L. Rhodes


Believer In the Corner

Originally published at http://cultureramp.com/believer-in-the-corner/

When a publication pays for itself with advertising, there will always be the temptation to compromise its message in order to make more money. That’s not the advertising’s fault, though. It is, rather, a consequence of the indirect relationship between what’s being paid for (in this case, an ad) and what the writer does in order to get paid (that is, write). Any payment model that builds that sort of indirect relationship is subject to the same temptation.

Remember that principle. It’s the foundation for everything that follows.

By her own admission, Maria Popova is a believer. The object of her belief is something she calls “the patronage model.”

Popova, for the uninitiated, is a self proclaimed “interestingness hunter-gatherer and curious mind at large.” Thrice daily her blog, Brain Pickings, dishes out virtual marginalia culled from Ms. Popova’s extensive and omnivorous reading habit. To each of those posts is appended a request for donations, and the site is otherwise peppered with proud reminders of what it lacks: ads. The sidebar appearing on each page proclaims:

Brain Pickings remains ad-free and takes hundreds of hours a month to research and write, and thousands of dollars to sustain. If you find any joy and value in it, please consider becoming a Member and supporting with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.

The notion that quality writing can be paid with the direct quid pro quo of contributions made by readers — that’s the essence of the patronage model. It’s an idea that has taken strength with the growth of online publishing, partly because the Web has done so much to undermine traditional advertising, and partly in pursuit of a purer economic ideal.

The prominence and ubiquity of the “ad-free” messaging on Brain Pickings builds an implicit argument for that model’s inherent superiority over the traditional model that pays for publishing with advertising. So, too, does the low-key celebrity of professional bloggers like Popova demonstrate the relatively viability of the patronage model. Far from leaving that message implicit, Popova herself has used her visibility to advocate for the patronage ideal. In a recent interview for The Guardian, she is quoted as saying,

I’m hopeful that the model of micro-patronage will grow, and will help more people who are passionate about some subject to deliver it to an audience without having to be reliant on advertisers.

The reason, she explains, is that the advertising model induces publishers to compromise on their editorial principles. “As soon as you begin to treat your stakeholder as a bargaining chip,” she told The Guardian,

you’re not interested in broadening their intellectual horizons or bettering their life. I don’t believe in this model of making people into currency. You become accountable to advertisers, rather than your reader.

That’s hardly a new way of looking at advertising. It’s precisely the concern that led editors like Harold Ross of The New Yorker to establish a managerial firewall between ad sales and editorial. But it is in no way unique to the advertising model. Any model that hinges on an indirect relationship between payment and product will exert the same corrupting force.

It is, then, the relative directness and purity of patronage that makes it so appealing. If a reader appreciates a writer or their work, they contribute. Provided that the system works, the writer’s sole incentive should be to write compellingly about their subject.

In practice, though, there are complications. Perhaps the biggest is that patronage places less obvious demands on the writer. Simply writing well isn’t enough. They must, at the very least, be savvy about the technology required to collect contributions. A capacity for self-promotion will also help them stand out on a platform that has long been promoted as the great equalizer.

Finally, it helps to be flexible. As Popova recently told Observer’s Kelly Faircloth, “I’m a believer in the patronage model, whatever shape it takes.” The ambiguity of that final clause — “whatever shape it takes” — speaks volumes about the state of patronage on the Web.

Anonymously at first, then with the name Tom Bleymaier attached, a tumblr that appeared last Wednesday directly questions the shape of patronage on Brain Pickings. Titled On Advertising, its sole entry to date asks, “Maria Popova … have you made $1M on affiliate ads while soliciting $500k in donations for your ‘ad-free’ site?”

The common thread that unites most of the posts on Brain Pickings, you understand, is reading. Popova posts about a book she is reading. The title of each books is presented as a link to the Amazon page where interested readers can buy their own copy. And because she has signed on for Amazon’s affiliate program, Popova receives a commission each time one of her readers buys from Amazon after having navigated there from her site. If you see that as a form of advertising — and, as Bleymaier points out, Amazon certainly categorizes it that way — then Popova’s claims to finance Brain Pickings without the use of ads can seem a bit shady.

This raises some important issues. Unfortunately, they aren’t the issues attracting the most attention. We’ll get to that in a moment.

First, of course, we should note that the story is getting attention mostly because we — meaning people generally, but especially people on the Web — have a soft spot for schadenfreude. The gleeful exposure of hypocrisy has turned into a venerable genre on the Web, and we’ve grown so accustomed to its conventions that we accept new accusations with even the gentlest of nudges. As a stock character of the genre, the Secretly Successful Blogger has seen a recent leap in popularity. Brain Pickings is only the most recent version of that story, with Popova’s “outing” following the general pattern established by a recent Buzzfeed exposé of The Oatmeal’s Matthew Inman — right down to the point-by-point rebuttals each has offered by way of damage control.

In Popova’s case, that has meant sending out email apologia to writers like Felix Salmon, who covered the story for Reuters. There, she explains that, “There are many things I don’t write about simply because I don’t think they’re relevant to readers, but gladly disclose them when asked.” Up until now, that’s included affiliate links. “I’ve been completely honest about the Amazon links with anyone who’s ever asked,” she writes, “and have brought it up myself multiple times in talks and on Twitter.”

Until recently, however, you wouldn’t have found out about them by reading Brain Pickings itself. Gradually in the wake of the On Advertising accusations, Popova has updated the site to acknowledge its use of affiliate links. Warned by GigaOm’s Matthew Ingram on Thursday that the FTC requires disclosure when their authors are compensated by affiliate programs, she first changed her donation page to acknowledge that the site is

subsidized by the generous support of readers like you: directly, through donations, and indirectly, whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on Brain Pickings, which sends me a small percentage of its price.

As recently as a month ago, the page made no such mention of Amazon affiliate links — which, for the record, pay up to 10% the cost of the book. The addition was a step toward transparency, but only on one page on a site that generates hundreds each year. Both the sidebar and each of Popova’s three daily updates both solicit and facilitate donations without mentioning affiliate links. On Saturday, she came closer to addressing the imbalance by adding a similar disclaimer to the site’s footer. The change covers Popova legally, but the language continues to downplay the significance of the compensation she receives from Amazon.

Why the half measures? Why are they being added piecemeal? The simplest explanation may be that she fears that readers will contribute less if they think she’s already getting fairly compensated. So why not trust completely in the patronage model and simply do away with affiliate links?

Why not, indeed.

Affiliate links aside, the financial system that compensates Popova for her work could be accurately called “distributed patronage,” distinguishing it from the system of aristocratic patronage that funded the arts during the Renaissance. The clear virtue of a distributed patronage system — that is, a system that pays for publishing by collecting donations from multiple, largely anonymous sources — is that it removes many of pressures that might tempt a creator to adulterate their work in the service of someone else’s agenda. In fact, the less feedback your contributors give, the better. You write what you feel needs to be written, and the money flows in. More money means “keep up the good work.” Less means “work harder.” Any additional data could be construed as financial advice, with the promise of larger profits luring you away from things like honesty and fact.

The only drawback is that the patronage model only seems to work in certain circumstances. Andrew Sullivan is making a go of it, and has gotten off to a good start. That seems pretty promising until you factor in the decade he spent building a patron base by writing The Dish for publications that survive on advertising. If his team can convert that into a sustainable economic model, the result will be an envious degree of editorial independence, but most everyone else is stuck with one compromise or another.

So long as Brain Pickings scrupulously avoided any mention of its affiliate links, Popova looked like one of the lucky few who could write full-time on the strength of pure, distributed patronage. Her reluctance to part with affiliate links throws that into doubt. As Breymaier explains it, the affiliate model

requires an author to interrupt the reader with a link and […] 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).

In that regard, the dispute over whether affiliate links deserve the name “advertising” is purely semantic. What matters is that the indirect relationship between payment and product is essentially the same, whether you call them ads or not. Some portion of the money Popova makes from Brain Pickings are the result of her having indirectly sold someone else’s product. She calls Brain Pickings “a human-powered discovery engine for interestingness,” but she also has a financial incentive to make it an engine for selling books on Amazon’s behalf.

Popova’s response so far has been that she would write about the same books even if she received no compensation at all. That may be true, but it’s a difficult position to prove. Brain Pickings once addressed a more charitable mix of art and music, with many posts curating work that would have been difficult for Popova to monetize for herself. At some point in the past several years, the site took a turn almost exclusively toward books. Popova attributes the change to stability. She has always been an omnivorous reader, she told BetaBeat, but a previously nomadic lifestyle made it a difficult habit to indulge. Settling into a more permanent Brooklyn residence in 2010 allowed her to salvage her book collection from storage and inevitably shifted the focus of the site. Nothing about that explanation contradicts the other interpretation: that posts about books are easier to monetize using affiliate links.

We need not even go so far as Bleymaier in attributing Popova with inordinate avarice. By his accounting, she could pull six figures on the strength of donations alone. That makes the additional revenue from affiliate links look like pure greed, but his numbers are educated guesses at best. Popova herself has declined to give figures — she chalks that reluctance up to her Eastern European upbringing — but has consistently represented her work online as a non-profit affair. “It costs around $3,600 a month just to run [Brain Pickings]” she told BetaBeat, “and that does not include my time, which if paid at minimum wage would take it up to nearly $7,000.”

It’s an analogy she’s fond of making (c.f. the slight variation in her letter to Reuters), but the rhetorical mode is significant. She never actually says that she makes less than minimum wage, but the comparison allows her to suggest it. It also contributes to the math of another favorite claim: that she averages 15 hours working on the site each day, weekends included. Brain Pickings thus becomes both an act of economic martyrdom, as well as an example of the Puritan work ethic on a heroic scale.

Probably the truth is much more modest on both sides. It’s unlikely that Popova is punching a time card at 15-hour intervals. If nothing else, that would make it difficult for her to fit in her other projects, like curating for Explore or freelancing for The Atlantic. It’s entirely more likely that her social, domestic and professional life are so inextricably entwined as to make a per hour rate ludicrously inapplicable, and that her yearly take-home is comfortably better than you’d make working full-time for minimum wage. It is, at any rate, doubtful that she makes anywhere near as much as Bleymaier suggests. On Advertising suggests that her quiet use of affiliate links was driven by greed, but fear of poverty is a more likely motive.

If that’s the case, then affiliate links may well have made up the margin between living comfortably and struggling to get by. Which is, really, all we need posit in order to see how affiliate links could influence the content of Brain Pickings. If affiliate links helped finance the stability that allows Popova to concentrate on books, then it’s natural to expect the site to reflect that relationship. It likewise explains Popova’s reluctance to do without them. The consequences may have been unintended, but the logic nevertheless lends itself to a shift away from curation of the type that helps struggling artists, and toward quotation-heavy posts that help a retail behemoth like Amazon. All of which is bad news for the patronage model.

That’s where we return to those important issues that have mostly been obscured by the drama of the story. There is nothing wrong with a payment model built on affiliate links that cannot, at least in principle, be corrected with enough determination and transparency. Popova’s lack of transparency raised the suspicion that she would have preferred the affiliate relationship to remain invisible to her readers — that she is deliberately obfuscating both the profitability of Brain Pickings and the composition of its revenue streams. What that says about Popova’s character is really of very little consequence to most of us, however morbid our curious may be.

Far more consequential is the disparity between what Brain Pickings seemed to say about the future of publishing, and what it actually takes to keep the site functioning. Seen from that point of view, Popova — the surname is derived from the Slavic word for “priest” — is significant mostly for how she has put belief into practice. She is one of the patronage model’s most visible advocates, and has structured Brain Pickings largely around messaging that strongly suggested the centrality of patronage to the site’s survival. There’s nothing wrong with painting yourself into a corner so long as you don’t need out anytime soon. Until On Advertising appeared, it looked like Popova was quite happy in her corner — it looked, in fact, like the sort of corner others might like to find for themselves.

If, however, it takes the addition of something like affiliate links to make patronage a viable way of paying for writing, even on a site with as large and devoted a readership as Brain Pickings, then it may be prudent to reexamine distributed patronage. It may still be salvageable, but only if we refuse to hide its shortcomings behind facile arguments over whether or not affiliate links counts as ads. And if it turns out that affiliates or overt advertising do a better job of supporting some kinds of writing, we’d be foolish to insist on an unattainable ideal. Better to put the energy believers like Popova expend on stretching the notion of patronage (“whatever shape it takes”) toward establishing proper firewalls.

It all goes back to the principle I outlined at the beginning of this article: that the temptation to stray is built into any financial model that hinges on an indirect relationship between payment and product. Any discussion of the future of publishing that loses sight of that principle is bound to go wrong.