The Ethics of Recommending Books

Hi Patrons! 

A big of a wordy one today, written in response to a question from Craig Mod. Craig is a writer and walker whose work I greatly enjoy. In his most recent newsletter he recommended a book, and then offered the following explanation for his sourcing:

That link above is to the US Amazon page for Ocean’s book. There’re a great many of you reading this. My goal in pointing to a book like On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is to shine a light on something wonderful and help the author a) be seen, and b) sell books. I normally link to Amazon because I think it has the least amount of friction for most to buy a book. 50% of you reading this are US based. So statistically speaking, you’re more likely to have an Amazon account, a Kindle, etcetera, and therefore the friction between seeing the book and clicking “buy” goes down significantly. Politics or capitalist issues aside, I feel this is most helpful to the author. 

He then detailed why the link wasn't an affiliate link—Amazon doesn't allow them in emails, only on websites—and mentioned that he used to make quite decent affiliate money reviewing camera equipment. In an average year of book reviews, he'd make enough for a computer upgrade. Now that he's doing most of his work through email, that revenue stream is effectively dead.

This kerfuffle gave me reason to reconsider if I even wanted to be linking to Amazon in the first place. Maybe it’s not the best option. And maybe it’s a little self-fulfillingly defeatist to assume it’s the best way for most people to get books.
I’d love to hear your feedback:
What’s the most useful way to point to books online?

Obviously I'll take any chance to mouth off about books and distribution and supply chains, so I dove in and wrote a thousand words in reply. Once I'd finished the email I realized it was something I'd wanted to write about here for a long time, too, so here's what I said:

Hi Craig!
This was a lovely, eclectic installment. I wish I could attend your talk in New York! Instead, as invited: some thoughts about the recommendation and purchasing of books through the internet, something I also think about with great frequency as an independent creator.
I’ve put out two books now, and have taken the plunge to get them into general distribution through Ingram and Diamond and Baker & Taylor and all the many channels (big and small) that make up the Getting Books into Hands Machine. And, because I’m independent, I write and talk a lot about how I do those things online. When I talk about these mechanisms on social media, people are continually astonished because generally we (as consumers) have absolutely no idea how these systems function. We just don’t think about it. Buying something on Amazon is abstract because it’s so seamless. Click, boom, book, hands, done.

As an author, I understand the impulse to offer people the book-buying method with the least friction. We want to afford the highest chance that a curious party really will go buy that book. But there’s also something so anticapitalist about the very act of reading a book that I think the people selling them would do well to champion slowness—a circuitous route to the prize. (Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing is very relevant to this line of thinking, if you haven’t picked it up yet. I think you’ll love it.)
When I link to book pages, I tend to either post a link to Powell’s, my beloved local outfit (who offer swift and often free shipping, or in-store pickup, or any number of other options), or I link to IndieBound. It isn’t the most frictionless way to get a book. I understand that. But I also want to give people the opportunity to think  “Hey, where is my local bookstore?” and plug in their zip code to figure it out. I’m still a firm believer in that magical sense of curiosity and personal discovery.
I have a robust conscience and a lot of anxiety about the state of the world, but the thing that makes real, lasting change in my behavior isn’t my own worries, but the socially modeled and shared behaviors of people whom I respect. Not that I’m constantly, unthinkingly doing whatever anyone else is doing like some sort of sheep. When I see other people say “I am concerned about X (where X is something I am also concerned about), so here is an action I am taking to combat X,” I am so much more likely to adapt my thinking and action to that path. We’re social animals, after all.
Around this time last year my friend Lindsey wrote a post about choosing to run her crowdfunding campaign on a new, female-owned platform instead of an established site like Indiegogo (her original plan) or Kickstarter. The choice she laid out there (doing something unwise by “normal business standards” in favor of acting in alignment with her values—because nothing changes if we don’t choose to do things differently) is something I still think about on an almost weekly basis. Changing behavior is inconvenient. It’s hard. Large companies like Amazon spend millions to make it harder.
Reducing one’s consumption of single-use plastics is a great item to throw under this header, or altering one’s language to do away with a common phrase with problematic roots. I wouldn’t say the change comes from reading one deeply convincing article or tweet from a friend, but rather from seeing a general shift in behavior across multiple channels. This is what we’re called upon to do in our current era: active resistance of convenience in favor of thoughtful, ethical engagement. (As much as any of us can hope for ethical consumption under capitalism.)
And so to your point about affiliate links, which I wanted to touch on even though Amazon has put the kibosh on your monetizing them through your newsletter. The theory of “Some Benefit” (which I thought I’d picked up from Cal Newport, but can’t seem to find a direct quote about right this second) feels relevant here. The basic notion is that humans have a hard time jettisoning things which bring a little bit of positive impact, but no immediate negative impact. Even if you’re making far less than you used to with affiliate links, you’re still making some, so why stop?
The truth for me is: I don’t make much money that way. And the money I do make I don’t feel particularly good about. When I stop and interrogate the impulse, I don’t have a fantastic reason for doing it other than “it’s there,” and that reasoning looks suspiciously like “I am doing this because Amazon has done a good job guiding me to think that I should and I have yet to question that impulse.” As your membership numbers grow (and I hope they continue to do so!), you’re afforded the freedom to act a little more in accordance with your moral compass—but it does mean making the conscious effort to jettison those things you’ve benefitted from in the past.
If you're trying to make a difference in the sales numbers of an individual author, is a higher royalty check from Amazon for that quarter worth the hit to the broader literary ecosystem that comes from diverting sales away from indies? Perhaps the stronger course of action is to try and make a difference in the behaviors of your sizable crew of subscribers, who strike me as a thoughtful bunch who appreciate thinking before they act, taking the circuitous path, and investing in depth. Seeing you choose to link to small outfits may very well inspire them to change their habits when buying books not only from that author, but many other types of authors in the future as well.
Well, there’s an accidental novella for you. Thank you for indulging me! I appreciate having the opportunity to sort out some of my thinking about this, and I look forward to hearing your roundup of people’s responses to this question.
Be well,
Lucy

If you made it all the way to the end of this, BRAVO! I'd love to hear your thoughts on where and how you recommend and purchase books—through the internet or otherwise. These are strange times for publishing, and I'm always curious to learn more about what people think of them.

Writing this also reminded me how lucky I am to be making different choices in my own creative practice because of your support. Thank you for making that possible <3

Talk soon,

L

P.S. The photo in this post was taken at Ada's Technical Books in Seattle. Ada's is a great bookstore crammed with fascinating titles, but it's also a cafe, co-working space, bar, and event venue. It's like seeing your hard-hustling freelancer friend turned into a building. Being there makes me wonder about the future of bookstores, and what they'll look like ten years from now. Go give them a visit if you're ever in the PNW.

Tier Benefits
Recent Posts