The Dark Net by Benjamin Percy
What your favourite Austen novel says about you, really

All The Eggs, One Basket [Click to Buy!]

Roadside America
Roadside America, photo by John Margolis

If you're not reading Lisa Schmeiser's So What, Who Cares,... get in there. It is a brilliant bi-weekly newsletter that connects the dots in fascinating ways. Her thoughts on this matter are much more considered, and interesting, than mine - so go read that.

The most recent issue examines the connections between Amazon and journalism. Not in the conspiratorial way, but in an economic one: Amazon affiliate links are a huge source of revenue for professional and amateur journalism.

Not to go all Heisenberg, but...

I've struggled with the 'moral' repercussions of Amazon links in a lot of ways, but, ultimately,  our own refusal to use affiliate links has nothing to do with this decision. If my goal is to sell books (as a publisher or blogger), the usability of Amazon trumps everything else. It is global, one-click buying, and the most efficient way of funneling a user to purchase.

My concern, and this is why we don't have links - and not a generalisation as to all ethics, ever - is that big 'if'. If you are out to sell books, sales performance is your key metric. That's not a bad metric: it is a measurable behaviour, which is an A+ indicator; plus, there are certainly worse ways to impact the world than selling books! But, ultimately, if that's how you're defining success and measuring yourself,... your content will reflect it. Hell, it should

As Schmeiser says:

Publishers' increasing dependence on e-commerce as a revenue stream is going to present all sorts of institutional challenges on how to cover these companies - and it presents questions of trust and transparency for readers. 

It is grandiose to think of bloggers as publishers - but in this context ('platforms for the distribution of content') we are. And it isn't like we're journalists covering Amazon, but I would rather our positivity - and our criticism - go un...nuanced by any possible inference that we're profiting from our coverage. That includes our own internal satisfaction as well. I don't ever to think that I'm pulling punches, or reviewing one book over another, because somewhere, deep inside, consciously or sub-consciously, I want to make a few squid.

This is not criticism of other blogs, and I remain impressed by anyone who can monetise their hobby in a satisfying way. If you can, and you want to, do it. Similarly, if you can, and do, I'd love to hear from you how (or if) it has made a difference in your reviews.

The line between editorial and sales is increasingly blurry, and Amazon knows it.

Also in my inbox, the Glossy round-up. Another one worth following, as Glossy provides really interesting insight into the world of fashion marketing. If that feels tangential,... it isn't. Fashion is currently wrestling with influencer marketing, diversity, challenger imprints and - relevantly - Amazon encroaching on the sector.

As with books, Amazon is going for the low-value, low-glamour, high-repeat corner of the market first, and snaffling it up like crazy by offering a better user experience (for consumers), faster route to market (for producers) and incentivised 'findability' (for those partners who jump into bed with them early). Amazon's selling you white t-shirts and tube socks, not limited edition trainers and name-brand clutches. Luxury brands are so far untouched, but sitting nervously. Publishers and booksellers ostensibly relying on a premium product and personalised experience to stay afloat may have some wisdom to offer them. Or, quite possibly, not.

Anyway - in a move that should get people paying attention more closely, Amazon are experimenting with editorial partnerships. And why not? They've done so in the past with, say Goodreads and IMDB, incidentally picking up a lot of data in the process. In publishing, they've literally edited and published books. But, beyond these limited experiments in content creation, they've never really established themselves as a 'curator' before - at least this overtly. Amazon not just creating sales, but also prioritising what they sell.

There's a real cautionary tale here about relying on Amazon for your revenue.

Again, quoting Schmeiser:

Publishers should also care because - yet again - they are yoking their futures to a tech company who can and will change the ground rules when it suits them. We've seen it when revenue models were based on advertising traffic and Google re-ranking its search results could make or break a site's traffic. We've seen it with how Facebook algorithm tweaks have shaken up sites' traffic. And now we're seeing it with Amazon, which has already had a shake-up in the commission structure for its affiliate program in March. Big publishers have their own custom affiliate deals with Amazon, so don't cry for the New York Times' bottom line here.

And again, set aside the 'morality' argument of whether or not you get into bed with Amazon. And set aside my previous point about how affiliate marketing may or may not impact your content. If you rely on one major source of revenue, your entire business model is at their mercy. 

Where this leaps out as particularly relevant: self-publishing. Right now, self-published authors point to the financial advantage with Amazon. 70% royalties thumps anything that traditional publishers or other platform can offer. Right now, Amazon offers self-publishers the best way to reach readers with no marketing or sales budget. No need to spend extra money to get incentives, shelf-space, 3 for 2 offers, etc. 

That's all right now. At any point, Amazon could decide, you know what? We've got the market cornered, and drop that 70% down to 35% and 10%, and, hell, charge a slight fee if you want to be in the first page of results. It won't impact the total volume of sales on Amazon, and they'll make seven times the revenue off of a captive audience. What's to stop them? The goodness of their hearts? And if you scoff at this, re-read the list above. Once a market is cornered, the monopolies can boil the frog to their hearts' content. The ecosystem is theirs to play with. There is nothing to stop them, and... why wouldn't they? The Big 5 publishers can't make a decent go of an independent retail platform, and they've got money, booksellers and brand name authors. No bootstrapped indie cooperative is going to break the Amazon monopoly. 

Like using affiliate links - this isn't a judgement about finding the best route to market, and making money how and where you can. But if your income - blogger, publisher or author - relies solely on Amazon, the affiliate changes should come as a chilling reminder that you exist at their mercy.