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Marketing: Books, Network Marketing and Amazonian Aggregations

Writing about books that have provided me with some kind of value and benefit is first and foremost an act of enjoyment. I also take the time to read recommendations from other reviewers and webloggers to gain insights into the books they value and make decisions about what to read. If the review they provide inspires me to buy the book, I am happy to do so through their affiliate link.

I still explore books by going to a library or bookstore and wandering through whatever I might find. These are places of physical aggregation. Exploring books on the Internet is secondary, since I there is no way for me to hold the book in my hands (although, there are more and more opportunities to explore the contents of books online). A major benefit of exploring books on the Internet is the ability to read other opinions and recommendations. These are places of virtual aggregation.

I think the question of how we become aware of books that we might want to read is an interesting one. It is, perhaps, partially a question of marketing, which invites us into the realm of web presence strategies, affiliate programs, aggregators and so on. More importantly, however, awareness must also speak to the benefit and value contained within the books themselves...

Book Reviews vs. Insights Into Books

There are simply too many books to read. Of course, we would not want to attempt to read every book ever written anyway. So we develop a variety of strategies that help us to identify those books that we may want to read in detail. A simple example of this is any basic classification scheme used to group books into "like" categories (e.g. - fiction, non-fiction, science, psychology, etc.). Personally, I find these kinds of categories to be more of a distraction than anything else. It's all to easy to develop a personal preference with one category at the exclusion of others. This in turn narrows the possibilities for reading. And, in any case, the traditional categories do not help to reveal the specific kinds of insights and ideas present within any one book that reach beyond its shelf placement. Of course, from a mechanical perspective, these categories help to simplify the organization of books.

Commercial marketers rely on capturing a potential reader's attention through advertizing. A review from a famous reviewer in a popular magazine or newspaper are intended to provide an "expert" resource to the potential book-buyer. Recommendation systems, such as Amazon's, allow any reader to enter a review and assign 1-5 stars to it. This point-system is then aggregateed into a "general consensus" or average number of stars. Some reviews in Amazon contain interesting insights into the book and offer a personal perspective, others do not. People reading reviews can indicate whether the review they just read was helpful or not, which I assume creates a weighted average resulting in a 1-5 star consensus.

The idea of the "expert" review and aggregated/weighted consensus is an approach to recommendation systems that isn't completely effective. Simply because a famous expert reviewer trashes a book, or the aggregated/weighted consensus is something less than positive, does not neccessarily mean that the book in question would not be good reading. The opposite is true as well. One well-written review, even if it flies in the face of the expert or general consensus, can be more important than the aggregation. I doubt, as well, that many people buy a book simply because of these recommendations, although I'm sure they have a degree of influence.

There are many webloggers writing insightful commentary about important books. These people obviously read the books they are talking about and take the time to collect some thoughts about what they think the value of the book is to themselves and potential to others. In addition, they integrate the book review into the flow of thought on their weblog/website. In the best cases, there is a sense of unity between the book being reviewed and the underlying direction of the basic questions they are pursuing. Further, there is no need to provide the traditional comprehensive book review since this breeds isolation. That is, the book is treated as an end unto itself, rather than a contribution to a larger conversation.

So in deciding what books to read, I believe thoughtful webloggers will gain importance and generic/canned approaches to reviewing a book will decrease in importance. In addition, I hope that specific insights and ideas in books, whether they be a phrase, sentence, paragraph or entire chapter, will be culled and integrated into a larger conversation. In this way, the book itself takes on a greater number of qualities that we commonly associate with networks. We may even wish to probe the notion of, "A book is a network."

Amazonian Rogue Aggregation

There also seem to be a number of rogue aggregators out there in the blogosphere that are more interested in providing mindless listing of links without providing any insight into the book itself. Their goal, it seems, is not to enter into any meaningful dialogue about a book, but instead to attempt to pick-up a few pennies in affiliate sales by comandeering the efforts of others. While there is some value in aggregating discussions and recommendations of books from multiple sources in order to create awareness of what people are reading, the kind of value being provided is extremely limited.

Here's a little test: I've been aggregated! - let's see where it crops up.

The Amazon Associate program, like any affiliate program, provides you with an I.D. that can be tagged to book (or any other Amazon product) links. If someone navigates to Amazon via your affiliate link and makes a purchase, your are credited with a few pennies for your efforts. I should emphasize "few pennies" since this is not a program one could ever expect to develop a meaningful income from. If over the course of a year a weblogger could cover off web hosting expenses they would be doing well.

In an attempt to generate more income through affiliate sales, aggregators attempt to generate higher profits by increasing the quantity of books presented on their sites - it's a "more is better" approach that, in the end, will not work. Much of the aggregation is presented with the intent of providing a networked view of what people are reading, in other words, they simply collect links to books.

For example, if you were to navigate to my BlogStreet Profile you would see two books listed there (which is substantially less than I have reviewed here). When you click on either of these book listings you are taken not to the original entry where the actual review is, but to another BlogStreet page that replaces my affiliate link with the BlogStreet affiliate link, and also lists weblogs where the book is discussed. Why would someone buy a book simply because they are provided with a long listing of where it has been mentioned? My weblog is listed there, but again, instead of taking you directly to the entry where I made some comments about a book, you are taken to my home page.

Worse, BlogStreet clearly has no opinion about the books they are aggregating, yet they clearly have a profit-motivated intent. There is no context, theme or purpose for presenting these books, other than they are out there. Far worse, I doubt anyone at BlogStreet has ever read them. Of course, I might take the time to actually find the relevant entry in the weblogs listed there and make a decision to buy the book from one of them, but I see no reason to buy the book directly from the BlogStreet site. The service simply isn't useful in its current form and its underlying intent is transparently commercial.

Yet this issue to my thinking has very little to do with making money or affiliate sales. This kind of aggregator presents itself as an online store, and there is nothing wrong with that. However, I think we're denigrating the network marketing process. The aggregator offers no insight, reflection or purpose for listing a book. They can aggregate, so they can. They provide a potential profit center, so they do. All with very little, if any, meaningful thought.

If an individual or organization has provided a recommendation for a book, we would expect at a minimum that:

  1. they have read the book;
  2. the book addresses key questions or important directions in their weblog/website;
  3. their writing about the book is thoughtful and engaging.

Books and Network Marketing

It is important that a network marketer assume complete responsibility for the quality of what they are marketing. Second, and contrary to this, however, is the reality of having to produce enough quantity to generate enough personal income to live on. However, the second point must remain subservient to the first if one desires real success - an approach that is frankly absent, or loosely taked about, in many network marketing programs. It is perhaps another reason why networt marketing may not have a stellar reputation - however, neither do many traditional marketing companies either.

The network marketing of books through the Amazon Associate program in a sense relieves us of the burden of quantity - or need to generate a source of income. Why? It's highly unlikely you will ever generat enough moeny to matter through this program. However, as a means to connect to a networked system it offers many opportunites and possibilities.

Aggregation is a notion that is frequently coupled with supporting notions of efficiency and effectiveness. There is a growing trend toward the use of aggregation in the Amazon Associate program, a trend that is not sustainable. After all, what is it that is really being aggregated? In the two isolated cases above the answer is, very simply, URLs. That is, books are not really being aggregated, links to books are. The difference may seem insignificant but it isn't. If we are aggregated links then we are creating long lists of URLs. The more far-reaching the aggregation the longeer the list of links. How many people will really sit and explore hundreds of aggregated links? And if they do, how long will they continue to do so before they burn out? Are we to believe that merely because a single book is mentioned on a million weblogs/websites that this is any indication of tis value?

If someone is aggregrating Amazon links and replacing those links with their own affiliate ID I couldn't care less. Take them - they're all yours. But I would also say that the approach and the nature of "service" aggregators are providing is both shallow and fleeting. Do we want to merely aggregate links, or do we want to try to connect as best we can important thoughts and ideas - one at a time?

What is clearly not being aggregated in this approach is the context, flow and conversation around a book. Like the abstract classification system we use to categorize books into specific sections, aggregation, so far, is largely an abstract classification system that does much the same. Perhaps it will evolve into something more beneficial, but to achieve this would require a fundamental shift in emphasis away from link gathering and toward how books travel across people's thinking. Maybe that is what lies behind the long list of links currently provided by aggregators, but I can say that I find a list of 25 or more links with no other context than a book mention to be All Too Consuming.

I'd rather see an approach that elevates individuals who actually read a book, have some insights about it that fit into their own flow of thought, and write something about it that has value. Aggregators may collect these reference, but so will a search engine. The "reviewers" are grassroots readers that may not write a "review" per say with all the superfluous accolades common to the commercial sphere, but instead they pull out distinct areas within the book and think creatively or critically about it. The books they recommend fit into the flow of their own personal discoveries, and are only secondarily tied to driving affiliate sales or building prominence as an Amazon reviewer. And they may return to a single book and write about it multiple times - in fact, I think this is probably quite important for it makes each book a place to revisit perhaps from a different point of view.

I have very fews books on my shelf that are in the "read only once" category. These are books that constantly written in. The "check it out" kinds of books I get from the library and return them. That is not to say I don't value them, but at a particular moment in time that value - for me - is limited. I have a wide variety of books that I regularly re-read, and even more that continually re-emerge when I'm thinking about something new. If I buy a book from Amazon or the local bookstore, I try to ensure as best I can that it is in the "read multiple times" or looks like something that I will refer to over time. And I have some books on my shelf that I know I want to read, but haven't. I have also read books that I can't see my way to adding to my weblog in a meaningful way - even though I like them. needs to elevate their sales and marketing process to this level. Providing a system of aggregation has limited utility, but is best thought of as a stepping-stone to something more important. What would we have if everyone had a handy-dandy Internet utility that effortlessly scanned the web for book links and aggregated those links on their own weblog/website and conveniently replaced each originating affiliate ID with your own? Answer - a big waste of time. Now extend this same feature to the growing product range being offered by Amazon and we have a replication of the Big-Box store. Affiliate aggregation is unlikely to be the future of sales and marketing of books, or any other product for that matter.

Consumers are becoming more and more sophisticated and demanding. This is a very positive trend - especially when it comes to books. They will use, but remain suspicious of recommendation systems (is there any way to aboslutely prove that the recommendations we are reading come from real people - no). They will demand more than aggregation and the communication of quantity as a means to understand the value proposition of a product. Many consumers demand direct involvement and there may be a growing trend toward disintegration of the aggregation.

Testing the AllConsuming System

I added a test URL to a book at Amazon (Here's a little test: I've been aggregated! - let's see where it crops up.). I posted the entry at 9:25am EST on Sunday June 27. At 10:32am the same day I received the an email notification from All Consuming, which I have included below. There a number of interesting features about this process worth discussing...

First off, here's the email response I received [my commentary indicated in bold and italics]:

--Content of Email Notification from All Consuming--
"Hi Brian,

You have new recommendations from your friends:
[*Note: I didn't recommend the book, I merely embedded an Amazon URL underneath some text. In fact, the site could be spammed in this way if someone was low enough to do so. But the real point is, the text had nothing to do with "recommending" the book.

read by[Fair enough - if I'm embedding Amazon URLs in my writing and have agreed to participate in All Consuming, reading the book should be a given]:
[*The reference to my weblog does not take the user to the entry where the amazon link was published. This is a mistake. The direct URL can be found, however, later on.]
see more: or, buy:
[*The first link to All Consuming allows people to navigate to the aggregation page for the book mentioned. The second link is an affiliate link containing the All Consuming Associate ID to Amazon. In summary, my original entry is not communicated to the opt-in mailing and the change in Amazon Associate IDs is complete.]

excerpt: "Here's a little test: I've been aggregated! - let's see where it crops up. " [This is the text I wrote containing the URL]

To see a full list of your recommendations from friends,
check out this page: RECS:

You can change your list of friends at anytime through the Control Panel at All Consuming: EDIT:

To unsubscribe from this email notification, you can visit
your account and uncheck the box that says, "Recieve Email".


Take care,

Erik Benson | All Consuming | Insight into what the weblog community is reading."
--End Email Notification From All Consuming--

The All Consuming Aggregation Page: I chose a book that I thought would not likely be present in the All Consuming aggregator. No other member is reading it, so no other references are present. This page does permit navigation directly to the weblog entry the Amazon URL is present in, but not without leaving All Consuming (the URL used to go to my weblog looks like this: "
url= This takes us directly to the place where the URL is embedded in my entry and hilites it. If the user clicks on the URL is my entry, then my Amazon Associate ID remains in tact. If the user navigates to Amazon via the All Consuming website then the All Consuming ID is used. This business practice is both fair and respectable.

An interesting point here is that I have not recommended the book, nor has anyone else on the aggregation page, yet All Consuming assumes it is a recommendation and recommends the book with its own Amazon Associate ID.

The Benefit and Value of Book "Reviews": If we take a look at the All Consuming aggregation page for Smart Mobs we can see a great deal more activity. Looking at the comments present, there is nothing entered that would be considered a "review" and very little that informs us in some way about why the book is important (or not) to that reader.

The trackbacks immediately below the comments reveal a variety of things - from direct linkages to original weblog entries about the book, to Amazon links about the book in whatever context they are found in, to dead links. After clicking on more than half of these links, I found that nearly all of them took me to the sidebar of a weblog in which the book was listed. I found no useful commentary on the book itself.

So this begs the question, "What is the basis for recommending a book?" It seems here that the mere presence of links is the basis for recommending a book, which might lead us to the completely false impression that the more links in different places the better. Perhaps it is coming from a trusted source and the fact that it is mentioned on their weblog/website is enough. I don't believe that either stance is effective.

Aggregators can collect a great deal of little value since the quality at the source points may be lacking depending upon what our own personal expectations and standards of quality are. To say that a particular book is "a great read" or a "landmark in thinking" is unhelpful if the reasons for this are not clearly stated.

In addition, there seems to be a lack of connection between the books being mentioned on weblogs/websites and what the particular value of each book is to the owner/writer. Worse, books are often "recommended" without having any more reason than "they're out there." I have one such Amazonian tool on the home page of my own site that I am experimenting with (and remain suspect of - this is something for a separate entry).

For webloggers in particular, this means that more time will need to be spent with fewer books and more thought will need to be given as to how the book has influenced their own line of thought. We don't need to be writing extensive generic reviews of each book, but it would seem that a better practice might be to cull the aspects of the book that are of personal interest and provide an explanation as to how it enhances our own thinking and ideas. This is a much slower and more intensive approach to the network marketing of books, but one that also provides greater benefit and value to the reader.

It might also means that many of the automated tools, such as Amazon link aggregation, may be more of a distraction than anything else. If tools like these are to make us more efficient in some way, then the quality of what they present has to be the main design consideration, not merely the quantity of what they present - unless, of course, the weblog really a retail outlet in disguise.

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