Advertising in ebooks – an inevitable outcome

I made a passing comment on Twitter yesterday that led to some heated discussion. My comment was this:

Ebooks will soon carry links, photos, video, etc. They will also, in order to really monetize the medium, contain ads.

Which I followed with this tweet:

Your ebook will start in 60 seconds, after these messages from our sponsors. #wontbelong

Man, that triggered some visceral reactions from a lot of people. Particualy the advertising part. I think multimedia ebooks are inevitable too, but they’re already showing up in some guises. It’s a matter of ereaders catching up that stands between the standard ebook as it is now and the future ebook full of other media.

But when it comes to advertising in ebooks, I think it’s something that people need to accept. There are many reasons, not least the desire to monetize the ebook and keep “cover” prices down. I’m a big fan of ebooks, but I believe they need to be a lot cheaper than print books. I know all about the general production, formatting and so on, but the same applies to print books. The simple fact is that a person doesn’t get a physical object and the price needs to reflect that. Also, with ebook retailers, the margins are much wider. I make a bigger royalty on a Kindle version of RealmShift, for example, than I do on a print version, even though the Kindle edition is $2.99 and the print edition $9.99. But it’s obviously in everyones interests for publishers to make a healthy profit as well as authors. The more money a publisher has, the more authors they can take on and the more books they can produce. The more authors and books a publisher has on board, the more choice and variety the reading public have. It’s a win for everyone. But how to make it happen?

Kindle adIt’s a simple fact that we live in a capitalist society. If anything is going to work, someone needs to be making money. Ideally, everyone is making money except the people buying the product, and those people are happy with what they get for their outlay. In that environment, other than producing a quality product, a lot of profit comes from advertising. And is it really so bad to have ads in ebooks?

A lot of people on Twitter yesterday complained about ads interrupting the reading experience. I agree that if ads suddenly popped up when you turned a page, that would piss me off no end. But that’s not how it has to work. When you buy a DVD, you put it in and you get some ads and trailers before the film starts and maybe some afterwards as well. The movie experience itself is solid and uninterrupted. I see this as the way forward with ebooks. Hopefully consumer demand will force that to happen. If publishers start putting ads in the middle of books, customers should rightly voice their rage and refuse to buy from the publisher any more. But if you have to flick through a few pages of ads before the start of chapter one, it’s a slightly annoying but overall not very debilitating chore. Especially if the presence of those few pages of ads means the ebook is a reasonable price and the author and publisher are making money. Obviously, with the presence of ads, it’s the publisher that stands to make the most, but don’t forget my point above about publishers with good profit margins taking on more authors and giving readers more books.

I even see a time when an ebook might open with visual or video ads that you have to endure before the book itself starts that aren’t just the publisher promoting their other books, but third party advertisers buying space. Imagine an ebook of something by John Grisham, Dan Brown or J K Rowling. These are people that sell a lot of books. If their publisher sold advertising space in the opening pages of their books, that space could be sold at a premium. The publisher could stand to make a lot of money. Hopefully we’d see some of that money given back to authors in higher advances and royalties as well as being invested in future projects. I realise this is something of a utopian view and perhaps rather naive, but we can all dream. If the money is there, we can all lobby to see at least some of it spent right.

With most ereaders now utilising wifi and 3G technology, we could even see a situation where a different set of ads pop up every time you open a book. Ideally you’d only ever see ads at the start of the book, but if the advertising code used the wireless networks you might decide to reread a book a year later and see entirely new ads at the start. We’re already seeing video games where the billboards are updated with current advertising in-game. It’s no great stretch to see that happen with ebooks, thereby making that advertising space more profitable. Someone on Twitter (@NomentionofKev) even mentioned that the ereaders themselves might carry the ads, not the books. That risks a situation where every time you turn on the reader, you see an ad. For me, that’s going too far and I’d avoid that kind of reader. But it’s quite possible that we’ll see that situation before long.

Someone else (@Cacotopos) said that they have a demand list for ebooks – 1) no DRM 2) .ePub 3) no intertextual ads. And they noted that price wasn’t even on their list yet. I tend to agree with their list, but I would definitely add 4) Never more than $5 RRP.

Advertising annoys all of us, but it’s a necessary evil in a capitalist society. Sure, it would be great to have an ebook with no advertising, but isn’t it better to suffer a bit of advertising and have more choice of books, more new authors given a chance to get their work out to wide audiences and cheaper ebook purchase prices? I’m convinced that ads in ebooks are inevitable. It’s down to us to think about that and start voicing our opinions now so that we can hopefully help to shape the way that advertising is approached from the outset.

What are you thoughts on the matter?


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21 thoughts on “Advertising in ebooks – an inevitable outcome

  1. Wowio has done this for at least a couple of years; their free ebooks carry sponsorships. The author and Wowio split the proceeds. The ads are unobtrusive, in my limited experience (it’s been a year or so since I downloaded one), and sometimes are even germane. 🙂

  2. That’s my ebook demand list at the end there, and twitter constrained me somewhat. I agree with Alan that a $5 price point is the sweet spot, although as I suggested pricing isn’t as much of a concern to me as the portability of my ebooks.

    For examepl, I could be convinced to pay $10 or even more for an ebook that I wanted, but never while it requires me to install another ebook reader application on my ipad just so I can have it check with parent servers that I am who I am, etc. Digital restrictions on files have never worked, and we already have an example of an industry that ditched it to great success (the music industry).

    I support ads in ebooks if they are relevant and unobtrusive. I certainly wouldn’t support ads that are unskippable or take up 60 seconds of my day. The example of DVDs was raised – ads at the start of DVDs, especially unskippable ones, DEVALUE the product compared to free pirated copies.

    Any digital industry has to provide a product that is better than the free pirated copies out there in order to compete effectively, that’s the simple reality of the digital world…

    We live in exciting times! 🙂

  3. I agree absolutely that DRM is a real issue and it needs to be removed. That more than anything else is retarding the evolution of ebooks. I’m not so sure that a 60 second ad at the start of a book (or DVD) really devalues it that much. After all, a purchased DVD has commentary, extras, interviews, photo galleries, etc. There’s nothing to stop ebooks having the same kind of extra content, and I think they will before long.

    Already print books are starting to include author interviews, previews of forthcoming books and so on. I don’t think that a 60 second ad at the start of a book is really that big a deal. Don’t get me wrong, I hate ads anywhere, but they’re a reality and we have to deal with them.

  4. I feel that there is something wrong with the addition of advertisements to ebooks. I am used to them with visual mediums such as film, however, the inclusion of ads into a ‘printed’ medium doesn’t strike a positive chord with me yet. The proliferation of advertising in sporting franchises, the ‘naming rights’ due to corporate sponsorship, to me reeks of the almighty dollar being more important than the event or circumstance. It reminds me of “Minority Report” where ads are tailored for the specific individual. Truth will be stranger than fiction.
    I would prefer to do without the capitalist interference, but I might consider a small sacrifice for the benefits of strong publishing and new authors.

  5. Adam – I agree, but I think we’re already past the Schwarzchild radius on this one. Minority Report isn’t fair from the truth, I think. More’s the pity!

  6. Whilst I’m not a fan of the idea of ads in eBooks, the idea of having a few at the start wouldn’t bother me I don’t think.

    I had an idea for my own book, to do an excerpt exchange at the end of my book where an excerpt of someone’s eBook could go at the end in exchange for an excerpt of mine going in at the end of theirs.

  7. It comes down to what we are paying for when we pay for a novel: the author’s blood, sweat and tears, the editing process, the publishing process, goodwill for the publisher’s brand, printing and distribution, book shop margins and overheads, and maybe marketing.

    Remove printing, book shop margins and overheads, then change distribution to electronic methods and how much does a book cost? I’d be happy to pay that. I’ll even bring my own hardware (I have a Kindle).

    When you start offering ads to reduce the price of the e-book from that (or even to make the e-book free) then it may make the e-book more appealing to those for whom price is a significant factor. That’s fine, but I would still want the option of a non-ad e-book. When I buy the e-book on Amazon (for example) I’m already exposed to ads, reviews, promotions and ‘Readers who bought this also bought…’ – I’d like to think there is some sanctuary from being treated as a consumer in the electronic pages.

    You also alluded to an ideal world where ad money would flow back through the publishing pipeline to authors. I work in magazine publishing and editorial staff (ie the ‘content producers’) don’t get paid nearly as much as the people who are close to the money i.e. the sales staff: ad revenue would flow to the ad sales staff and then to the business. If this means the difference between the publishing company surviving or dying then yes, it’s a boon for authors, but I don’t think we’ll be seeing higher paid authors any time soon.

    As a reader, I want a book to treat me as a reader, not a consumer. As I writer, I’d like my novel to be treated as a novel, not a host for advertising.

  8. Advertising is not only inevitable in ebooks, but should also be seen as an asset to lesser- known authors. The only real issue is the format / obtrusiveness. So if you want your views heard, getting in early with the providers is (IMO) the way to go about it.

  9. As already mentioned, trailers on a DVD are a pretty close parallel, though with them being physical media there is obviously a higher production and distribution cost involved. I don’t purchase movie downloads, so I can’t say if the same thing applies to those.

    Unskippable ads do annoy me, but I fully understand their necessity for indie producers. There are many cases where great indie movies have been made on ridiculously low budgets, but the end result still has to make it to the general public, so advertising becomes a way of funding the distribution process. You can create the perfect movie or write an amazing book, but it will go unseen if you can’t get it out to the masses.

    However, it REALLY bugs me when the advertising is uneccessary. A prime example of this is any Disney DVD. Disney have the distribution capabilty in house and their movies pretty much sell themselves (it’s not like Toy Story 3 will go unnoticed and end up in the ‘reduced to clear’ bin), yet any of their discs subject you to sometimes up to 20 minutes of Disney promotions. Yes you can skip, but sometimes you can’t skip straight to the menu, you have to skip each trailer to get there. The most loathsome part is the target audience is young children, fuelling consumerism from an impressionable age.

    Advertising is abhorrent when it’s forced on you, but make it an option and most people will have a look – stick some trailers in the extras on a DVD and I’ll definitely watch them, but force them on me and you make me annoyed.

    I can see advertising in eBooks becoming a necessity for indie authors, but it could also be beneficial to both the author and the reader if done right. Stick a page or two at the start of a book promoting other material you might be interested in, then put some samples at the end. An extra page turn at the start of a book is unlikely to annoy anyone and as a bonus you get some free samples to check out too. Force people to wade through those samples to get to the book they wanted to read in the first place and you have immediately alienated your reader.

    Sadly, the nature of the world such that however good your latest novel is, it will simply be a personal achievement without advertising and promotion. Your book is no good if no one every gets to hear about it, let alone read it. Regular readers of this blog will be aware that there is a strong community in the speculative fiction genre and, surely, promoting each others work has to be mutually beneficial?

  10. First off, let me clarify that I hate advertising and would love to see everything ad free. I watch ABC and love the lack of ads. When I watch commercial TV, I pause the show for a while in order to fast forward through the ads (the best thing about digital television!) It horrifies me to think about ads in ebooks. However, if we’re realistic about this I think it’s an inevitability and therefore I’m addressing it as such.

    Adeline – “As a reader, I want a book to treat me as a reader, not a consumer. As I writer, I’d like my novel to be treated as a novel, not a host for advertising.”

    I couldn’t agree more, but refer you to my comment above. I do like the idea of a two tier ebook option though. A cheap ebook with advertising, or a premium ebook with no advertising but a higher cover price might be a good option.

    Steve – This is my main point. If enough people make their views heard now, it might help to dictate how ads are handled. If everyone just shouts, “NO ADS!” consistently, then the providers will say, “Screw you” and do it their way. Which will suck.

    Graham – The promo options for up and coming authors is certainly valuable, but not the main issue. The more popular an author is, the more valuable the ad space in their books and therefore that’s the more important issue to address.

    For example, advertising in my novels is not going to reach very many people, especially compared to a Grisham or Brown novel (more’s the pity!), so we need to dictate how the advertising is handled in the big books to get a trickle down effect for all books.

    Your point about forcing ads is very relevant, though: “Advertising is abhorrent when it’s forced on you, but make it an option and most people will have a look.”

    I think you’re bang on with this. And a couple of extra page turns to start a book is no big deal. But will it only ever be that? I’m dubious…

    Thanks for the comments everyone – interesting stuff.

  11. Such advertising could take the form of an author paying to have a sample chapter of her/his book included at the end of a book by a better-selling author in the same genre. I think that would be less off-putting than an ad, and might actually be effective, assuming the sample is of high quality.

  12. Dave – that’s a really good idea. But the question arises, can an up and coming author afford to buy space in a book by a bestseller?

  13. I have nothing against advertising in ebooks if it’s similar to in paper books (pick up a manga sometime and you’ll see lots of “related titles” ads, and I remember my paperbacks having “also from [publisher name]” pages in the back for years). My question is how much advertising we’ll be able to do BECAUSE of Wowio’s actions. Is anyone here aware of the fact that they’ve been approved for patents in this field?

    Disregarding the patent problem, I think if advertising gets too rampant in ebooks then it will be counter-productive. It’s an easy way to drive off consumers if it’s done wrong – and if a first-time buyer is dissatisfied with their purchase, they may not take a chance and try again. With a still-newish medium I think some caution should be exercised as to market appeal.

    Makes me wonder about ads that are generated through a wireless connection, as well – there’s the fun possibility of exploits there. Some iPhone apps already have some exploits in them due to badly-screened ads. New technology always comes with lots of interesting things to consider, and while ad revenue may be lucrative, you have to stack it against losses from ongoing R&D to fight against those who would exploit.

    As a consumer, I think having to pause and wait to watch an ad before I read a book would make me throw my reader across the room. I’m the type to hack my DVD player just to bypass the no-skip restriction on movie ads.

  14. Irk – “It’s an easy way to drive off consumers if it’s done wrong – and if a first-time buyer is dissatisfied with their purchase, they may not take a chance and try again.”

    I think this is where consumer action will help to shape how advertising is done. If a publisher develops a bad rep for over advertising it will (should) directly affect their sales. We can but hope.

  15. I believe advertising may lose some of the irritation factor for some individuals if accompanied by a certain amount of sexually-explicit material. 😀

  16. This won’t happen as you describe (it’s too intrusive), but I wouldn’t be surprised if publishers include on page 1 a listing of other books by the same author or other similar books from the publisher. Even then, the page would have to contain a terse description…not a lot of fluff. The idea of sponsored books sounds appealing too …although Wowio never was able to make a lot of money off that.

    This MIGHT work if the advertising came with a free device, but even then I doubt consumers would go for it.

    I think the problem is different: it is too expensive (comparatively speaking) to advertise books and ebooks. If a low priced ebook can sell at least 500 copies, then advertising isn’t really necessary. But the amount of promotion needed to hit 500 copies isn’t trivial.

    Finally I’m enclosing a long excerpt of a 2007 interview I had with a market analyst about the potential of ads and books:

    If an ad-based ebook business has a potential, what would be the best way to decide which ads go in a book: a book’s specific subject matter, general reading correlations or surveys of individual users?

    Actually, it will be as a function of registered user data, and perhaps even behavioral data.

    Where one surfs on the Web is far more predictive of buying behavior than one’s demographic (which is gathered during registration, or imputed from registration data). If an Amazon knows that you’re always after tennis gear/tickets et al in their vast e-store, they’ll know to serve you tennis-related ads. That’s why the Oligopoly (Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, AOL, Amazon et al) have a natural advantage in ad-serving. They know what you like based on your “Intrasite Clickstream” (as opposed to across a series of web properties).

    I bought Ovid’s Art of Love in 1992, and I only got around to reading it today. If that book contained ads, do you think they would still be relevant to me at the actual time I read it?

    The ads are pointers, and as your device is hooked to the Internet, when you go to read Book of Love the ads will be pulled/inserted in real-time (or from the last time you were Net-connected). Expect to see a number of Ad Networks targeting the eBook market to facilitate this; they’re already targeting video.

    And no, you won’t see 300 ads for just Coca-Cola when you read a 300 page book, but a medley of ads.

    Are advertising metrics for e-book ads harder to value than those for web ads or print ads? Wouldn’t it be impossible to audit whether someone has read a book without compromising privacy?

    The great lie is that online ads are judged by whether or not they are clicked upon. You may have bought a Trek Bike at a retail store, but you were influenced by the 47 online ads for Trek that you saw and never clicked upon, however fleetingly. The popular mechanism for online ad tracking is cookies, and we expect the same for eBook ad-serving.

    Smaller companies like Wowio have taken the lead in offering free ad-supported downloadable ebooks. Will smaller companies like that be at an inherent disadvantage in distributing ad-supported ebooks (when compared to Google and for instance).

    Yes—see the point above about Intrasite Clickstreams. Behavioral Targeting is unpopular with some industry pundits, especially relating to privacy, but it’s far more effective than Demographic Targeting, and folks who like tennis would probably be open to seeing ads for tennis-related products and services.

  17. Interesting comment, thanks. But I think you stumble at the first line: “This won’t happen as you describe (it’s too intrusive)”

    For one, I described a variety of options and wondered which would be most likely. But more importantly, when has advertising ever given a fuck about being too intrusive? My main point here is that by voicing opinions loud and early, we might be able to dictate at least partially just how intrusive they are.

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