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Making money off your litblog: Thoughts

Feb 28 Update: Since I made this post, Amazon dropped me from their Amazon Affiliates program, claiming that I violated the terms of the agreement by offering ads to competitor products (in this case Smashwords). I plead guilty as charged! In retrospect, these reflections on the implications of signing up for an affiliate program were prescient indeed!

(See also: Amazon vs. Smashwords: A comparison).

Ever since I revamped the blog to make it more literary, I have thought about whether it was worthwhile to spend time and effort trying to make money from it. . Every indie blogger faces that question at one time or other: sure, blogging is just a habit or a nasty itch, but getting paid a little would make it easier to justify spending more time and energy on it. Given the stark fluctuations in my finances over the decade, the question of seeking ad revenue always remains relevant. Actually, it brings a series of questions:

  1. How much time would it take to configure and maintain an ad-friendly site?
  2. How much would it alienate my (very meager population of) readers? How distracting would it be?
  3. Is the amount of revenue worth the effort and deterioration of the site’s look?
  4. How much control would I forfeit?
  5. How likely is it that ads are for products I’m personally not comfortable with?
  6. Am I crossing a line from which you can’t go back?
  7. Does keeping the blog noncommercial provide benefits greater than trying to monetize it?
  8. Do I have analytical tools to optimize ad performance?
  9. Is the compensation from monetizing a One Person Blog (OPB) high enough to justify doing it?
  10. Is it good to endorse the company deriving benefit from these ads?
  11. How do you compute the optimal ratio of content vs. ads?
  12. Is the subject matter of my blog conducive to advertising?

I’m not going to answer these questions in a methodical manner. I just want to list them for reference.

Some blog topics are naturally conducive to monetization. If you run a fashion blog or a mommy blog or a vintage car blog or a blog about local events in Houston, you’re in luck; it should be relatively easy to connect to potential advertisers. Many bloggers occupy niches of some sort; some are simply less monetizable than others. I am always amused when a blogger from one of these categories talks about how every blogger should try to monetize. No, every blog is different. Some types of blogs are always going to get more eyeballs and always going to attract people who want to advertise. For the vast majority of bloggers, it does not make sense to try because the amount of potential earnings is so paltry.

Are there ads which don’t drive people crazy?

Many ads are distracting. For a long while I have run ad blockers while surfing the net. I don’t particularly feel guilty about doing this, although I wish that I could help these sites in some ways. For me personally, the problem is not the fact a site has ads but that they are extremely distracting and can dominate the reading space. If any ad on a web page has movement, I simply cannot concentrate on the content. Undoubtedly there must be marketing research demonstrating that multimedia ads work better than static ads, but I can confidently assert that sites with ads that dance or shimmer or shake or flash lights drive me crazy. As a reader, I go to web sites to read, not to engage with a video ad which a site has decided I must endure.

Common Mistakes of One Person Blogs (OPB)

At some point, bloggers have to deal with the niche vs. personal thing. Most bloggers start with a niche, and then diverge from it over time with personal updates, political rants, family things, etc. But One Person Blogs (OPB) are difficult to maintain; to truly do justice to a topic requires a full time personal commitment, and even that is not enough. That is usually why many bloggers burn out; they try to do too much or get overwhelmed with other things. In best case scenario, the OPB turns into a multi-person blog and the workload (and profits) are evenly distributed. These things are not as common as you’d think.

The mistake made by one person blogs (OPB) is assuming that the blog has to be the most important thing in their lives. But blogging shouldn’t be first priority or even second priority, maybe not even third priority. Blogposts should be opportunities to go off on random tangents.

Another OPB mistake is assuming that advertising needs to align perfectly with the content. A personal blog is what it is. It’s never going to stay on-topic, and any blog monetization need to allow for this fact. I’m not going to refrain from making a Trump rant, an awkward personal confession or a link to scatalogical humor just because I’m afraid of what potential advertisers will think.

Another OPB mistake is delegating the choice of ads to a third party. Most bloggers have dabbled in putting third party ads on their blog with disappointing results. Maybe the text-only Google ads are better than most from a readability point of view, but the ads themselves aren’t vetted and are potentially suspicious. Also, they appear once and disappear, reducing their effectiveness. Who’s going to click through a link just on the basis of a single ad impression? If I show an ad on my website, I want to know beforehand what it looks like and what product or service it’s promoting. A while back I was looking into joining an ad network — both to buy ads and also to feature them. Eventually I looked at the ad payouts and how much they were charging and eventually realized that the only books which could afford these ads were the bland blockbusters I wouldn’t want anywhere near my blog.

Third party ad networks are convenient and provide better analytics. But they generally don’t provide good value to advertisers or a good payout to website owners. Sure, maybe niche advertising can find the appropriate niche blog, but I generally think both sides are paying too much for those analytical tools at the reader’s expense.

There is a more practical problem with using third party ad networks. Most users were using ad blockers, and third party ads were extremely easy to block. In today’s web, you have to figure out the nuances of persuading people to turn off their ad blocker. Or you can try something more obvious: serve your own ads! (Adblockers rarely block ads from your own website).

The dilemmas of participating in affiliate marketing programs

My makeshift solution is to serve simple book cover ads on the sidebar with links to my Smashwords affiliate links. Then whenever I link to Amazon products in the main text, I embed my affiliate code in the URL.

I somewhat endorse the books featured on the sidebar. I haven’t read most of them, but I’m familiar enough with the content and authors to feel comfortable recommending them. Would I like some paid book ads? Sure! (and hey, if you’re interested, email me!) But for the time being, it’s more important to provide a space for indie authors to get noticed. I’m fine with running free ads indefinitely — most for at least a month.

One overlooked thing about Smashwords is that authors can raise the payout percentage to affiliates. Default payout for Smashwords affiliates is 11%, but when I correspond with authors, I generally ask them to double the payout to 25% (I explain more here).

So far, these affiliate ads have earned me next-to-nothing. Maybe that will change over time as this blog attracts more visitors. Because of the random nature of web surfing, web visitors might not use the affiliate links or possibly not follow my ebook recommendations at all. Oh, well, them’s the breaks!

Which ebook distributors should a blog prefer?

Previously I discussed the pros and cons of Amazon and Smashwords. Is it right for a blogger to prefer links to one of them because of the potential revenue from affiliate marketing programs?

First, let me say that I actually prefer Smashwords as a store for multiple reasons, not just for affiliate payouts. (See my last post).

Second, Amazon not only has more market share and reader reviews, it also has reading applications on all the major platforms. Despite its lack of support for epub, I still prefer the Kindle reading app to the others. Perhaps Google Play Books matches Kindle in platform independence, but they’ve been around for — I don’t know, 6 years — and they still haven’t figured out how to create collections or bookshelves!

Third, I don’t know of third party price alerts for ebook stores other than Amazon. For Pete’s sake, I don’t know how to visit a book page on itunes website without the browser warning me that I need to install iTunes!

Fourth, it is unrealistic for a consumer to keep track of different reading systems. Let me talk about the ebook distributors I have patronized before, in chronological order.

  • ebookwise — (2004-5) I bought a handful of (DRM-free) ebooks from them, all now lost.
  • Sony Reader. (2006?) I bought a handful of well-known titles (Bill Bryson, Andrew Weil, etc) after being given a store credit. DRM. All now lost.
  • Barnes and Noble Nook (2008-2012). I bought about 12 titles and acquired hundreds of free titles. Through some major account screwup, BN lost all my ebook records. I should be mad, but frankly, it was evident for a long while that BN was not managing their records correctly. DRM titles, all now lost.
  • iTunes on iPad 1. I bought about a half dozen titles for the iPad, including several innovative multimedia titles (some as ebooks, some as apps). DRM. After I finally parted with my ipad 1 in 2016, those titles are now lost. (I haven’t had an Apple device since that time — though I recently came to own an iPad 2, so these ebooks might be available to me again.
  • O’reilly Store. 2012-2015 I bought a handful of DRM free technical ebooks available as PDF/EPUB/MOBI which I put on my Google Drive. It’s been a while since I’ve visited the O’reilly store, but I’m pretty sure I could download these titles anytime I want.
  • Packt Press 2011-4? Technical publishers, drm-free. I think I bought a few titles from one of their sales.
  • Humble Bundle 2011-now. I have bought maybe 3 or 4 different DRM-free ebook bundles from them. I downloaded the files onto my Google drive and put some on Google Play Books. I’m pretty sure I could re-download them anytime I want. Strangely, the big problem with Humble Bundle stuff has been file size (some of their files have been gigantic!) Interestingly, some Packt Press and Oreilly titles were included in the last Humble book bundle I bought.
  • Verso Books. (2018), I bought a ton of drm free titles from this leftist press during their Summer Blowout sale. They have really incredible titles (especially on climate change), and I’m sure that as long as the publisher is still alive, I can redownload them anytime I want.
  • Google Play Books (2017-2018). I purchased about 5-10 DRM titles from GPB, mainly because of coupons and sales not present on Amazon. (Octavia Butler, Stephen Hawking, etc). I upload lots of PDF and epubs to GPB, but as I said before, there is no way to organize anything!
  • Tor (2016-present). I have bought 1 title and downloaded several DRM-free titles from these guys.
  • Amazon (2009 to present). I have purchased 1000s of DRM titles (about 80% free) and uploaded many DRM-free purchases from Verso, Smashwords and review copies. (I upload only mobi files. I never upload PDFs to them).
  • Smashwords (2012 to present). I have acquired about 1000+ DRM-free titles. Pre-2017, most of my acquisitions were freebies, but starting in about 2017 onward, I have paid money for an increasing number of titles (especially during their seasonal sales). I try to download multiple formats (when available) and stick on my Google Drive. If mobi files are available, I upload to my Kindle cloud reader. Otherwise, I stick them onto Google Play Books.

To summarize: Except for Amazon, most purchased titles with DRM have eventually become inaccessible. Here are the ebook reading systems I am now using:

  1. Kindle Reader (for most of my purchases). I read on a Samsung 12 tablet and a small android phone.
  2. Google Play Books (for epub uploads, and sometimes PDFs).
  3. Adobe Digital Editions (mobile android edition). For PDFs with DRM (which I use rarely).

So from my perspective as a reader, I am basically blind to sales on iTunes or Kobo or Barnes and Noble store. If more sales become available from these stores, they would have to be pretty huge for me to want to add that reading system — especially since Amazon.com pretty much inherits the low prices from most sales. Maybe at some point a Kobo-Walmart collaboration could persuade me, who knows? Why should I spend extra time making links to ebook stores likely to have the same prices on Amazon?

A kind of solution for affiliate marketing

One way for a blogger to be more agnostic about ebook distributors is to carry affiliate links for everybody. To my knowledge, Amazon hasn’t required exclusivity to participate in their affiliate program. (If they did, I would quickly head to the exits!) WordPress has several plugins which allow you to convert Amazon links to ones with your affiliate codes, so it is convenient to use their program.

If the same ebook is available for the same price on both Smashwords and Amazon, I will buy the version on Smashwords (even if I later end up uploading it to the Kindle app). For this reason, I generally provide links to the Smashwords store if the price is the same. Generally, all the Smashwords titles are available on Amazon.

If the ebook is not on Smashwords, or if the Amazon price is significantly lower (or free), then I’ll mention the Amazon price. Buying through Smashwords pays me 275% of what Amazon pays in affiliate fees, so that’s why I provide as many Smashwords links as I can. On the other hand, Amazon has sales on many titles not on Smashwords. Because the bigger publishers have tools which allow them to price products across bookstores simultaneously, seeing it on sale at Amazon means that it will probably be on sale at other bookstores.

If something is really cheap (and I mean, REALLY cheap!) at another ebook store, I’ll certainly mention it (especially if it’s DRM-free).

To make it easier for you, I will try to provide links to the author’s website and some book descriptions. Like it or not, Amazon’s book page contains the most book information and reviews, so that’s why I link to Amazon’s book page. Even so, you should still check the author’s page when possible. Book pages on the author site not only gives buying information but also direct URLs to book reviews and possibly other supplemental material (interviews, video trailers, excerpts). Also, it can be fun to learn extra things about an author from his bio or his blog.

Goodreads and Book Communities

I actually like Goodreads (despite privacy concerns!), and Amazon’s backing of it has generally helped book communities (although at the expense of the equally impressive Librarything). Let us dream for a moment of an independent book community site which links to all the ebookstores and provided metadata and reader reviews of all kinds. It is not really a good thing that Amazon essentially controls this information. If this consumer/user-generated book information resides at one bookstore, it reinforces the monopoly. Librarything should really do a better job at making their book information available to ebook distributors; perhaps they are already doing this, I don’t know. Capitalism doesn’t always work efficiently, but if it were easy for all ebook sellers to tap into this information, everybody would benefit, and no vendor would derive a special advantage. Then again, it’s hard to imagine such a book community thriving without a big financial backer.

At the same time, my participation in Amazon’s affiliate marketing program does put me in bed with the biggest ebook player (Amazon). For the time being, I’m fine with that — because Amazon book pages have lots of information and Amazon’s affiliate program offers the possibility of blog monetization. But I will keep an eye about whether my implicit partnership with a single bookseller is undermining my commitment to inform you of ebook deals. This blog is NOT MARRIED to Amazon. Instead, it is DATING Amazon simply out of convenience — and if a more attractive suitor comes along, I’m certainly be happy to start playing the field.

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