Glenn Fleishman, Unsolicited Pundit: #1
From TBTF for 1999-03-01




Glenn Fleishman's name will be familiar to many readers of TBTF. He has contributed ideas and tips to this newsletter over the years, most recently the inventive book-search site isbn.nu, covered in TBTF for 1999-02-01. You may have seen his writing in TidBITS, Adobe Magazine, or the New York Times.

For some years Glenn has been using the informal self-description Unsolicited Pundit. He has just started producing columns under this rubric, and TBTF is proud to introduce and to host them.


 

 

Unsolicited Pundit: #1

I often have ideas that demand expression, but I lack a regular forum in which to vent. This is the first of an irregularly scheduled set of unsolicited punditry which I hope to produce a couple of times a month. Feedback welcome

Pay for Play: the Masochist's Version

A new model for Internet editorial processes has emerged in the last two weeks, following the hardly stunning but breathlessly presented news in the New York Times on February 8, 1999 [1] (requires registration), that Amazon.com was accepting co-op money from publishers to provide better placement to books that had met their editorial test of quality.

Co-op money gives publishers a way to reward marketing that they "cooperate" with (hence, co-op). Some critics of the industry point to co-op money as one of the key techniques - that don't violate the law - that allow larger bookstores and chains to get money from a publisher to subsidize the cost of doing business or overall discounting. Because you have to have something to offer in order to get co-op money - like big newspaper ads or end caps (books on the ends of rows) in dozens or hundreds of stores - it's not a significant revenue source for smaller stores.

(The illegal method, according to the outcome of many American Booksellers Association lawsuits, is to give allegedly bigger discounts off list to chains than to independents for the same quantities of orders. A number of consent agreements restrain this practice to an unknown extent.)

In the case of Amazon.com, which has a rather large editorial department, and has maintained editorial credibility despite its status as a bookseller, critics would characterize this co-op money as "co-opt" money. Amazon.com was listing titles in the "What We're Reading" and "New and Notable" sections, and was getting between $500 (in its preliminary programs) to $10,000 (in its fully developed version).

Amazon.com responded that many titles in both categories had no co-op dollars attached; they had also rejected a number of titles that publishers had attempted to place, but which didn't meet Amazon.com's editorial bar.

Although many skeptics viewed Amazon.com's denial that their editorial judgement could not be bought - only rented - as disingenuous, I did not. I worked at Amazon.com from October 1996 to May 1997. (I do not serve as a paid or unpaid apologist, I have no vested interest in the company; I left without any stock options.)

I know at the time I was there, and in the time since, that their editorial judgement has remained sharp, though perhaps not as discriminating as critics of co-op dollars in general would have preferred. Some articles on the co-op situation noted several books that reviewers had disdained made it into the Amazon.com approved pile. It's easy to see, though, that Amazon.com standards for recommending a book having merit could be somewhat broader than a book review's.

Having written for several years for Adobe Magazine, I also understand the interesting editorial line that one has to toe when producing content that is indirectly, but still distinctly, tied to selling. I have never been asked to change something I've written at the magazine because it lacks the right marketing spin. But I have turned down writing reviews or skipped a topic because I lacked something constructive to say. Maybe you can save someone time or money telling why they shouldn't buy Product X, but it may be more helpful to recommend Product Y, or compare Products X, Y, and Z in an objective, qualitative manner. On the other hand, it is fun to shred.

Similarly, why should Amazon.com waste valuable screen territory disdaining a book? Their purpose is to sell books, and editorially shredding a title has less utility than praising a different one that someone might actually purchase.

This can lend a pollyannaish quality to editorial content if done poorly, but I'd maintain that Amazon.com's typical book review - including those of several books I've worked on - tends to be fair and critical, even if they come out on the positive side of the equation.

Amazon.com has often been criticized for removing user reviews that criticize a book, but having also been in the position of helping to set and enforce that policy in my time at the company, I know that the majority of negative reviews lack focus. Or they violate the standard newsgroup tenet, honored more in the breach, "Attack ideas, not people."

You can see some real opinion and interplay between people and ideas at Amazon.com in the customer reviews for Secrets of Successful Web Sites by David Siegel [2]. I stepped up to defend the book against folks writing screeds against the author, who has rubbed some the wrong way.

I said at the outset that this was evidence of a trend: I point you, secondly, to Yahoo's new Business Express [3], which would be better called, "The way in which Yahoo should be doing business in response to thousands or perhaps millions of complaints about our evaluation of new sites, and yet we're going to charge you $199 for it." Of course, that doesn't sound so good in a press release.

You can read the page for the details of the offer, but it's essentially a way to pay for an expedited answer. And, just like with God, you can pray all you want, but the answer to your prayer might be "no." Yahoo, as with Amazon.com's co-op arrangements, isn't promising results. But Yahoo's decision to launch this service makes a mockery of their editorial process for submission.

It's not that I think paying $199 will guarantee me a slot; I'm sure it won't. But it makes even more ridiculous the number of times I and virtually every other Internet marketer I know have had our submissions to Yahoo disappear without a trace even when editorially equivalent to other sites which sit in the same categories we've applied to.

A few months ago, I finally got fed up after having my first site ever (more or less) listed by Yahoo - and within a day, at that. You'd think I would be satisfied. I started ISBN.nu [4] as a bookstore price search service, but within a couple of weeks, I added automatic price comparison as well. I appealed to Yahoo a couple of times to cross-list or move the entry to one level deeper: Price Comparisons [5]. No response.

So I sent email to Jerry Yang [6]. He knows me vaguely from mid- to late 1994, when he and David Filo started running Yahoo off akebono.stanford.edu [7]. He occasionally checked in on the Internet Marketing Discussion List [8], and always - and still does - respond to personal email.

Jerry politely responded to my note, indicating that they were working on the problem, and added the ISBN.nu and another site for me. I realize I'm namedropping here, but just how bad is their submission process when I have to appeal to the billionaire owner of the company to get the service that every submitter to Yahoo should receive?

All of us ask merely for a form response:

  Your submission to Yahoo was not added to our directory because:

    [ ] It is not a free-standing site with its own domain name
    [ ] It does not contain the content you indicated
    [ ] It does not meet our standards for submission
    [ ] We do not have a category that meets the content of your
        site and have decided not to create one
    [ ] It does not contain enough content to be listed alongside
        other sites in the same category
    [ ] It's a thinly veiled attempt to get your stuff listed next
        to much better stuff
    [ ] It bites

Through a database backend allow editors to click one or more boxes, and submit. Voila! It's not a technology problem; I could write the backend in a couple days even in perl. It's not a staff problem. It's an attitude problem.

If you want to solve this problem, Yahoo is saying, you can simply pay $199 per submission.

I hope, and other Net veterans like myself hope as well, that these don't portend real trends, but are merely two unrelated activities. There's already a blurry line on the editorial front of most online publications and commerce sites, though some are better than others.

However, only a masochist wants to pony up to be told, no, no, you're a bad boy, and don't deserve what's behind this curtain. Okay, pay a little more, and we'll tell you no again.


[1] http://www.nytimes.com/library/tech/99/02/ biztech/articles/08amazon.html
[2] http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ts/book-customer-reviews/1568303823/
[3] http://www.yahoo.com/info/suggest/busexpress.html
[4] http://isbn.nu
[5] http://dir.yahoo.com/Business_and_Economy/ Companies/Books/Shopping_and_Services/ Book_Search_Services/Price_Comparisons/
[6] http://akebono.stanford.edu/users/jerry/
[7] http://www.yahoo.com/info/misc/history.html
[8] http://www.i-m.com

Updated Mon, Feb 22, 1999

Copyright ©1997-1999 Glenn Fleishman except as noted otherwise. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint, contact Glenn Fleishman at glenn at glenns.org. Replace the "at" with an @.

 


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