Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Random Thought - Amazon Links, or Rather the Lack Thereof

Readers of this blog may have noticed that over the last week or so the Amazon affiliate links have been disappearing. Or, more likely, no one noticed, since no one ever seems to have used them during the three or so years that they existed. Either way, the fact remains that I spent several days going through the hundreds of pages that contained Amazon affiliate links and manually removing any of them that I could find. I think that I have gotten to all of them, but I may have missed one or two on some of them more obscure pages. If they are out there, I'll find them in the near future and get rid of them too.

This, of course, raises the question why I would spend time doing this. I have a couple of reasons, the first of which is that no one ever seemed to use them, making them something of a waste of page space. Advertising, and Amazon affiliate links certainly are advertising, that doesn't work is simply not worth bothering with. Although it is not the point of writing this blog, and I certainly won't stop writing it if I can't, but I'd like to earn some revenue from this blog. And quite frankly, Amazon links that no one clicks on are simply so much useless clutter.1

I also removed the Amazon links because of their current feud with Hachette. Despite many efforts by Amazon apologists to portray this dispute as merely the rough and tumble of business negotiations between equals, this is simply not the case. Amazon controls roughly thirty percent of the retail book trade in the United States, although I've seen some estimates that place Amazon's market share at closer to forty percent. Amazon controls more than sixty percent of the e-book trade. By any of the standard measures used to determine monopoly (or monopsony) power, Amazon clearly has such power. And, in the United States at least, an organization with such power is not treated as a regular participant in the market, which means that Amazon's hardball tactics, at least in my opinion, are probably illegal.

I have seen some people argue that because the U.S. department of Justice brought an action against Hachette, Apple, and several other publishers claiming that their attempt to enforce an "agency" model for e-book distribution was impermissible collusion, that therefore Hachette is a bad actor and deserves whatever it gets in return. To this I have two responses. First, the antitrust action against Hachette was never concluded - Hachette and the other corporations targeted by the suit all agreed to settle without admitting liability. Second, whether Hachette may have participated in a cartel to deal with Amazon has no bearing on whether Amazon itself is behaving in a manner that violated the antitrust laws of the United States.

I have always been a little uncomfortable with having the Amazon affiliate links because I have never been particularly fond of Amazon's business practices. The reports of the low pay and intentionally impossible to meet standards at their fulfillment warehouses, their nigh-predatory pricing intended to drive local book stores out of business ( an intention that has largely been fulfilled), their insistence that they should not pay sales taxes like every other business does, and various other actions make them a less than savory business partner. Granted, many of the companies in the market are less than savory as business partners, but most of them are constrained by their competition in a way that Amazon appears not to be.

As an aside, I have seen it claimed that because the various major publishers use very similar contracts when dealing with authors, this is evidence of a lack of competition. This conclusion displays a lack of understanding of basic economics. When there is strong competition, one would expect business practices to converge towards a similar end point. From an economic standpoint, the similarity of the contracts used by the "Big 5" is evidence in favor of the conclusion that they are in fierce competition with one another. In contrast, the very different terms offered by Amazon constitutes substantial evidence in favor of the conclusion that Amazon has significant market power.

Also, I read an article the other day that posited that the reason Amazon has such a dominant market share is due to affiliate links, because that encourages people to lazily purchase through Amazon when they visit a blog or website that has them. That doesn't seem to be supported by my admittedly anecdotal experience with having such links, as no one used them even once during the couple of years that they were active. I have seen some commentary from other blogs also noting that no one ever buys anything through their Amazon affiliate links either. Although this is just a pile of anecdotes, it does seem to suggest that the links might not be as valuable as one might expect.

But the real issue is that the Amazon affiliate links were essentially dead space on this blog. The Amazon-Hachette dispute served as a catalyst to motivate me to do something I had been vaguely planning on doing for a while, but it was only the proximate cause, not the root cause. I'm looking into replacing the Amazon links with something else, but that's on the back burner right now as I have several other projects on the blog that need attention. But for now, I've disentangled my product from Amazon, and I am unlikely to do so again.

1 I actually stopped putting links on new posts a few months ago when Amazon changed the code used for the links from using iframes to using scripts. This change didn't alter the appearance of the links, but it did make it much more difficult to integrate them into the body of a post without causing formatting issues.

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  1. I've been thinking about similar things lately, though haven't come to a decision yet. However, I can recommend using IndieBound ( or The Book Depository ( affiliate programs to both support indie bookstores in the US and give your international readers a link useful to them :)

    1. @Anya: The Book Depository is owned by Amazon, so switching to them wouldn't really be a change.