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Hi, Amazon. We’ve had a long history, ever since I ordered those first books and DVDs to be delivered to my college mailbox. You indulged my whims, from paleo cooking to crocheting, and you deposited a solid amount of cash in my bank account at the end of every month. Not to mention that fat bonus in February for December commissions.
You were the everything store. And everything I needed, you had it.
I turned to you first, Amazon, for anything I needed to buy for myself.
I turned to you first, Amazon, for anything I wanted to sell to my readers.
But honestly, after the events of this week — hell, the events of the past month — I don’t see how we can have a future together.
You and I are through. I don’t care if it’s a pandemic.
Amazon reduces affiliate program commissions
On Tuesday, April 14, members of the Amazon Associates program received an email saying that their affiliate program had changed. Right away, I had a pit in my stomach. Companies don’t send an email like that to share good news.
Yes, it turned out Amazon’s commission rates were changing. We were sent a link to a page with the new commissions listed:
Of COURSE that page didn’t have the old commissions listed. Here are the actual numbers:
- Furniture, Home, Home Improvement, Lawn & Garden, Pets Products, Pantry: 8% to 3% (60% drop)
- Headphones, Beauty, Musical Instruments, Business & Industrial Supplies: 6% to 3% (50% drop)
- Outdoors, Tools: 5.5% to 3% (45% drop)
- Grocery: 5% to 1% (80% drop)
- Sports: 4.5% to 3% (33% drop)
- Baby Products: 4.5% to 3% (33% drop)
- Health & Personal Care: 4.5% to 1% (78% drop)
- Amazon Fresh: 3% to 1% (67% drop)
Since COVID-19 hit, travel bloggers have seen a lot of bad news for affiliate programs. Some reduced the products that earned commissions; some, like HotelsCombined and Momondo, told us that we could keep sending them traffic, but they weren’t going to pay us anything for it.
I make around 30-40% of my income from affiliate marketing. Some people make upwards of 90%.
I can understand why travel affiliate programs are suffering. Nobody is booking travel right now. Hell, hardly anyone is even researching travel right now. It’s why we’ve all lost our incomes.
But Amazon? Amazon has never been better.
The day we received those emails, Amazon’s stock hit an all-time high of $2,283.32 per share.
The day we received those emails, Jeff Bezos’s wealth increased by $6.5 billion.
The day we received those emails, Amazon announced that they were hiring 75,000 people after hiring an additional 100,000 last month.
Amazon has been profiting enormously from people staying home and shifting their purchases online. Even more so when you factor in new Prime memberships and low gas prices for delivery vehicles.
Amazon is not a desperate company on the verge of losing everything. They’re raking it in.
Why use Amazon’s affiliates, anyway?
Since I started my blog, I’ve been using Amazon affiliate program to earn commissions on products I recommend. Almost every travel blogger does; Amazon is a staple for bloggers of all niches.
Amazon’s affiliate commissions are much lower than direct programs — this is true. But Amazon usually has the lowest prices, and everyone shops from there. You’re likelier to drive a commission on a site people use regularly.
Additionally, with Amazon’s affiliate program, you can earn commissions in several countries, and you can get commissions on whatever people buy, even if they don’t buy on the product in your affiliate link.
So while I earn the bulk of my commissions on travel gear and books, I’ve also earned from purchases on everything from diamond rings to dildos, and quite a bit of dog food.
A lot of travel bloggers I know concentrate hard on Amazon affiliates. I know a few travel sites that specialize in packing lists and earn the bulk of their income from Amazon.
And several travel bloggers have one or two posts that rank very well in search engines for the best drybags or biodegradable sunscreen or travel underwear (just random examples), and thus earn a lot of traffic and Amazon commissions.
And honestly, travel is not one of the more obvious niches for retail sales. If you’re a food blogger who sells a lot of fancy blenders or a tech blogger who sells a lot of high-priced noise-canceling headphones, you can make serious bank.
I’ve never done quite THAT well — I usually earn a few hundred bucks a month, plus a lot more in December for the holidays. Less than you’d think from a site this size. But it was always there, and reliably so.
Imagine a blogger who was earning a comfortable $1200 per month through Amazon affiliates and used that to pay her $1000 rent or mortgage. (Let’s forget about taxes for the moment.) Because of this, assuming that nothing changes on what she sells (oh, and it will, but let’s forget about the economy for a second), her payment is suddenly reduced to, say, $550. With no change to the business she’s bringing. During the worst economic disaster of our lifetime.
This is what Amazon does.
This isn’t the first time Amazon has reduced our affiliate commissions. They last slashed rates a few years ago. But this is simply how they operate as a business.
For a long time, Amazon was bewildering — it was huge and influential, but didn’t look like it was going to turn a profit. Amazon didn’t turn a profit until 2003 — nine years after being founded and seven years after going public.
Amazon’s business method from the beginning was to operate without turning a profit, promising investors that it was a long game. It paid off. They spent several years slicing prices down and systematically eliminating their competition. Dominate, eliminate, expand. Dominate, eliminate, expand.
And over the years, we grew accustomed to buying from Amazon. We got used to the low prices; we got addicted to free two-day Prime shipping.
As affiliates, we got used to linking to Amazon whenever possible. They had everything.
And that made it easy to excuse what came next.
Amazon has grown to the point of arguably being a monopoly in many respects, making it too hard for other businesses to compete.
While it’s not the sole factor, Amazon played a big role in the destruction of brick-and-mortar businesses. Not just small mom-and-pop businesses, but large businesses like department stores, too.
When Amazon brought their employees up to a $15 minimum wage, they cut employee benefits.
But let’s not forget about the poor working conditions in their warehouses. The poor working conditions for their drivers. And even though they’re the most privileged ones in the company, the working conditions in Amazon’s Seattle office are a different brand of hell.
Speaking of Seattle, Amazon has changed the city, and not for the better. New York almost had to pay Amazon billions of dollars in tax incentives — and AOC called their bluff.
Who in their right mind actually respects a company that does all that?!
All this time, I thought I was working hard to sustain myself. In fact, most of my efforts went toward making Amazon richer.
Here’s the truth: Amazon has been engaged in bad activity for a long time, I knew it, and I didn’t have the fortitude to quit.
That’s on me, and I take full responsibility.
“But Amazon’s a business! They have the right to do this!”
Yeah. And I have the right to call them an asshole.
At one point, I was at B&H Photo in New York, buying some camera gear the day before a trip, feeling incredibly guilty. I was only buying a UV filter, a memory card, and some spare batteries, but if I hadn’t waited until the last minute, I could have gotten them for cheaper from Amazon.
That’s fucked up. I was standing in line in a New York institution! A midtown icon that stands the test of time as small businesses get replaced by chain banks and drugstores! A business that lives so in line with its Orthodox Jewish values that they don’t even process online orders on the Sabbath.
B&H is exactly the kind of company we should be supporting.
What kind of person did Amazon turn me into?!
A New Way of Doing Business
This pandemic has been a disaster for so many people’s livelihoods. The travel industry has been hit particularly hard, and I wouldn’t wish this distress on anyone. But I’m trying to find the silver linings where I can — and one is that I’m reevaluating the kind of business I want to run.
One key question I’ve asked myself: Would you still do this if you didn’t make any money doing it?
Well, I wouldn’t be working my ass off to make Jeff Bezos richer, that’s for sure. In fact, I’ve realized that I would love to reduce my reliance on affiliate marketing for middleman-type businesses, and focus more on supporting small businesses I care about.
More than anything, this pandemic has made clear that I need to concentrate on earning from products I create for my readers. I’ve built an audience of kind, smart, loyal readers over the past 10 years. I always felt guilty about asking them to buy something directly from me — but I shouldn’t have.
Which is why I started the Adventurous Kate Patreon. This way I get paid directly from my readers, starting at $6 per month, to create exclusive, fun, ad-free content they LOVE. 136 people have signed up so far, which is now earning me more than what I was making with Amazon. Go figure.
How to Go About Dropping Amazon
I never would have dreamed of dropping Amazon before now. I thought I needed their money. Even after my income was reduced, I kept feeling in the back of my head that somehow, someday I would write an affiliate-drenched post that hit the SEO jackpot and earned me 1500 bucks a month.
Like too many Americans who see themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires,” I was banking on possibility rather than reality, which is that Amazon is going to be slashing down our commissions until they get rid of the affiliate program altogether.
So, what now? I have thousands upon thousands of Amazon affiliate links all over the site. Removing them is going to be a long-term process, and part of that will be looking to replace the links with other affiliate programs.
One I’m definitely going to be doing is Pacsafe’s direct program, which they will be launching later this month. The #1 item I sell through Amazon is the Pacsafe Travelsafe, a portable safe that I consider the most important thing I pack. (When I led a tour in Central America back in 2015, I nearly cried when I saw that three of the girls had bought that safe because of me!)
I live and breathe Pacsafe products, and I told them that I intend to be one of their top affiliates. They will be paying out 15% on full-priced items — a lot more than Amazon. So how much does that work out to?
The 5-liter Travelsafe retails for $69 on Amazon and $79 on the Pacsafe site. I would earn a $2 commission from Amazon and an $12 commission from Pacsafe. Even if people are 50% less likely to buy from Pacsafe than Amazon, with no supplementary dog food purchases, that still earns me a significantly higher commission.
Huh. That’s something.
Can I give up Amazon altogether?
As much as I’d like to stop supporting Amazon financially, I know how difficult that is. Amazon powers an astonishingly high percentage of websites through Amazon Web Services. Honestly, if you work on the web, if you even use the web, you’re not avoiding any of that. And if I ever publish a book (which I’d love to do), you can’t do that without Amazon.
For Adventurous Merch, the t-shirts that Cailin and I sell, we’re going to need to find a new vendor.
But as a consumer, I can stop going to Amazon first. I can buy the vast majority of stuff I need at drugstores, electronics stores, independent bookstores. I might not get free two-day delivery, but I can wait! Or pay! Or buy in person!
Movies? I can rent them via iTunes or YouTube. (Neither Apple nor Google are squeaky-clean — what tech giant is? — but I’d rather put money in their pockets than Amazon’s.)
As for shows? Fleabag, on Amazon Prime, is one of the most remarkable shows I’ve seen in the past decade. It made my heart sing. And yet…it’s finished. So there’s that.
And then there’s Whole Foods. Well, I don’t shop there often. If it were Trader Joe’s, that would be a lot harder.
I subscribe to the Washington Post. Which is essential journalism, and which Bezos owns. I’m keeping it.
I canceled my Prime in January, and I was thrilled to find out that even though I paid in one annual payment, I was refunded a prorated difference. I hadn’t expected to get that money back. So if you’re letting that hold you back from quitting Prime, don’t!
The hardest part is ebooks and my Kindle. I love my Kindle Paperwhite, but she’s an old girl (purchased at a Tokyo camera shop in 2013) and she’s feeling the creaks of age, from screen cracks to slow speeds. I’ve been on the verge of buying a new Kindle for years. Maybe I should take a look at other e-readers.
But you don’t have to go cold turkey to make a big difference. Giving up meat one day per week makes a positive impact on the environment. Giving up booze every day but the holidays saves you a ton of hangovers. You can make a similar impact with your purchasing power.
For me, I think reducing my Amazon spending by 95% is a realistic goal.
Advice for Members of Amazon’s Affiliates Program
Since the pandemic began, I’ve been doing a lot of blog consulting. Part of this has been teaching bloggers how to make a steady living at a very uncertain time, and affiliate marketing is a huge part of that.
Whatever you do is up to you. Keep your Amazon links or get rid of them. Start searching out new companies or stick with Amazon. However, if I were advising content creators on what they should do next, here’s what I would recommend:
Don’t waste your time signing petitions to Jeff Bezos, asking to reinstate the previous commission rates. He doesn’t care. He’s never cared. The commissions aren’t coming back.
Start researching alternative affiliate programs. Particularly from brands you already sell. Compare the difference between direct programs with the brand (they often pay more) and affiliate aggregates like RewardStyle and Commission Junction (you may get paid faster as several programs will help you hit the payment threshold).
Run A/B tests. Take some of your perennially popular affiliate-driven posts and experiment for a month with the links pointing to a non-Amazon retailer. Compare sales and commissions. The results may surprise you.
Don’t publish new Amazon-driven content. If your plan for the next few months was to create a new “the best _____” post stuffed with Amazon links, use your time and energy toward another moneymaking post.
Understand that Amazon’s affiliate program will likely be disappearing completely at some point. It’s only a matter of time. Don’t stake your income on something that’s on its last wheezing legs.