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Advertisements in Books

Over on a publishing email list there has been some chatter today about advertising in ebooks.

While I’m not crazy about being sold washing detergent with my War and Peace, I see no reason not to have ads in some ebooks, and I would rate the odds of it happening at 100% …

As with online book reviews that link to an online retailer (with affiliate fees), there is no reason an ebook about, say, rugby shouldn’t link to somewhere where I can buy tickets for the World Cup. If it’s a proper ebook – I mean, not just a book I can read on a digital device, but a proper ebook that is cloud-based and dynamically updated – then the link/interaction will point to 2011 tickets today, and in 4 years it will point to 2015 World Cup tickets. If I am reading about knitting I may well want to buy needles, and there’s no reason an ebook that makes me want to buy knitting needles shouldn’t help me do that (and make some money for the publisher, as well as the needle-maker, in the mean time).

As my friend Alistair Croll says: Buying a book is an expression of serious interest in a certain topic, and there is all sorts of valuable business to be done when people have expressed clear interest in a topic.

Certainly the level of engagement, and value of the average eyeball reading a book far outweighs the value of an average eyeball on a webpage. Digital books will and should allow any number of commercially valuable interactions – not just display ads. Or perhaps not display ads at all.

Doing this in a way that does not distract from the book itself will be the trick, but good design, and the powerful nature of new reading platforms means that doing this right is easily imaginable. If I can toggle night-reading on my Kobo for iPad, I can toggle ads.So ads needn’t distract from reading – they could be just another layer to which a book is connected.


  1. hugh hugh 2010-08-12

    Possibly a bad idea. Certainly an idea that will happen.

    I’m taking bets.

    As for whether the author gets a healthy cut of the revenue: it will depend on how good they are at negotiating contracts, I imagine.

    And, of course, they needn’t publish with a publisher who puts ads in their ebooks, right? There will surely be many many publishers who won’t. And many who will.

  2. Jon Renaut Jon Renaut 2010-08-12

    This sort of thing really, really, REALLY depends on the execution. If done right, in such a way that it doesn’t really interfere with reading, and effectively targets things the book makes you want to buy, this could be a nice way for authors to make money.

    Or, as Heather says, it could be a violation of privacy, an intrusion into your book, and a bunch of inappropriate ads.

    It seems like something that would work better for a small press who can take the time to work with each author to find what works, rather than using keyword matching or something mostly automatic.

    I don’t particularly like the model – I think there are other, more interesting ones to explore as we move inevitably towards ebooks. But I think it could definitely work in some cases if done properly.

  3. Blork Blork 2010-08-12

    I would only bin favor of this for some kinds of books; as in, very commercial ones like sports books or celebrity fan books. This is a terrible idea for serious literature, as is the idea of the book being cloud-based.

    Cloud-based is fine for short-term things like magazines and pop books that are irrelevant in six months. But I don’t want anyone messing with my serious books once I’ve bought them. Here’s a scenario: Ian MacEwan publishes a novel from a publisher that is cloud-based. Somebody feels that a character in the novel is based on them and threatens to sue for liabel. Before it even goes to court, the publisher pushes a edited version onto your reader, with all the juicy bits removed. Think of the many variations of this scenario that could also occur. Is that a good thing?

    He’ll no! Call me old fashioned, but I don’t want anyone — be it publishers, government, censors, or hackers messing with my literature!

    This underscores one of the big problems with electronic publishing; the fact that the model is based on the idea of “consume and dispose,” whereas most serious readers are very attached to their libraries and have a very hard time thinking of literature in those terms.

  4. Blork Blork 2010-08-12

    Damn, typing long comments on an iPad leads to many silly and embarrassing typos!

  5. Blork Blork 2010-08-12

    And one other thing (WRT your “needn’t publish with a publisher who inserts ads” comment); most writers — especially emerging writers — don’t exactly have a choice of publishers. You go with whomever will take you. :-)

  6. bowerbird bowerbird 2010-08-12

    right, because we don’t
    have enough ads in our
    lives already, do we, hugh?


    publishers will go extinct
    long before they get their
    “act” together enough to
    install ads inside books…

    and authors will value their
    fans far too highly to risk
    alienating them with ads…

    although your last note on
    being able to “toggle” ads,
    like one toggles the kobo
    backlighting at night, does
    present one scenario which
    might serve as an alternative.


  7. Gesine Gesine 2010-08-13

    I agree, Hugh – it’ll come. I don’t think it would be such a bad thing – we’re so used to screening ads out by now. I hardly see them any more. Perhaps publishers will offer two versions of books: with ads and without, the ones without for a higher price. It’s not an unusual model, should be fairly easy to execute, and would give consumers choices.

  8. hugh hugh 2010-08-13

    @jon: there are good ways and bad ways to do this. “bad” = distracting/conflicting/gross. “good” = provides value to the reader. what that looks like is a question of design (broadly), and attention to the reader’s needs.

    @blork: interesting worry about the cloud – but then there is no reason that an update need replace your existing digital copy right? Your cloud-based ebook should have reader version-control – and you own/control your downloaded copies, which you might have decided were important enough to order paper back-ups.

    re: writers/publishers … this, i think, is an important issue that writers will need to decide: if you don’t think the terms of publishers are acceptable, then don’t publish with a/that publisher. It’s a trade off: you sell them your artistic output; they do whatever they can to make money from your art. That’s how publishing works. If your art won’t make money for them, then they won’t buy it. And readers/buyers in the end will decide what they are willing to bear or not bear…but if you don’t want to sell your soul to commercial publishers, no one is forcing you.

    @bowerbird: ads are everywhere. what can you do? people want to make money. some people sell their online presence to Google for $4/month in adsense revenue. fair trade? I don’t think so. but: such is the mystery of humans. but it will happen in books, whatever you or i think about it. sometimes it will be done well, sometimes not. many online comic artists make their living selling tshirts. most writers make their living with another job.

  9. Jon Renaut Jon Renaut 2010-08-13

    @blork – For as long as there are people like you who don’t want someone messing with the story they bought, permanent forms of the work will be available for sale. You don’t have to worry until you’re in such a minority that it’s no longer profitable to serve your needs.

    And as for your example – an author SHOULDN’T profit from abusing libel or copyright or anything else. Your scenario is a problem for the legal system rather than the publishing business. And if authors start changing things on whims and deleting content that customers thought they had purchased, then I suspect the market will take care of that.

    But it’s all a side-effect of not really getting our minds (or our laws) around the concept of ownership when the “seller” still retains some or all of the control. You don’t “own” a Kindle if Amazon can still delete a book from it. You don’t “own” a song if the shutdown of a DRM server means you can never play it again. And you don’t “own” an ebook if the author or publisher can change it or take it away against your will. You are leasing at the discretion of the lessor, under a contract that can probably be rewritten at any time.

    I think these things will work themselves out over time. With so much competition for our free time and our money, mistreating customers isn’t much of a business plan.

  10. Teel Teel 2010-08-13

    I see the value of ads in eBooks and, as was described in the post, believe their place is probably in topical non-fiction books. Especially business books, where an author could advertise their current speaking engagements right in their eBooks.

    What caught me more than that in the post was that you consider cloud-based the way of the future for eBooks. I agree wholeheartedly. At the very least, there should be a cloud-based rights clearing house for a proper form of actual “digital rights management” – for keeping track of the readers/consumers rights to the digital IP they’ve paid for, so that once someone has paid for a book/song/film their right to read/hear/watch it is protected, regardless of what device/platform they move to. Cloud-based eBooks is one of the good (and bad) things about the kindle platform, because it means I can move from kindle1 to kindle2 to iPhone to iPad to Mac/PC with the same library (and the same bookmarks, and stay on the same page) – unfortunately right now it also means that certain publishers can prevent one from downloading the books they’ve paid for to an nth device, or can alter/pull the book without asking.

    I much prefer the Smashwords method – where once I’ve bought a book, I can download a local copy in my choice of formats and if the publisher makes a change (as per @blork’s worry), every version made available after I’ve paid for the book remains available to me. If I change devices and need the eBook in a new format, all the choices remain available to me. And if the publisher pulls the book completely, I still have the copies I downloaded. Some of the benefits of the cloud, some of the benefits of “ownership,” no silly DRM.

    Doesn’t support dynamic ads, though. Not yet.

  11. Blork Blork 2010-08-13

    Hugh, you said: “@blork: interesting worry about the cloud – but then there is no reason that an update need replace your existing digital copy right? Your cloud-based ebook should have reader version-control – and you own/control your downloaded copies, which you might have decided were important enough to order paper back-ups.”

    That sounds all nice and stuff, but the reality is that it’s almost never your choice. It’s the publisher and the distributor who decide what your rights are. We’re at the mercy of what the publishers, in cahoots with Amazon, Kobo, and others, build and how they build it, and there is little doubt that they will build it in a way that benefits them. So the “reason” that “an update need replace your existing digital copy” is because that’s how they build it. Witness the famous and oft-quoted case of Amazon deleting books from the Kindle.

    Jon Renaut, it’s not about authors profiting from libelous writing. That was just an example — and in the example the libel wasn’t even established (a lawsuit was threatened but not yet brought nor won) and it was the publisher who pulled the plug because their lawyers pushed them to be extra careful. My point being that the books on your reader are subject to the whims and knee-jerk reactions of the publishers (and their lawyers).

    As Teel says, it’s really about ownership, and for the most part, we don’t own e-books even after we buy them. We pay for and receive a license to use (but not distribute or reproduce) the content. That’s not the same as ownership.

    That also sort of applies with a paper book. We do not own the content, and we’re not allowed to reproduce it. But we own the physical object it’s printed in, which means nobody can come into your house and change it or take it away (at least not legally).

    I’m not against e-books, but I’m not ready to dive in head first either. There are a lot of questions that I don’t have good answers to. (For example, it’s not uncommon for me to buy a book and not get around to reading it for 6, 8, or even 10 years. If I buy an e-book for my iPad today, can I be sure I’ll be able to read it in 10 or 15 years time?)

    When it comes to the question of ads in books, I go back to the point in my original typo-laden comment, where I worry about books moving into the realm of “consume and dispose,” like newspapers and magazines, and what that means for book and literary culture. (Putting ads in books pushes them in the direction of being more temporal and seemingly disposable.)

  12. Jon Renaut Jon Renaut 2010-08-13

    @blork – Ok, there are two possibilities there. One, it’s a bogus libel claim and the publisher doesn’t feel like fighting it. That’s not a publishing problem, that’s a legal problem.

    And two, it actually is libel, in which case I think they SHOULD update your book.

    But yes, I agree that I don’t like publishers retaining control. Nothing good for consumers can come of that.

    I run into these issues every time I start thinking about what it means to “own” infinitely copyable content. If you think about it long enough, you arrive at a ridiculous situation where you have to go to such great lengths to make the content behave like the old hard-to-copy content that I don’t think it makes sense to even pretend that we own it anymore.

  13. hugh hugh 2010-08-14

    @blork: publishers should sell bundles: print + ebook.

  14. bowerbird bowerbird 2010-08-15

    hugh said:
    > ads are everywhere.
    > what can you do?

    gonna start shooting people,
    and see if that does the trick.

    -bowerbird :+)

    p.s. i saw where the crazy one
    blocked you for saying my name
    1.1 times… a serious crime, eh?

  15. Blork Blork 2010-08-15

    Jon Reaut, I am rendered speechless by your uncompromising faith in lawyers and the legal system. (You really only see two possibilities? OMG!)

  16. Jon Renaut Jon Renaut 2010-08-16

    There are two possibilities – the author has broken the law, or the author has not broken the law.

    If the author has broken the law, then he/she should be punished, and customers should not enjoy the results.

    If the author has not broken the law, and it is the fault of a non-functional legal system that the customer loses out, then it’s not a publishing issue that we’re dealing with, it’s a legal one. If I wanted to get involved in legal issues, I would have gone to law school.

    I don’t mean to say that our legal system is perfect, because it isn’t. I’m just not interested in discussing its flaws. I’d rather think about how to ignore them.

  17. Blork Blork 2010-08-16

    Well, I’m not going to drag this on, but here are plenty of other possibilities, including:

    (1) It is not yet known if the author has broken the law, but the publisher’s lawyer’s overreact and force a “recall” before it even goes to trial, with the intention of minimizing damages in case they lose.

    (2) At the trial, the judge decides the author has broken the law, so there is a “recall.” The author appeals the decision and wins, meaning he has not broken the law. But the recall has already happened and might not be reversed.

    (3) The author has not broken the law, but to avoid a long and costly court battle, the publisher recalls the books anyway in an out-of-court settlement, which is done just to shut up the plaintiff.

    On and on it goes. My main point is that I am not comfortable with the notion that publishers can control the book you bought even after you bought it. We can all go la-la-la and sing the happy Web 2.0 song, but in reality when you pit corporate interests against consumer interests — and the corporation controls the technology — the consumer will almost never win.

    And for what it’s worth, even if the author did commit libel (according to the legal definition), recalling and redacting books from people’s e-readers is (to me) like going into a library and burning books.

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