popova is up there with John Gruber as a one-person operation making half a million dollars a year from blogging, and if she’s managed to get to that position by the age of 28, that achievement is just as impressive as Brain Pickings itself. The problem, of course, is that if she’s outed as a member of the 1%, her donation income might dry up quite quickly, and she doesn’t want that. Does she ever wonder, though, whether her readers might need that tip-jar money more than she does?

Update: Popova, who says there are “lots of factual errors” in this piece, has responded at length, via email. Here’s the whole thing.

Hey Felix,

A few thoughts on the whole Amazon situation.

Tom Bleymeier emailed me about a year ago with some seemingly polite but decidedly passive-aggressive questions about the affiliate links. I wrote him back and answered as patiently, honestly, and completely as I could, over a series of several exchanges. (I’ll forward you those in a second if I can dig them out – there’s nothing to hide, but I was very miffed by his complete lack of basic journalistic hygiene in making out-of-context quotes from private emails, which are by default always off the record, public.)

At some point, however, I had to disengage – in part because it was becoming enormously time-consuming, but mostly because it became painfully clear that this was a person who had projected his villain image onto me and had absolutely no interest in understanding my motives, my reality, who I am, or why I get up in the morning.

Regarding his Tumblr article – first of all, those numbers are ludicrous! If Amazon gave me even a tenth of that a year after Uncle Sam takes his fair share, I’d be delighted. Delighted!

A biographical note for context – I’ve spent most of my life in what constitutes poverty by American standards. When I came to America for college, I worked up to four jobs at a time to pay my way through, and graduated with student debt. Not much changed until 2010. When I moved to New York late that year, the security deposit my landlord required (in a non-fancy part of Brooklyn) was more than all my scattered savings combined – $80 more, to be precise. So I went to an ATM across the street, took $80 out of my credit card, deposited it into my checking account, and handed the whole big check to the landlord. While I’ve come a long way since the end of 2010, and I’m proud and relieved to report that for the first time in my life I’m not perpetually broke, to peg me as a member of the 1% – “outed” as one – is not only absolutely ludicrous but also quite hurtful.

Semi-relatedly, on motives: Brain Pickings is a record of what I, the subjective person, care about, what excites and inspires and stimulates me. A lot of that happens to be books, because I spend the majority of my life reading books, but I would do that anyway, whether 5 or 500,000 people shared in it. And I would do it whether those people clicked the Amazon link or the public library link I provide for each book I write about. (A fact, oddly, never made mention of – I suppose that would discredit the depiction of me as some dollar-sign-eyed monster trying to mercilessly “sell” people books…) I don’t mean to be passive-aggressive myself, I’m just having a very hard time with such depictions that run so counter to who I know I am.

Regarding the incorporation – that happened last spring, after a few readers alerted me that a company in Israel had incorporated under the name Brainpickin’, by someone named Ariel something-or-other per WHOIS, and was even using my old logotype. My studiomate Tina, who runs the Swiss Miss blog and had dealt with such issues, advised me to incorporate immediately and put me in touch with her IP lawyer, Jerald Tennenbaum. He said an LLC would be best and fastest for trademark purposes, filed the paperwork, billed me, I got a couple of official-looking envelopes from the government, and that was the end of it. I hadn’t even thought of it since, until this week’s quasi-scandal. If you’d like to reach out to Jerald to confirm, I’m happy to connect you.

Regarding transparency and comparisons to Andrew: I love Andrew, read him daily, and supported his indie move the first day he announced it. But Andrew and I have very different styles. He writes about his partner. I don’t. He writes about his health. I don’t. He writes about his financials and other meta-topics. I don’t. Please understand this is out of an impulse of being “opaque” about it – it simply isn’t the kind of writing I do. I’ve been completely honest about the Amazon links with anyone who’s ever asked – and have many, many, many emails I’m happy to forward – and have brought it up myself multiple times in talks and on Twitter.

There are many things I don’t write about simply because I don’t think they’re relevant to readers, but gladly disclose them when asked. For example, I don’t tell people how much it costs to actually run the site – which, when you add up web hosting, email newsletter delivery, the money I spend on books, TypeKit, VaultPress, proofreader, developer, designer, and various data plans, adds up to about $3,600 a month. That doesn’t include my hours which, if paid at minimum working wage – so if I were cleaning toilets instead of, say, poring through Edison’s diaries – would bring the total up to about $7,000 a month.

I also don’t mention that I send a good chunk of the donations and such I receive to other things I want to support – sites like It’s Okay To Be Smart and Ed Yong’s science blog (until he discontinued the donations a few weeks ago), Radiolab, The New York Public Library, A Room of Her Own (a foundation supporting women writers), and various KickStarter projects in the science/history/storytelling space. I don’t write about this partly because it’s my own business and thus irrelevant to readers, and partly because it’s simply cheesy to brag about altruism.

Regarding hours, actually – to anyone who knows me, questioning how much time I put into what I do would be laughable. Brain Pickings is not how I make a living – it’s MY LIFE, Felix. Every waking moment goes into it one way or another – the enormous amount of time it takes to read books, to research, to meet with people, to interview, and even to do this right now, and of course to write 3 articles a day Monday through Friday, between 300 and 3000 words each. (Add to that the time of my proofreader and any intern at any given time, plus designer and developer when needed.) And here’s the thing – I do it not to “build an audience” or “generate revenue” or any of that, but because it gives me enormous joy and stimulation. It makes me excited to wake up and fulfilled to go to bed. And I guess what it boils down to is that the fraction of the world that’s ever come across Brain Pickings and cares will just have to take my word for it. Those who don’t are free to ask me questions, which I will always answer as honestly as I can and as completely as time permits, or they’re free to move on. But Brain Pickings is my home – and people interested in hostile takedowns, like Tom seems to be, rather than in understanding what moves me or having an intelligent conversation about things, are simply not welcome in it.

Thanks for reading. Sorry this is so long.

// maria

Comments
14 comments so far

She is now claiming “It costs around $3,600 a month just to run it – web hosting, email delivery, books I buy, proofreader, backups, TypeKit, etc. – and that does not include my time, which if paid at minimum wage would take it up to nearly $7,000″ at Betabeat.

Setting aside the absurdly inflated prices for hosting, TypeKit, and the like, she is apparently claiming that she works over 30 hours per day. At New York’s minimum wage of $7.25: (7000/7.25)/31=31.1457. Even giving her an insanely charitable interpretation of “nearly $7,000″ to mean $6,000, that’s still more hours than exist per day.

Can we please stop calling her anything other than a scam artist?

Posted by rymndj | Report as abusive

Perhaps this is a clash between arts people and markets people but as a professional analyst all I can see there is

a) no numbers answer to a clear numbers question. (“if Amazon gave me even a tenth of that after [tax]” is as close as it gets)

b) no answer remotely relevant to the real issue which is – the site says it’s ad-free and it isn’t ad-free.

Posted by dsquared | Report as abusive

I read Brain Pickings every day and it is one of those blogs that can’t be copied since it requires a lot of hard work reading all the books she reads and selecting all those wonderful quotes. I love her response, it does show that there are so many things that happen behind the scenes that only she knows. Her response makes Tom and you Felix look pretty bad in the sense that everything looks like a speculation, a huge gossip. I read this blog every day and read Popova’s blog every day, and you guys are the best the blogosphere and open web has. I have bought a few books of those Maria links too, I have never donated money to her and I don’t think I’ll ever do, but I definitely help spread the knowledge by sharing her quotes and your articles from time to time. I really want her to do well, so she can keep doing this for many years to come, same to you Felix, and I really don’t care how much money you guys make. If any of you ever come to the point of being hungry, I would definitely invite you a Subway sandwich. Cheers for more peace on the open web!!!

Posted by Engels | Report as abusive

Maria is awesome and deserves to realize the American dream, especially after having started poor. Everyone has to hustle for a living:)

Posted by Yahodi | Report as abusive

“for the first time in my life I’m not perpetually broke, to peg me as a member of the 1% – “outed” as one – is not only absolutely ludicrous but also quite hurtful.”

We’ve come so far that being in the top 1% is now a hurtful insult…

…this is going to end in tears comrades.

Posted by y2kurtus | Report as abusive

actually this is now bugging me a little bit, as I have a constitutional dislike of long and flowery how-could-you-impugn-my-pure-motives spiels. Juxtaposing a quote:

“And here’s the thing – I do it not to “build an audience” or “generate revenue” or any of that, but because it gives me enormous joy and stimulation. It makes me excited to wake up and fulfilled to go to bed.”

with a fact

“On top of that, as recently as a couple of months ago, Popova was found to be behind skeevy SEO sites like curesleepapnea.com, gastricbypassrisk.com, and liposuctionrisksinfo.com.”

Posted by dsquared | Report as abusive

To claim that the affiliate links are “more subversive” than the 55K Xerox paid to Salisbury to write is just ignorance of journalism basics. Popova doesn’t accept money from Amazon to write anything about anyone, and it certainly isn’t fifty five thousand dollars for an article. Advertising’s money setting up the journalism agenda is a whole different thing and it’s way worse than anything said here.

That said, Popova should update the text on her site to “ad-free (but with affiliate links)” and end this playground for critiques. She does a brilliant work curating and blogging and it earns the money – be it from links or donations.

Posted by nandop | Report as abusive

Why doesn’t anyone talk about the copyright violations on brainpickings? She posts entire pages of books that are under copyright, but gives no indication that she has permission to do so. It’s laughable that she’s involved in writing a “curator’s code” of honor.

Posted by zzzsophia | Report as abusive

There’s a big difference in the editorial process between affiliate links and sponsored links. Sponsored links are advertisers who approach you and say ‘link to us from your blog, using these words, and we’ll pay you x’. Affiliate links are something you make yourself, if you’re writing about a book that your readers may buy, you find it on Amazon and create a link that will track the sales and send you a kickback if your readers buy it.

Could that encourage her to link more to products available on Amazon? Yes. Is that the same as a banner ad or sponsored link? No.

Posted by CWhoa | Report as abusive

Is this a real story? I’m still trying to understand why it is anyone’s business how much someone makes doing their job. If she has a viable business model, then more power to her. If I were approached by bloggers that attempted to hector me into revealing my finances I don’t think I would respond nearly as elegantly as Ms. Popova has responded.

I don’t subscribe to the site but I have visited and have been turned on to books she has curated. The copyright question is valid, but I imagine authors benefit from the excerpts as teasers for the Amazon purchases.

Brainpickings is a bright spot on the web, occupying a unique space, in my opinion. Why not just celebrate that…?

Posted by BrainX | Report as abusive

This whole article reads strangely to me. First of all, unless Popova is benefiting from public funds or actively ripping people off, this doesn’t really qualify as news. The copyright question does, and I don’t see why that isn’t pursued. As it is, it’s just one person having a problem with her making money at what she does.

Since BrainPickings is not a 501(c)3, it’s not bound by the standards of charity. Even so, the affiliate links are not a scandalous deal. Affiliate linking isn’t even that big of a deal in the case of known 501(c)3 organizations that are explicitly not allowed to advertise. TheCurrent, one of the Minnesota Public Radio stations, routinely places links for purchase of songs on its website – this is not banned under any advertising law. It’s allowed because it does not have an explicit call to action (also how underwriting announcements are distinguished from ads on public radio.) Amazon linking to products spoken about is also very much part of how the public radio site proceeds online – and they do all this while honoring specific laws that do not allow them to advertise. They can make products available for purchase, they just can’t tell you to buy them.

Popova does much the same thing on Brain Pickings, and as a private entity she is not bound by these laws. Brain Pickings offers a thought-provoking blog with really high quality content. It also draws attention to high-quality content. It is not funded by taxpayers, but by its own readers. The readers are getting what they pay for – and what they’re getting is really good stuff. If you read the blog, you’ll see that its audience isn’t going to consist of the naive and silly. BrainPickings is written by a critical thinker for a critical thinker.

So … what’s the problem here with how she’s making her money? Is it just that she’s making money and supporting herself? The money she has isn’t part of the public trust – it’s private donations from private citizens. Now, if the government paid for it, then I’d see the point.

Posted by drajchel | Report as abusive

Brainx-
drajchel-

This isn’t Nightline. This is a blog where the author is free to write about what he wants. IN this particular case he wants to write about the ugly juxtaposition of claiming you need donations to support your ad-free website when the website is sort of not ad-free.

Also personally as someone who works on the financial side of things and does a lot of time working with timesheets and time allocation plans and billable hours and whatnot. There is a zero % chance she is being honest about how much time she spends on this unless she is counting every hour of reading she does as “work for the site” which is kind of disingenuous she she strongly implies that she would be doing the reading regardless.

The idea that she is working on the blog 17 or 20 or 31 hours a day (depending on which estimates of hers you use) is frankly laughable. Does she never do anything that isn’t blog related? No dates? No going to a concert? I find that hard to believe.

Posted by QCIC | Report as abusive

Both sides have some valid points. Bottom line is, outside all the noise, is that’s it’s a wonderful little website that she clearly works very hard on. So who cares…

Posted by ThomasNEPA | Report as abusive

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