OP-ED: The Great Wheel of Greed Grinds on With No Backsies

Hey folks. Max here taking a time-out from the Starforge editing (which is coming along pretty nicely and will soon have some updates) with a small OP-ED post.

Also, Dead Silver is on sale! Grab this fun and spooky Halloween-appropriate adventure mystery for under a buck!

Last night, after repeatedly closing a new pop-up on the site’s stats page, I noticed a new button next to every single one of the posts listed there. A little megaphone. What was this little megaphone? Why, it was a “Promote this post with WordPress Advertising” button! It appeared to be a very straightforward process: I click the button, I check that the advertisement appearance meets my approval, I fill out payment information, and then the post gets advertised … somewhere. I couldn’t actually see that bit without putting in all the other details such as payment information. So I sdon’t know exactly where it would have been, though I assume from the wording it would have been on other’s WordPress-based posts.

Or perhaps they would have been elsewhere on the web? Again, I couldn’t see that information without confirming the ad and the payment information, so I can’t say for certain. I’m just extrapolating based on the most likely targets.

Point being, WordPress is the latest in what seems to be every web service ever trying to squeeze more money out of its userbase by stripping away a purpose of the service only to sell it back to the highest bidder.

Amazon was the first for me that I noticed engaging in this behavior. Sure, you could sell their products on their store. But then someone got the idea of charging for “premier shelf space” and Amazon Advertising was born. It wasn’t enough that they were carrying your product and making money each time a copy sold. They realized that they could double dip and get the creator to pay for each product sold as well by setting up a “bidding” advertising system. Sure, you could just have your product “on the shelves,” but if you paid Amazon for each eyeball that looked at your product, you could make sure that by default most eyeballs saw your stuff first. As long as you either had a lot of disposable income (advertising may be tax deductible, but it’s still money out of your pocket) or could make sure that a certain number of eyeballs could buy your product, that advertising would take your product from “the mass” to “everyone sees it.”

Bear in mind, this is for something that Amazon already makes money selling. If a supermarket operated off of this principle—and maybe they do, I don’t know—suppliers and distributors would pay not just for placement on shelves, but a fee for each person that picked up an item and looked at it … even if they didn’t buy it. All those items at the front of the supermarket or by the checkout, where the most eyes look at them? Those positions would cost $X per-item to be there and make the supermarket money anytime someone looked at them. Someone handled that Snickers bar but set it back down? Mars owes the supermarket 7 cents.

We’ll get into how this quickly becomes—to me, anyway—insane and unbalanced in a moment, but first let’s move on.

Facebook is another location that’s slowly adopted the same principles. Once Facebook because a publicly traded company, and once it’s modus operandi became the US gold standard of “Make all the money forever, more every year, or else” things started to shift rapidly. Most think of the echo-chambers, the way Facebook has monetized “engagement” by deliberately angering people or showing them things that will make them unhappy and then the most likely to engage, but another thing Facebook does to skim extra cream off of the milk is push everyone to “boost” their posts.

Shared a cool link? Most of you probably knew that Facebook actually “hides” it from the majority of your friends unless you pay extra. Ostensibly this is to ‘deliver user-focused content’ but what it really means is that Facebook wants you to spend money. Even for Unusual Things’ Facebook page, Unusual Creations, those who follow it won’t always see what’s posted there (which, if you’ve never been, is just links to here and promotions like the current Dead Silver sale). Sure, they follow the page. But if they really wanted to see what I post each time, I guess they’d pester me to “boost” the posts there for a fee and make them more visible.

Now, Facebook does at least “boost” post to other people in an audience, though in accordance with Facebook’s search for “engagement” via anger, all this means is that a good chunk of that engagement is just really angry, bitter people that hate writers, fantasy, Sci-Fi, or everything else. But it is a little grating that the whole point of Facebook is ‘We collect and sell data about users, by the way, pay us to help us collect more data.’

Twitter is the same way. Made a tweet to the world? The world is very likely never going to see it. No, as Twitter constantly reminds me, if I want people to see my Tweet, I need to be giving them money. Thankfully, I use Twitter as a glorified RSS feed, literally by the request of a reader who uses it for that exact purpose, otherwise I would have closed the account years ago.

There are two things that I dislike about this. The first is that for each of these places the allure of being paid more money for something they already do seems to be paramount. I already pay WordPress to host my site and all that jazz. Sands, WordPress already advertises “similar sites and posts” by default beneath most posts. Or at least, it did. Maybe it doesn’t anymore?

But regardless, now there’s this button next to every one of my posts on the stats page, begging me to give them more money so they can “promote it” in some fashion. What’s next? Will they pull a Facebook and start working to make sure my site can’t be SEO’d by search engines unless I pay an “SEO fee?” Being a Better Writer is currently a top search result on a number of writing topic searches, but will that change unless I pay a fee of some kind?

Some of you might be saying “That’s overly paranoid” but look back at what Amazon did. First it was “We’ll sell your stuff for a fee” but that quickly changed to “Pay us for people to see your stuff, and still pay the fee when they buy it.” The natural inclination for all these companies is the core and primary concern of most US business: never-ending growth, to the abyss with the consequences.

Now, in nature, we call that a “tumor.” But for some reason we’ve decided it’s the way all business should operate, and so it’s never enough for a business to make a stable existence. It MUST make more. So any service that starts out selling something simple, once this corporate mindset takes over, starts looking at ways to make MORE. Sure, providing employees with lunch was nice, but what if we charged them for it? Take an hour’s worth of their wages back for something that cost a lot less to provide! MORE MONEY!

I’m being a little egregious with these caps, but this is how US-business operates. You never have enough. You always have to be getting more more more. Biggering, day and night. Like Dr. Seuss said. “And I biggered my money which everyone needs.”

So now, I can “pay” WordPress to “promote” my posts somehow. Again, couldn’t see how without putting in my payment information. There’s probably somewhere else where I could find out where I could promote it, but … I’m just tired at this point of all these companies begging me to spend more money with them,

My inbox is flooded with emails from the various companies I interact with. In just the last week I’ve received … Well, I don’t actually know anymore. I started deleting them and unsubscribing. But in one week a few weeks ago, I got five emails about Amazon Advertising, one or two Patreon Advertising emails (been deleting these a lot longer but I seem to get two a week), at least one Goodreads advertisement, and about roughly 1-2 Facebook notifications a day telling me I could “boost my viewership with ads” (some of which when clicked take you right to the boost page) or even MORE egregious begging me to spend more on advertisements that were already in progress. Plus more I’m probably forgetting.

It’s a constant deluge. All of these companies want more more more out of me. They want to be biggering. And for many of them, if that means taking a service they already provided and reselling it, so be it.

But there’s another dark side to this “Wheel of Greed” that I don’t like. And that’s how it actively does make it harder for people to discover the stuff they actually like while at the same time rapidly growing imbalanced.

For example, let’s go back to Amazon Advertising for a bit. See, Amazon Advertising definitely determines what you see on Amazon. So if you type in a search for “books about dragons” the top results will all be books that paid to be there. Refine that search into “books about dragons and banking” and the top result is … A sponsored crypto book, followed by sponsored “Fun facts for kids,” and then in the third sponsored slot, Axtara. Why is that crypto book higher despite matching nothing from my search inquiry? Because it paid to be there.

See, your book showing up (and where) is determined by keyword bids. For Axtara this bid is set at 65 cents. This means that when someone searches “dragon books” Axtara will put up a bid of up to 65 cents to be in those results, with books that pay more appearing above it (via some algorithm I definitely don’t fully understand, by design I’m sure). If someone clicks on it, Amazon collects 65 cents, whether or not the book sells based on that click.

Now, “helpfully” Amazon also informs the user what the bids in each category average. I put that in quotes because I think it drives exactly what Amazon wants: It serves to create a quiet “bidding war” whereby those selling products pay Amazon more and more for the advertising.

Do you know what the average bid is for “Kindle Unlimited Sci-Fi?” I can tell you. As of this moment, it is between $1.66 and $1.82. For a click. Not a sale.

“Hold up,” some of you might already be saying. “Isn’t the average book only between 200-500 pages? Sure that’s a range, but is Kindle Unlimited making any money for anyone if it costs a buck-fifty for someone to consider it?”

In many cases … no. And that’s one reason why this ever-grinding “Wheel of Greed” alarms me. See, when I started with Amazon advertising the average for may of the things I advertise for was quite lower. But once people or companies with disposable, multi-million dollar budgets entered the scene … things began to climb.

Say for instance I go for the average “Space Opera” keyword bid. That’s about $2.00 to $2.20 per click. Again, as Amazon makes quite sure you are aware, that’s not if someone buys it. Just if they click the “sponsored ad” (which again, will show up in search or the sponsored bar on pages).

“Hold up,” some say again. “Colony is only $3.99, and you get 70% of that for a payment of $2.79! Are you saying if you paid the average advertising fee for ‘Space Opera’ you’d only make 60 to 80 cents on a sale?”

To which I’d reply “Yes. Assuming they bought it.” See, not every click will be a sale. Even one in three clicks being a sale is what I would call “aggressively hopeful.” Which would mean spending six dollars to make three. Sure, that six bucks might be tax deductible later, but you still need to make an overall profit at a business. And that’s six dollars you don’t have now.

Here’s the thing: If you’ve got tons of money to burn, you can do this. There are books that I guarantee have marketed at a loss just to be the book everyone is talking about. Or even just so that the writer can say “‘”Well, I sold a thousand copies” without mentioning that it was a thousand sales at a loss rather than any gain.

Some may be planning to make it back long term, stopping the advertising and just counting on the word of mouth they generated to keep going. Others may be using it in other ways, such as to get a publisher’s attention (for the traditionalist) or to have a talking point they really want (International Genre Bestseller!).

But everyone else? They get ground under the Wheel of Greed. I can’t just sell all my books at a loss forever and have a stable business. But a lot of companies these days sure would like me to, as long as that loss flows into their coffers.

Ultimately, what’s the point of this post?

Well, some might say it’s a warning about corporate greed, or a screed against it. And … yeah, that’s true. Companies double-dipping in America has become so common that no joke while I worked out at the gym this week a “businessman” on a loud business call on the machine next to me had a whole conversation about ‘Is it cheating? Well … yes, but they don’t know that’ as they talked about how their client didn’t realize they were already paying for some sort of service and so the company was all too happy to sell it to them again as another “package” they would pay for.

This kind of thing is just openly accepted now. So much so that this individual was loudly discussing it in a public place.

So yes, this is a bit of a post decrying the greed of so many companies. Amazon already makes money when they sell a book. Charging a fee to get people to see it does, to me, feel greedy. They’re more than capable of making the storefront not push this type of behavior, but they do.

But there’s a second bit to this post. If everything you’ve read above makes you wonder about the advertising machines arrayed against creators and how hard it is for anyone to find their stuff, consider how important that makes word of mouth for any content creator.

Telling someone about a book you loved? That’s letting someone know about a book or a film or a game without charging the creator a fee. Being open about what you like helps those who create what you like.

Granted, it does help to know what you like, which is why advertising has worked so hard to control that too.

But the point of this post is to illustrate how costly it can be just to try and get one’s work out there in certain spheres. I’m sure musicians and artists deal with this Wheel of Greed as well in different ways.

If you like something, state it. Don’t let the advertisers suck the creator dry like a money-vampire. Share posts and links from the content creators you love. Because if you don’t, their voice will steadily be drowned out by those buying up all the megaphones, and that’ll be all you hear.

In a way, content creators need your help. Because they can’t afford to spend six dollars to make three. And until the advertising scene—and the relentless march of Biggering—change, that’s what they’ve got.

Featured image from Pexel.

2 thoughts on “OP-ED: The Great Wheel of Greed Grinds on With No Backsies

    • Somewhat amusingly, today I received an email about a NEW advertising feature being rolled out by one of these services. That wheel just keeps squeezing …


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