The Brainpickings brouhaha and the problem with affiliate links

There’s been a lot of sound and fury recently about a blogger named Maria Popova, who makes her living by curating links to smart content on her Brainpickings blog. Popova has been quite vocal about how she doesn’t like traditional advertising and instead relies on donations from her readers, in much the same way that former Daily Beast blogger Andrew Sullivan now does. But that commitment was recently challenged by an anonymous critic who noted that Popova also gets revenue from affiliate links to sites like Amazon (s amzn) — and the resulting debate says a lot about the future of both content and advertising.

One of the reasons why this incident has drawn so much attention is that Popova seems like a great example of the kind of self-sustaining media entity many bloggers — and even traditional journalists — aspire to become. While she may not be in the same league as Sullivan, who employs a team to run his Daily Dish blog (and who will be speaking at our paidContent Live conference in New York on April 17), the idea that someone can make a living by simply curating excellent content in return for donations is inspiring.

The Popova case has also become a flashpoint because as traditional advertising becomes less lucrative, publishers are turning to alternative forms of advertising such as “native” or sponsored content — something that caused a similar firestorm of criticism for The Atlantic recently — as well as affiliate-related content. Gawker is hiring writers to create what it calls “commerce journalism” that is designed to drive revenue from affiliate links. But standards on disclosure and other elements of these new forms of advertising are all over the map.


In a number of profiles, including a glowing one in the Sunday New York Times, Popova comes across as a highly intelligent and motivated individual — a former recreational bodybuilder from Bulgaria who started Brainpickings as a way of collecting interesting links to books and other content. The reputation of the blog seems to have spread fairly quickly, to the point where luminaries like former State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter said they support her through donations in the same way they support National Public Radio. And Popova has said repeatedly that she is proud to be advertising free:

“It doesn’t put the reader’s best interests first – it turns them into a sellable eyeball, and sells that to advertisers. As soon as you begin to treat your stakeholder as a bargaining chip, 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 rosy picture got a little blurrier over the past couple of days, however, after an anonymous blogger (later revealed to be Tom Bleymaier, founder of a startup in Palo Alto, Calif.) posted on Tumblr about Popova’s liberal use of affiliate links — that is, links to books and other products on e-commerce sites (primarily Amazon) that provide her with a payment if one of her readers clicks through. The anonymous blogger extrapolated from Popova’s traffic numbers and estimated that she could generate between $200,000 and $400,000 a year from those links.


Disclosure is always better if you want trust

Given that kind of income — from something that is pretty clearly a form of advertising, although perhaps a non-traditional one — the Tumblr critic argued that Popova’s claim to be “advertising free” is clearly inaccurate. He also argued that some of her donors might think twice about giving her money every month if they knew that she was deriving a substantial amount of income from affiliate links, something that Popova didn’t disclose before or after a reader clicked on one of those links (Note: She has since added disclosure to her donations page).

Reuters blogger Felix Salmon followed up with a post about Popova, repeating some of the financial claims made by Bleymaier and adding some of his own. Popova has since responded to both Salmon and Betabeat — which also published a critical post about her practices — saying she doesn’t see affiliate links as advertising, is open about using them, and doesn’t make anything close to what Bleymaier said she does.

“Those numbers are ludicrous! If Amazon gave me even a tenth of that a year after Uncle Sam takes his fair share, I’d be delighted. I’ve been completely honest about the Amazon links with anyone who’s ever asked – and have many, many, many emails I’m happy to forward – and have brought it up myself multiple times in talks and on Twitter.”

Many of Popova’s supporters have said they are happy to have her get revenue from her writing in any way possible, and don’t mind the lack of disclosure about her use of affiliate links. Others, however, have questioned why she wouldn’t attach a simple disclaimer to her site — especially on the donation page — to note that she uses them (and some have even pointed out that this kind of disclaimer is arguably required by law, due to FTC regulations on disclosing marketing-related content).

I think the main point that Salmon makes in his post on the issue is a good one: namely, that if you are relying on donations from your fans for your livelihood — as Sullivan is, and others such as musician Amanda Palmer are — then it behooves you to be as open as possible about your financial arrangements, in the interests of increasing the trust your readers or fans have in you. Sullivan and Palmer have both been extremely forthcoming about their financial situations, an approach Popova might want to imitate.

Note: Since the original version of this post appeared, Popova has added a footnote to her site at the bottom of each page that describes how she uses Amazon affiliate links, which says:

“Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I get a small percentage of its price. That helps support Brain Pickings by offsetting a fraction of what it takes to maintain the site, and is very much appreciated.”

This story was updated to note that Popova has added disclosure of her affiliate links to her donations page, as she noted on Twitter, as well as a note in the footer of her site.

Images courtesy of Shutterstock / Igor Steganovic and Brainpicker