Notebook: Influencing (Part Two)

by Ann Kjellberg, editor

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(Read Part One of this post here!)

I remember even a dozen or so years ago, when I was teaching literary journalism to college students, it was already becoming hard to distinguish “criticism” in the traditional sense from marketing and consumer opinion. My students actually argued that an anonymous reaction to a book on Amazon was more trustworthy than a published book review, because everyone knows that the media are manipulated by powerful unseen forces.  I had to explain, also, that a blurb on the back of a book is another category of statement, being delivered by the publisher, who has an interest in the case. A reviewer (who may be doing as a little as recommending a book) is understood to have no commercial interest in what they’re saying; they are expected to recuse themselves if they do. It even made me uncomfortable when book reviews first went online and incorporated links to buy the books, with a take in the sale going to the host. We weren’t supposed to benefit from you buying the book!  For many years, until came along, such links on essentially all book reviews went to Amazon, furthering the double-dealing. Amazon still has incentives that some cash-strapped book media find hard to resist: Bookshop gives the linking host a higher cut in the book sale, but Amazon gives a share of adjoining sales of other products in the customer’s “basket.” In the beginning Amazon tried to foster its own book-criticism shop, until the, as Marx would say, internal contradictions of that situation become untenable.

At Book Post I don’t take a cut—a so called “affiliate” commission—when you click through to buy a book from the partner bookseller I link to on Book Post. With Book Post the idea is to subsist transparently—or try to—on your subscriptions, rather than stealthily by passing you and your money and data on to other entities. But I may someday be talked out of this increasingly quaint-seeming scruple. Affiliated revenue is a big part of the reviewing and recommending business, providing an incentive  for Buzzfeed, the Atlantic, the Times, and others to expand and diversify book coverage and, for example, when the Times bought Wirecutter and Buzzfeed and New York magazine expanded similar shopping sites, other linked-out purchasing opportunities amidst what we consider “news.” Some learned of this to their surprise it was revealed back in the teens that the blog Brainpickings, which had made much of subsisting on donations, turned out to take in substantial revenue from affiliate links to Amazon.

Bookshop made it easy for free agents like individual social media commentators to collect affiliated revenue on purchases made through links to their platforms. Presumably the Bookstagrammers are at least bringing that in when their followers buy the books they recommend. Bookshop’s Partnerships Manager Sarah High told a panel at the US Book Show this week that Bookshop currently has twenty-five thousand non-bookstore affiliates. Traci for her part links to Bookshop and has a careful disclosure statement on her website. In the Town Hall Bookstagrammers mentioned filling out Federal Trade Commission forms in exchange for review copies of books (which I’ve never done as a reviewer); these forms as I understand it require that you identify content as “sponsored” if you have been paid or received something of value in return for publishing it. Traci also thanks publishers for the review copies of books they send in her posts.

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So it sounds as though book influencing might be leaning in the direction of paid product placement on social media. In the Town Hall one Bookstagrammer, Reggie Bailey, described an idyllic outcome in which publishers contract out to an army of ardent freelance marketers, who eventually come in the doors and participate in business decisions. The potential downside of this vision may be, though, as seems to have happened in beauty and fashion, diminishing trust in the authenticity of recommendations. Remember when the still-very-young Tavi Gevinson lamented that she was losing the ability to distinguish between herself and her brand? One can imagine a Bookstagrammer saying something like, “I am working with Macmillan on presenting this reading for you,” and that not being a liability, just as one Bookstagrammer, Sarah Coquillat, is paid by an independent bookstore of which she has long been a champion to run a book club and set up displays. Bookstagrammers might be less enthusiastic about tagging content as “sponsored.”

As with so much in our digital landscape, it comes down to how things get paid for—as Kiese Laymon said, “we must always find creative ways to fairly compensate folks who are unfairly compensated … it’s time we do what folks in this nation never do.” What seems at first like an open-ended opportunity for expression becomes a stealthy mechanism for extracting one’s energy and ideas, inviting cascading extractions in its wake. It’s interesting that a medium like Instagram that is all about the image—so far from the layered, evolving, complex, internal experience of a book—has been so rallying for this far-flung convocation of seekers, but somehow it has, and it certainly seems like it has unleashed welcome reading energies that will be with us in various ways, we can hope, for a long time to come. Tech philosopher Jaron Lanier has said that social platforms we pay for, and content that we reward, is the antidote to internet’s transformation into a subversive “behavior modification empire.” Getting the free content horse back into the barn has not been easy, though. In the meanwhile, we can celebrate the forms that have managed to thrive in the systems we have, and seek to find ways to recognize their value.

Footnote: In other contrarian takes, booksellers have told Publishers Weekly how disconcerted they have been, on the whole, by the CDC’s suddenly sprung masking recommendations (or removal thereof), especially when so many of their neighbors, particularly children, remain unvaccinated and staff have faced resistance to in-store mask requirements that are not supported by government mandates. (This week American Airlines and Southwest announced they would no longer serve alcohol on flights on account of a rise in assaults on staff by mask-resistant flyers.) “Much of booksellers’ disappointment,” PW said, “stems from the fact that they are now responsible for enforcing mask wearing,” quoting one anxious anonymous bookseller in a state with widespread mask resistance that she did not trust neighbors who had avoided getting vaccinated to be scrupulous about wearing masks. The Washington Post last week reported unabated infection rates and increased hospitalizations among the unvaccinated. “I hope this does not become a tale of two societies,” the vaccinated and the unvaccinated, Umair A. Shah, the secretary of health for Washington State, told the Post, two societies that meet in the care of our retailers and other working people.

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