I sometimes get the question from readers, regarding this site, what the “affiliate” links in the articles are. In what ways are they different from normal links, and why don’t I just link to the respective book page without that weird “affiliate link” notice? So here is a short explanation of what affiliate links are and why they matter to the sites you love. I will actually take the opportunity to get a little deeper into the question of financing niche publishing on the Internet, and if you keep reading, you will also learn something about how philosophers make their living.
A philosopher’s finances
As we all know, reading stuff on the Internet is free. You just click, get that article on your browser and read away. But, of course, someone, somewhere, spent an hour or more writing that article, and this person probably has a family and all these people need to eat something and pay their rent. So the business of writing on the Internet must eventually lead to some kind of income in order to be sustainable. In my personal situation as a professor of philosophy, I do not urgently need the income at this very moment, because I am employed teaching at a university. But perhaps you have also heard that academic jobs tend to not be very secure nowadays. Gone are the days of Kant who spent all his life in one little town, writing book after unsaleable book, taking a walk every day at the same time, and occasionally teaching a class. An academic today often is employed on relatively short-term contracts for a large part of their career, and many of us spend years of our lives abroad. This is not only a lifestyle choice. For many, it is impossible to find employment in their home countries, and moving to some faraway place is often the only way to get a teaching position. This leads to a situation where many lecturers and assistant professors are employed in remote countries, in which they have no or limited citizenship rights, on contracts that last anywhere from six months to two or three years, with no job security or prospects of a retirement pension. After that, they either get an extension of their contracts on similar terms, or they move on to the next country that will have them. To this, add the unstable situation of any employment nowadays, with social upheavals in many countries, dictatorships, armed conflicts, and the virus, and you see that being a university teacher is far from a safe position in life.
If an academic writer or philosophy blogger wants to secure their livelihood and finance their writing in the long run, there are a few ways to do it.
One is the most obvious and perhaps the most promising: leave academia and become a farmer, a cook, a stewardess, or a taxi driver (I’ve personally known some of each of those). I’m not joking. During the financial crisis in Greece, many of my university teaching friends left their jobs, from which they often had not received any pay for months anyway, and moved to the countryside to make a living from the Earth. There is a short and well-made documentary on Youtube that talks about a few such lives.
Others try the online way, which, at least, entails sitting on a dry desk instead of digging up dirt in the rain. To monetise an online philosophy site (obviously, this is not quite as attractive as a fashion or music site to the masses), one has a limited number of ways.
Advertisements. One can enrol in ad programs that plaster the site with all kinds of ads and give the site owner a fraction of a cent for each ad display or click. To see what one can expect from that, one can head over to Google’s Adsense calculator. For a site with 50,000 pageviews per month in the area of education, one would expect to earn around 8200 USD per year. That is 683 USD per month. 50,000 pageviews may sound easy with a billion Internet users, but the reality is that many small, culture-themed sites have a lot less traffic than that. With 5,000 pageviews, one would expect about 70 USD per month in ad income (but Google wouldn’t even bother to sell ads on a site that small). The situation is a bit better with podcasts (and, depending on one’s audience, with YouTube), which is why so many creators nowadays are present on every platform, trying to make the various small income streams add up to something actually useful.
(By the way, this is why hitting those “Share” buttons on the sites you like is so important. The more readers come to the site, the more compensation the writer gets for their work).
Infoproducts. One could use the content produced on the site to create books or other infoproducts and sell those, either on the site itself or on one of the many online marketplaces and bookstores. This is a good thing to do, but again, one must be realistic about how many sales one can expect from a book about Aristotle’s philosophy that is not written by the influencer of the day and doesn’t come with the backing (and ad power) of a major publishing house. Not too promising either.
Affiliate links. So this is where affiliate marketing comes in. Affiliate links are just like normal Internet links, except that inside the link is embedded a little identifying code-word that says that this link was provided by some particular website. That little bit of information does not track the reader (you) but the provider of the link (the website that shows you the link), so there’s no privacy issue directly at this point (although there may be other privacy issues surrounding any activity on the Internet, this one included; but these are not the point we’re discussing now). Affiliate programs are offered by many sites of all kinds. Many creators choose Amazon, because it’s the easiest to get into and is naturally related to culture, since it’s also a book store (I, for example, wouldn’t know how to justify selling Internet hosting or frying pans on Daily Philosophy, for example). Every time a reader clicks on an affiliate link, the company to whom this link goes (in this case, Amazon) registers the code inside the link and will give to the linking site (the affiliate partner, i.e. Daily Philosophy, in this case) a small percentage of the money made from any sales on their site. Currently, that’s around 5 percent, I think. The nice thing about the affiliate system is that one gets the commission not only from the sale of the product that was originally linked to, but from anything that customer will buy within 24 hours. Again, there is no privacy issue here: I won’t be told and I won’t know who of my readers bought what on Amazon – but if someone uses my link to get to Amazon and then buys a high-class, fully equipped home video studio there, I will get 5% of that without the customer paying anything more. So this potentially can bring in some money, but again more for sites that have links to, say, expensive photography equipment or luxury articles, rather than links to 2.95 USD philosophy ebooks.
Patreon, crowdfunding, and other direct payments. This is the last major way I can think of how someone could monetise their cultural content online. This seems to actually work best, as far as I have seen so far, but it requires one to produce content that readers will consider valuable enough to pay actual money for. As opposed to ads and affiliate, which are more hidden ways of monetising content, direct funding through Patreon and similar services means that the reader has to actually get their credit card out and pay real money. And this, many readers are, understandably, not willing to do without a very good reason.
All that said, it certainly is a valuable and noble thing to support the site of your choice. Going through their affiliate links when you want to buy the products they link to, is a good way to show your support. It won’t cost you absolutely anything but it will provide a small income to the owner of the site that hosts that affiliate link.
So that’s the story of monetising grassroots culture in the 21st century. Thank you for reading and I hope that you found it interesting, although this post didn’t have much to do with philosophy. Except that these are the things that make philosophy on the Internet possible in the first place :)
See you soon for our next post in our year-long “living philosophy” series!