The Dish Model, Ctd

Andrew Sullivan —  Mar 6 2013 @ 7:09pm

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In the spirit of transparency that we promised for the new independent Dish, above is a screenshot from the first month of affiliate revenue generated by the occasional Amazon links we insert for books mentioned in Dish posts. For years, under The Atlantic and Daily Beast, the Dish has linked to Amazon, so this isn’t a new practice by any means. Now that we are an independent site and have to meet our own uncertain budget, we might as well collect the pennies on the dollar for the items purchased on the site. As you can see, the first month brought in $1,253.91 – hardly a windfall. At that rate, if we end up making in the neighborhood of $15,000 for the year, it would just about cover our health insurance costs for both interns ($6,396 a year each).

We recently aired a debate that Hairpin fostered over whether blogs should link to Amazon. Here’s our reasoning:

The vast majority of Dish readers already use Amazon to purchase books online, so we see it as a convenience to provide a link. And in line with our long campaign against dead-tree publishing, we only link to the e-book versions of the titles we mention, despite them being cheaper and thus generating less revenue for the Dish. Also, only one staffer is in charge of inserting the Amazon links after posts and their book mentions are already drafted, as to not incentivize anyone to add mentions for the sake of generating affiliate revenue. Maria Popova of Brain Pickings has a similar view on the subject, as conveyed through Felix Salmon:

[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.

I think it’s ad-free if it doesn’t have any advertisements or advertorials. So I consider us ad-free as well, even though we get a fraction of the money from Amazon than Maria. A much more craven approach can be found at Instapundit. He writes whole posts entirely for Amazon revenue purposes, and there’s absolutely no distinction between them and other posts. Check this post from today. Or this.