Book Culture, Social Media, & Monetization

Over the last few weeks, there have been some provocative discussions about people using social media (and other online tools) to monetize literary culture. The debate basically kicked off because of FridayReads, which started out about a year and a half ago as a fun hashtag meme that my friend Bethanne Patrick came up with. Simple premise: If you’re on Twitter on Friday, take a moment to tell people about the book you’re reading, and include a “#fridayreads” in the tweet so it’s easy for people to find in a search. It took time to build traction, but gradually it got to the point where thousands of people are participating each week.

At some point, Bethanne saw the base audience that had grown around the hashtag, and hit upon the idea of getting publishers to pay her to promote books to that audience. With our mutual friend Erin Cox as sales director, FridayReads began running publisher-supported giveaways and author chats. Not everybody knew this was the case, however, and even people who did know about it didn’t necessarily know the extent of the business. This went on until, as I say, a few weeks ago, when Jennifer Weiner called attention to FridayRead’s paid promotions, and one position that emerged from the hue and cry that followed was, in essence, that any reader participating in FridayReads was feeding Bethanne’s marketing machine, rather than supporting an organic book culture.

(It’s worth nothing here that I’m also friends with Jennifer; my respect for people on both sides of this issue enables me to see not just that each has merit, but that each is operating in good faith.)

The short-term solution was easy: Bethanne implemented more overt disclosure practices, making the business nature of FridayReads more apparent. Obviously, that doesn’t comfort people who are outright opposed to people making money off other people’s participation in what they expect to be friendly and non-commercial social media, but short of dismantling the financial operations, little would. To me, the question isn’t so much should Bethanne (or anybody, really) be making money off other people’s willingness to talk about their love of books online, but rather will they do so in as non-exploitative a manner as possible?

On that front, I didn’t have a problem with FridayReads. Once you know about the marketing component, it’s a straightforward proposition: You tell the world what book you’re reading, and there’s a chance—no guarantee—that you might be one of the handful of people who gets a free book. It’s not like Klout, where (as John Scalzi observed, among others) people were told, “Hey, how’d you like a prize for participating in Klout?” and then, when they went to claim that prize, basically told they hadn’t earned it yet. Sheesh.

There’s a fundamental point about monetizing book culture that I want to talk about, but first let’s run through the next iteration of the FridayReads controversy. Earlier this month, Jennifer called attention to the fact that FridayReads had run a promotion for Joyce Carol Oates’ The Corn Maiden, which as it happens Bethanne had also reviewed for the St. Paul Tribune. Obviously, this looks like a serious conflict of interest, although I can imagine scenarios where, FridayReads being an organization of more than one person, a lack of communication is to blame rather than greed or dishonesty. (And keep in mind: I take book blogging ethics seriously.) But any such scenarios are ultimately excuses: The situation may not be an ethical problem, but it is a problem, not just for FridayReads but for the newspaper which commissioned Bethanne’s review and now has the integrity of that review come into question for some readers. Still, I respect Bethanne’s ability to own up to the mistake and her commitment to making sure it doesn’t happen again.

Here’s the thing—and it’s not like it’s amazingly insightful of me to say this—the monetization of “online book culture,” whatever that consists of, is inevitable. And for people like Bethanne and myself, who are seriously interested in making a vocation of “book culture,” online or offline, a vocation, the old opportunities are weakening. You’ll have noticed that there are fewer book reviewing jobs in American print media these days; you may not have noticed the fiercer competition for those staff reviewing jobs that remain, or the not especially lucrative rates available to freelance reviewers, but we have.

So we create our own opportunities. And if you’re going to monetize your own foray into book culture, you basically have two options: You charge for content and/or services, or you take on advertising or other forms of corporate sponsorship. (Third option: You combine the two in some proportion.) I’ve been thinking seriously about this issue even before the FridayReads situation, and I’m looking forward to sharing some of the steps I’ve been taking towards finding a path that works for me. In fact, I’m going to have something more to say later on this week…

14 December 2011 | theory |