In my previous post, I dug into the identity and objectives of the Information Brokers. Now it's time to drill down on the "Dealers." Just who are these mysterious individuals who do such a craptastic job of delivering all the muck that's fit to rake? And how are these people affecting the publishing high seas?
First off, a disclaimer. It's fun (or at least simple) to profile and stereotype. That's the reason we all do it, whether we intend to or not. For educational purposes, I'm going to openly engage in creating a few information dealer profiles. This by no means indicates that I believe everyone who falls into these profiles is a smarmy information dealer. So don't be a douche about it. Pretty please?
What's the definition of an information dealer? Anyone who is employed or employs others with the primary purpose of generating and propagating sensationalized content that maximizes ratings, clicks, and/or profit with an open disregard for validity.
Who are the Information Dealers?
If you haven't read about the city of Veles in Macedonia, CNN has a solid read about how an entire city is revitalizing its devastated economy by pumping fake news into the United States. On one level, this is ingenious, and I totally get it. I mean, screw America and its pretentious ways, am I right? [wink, wink.]
If you've seen the movie, Team America: World Police, this is where you should be humming the theme music to yourself. If you haven't seen it, I can't openly recommend it. Doing so might get me blacklisted even more than I already am...but I kid (not really). The movie is terrible. (It's hilarious.)
I spent the summers of 1996 and 1997 in Ukraine (not THE Ukraine, for the love of Gorbachev. They hate that.). I also spent time in Turkey during the travel ban weeks after 9-11. I'm from Texas, officially the most offensive state in the United States (as far as loud-mouth international travelers go). I'm aware of how the rest of the planet struggles with their relationship with us. The simple fact that we've co-opted the term "Americans," even though we're from only one of the countries in North America is pretty pretentious.
So it doesn't surprise me that the mayor of Veles has been quoted saying, "We don't even try to stop them" in regards to the entrepreneurs engaged in generating fake news for the American consumer public. Along those lines, meet the first information dealer profile.
Information Dealer Profile #1: Disenfranchised Macedonians
A growing legion of disenfranchised young people in Macedonia are spewing fake news into our society for more money in a day than they could otherwise make in six months. If given the choice of drugs, prostitution, or fake news...I gotta admit, fake news would be a no-brainer for me. I'd be right there generating stories about how Trump flew into a rage over democrats claiming he was signing a deal to become the next big erectile dysfunction spokesperson.
It's hard for me to hate these people. Yet the damage on our society is real and intensifying.
Information Dealer Profile #2: The Russian Web Brigades
For a second profile on information dealers, let's travel to Mother Russia. Yep, here is where we mention the Russian Web Brigades. This is where the 2016 presidential elections and Facebook become intricately interwoven into the saga. The key differences between these web brigades and the entrepreneurs of Macedonia are their motivations. Russian motivations are primarily political while the motivations of the Macedonians are primarily monetary.
Russian efforts are centralized and organized, while the Macedonians are only loosely-organized, independent dealers. In the end, the Russian Brigades are still composed of individuals trying to improve their position in life.
Ironically, the content produced is often similar. (Turns out that the American political circus is a top money-maker. Who would have thunk it.)
Information Dealer Profile #3: Domestic Freelancers
Lest I look like some sort of foreigner basher, let's turn the focus inward for the final profile. It turns out citizens of the ole' US of A also like turning a fast buck. There are plenty of domestic content providers maximizing profits from spinning sensational polemic via websites, youtube, podcasts, and radio. While politics is the easiest place to dig up information dealers from both extremes, topics such as race, religion, and orientation also generate ample fodder for info. dealers.
When it comes to these domestic information dealers, some of them should be classified as ideologues, meaning they believe in their extreme rhetoric. The rest simply recognize there is money to be made from click-bait articles and media. Some rather large celebrity personalities in the United States should be considered nothing more than information dealers due to the fact that they appear to care about ratings, clicks, and profit far above the validity or value of their content. This is, after all, the definition of an information dealer (at least according to me, and I'm the one writing this post).
How do Information Dealers make money?
Despite all the hubbub surrounding Facebook and the 2016 presidential elections, Brother Zuck and his international platform (that some people are starting to refer to as a surveillance platform rather than social media) isn't the magic sauce for information dealers. It turns out that Google's Adsense is. Or in a more general sense, digital advertising services are the magic sauce.
Information dealers make the vast majority of their money from the ad revenue their content generates. So while it's true that information dealers utilize Facebook to find readers, they profit by sending those readers off of Facebook and onto platforms that allow them to generate ad money based on clicks/views.
Google's Adsense is by far the largest advertising service and therefore has the highest profit-generating potential for information dealers. These information dealer's frequent and heavy usage of Adsense is why a study among digital advertisers in 2018 claimed that legitimate agencies and individuals purchasing ad space through Adsense were wasting 51 million dollars a day. In other words, during 2018 it was estimated that 51 million dollars a day went into the pockets of information dealers whose fake news sites were displaying legitimate ads. If you've spent digital ad money in the last few years, it's guaranteed that some of it was paid out to information dealers.
How does this play out for the publishing industry?
The key piece to keep in mind is that information dealers need a platform with ads to make money. Youtube, as an example, went through a massive upheaval a couple years ago when major sponsors threatened to yank their advertising dollars if their advertising spots continued to be played before scandalous or sensational content. Thousands of profitable, legitimate Youtubers were caught up in the collateral damage when their content was demonetized almost overnight.
The second thing to keep in mind is that platforms are continually doing stuff like Youtube did (with all the grace of unlicensed surgeon, Moe Sizlack) in an attempt to block information dealers once the pain point gets too high. This leads to information dealers doing one of two things: either they find a new way to slip past the platform's efforts to block them, or they find a new platform to infiltrate--one less equipped to stop them and one less inundated by other information dealers.
Enter Amazon. Yep, Amazon is now fully immersed in the highly-profitable space of digital ads. And double yep, Amazon has nowhere near the experience that Google and Facebook have in countering the efforts of information dealers. Triple yep, Amazon has become a new target of information dealers.
We've seen early attempts to gamify Kindle Unlimited via page-stuffing and click-farm borrows. We've seen mass, fake reviews. For each of these hacks, Amazon has demonstrated clumsy follow-up/cover-up skills that make Facebook look darn-right svelte. For a couple of years now, people have complained about Amazon Marketplace (their space for Third-Party Sellers) being out of control and overrun with shysters.
Despite the dangers, the potential profit is too great to resist. Amazon has launched its Onsite Associates program (invitation only at this point) as another step toward allowing monetized-marketing content onto its platform.
Each of these is a lever for information dealers to pull in order to make money at the expense of readers and legitimate writers: reviews, KU read through, top 100 lists, monetized product guides, Amazon Marketplace, sponsored product ads, and product display ads.
It goes without being said that Amazon is the largest information broker for the publishing industry. It also goes without saying that Amazon's primary markets are not publishing. The combination of these two things should have writers soiling their armor whenever they think about the future of their beloved industry.
What the [bleep] can we do about information dealers?
Much like the information brokers, it's next to impossible to avoid the information dealers. They swim and breath in the same digital waters that we traverse on a daily basis. But there are things we Pirate Authors can do.
First and foremost, any strategy involving Amazon should be seen as a short-term one. Understand that the time you invest in maximizing Amazon's KU payouts or product placement ads or also-boughts or category keywords or Kindle Worlds or Kindle Serials or Kindle Scout or tags or free book rankings or...(hopefully you get the point)...these endeavors are for generating short-term sales. They should not be seen as a long-term strategy.
Pirate Authors must have back-up mid to long-range plans if they are invested heavily in Amazon for the short-term.
Go broad by also targeting other major retail platforms. Services like PublishDrive make going broad much easier than it used to be.
Focus on a platform like Kobo that is much less appealing to information dealers due to its focus on books alone. Kobo is actually a pretty rich environment at the moment with promotions and opportunities that Pirate Authors can use to promote their author brand.
Pirate Authors should not neglect print. Print has the added bonus of being a safe harbor from information dealers and the constant distraction they impose on our readers. Print is able to avoid the all-you-can-read morass of KU. Print requires a certain devotion of attention and commitment indicative of true fans. Therefore, print sales are a stronger indication of core readership.
Along the same lines of focusing on print, Pirate Authors can choose to put time and energy into live events. Reader expos and book signings are still legitimate means of connecting with readers. With the increasing friction that digital ads are exerting on consumers, there is a renewed appeal to escape into the realm of the real. The loyalty generated by physically connecting to a reader and signing their copy of your book goes a long way toward generating a repeat customer and long-term fan.
Pirate Authors should go as direct to their audience as possible. This means continuing to put time and energy into grooming a quality email list. Communicate to your audience either via email newsletter, blog, social media, or somehow. But keep as direct a connection with them as possible. Understand that if you are communicating only via Facebook or Twitter that those platforms have control over your ability to reach your audience.
If your Author Brand is specific to romance and/or erotica, a platform such as Radish might be a solid option for you. These smaller, specific platforms are still middlemen, but they have little appeal for most information dealers. And if the platform is generating its revenue from taking a royalty split (or from micro-payments), and NOT from ad spend, this strips away the key lever for information dealers.
Hold steady to the horizon.
The present looks grim, but the future of publishing could still be very bright. The impact of information dealers has gone largely unnoticed by most fiction readers. While the all-you-can-read buffet of Kindle Unlimited is negatively impacting reader's behavior and expectations (we'll dive into that more next week), we are only one successful-alternative-platform away from revitalizing digital, narrative fiction. Keep your eyes on the horizon, all ye pirate authors! We will get there!