Patrick Rhone shared a link to his /reading page, where he posts short notes on all the books he reads. I saw this page, and immediately thought two things:

  1. I love that! I should have a /reading page on my site
  2. …It’s too bad the hyperlinks he provides to the books all go to Amazon

I admire Patrick and his work a great deal, so I hope he doesn’t mind my calling him out—but I’m grateful for the impetus to distill my process on linking to books!

The Silo

Since I saw the link to Patrick’s page on Micro.blog, and his page is on his own website at his own domain, I presume that Patrick is on board with the principles of the IndieWeb. In brief, for those who just arrived:

Putting all of our creative work in the hands of, and binding it to the terms of, monolithic corporate “silos” is a bad idea.

And Amazon is very much such a silo, for authors especially. If you want to make a living selling books, you can’t really ignore Amazon: they control the vast majority of the ebook sales market.

As an author it makes a lot of sense to have your books on Amazon. But being on only Amazon is dangerous, for the same reason that all content silos are dangerous: because now this gigantic, for-profit, publicly-traded American corporation, whose purpose here on the planet Earth is emphatically not to support your creative aspirations, makes the rules about who gets to see your book and under what circumstances.

Amazon owning book distribution is not ideal. So I will argue that authors should prefer to “go wide”, in the parlance of the indie-publishing community, and make their book available in as many different channels as possible. Including, but not limited to, Amazon.

Okay, fine. But what about those of us who merely wish to share the work of authors? What’s the best way to do that?

The problem with linking to Amazon as a “safe default”1 is the same as the problem with just publishing your book on Amazon and calling it a day: it entrenches Amazon as The One True Place Where Books Are, and, while convenient, that’s not good. It’s not good for authors, it’s not actually very good for readers, and I’m going to go so far as to say it’s not good for society to have one big private corporation responsible for distributing such a huge proportion of the collective written work of the human race.

The Solution

If I’ve succeeded in making the argument that linking to books on Amazon is worth reconsidering, you’re wondering what to do instead! Here’s the process I’ve devised for linking to books. Like all such trade-offs, it’s less convenient (but not a lot less, especially with some tricks that I’ll describe), but better in the ways that matter.

When I want to link to a book (this happens pretty often, in the show notes of the podcast that I host), I’ll first do a quick search to see if the book or its author has a dedicated website (examples: Atomic Habits, The War of Art). If so, I’ll link to that. In a moment, I’ll explain how I make the act of linking really easy with a keyboard macro, but first let’s talk alternatives if a dedicated page isn’t available.

Now, granted: Goodreads is owned by Amazon. So it could, in the future, share the disadvantages of linking to a book on Amazon directly. But for now Goodreads seems to be a reliable place to find books, and the page for a book on Goodreads tends to include links to multiple ways of acquiring the book in addition to Amazon2. It even links to WorldCat, so you can find the book at a library, which brings me to…

For books that are hard to find in online stores, or perhaps for books that you took out of the library and you want to pay it forward, link to the book on WorldCat, which is, as far as I can tell, the best way to link to a book so that a reader can find it at their local library. WorldCat’s page for a book also includes links to some online stores, including Amazon (though not as many as Goodreads does), so WorldCat may be the best alternative to a book’s dedicated website.

Making It Easy

I link to books a lot, and I do most of my writing in Markdown, so I want to make two things as easy as possible:

  1. Searching the places mentioned above for the book
  2. Creating a Markdown link to the book to use in my notes… or in a blog post, or a Micro.blog post, or to transform into an HTML link, or whatever

Easy website searches with Alfred

I use Alfred instead of Spotlight on macOS, and one of its many useful features is the ability to create custom web searches. I’ve created these for both Goodreads and WorldCat, so that all I have to do is activate Alfred and type,

good the war of art

or

cat atomic habits

And hit Return, and my browser will open with the search results page for the given query on Goodreads or on WorldCat, respectively. Then you click the correct result to view the book’s page, and that’s where the next part comes in…

If you use a Mac, Keyboard Maestro is an amazing tool for automating common tasks and giving them simple keyboard shortcuts3.

I have a macro in Keyboard Maestro4 where, when I’m viewing a web page in Safari, if I hit ^ + Shift + C, it uses AppleScript to retrieve the page’s Title and URL and glom them together into a Markdown link, and put that link on the clipboard.

So if I’m looking at the website for The War of Art, I can just hit that shortcut and, when I paste into my notes, I get: [The War of Art – Steven Pressfield](https://stevenpressfield.com/books/the-war-of-art/)

This is crazy-useful stuff!

In Conclusion

Amazon, like all the big tech companies, has brought an unprecedented level of convenience and value to our lives. But convenience can lull us into a blissful paralysis in which we never consider the trade-offs of the choices we’re making—we stop thinking of them as choices:

Of course you order things off Amazon because they’re cheaper and you get same-or-one-day free shipping to your door.

Of course you link to books (or anything) on Amazon, because you know it’ll be there and that’s where any interested party (in Canada, America, the UK, Australia, and Germany, anyway…) will be buying the thing, after all.

And then, one day, when we’re confronted with an ugly trade-off of living in Amazon’s world, it’ll just be “the way things are”.

Is that a bit high-minded, or even histrionic, when the topic at hand is just hyperlinking to a book? Well, no. There’s a reason this website exists, and why it’s at danj.ca and not medium.com/@something, and there’s a reason why Patrick and I were talking about this in the first place on micro.blog and not on twitter.com: If you believe that retaining an open, independent internet is important, that access to books—as repositories of our collective ideas and culture—should not be controlled by a single for-profit enterprise, what can you do?

It’s 2020 and you and I both have Amazon Prime subscriptions and we’re not cancelling them anytime soon. We can barely change the trajectory of the world… but we can change it. And how we link to the books we read is one small thing we can do. Small changes are what we have to give, so I hope you’ll consider taking seriously what is within your power to change.

  1. “safe” because almost any book you could possibly recommend is available there—heck, it’s probably how you read the book yourself 

  2. One thing it seems to lack is a link to the book’s ‘canonical’ website, which is unfortunate, but perhaps can be remedied by the author/publisher when they put the book on Goodreads? 🤔 

  3. There are other tools like this on the Mac, and similar tools for Windows and Linux—if you prefer the keyboard to the mouse, and prefer automation to doing repettiive tasks over and over every day, it’s worth trying one of these tools out for your chosen environment. 🤓 

  4. h/t to my boss, Sean McCabe; I’m pretty sure I got it from him…