Maria Popova’s blogonomics, part 2

By Felix Salmon
February 16, 2013
scheduled to give a speech about blog business models the day after Tom Bleymaier and I wrote about hers. I went along to hear what she had to say, and caught up with her afterwards.

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By a curious coincidence, Maria Popova was scheduled to give a speech about blog business models the day after Tom Bleymaier and I wrote about hers. I went along to hear what she had to say, and caught up with her afterwards.

Popova is making changes to her site. Without revealing how much money she makes from Amazon links, she is going to improve her disclosure: every page now has a footer talking about how “Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising commissions by linking to Amazon.”

That’s Amazon’s language, as mandated in section 10 of the Associates Program Operating Agreement. (It’s easy to miss, and it’s kinda buried in the agreement, so I’m sure a lot of other Amazon affiliates are also technically in breach of that part of the contract.) Unfortunately for Popova, it uses the word “advertising” twice in one sentence. That’s a problem, for Brain Pickings, because Popova doesn’t consider her affiliate links to be advertising, and she still says on her tip jar and on her donations page that the site is ad-free. Here’s how Popova sees the difference:

I’d be writing about the books I read anyway, whether or not they “generate a sale,” and that’s not true of an ad, which simply wouldn’t exist then.

There is a certain logic to this. It’s even reasonable to say that she’d be linking to the Amazon page for each book anyway; I, for instance, link to Amazon most of the time that I write about a book, without any affiliate link. In that sense, even the link to Amazon is a natural part of what one expects from a blog, and is not intrusive advertising which is only there because it generates revenue for the advertiser.

On the other hand, the fundamental property of advertising is that it advertises, not that it’s intrusive or gratuitous. (In glossy luxury magazines, for instance, the advertising is a necessary and fundamental part of the editorial product, just as much as it is the main source of income for the publisher.) So it’s understandable that many people, including Amazon, consider affiliate links to be advertising (as opposed to, say, some kind of biz-dev relationship). What’s more, many such links — especially when they’re accompanied by photographs of the product in question, and live permanently in the right rail of a website — are unambiguously advertisements.

It’s easy to overstate the importance of this point. The question here is just whether Popova can or should continue to describe her site as “ad-free” if she uses Amazon affiliate links: it’s not some kind of existential threat to her dual-income model.

The way I see it, Popova has three reasons for including that language. The first, which I’ll get to in a minute, is to imply in some sense that if she’s not making money from ads, she has to make money some other way. The second is to remind readers that they’re having a more pleasant experience just because Brain Pickings is unsullied by banner ads. And the third is Popova’s more general distaste for the ad-supported model, which she sees as leading to sites which lose their integrity as they whore for pageviews. I don’t share that distaste, especially as we move into a world where publishers are increasingly looking for unique visitors and engagement rather than raw traffic. Ultimately, Popova’s incentives are not that different from those of today’s ad-supported online properties: in both cases, income rises with readership and engagement.

The presence of Amazon ads is not some kind of existential threat to Popova’s tip jar: there’s absolutely no reason why she can’t have income from both sources. Just look at public radio and television: individual shows, and individual stations, and national networks all ask for donations even as they also receive substantial income from advertising. (Which is presented as “sponsorship”, but it’s the same thing.)

The conflict, then, if there is one, isn’t between having ads and asking for donations. So where might it be? Daniel Davies says that book reviewers shouldn’t get commission sales, and that he’s been disappointed in the books he’s bought after seeing her recommend them; is that the conflict?

Popova’s reply to Davies is that she doesn’t review books: that she only writes about books she loves, and that if she doesn’t like books, she simply won’t write about them.

It’s surely true that Popova’s success is in large part a function of how well-read she is, and how positive she is about what she reads. At the same time, however, she has a clear financial interest, on a site suffused with Amazon affiliate links, to write about a lot of books (as opposed to, say, online writing); and to say such nice things about those books that her readers are going to go out and buy them as a result. If she didn’t have the affiliate links, there would be less of a question about her recommendations, and whether it’s really possible for that many books to be that good.

Affiliate links do produce a conflict, then: they give an incentive to write positively about books for sale which might not actually be particularly worth buying. But there are conflicts all over media, and as conflicts go, this one’s relatively minor — especially for someone with Popova’s readership. Because here’s the thing: Popova isn’t a journalist, and her loyalties are only to her readers, who genuinely don’t seem to care about things like this. The consistently positive and upbeat tone to Popova’s blog might generate healthy Amazon income as a side-effect, but it’s also genuine: she’s one of those bloggers — Gina Trapani is another very successful example — who have no time for snark and who naturally look for things to celebrate rather than things to tear down. (Just listen to that O’Reilly talk: she dishes out huge amounts of praise to virtually everybody she cites.)

To a certain extent, this is a female thing: positive happy bloggers tend to be female, as do their readers.* And when someone like Anne-Marie Slaughter supports Maria Popova to the tune of $300 per year, there’s definitely an element there of supporting the sisterhood. Which is a good thing!

But to many male observers, there’s something a bit off there. I was on the MediaTwits podcast with Andrew Sullivan today, for instance, and he went to some length to explain that his paywall is not a tip jar, like Popova has. The difference between a paywall and a tip jar, to Sullivan, is that tip jars have connotations of being an amateur, or a charity, while he is a professional looking to get paid for what he does. His paywall has already visibly reduced the number of people who read beyond the home page, but he’s sticking with it: he clearly wants his subscribers to be paying for something which they wouldn’t otherwise be able to receive.

To Joe Weisenthal, too, Popova’s tip jar has connotations of charity: he considers it the digital version of “panhandling”. Again, Popova doesn’t see it that way: I asked her if there was any level of Amazon affiliate income at which she would be making so much money that she would take the tip jar down, and she said that there wasn’t. To Popova, the tip jar is not about pleading poverty or neediness: it’s about giving readers the opportunity to support a site they find valuable.

The tip jar and the affiliate links are pretty similar, in Popova’s mind: they’re both ways that her readers can help support the site, either directly or indirectly. (A hint, for Popova’s supporters: if you’re buying something expensive on Amazon, follow a link from her blog first, and then add that expensive item to your cart. That way she’ll get about 7% of the proceeds.)

The affiliate links provide Popova with more than just money. There’s a whole extra layer of value there: Popova can see what books her readers are buying, and thereby see what her readers are interested in, or what she too should maybe be reading. In that sense, the Amazon data is bit like the emails that pour into the inboxes of high-profile bloggers like Andrew Sullivan and Tyler Cowen: a useful and efficient back-channel way of crowdsourcing material for the blog.

So the links are great for Popova. But, now that she’s disclosing their existence on every page, is that going to put a dent in her tip jar income? Will Popova’s readers still donate the same amount of money now that it is more obvious that Popova is running a “clearly commercial site”? Popova’s language — the way that she combines a request for donations with a statement that she doesn’t accept advertising — suggests that she fears they might not, as does the whole Björk episode.

But really, Björk failed in her fundraising not because she’s commercially successful but rather because she hasn’t built up a strong two-way relationship with her fans. The difference between Björk, on the one hand, and Amanda Palmer, on the other, who raised over $1 million on Kickstarter, is that Palmer has an astonishingly strong relationship with her fans — a relationship which feels personal. If I say “I like Björk”, what I mean is “I like Björk’s music”. If I say “I like Amanda Palmer”, on the other hand, I’m much more likely to mean “I like Amanda Palmer”.

The part of Popova’s response to me which has resonated most strongly is undoubtedly the bit where she says of her blog “it’s MY LIFE, Felix”. For Popova, there’s basically no distinction between her blog and her life — she is Brain Pickings. What’s more, her supporters understand that, and they’re wholly aware that when they support the blog, they’re supporting Popova, personally. If Brain Pickings were published by Time Inc, its tip jar wouldn’t fill up very quickly: that would be weird, a bit like Reddit running a pledge drive while being owned by Condé Nast. (That turned out quite well in the end, but it was still weird.)

Because there’s not much of a distinction between supporting Popova and supporting Brain Pickings, there is a sense in which it would be fine for donations to start falling if Popova was making enormous amounts of money from other sources. If Brain Pickings were written by Bill Gates, for instance, rather than Maria Popova, it’s hard to imagine that many people would place $10 per month in his tip jar. And that’s why it makes sense for Popova to be a little bit more forthcoming with regard to the amount of money she makes from Amazon.

At the margin, it probably doesn’t make a huge amount of difference: Popova’s donation base is pretty strong, and indeed is likely to continue to rise from its current level, as her readership and fan base expands. But if you look at Popova’s examples, in her speech, of all the various people who are making money online from sources other than advertising, a trend emerges. To the extent that donations are voluntary, they tend to be based on an interpersonal desire to help somebody out. Twitter is the new radio, in that sense: both mediums feel particularly intimate, and can be very powerful in creating an audience of people who feel that they really know and like the person they’re following or listening to. The more of a personal relationship that readers feel with authors, the more they’re willing to give. Where there’s less of a personal relationship, publishers have to create other kind of incentives: withholding content from people who won’t pay, giving goodies to those who do.

I suspect that’s why Andrew Sullivan plumped for a paywall rather than a tip jar: while he’s very open about his personal life and his finances, he also wants his commercial relationship with his readers to be a professional one, based on mutually-beneficial trade, rather than a personal one. While people supporting Amanda Palmer are clearly supporting Amanda Palmer, for instance, Sullivan prefers to see his supporters as people who are buying access to his pro-quality website. A professional like Sullivan feels more comfortable asking people to pay for his professional services than he does asking people to just support him voluntarily.

And this is where the tension underlying Popova’s business model reveals itself. Popova has made the decision that there are certain types of things she doesn’t want to write about:

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.

That’s fair enough — but the internet, just like television, has a habit of rewarding those who overshare. And the less you talk about yourself, the more room you leave for people like Tom Bleymaier to try to reverse-engineer the stuff that isn’t public from the stuff that is. In a slightly different world, this wouldn’t be an issue at all: if Popova had set Brain Pickings up as a non-profit, for instance, then her income would be public on her form 990, while if she lived in Sweden, it would be public on her tax return. But Brain Pickings isn’t a non-profit, and isn’t Swedish, and is very successful — which is naturally going to result in a lot of people being interested in just how much money it makes, and whether it might make sense for them to follow a similar strategy.

In a world where all media business models are precarious, having two separate income streams is entirely sensible. And in general, the more money that bloggers can make, the better. Popova might not be making $400,000 a year yet, but I hope she does in future — and what’s more, I hope she does so while retaining a substantial tip-jar income stream. That would be a great sign of what’s possible in the ideas-blogging space. What’s more, as she moves in that direction, I hope she gets over her reticence and celebrates her good fortune with her readers and the public at large. It’s possible that she might lose a little bit of her tip-jar income. But it would be pretty easy to more than make up for those losses by monetizing the inspirational story of how an impoverished Bulgarian became an iconic role model for the new information economy.

*Update: This sentence has not gone down well in the Twittersphere. Just to make it clear, there’s a huge difference between “most A are B”, on the one hand, and “most B are A”, on the other. I believe that women, in general, make better bloggers than men, even if that means they are less likely to appear on op-ed pages. But, I might well be wrong about that!


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