Are ads in books such a bad idea?

I conducted an ad hoc and wholly unscientific poll among a handful of my friends the other day about the possibility of advertising coming to books. It produced some strong (and predictable) negative reactions.

Hell freezing, dead bodies and metaphors about fat and slim peppered the comments I received. A minority felt ambivalent about the idea and said it was inevitable.

What prompted this little opinion-feeler was an editorial in the Wall Street Journal (paywall) a few days ago. According to the Journal, advertising in digital books is inevitable: on the one hand, pressures are constant on publishers to increase revenues; and on the other hand, our constant exposure to marketing and brand messaging in digital content is something we’re becoming more accustomed to.

If you think this too radical a notion, consider the overwhelming product placement in movies, music videos and video games, as the Journal points out. Marketing and brand messaging surrounds us, constantly.

The Journal’s editorial suggests that including advertising in digital books will be hugely disruptive to a publishing industry that’s been knocked sideways by technological changes and the rapid rise of digital content to be consumed on devices like the Kindle and the iPad that some argue may kill quality content.

[…] Especially in light of the rush to e-books, the industry faces a troubling future. In the first place, overall sales have been stagnant or decreasing for over a decade, even as more books are published every year. Production costs are higher than ever now that publishers must produce both physical and digital editions. Above all, pricing remains a challenge: No matter what the split between publisher and retailer, at $9.99 a digital book is far less profitable than its hardcover cousin priced at $25.

Note that the Journal’s editorial is about digital books, not traditional printed ones. So-called e-books, whatever you want to call them. So why the image above, complete with ad, from a very traditional book, you may wonder?

That image – an ad for Kent cigarettes in a 1972 science-fiction paperback by A. E. van Vogt – is from Smoke This Book, an essay in the New York Times published in 2007 that looked at tobacco-company advertising in paperback books in America in the 60s, 70s and 80s.

While it’s hardly likely that advertising cigarettes is what you’ll see in the future, I think it’s inevitable that advertising may well appear in traditional printed books as well. After all, it’s not a new concept by any means.

Two simple possibilities spring to mind: printed books that carry advertising and that cost less; and printed books with no advertising that cost more. In fact, that’s a point the Journal makes very clearly.

[…] What would the world look like with ads in books? For consumers, the free samples of digital books now available would surely include ads. Because not every consumer who reads a sample chapter will buy the book, it’s reasonable for the publisher to extract some additional value. Seeing ads in the sample may also convince a reader to pay for a premium, non-ad version of the full-length book. The old market segmentation of paperbacks and hardcovers will be replaced by ad-supported or ad-free books.

Many questions need answers. What kind of ads? How will they appear?  Who will create them? What about audio books – how might advertising work in them?

[…] Advertising in books will introduce a whole new set of relationships into the publishing ecosystem. Ad agencies will be involved in creating a standard form for digital ads. Technology companies will be crucial to implementation. A new set of contracts will have to be created to manage these new costs, revenue sources and control rights.

Just like the mainstream media, the book publishing industry is trying to figure out a viable and sustainable business model that means a continuation of that publishing business. It will evolve, to be sure, but if someone gets it right, advertising, books and readers can surely live together.

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. Rita Usanga

    Ads in books and digital books are not the same thing. eReaders will inevitably be used as an additional ad platform but I certainly don’t want to see my physical books peppered with ads.

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