logo

And Picking Up on That Free Book Comment . . .

Scott Karp has an interesting post at Publishing 2.0 regarding the possibility of putting ads in books:

It seems that everything that can command consumer attention — websites, software applications, social networking, video games, reality TV — is being monetized through advertising. So why not books? Especially in dynamic digital formats?

As Tim O’Reilly and Karp point out, in terms of the dominant current model ($1 per 1,000 views), this wouldn’t work out so well. A 400 page book (with an ad on every page), that sells very well (say 20,000 copies) would generate $8,000 in ad sales. Which isn’t enough of an incentive for publishers to do this. Not to mention the flak they would get for selling out in such a crass way . . .

Karp takes issue with that though:

I think what’s really holding the book publishing industry back from joining the digital revolution and putting ads on everything is the fear of shooting the sacred cow — the one that no other print publishing industry besides the book industry has ever held holy.

Newspapers? Circulation revenue AND advertising revenue. Magazines? Same. Books? Well . . . wait . . . what do you mean, when someone buys a book they want to read it without being distracted by ads. Well, of course, because nobody can read a magazine or a newspaper without being distracted by ads . . .

Regardless of whether there was any sense to this prohibition against ads in books in print, in digital all bets are off. The way content is consumed digitally is fundamentally different. The experience is different, and the expectations are derived largely from the core experience that defines digital media — surfing the web. You think anyone has every seen ads on the web?

As a believer in the longevity of books—that these are objects to be read, collected, cherished—the idea of ads in books is absurd. How odd would it be to pull a dusty book down off the shelf and be greeted by an ad for the Beyonce album that came out 15 years ago? (And I’m sure in the world of conglomerates, there would be a lot of cross-product advertising if this idea ever took off.) E-Books might be a different matter . . .

There are two cross purposes here though that need to be parsed. If a publisher is looking to monetize its products, ads are there solely to increase profit. And that’s shitty.

If a publisher is looking for a way to make a book available at a cheaper price, or more widely distribute it, then there’s something to the idea of finding a way of subsidizing publications that wouldn’t be crass or obtrusive. Like the Lannan Translation Selection Series. This helped make Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses possible, and I think we’d all agree that’s a great thing for the world.

Ideally—I feel like I’m living in an imaginary world today—there should exist a healthy, savvy culture of donors to literature. This does exist to some degree, but the field of nonprofit publishing is relatively young and no where near as developed as other nonprofit fields. A highly cultivated group of benefactors to literature (individuals, foundations, etc.) could serve as a counterforce to the increasing conglomeratization of publishing and the profit-making bottom-line driving editorial decisions.

The books that will make money can be published by companies with that goal; but for publishers looking to do books that will struggle in the traditional marketplace, philanthropists can make a world of difference in expanding the reach and viability of publishing literature, by identifying ways to expanding marketing efforts, lower the retail price, and even give away some copies to specific audiences in need. So although I don’t think books should be given away per se, I think it is important to try and find ways of making more titles available and getting these books into the hands of more readers, whatever it takes.

(Disclaimer: The Economics class I just finished at the Simon Business School scared the crap out of me. Left to the “invisible hand” of the marketplace, publishers dedicated to only doing great books don’t seem long for the world without something changing in the business side or in the culture.)



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.