Maria informed me she doesn’t define the links in her articles as ads because they are all “books that I would feature anyhow” and that her “different intention” means that she is not seeking to sell the books. I pointed out that in Google’s quest to organize the world’s information, there are tens of millions of times per day where the top Google result is also the top Ad that they display, but in these cases they don’t say “this is the one we were going to show you anyway” and hide the fact that it is an ad. Advertising is a business process defined by the way money changes hands - intent does not play a part in the definition. Roger Federer probably already likes Rolexes, but as soon as they pay him millions of dollars, he is considered to be advertising their product. Aside from the fact that businesses don’t get to create their own definition of advertising, Maria’s claim that they were all books she would feature anyhow was contradictory to the statement she wrote in the same email thread, which proves that her advertisements do in fact change what books she offers to users:
“a major reason I use Amazon is…data they give me - it tells me what other books Brain Pickings readers are buying on Amazon…I’d say I’ve found at least a quarter of the books I myself have purchased and read over the past few years through Brain Pickings readers that way.”
Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Harrison Salisbury was the subject of an E.B. White letter featured by Maria last Spring that spawned our correspondence. In 1975, Xerox offered Salisbury $55,000 to write an article in Esquire magazine. White expresses his concern about the erosion of press if writers start accepting money from advertisers this way. In her commentary, Popova noted that she “has been publishing an ad-free curiosity catalog supported by reader donations for the past seven years.” Reading the article I could only think what reader response would be if the article concluded with “Disclaimer: I make money each time you click a link in my articles and buy a book.”
There are important differences that make affiliate ads more subversive than the Xerox-Esquire scenario. 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). At least in the golden days of tainted journalism the author was paid upfront, and the ad was on the opposite page, not in the article itself, so they were still incentivized to write a quality article about anything they wanted - health, art, sports - that people thought was interesting enough to read, while hoping that wandering eyes would bring eyeballs to the Xerox Ad on the facing page. I’m not saying this offer was a good thing, simply noting that if Brain Pickings is building a brand based on anti-ad sentiments, it might be fair to explain how the revenue generating practices of the site work. The Guardian article described the site as an “antidote to Google” - ironic given the identical business models of Brain Pickings and Google, both of which make money as users click links in the normal course of using each site…the difference being that Google makes it known which links are ads.
I have no problem with affiliate links at all—Metafilter, one of my favorite websites, uses them and I’m happy to contribute to Matt Haughey’s income when I purchase something on Amazon via a MeFi link. But I think it’s really shitty to claim to be ad-free (and to ask people for donations after every single goddamn blog post, Jesus H. Christ) when you’re not. But then again, nothing about this woman is genuine, legit, or even the least bit original or interesting. So there you go.