Advertising in Ebooks?

The Publishers Weekly ebooks blog strikes again with another provocative posting that speculates on the possibility, and attractiveness to publishers, of putting advertisements in ebooks.

One of the problems for book publishers, as opposed to magazine publishers, is that they have always had to survive on what amounts to a single revenue stream. While magazines have newsstand single-copy sales and subscription sales as part of their business plan, they make a high percentage of their income selling advertising and, in fact, the sale of the magazine itself is usually at a loss-leader price intended to boost circulation and, thereby, the advertising rates they can charge. Poor old book publishers have, for many years, had to make do with what they can make from selling the books themselves and nothing more.

Some decades back, mass market paperback publishers actually did include advertising pages bound into the middle of their books, similar to the pieces of roughage (printed on what feels like really cheap cardboard) that riddle most magazines these days. As I recall, they were most often cigarette ads (which makes one wonder about what the advertisers saw as the functional market correlations between reading and smoking) and they made it more difficult to actually read the books because they essentially functioned as a stiff, cover-like insert in the middle of your reading experience. Authors, agents and the general public were unhappy about the interference with their leisure-time enjoyment and also deeply upset that books were being used to sell cigarettes. Readers don’t necessarily have much leverage in these situations but sometimes authors and agents do and they started, as a group, insisting on “No advertising” clauses in their book contracts and, after a while, publishers gave up their greedy dreams of captive audiences and secondary revenue.

But now, technology helps the wheel come around again and the old is now the new new. If Google can make billions every year from small, innocuous ads placed at the margins of what sees like every webpage you ever open, why can’t advertisers extend their reach into another developing corner of the electronic universe? Rupert Murdoch seems to like the idea and the speculation is that HarperCollins, an aggressive pursuer of electronic book markets, might be the logical first choice for an experiment with the idea. There’s an interesting link to a press release from early 2006 in which HarperCollins announced the free release of an entire book online with contextual advertising included.

An interesting point made in the blog post, and one that made me stop and think, is that in a generation that has grown up with “free” as their expectation when scanning the internet, reading news online and consuming their entertainment, advertising might simply be the best way to go in pursuit of a survival strategy when competing against other information suppliers who are already deeply committed to supplying free information and making money with ads that ubiquitously come along with the free content. An example of a company that is already publishing with that model is Wowio, which makes books available for free, in Adobe PDF format only, with ads as part of the package. Onscreen reading is possible but portable reading somewhat less so. Try putting a PDF file on your phone.

Another provocative proposal floated in the piece is the idea of offering competing editions of ebooks, some free with ads and others for a price that guarantees no ads included. I’m not sure which way that one would play out but it would be very interesting to see the idea being tried out and even more interesting to see what the results might be.

I’m not advocating or condemning advertising in ebooks–yet. I’m still thinking about it and I’m open to new ideas anyway so why not give this one a mental spin and watch the markets with me to see how things play out?

— John

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