The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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It's not ads in books, it's ads in e-books, silly

Paul Carr at TechCrunch has the best take on the “ads in books” hysteria kicked up by the WSJ (original article conveniently paywalled) I’ve read yet. It’s even smartly titled “Eat Pay Love“:

The crux of the argument is this: books are the only word-based medium currently free of advertising (unless you count the pages full of ads for other books at the back of most mass market paperbacks). This isn’t – as you might think – because ads kill our enjoyment of literature (many magazines publish fiction surrounded by commercial messages) but rather because until now it’s been difficult to sell ad space in books. The lead times in publishing – and the shelf-life of paperbacks – are simply too long to deliver timely commercial offerings: who hasn’t experienced the amusement of picking up an old paperback and being invited to send off for the previous title in the series for just 25c?

But now, thanks to e-readers, all that is changing. With electronic books, ads can be served dynamically, just like they are online – not only does that remove the problem of out-of-date ads being stuck in old books, but it also allows messages to be tailored to the individual reader. Those reading the Twilight books at the age of 14 can be sold make-up and shoes and all of the other things teenage girls need to attract their very own Edward. Meanwhile, those still reading the books at 35 can be sold cat food. Lots and lots of cat food.

Why, that sounds fantastic! What’s the problem again?

It’s a compelling argument, but like so many compelling arguments made about the future of books, it’s also hampered by consisting almost entirely of bullshit. For one thing, publishers are really not geared up to sell ads: they’d have to recruit armies of ad sales people who would be forced to actually sit down and read the novels and historical memoirs and chick-lit-churn-outs that they’d be selling against. Not going to happen.

Now that’s very true. That scenario will not happen.

If only there were some large company with a dominant position in the e-book business that had lots of demographic data about what you read and other things that you buy online who could whip up a smart software algorithm that automatically generated product recommendations based on this information, who’d be willing, I don’t know, to electronically host and deliver these ads in the e-books on behalf of the publishers, in exchange for a fee, or better terms on each sale of a book.

Yep, if there were a company or three like that in the e-book market today, then we’d be talking about something.


I love articles like this, because despite that cursory glance at “old paperbacks” with ads in the back, they have absolutely zero sense of history. Books have gone through more than one phase where they’ve had ads in them (and not just at the back). I work with old books for a living (basically from the 1600s until 1923, but mostly 19th Century books), and I see them nearly every day.

And you know what? They’re just as horrible and intrusive as you’d expect them to be. Although I suppose if it ever takes off (yet again), you could pay a premium to have ads disabled…

Tim Carmody says…

I think Carr is actually pretty good on this. I don’t expect everybody to always say, “you know, in the 17th century…” particularly when cheap paperbacks are a much closer and more-easily-understood target.

He zeros in on the essential fact; books have always had ads, and for a variety of structural reasons in the form and the industry, they haven’t been able to do them well.

And the KIND of explanation he makes is the right one to make. I think he just misses the big, looming possibility here — which is that the big players in ebooks (Apple, Amazon, and to a certain extent B&N and Google) are also big players in ads and retail.

Well, actually I was thinking of in the mid 19th Century. And then again in the ’20s. And again in the ’50s… It’s not like we’re talking about ads in the Gutenberg bible, and going for the “closer and more-easily-understood target” is generally part of what leads to a plethora of essays about the future of books and reading that mean well but, as you wrote about on your stint, manage to conflate (and dismiss) wildly different periods in publishing practice and technology. I don’t expect everybody to always say it either. Just one person, once, would be nice.

But that’s ultimately less what concerns me. I can’t get behind the paywall, so I can’t read anything beyond what you’ve quoted here, but I see no discussion at all of the ethics of double-dipping on a tech that still has class concerns and is often touted as an education solution (or on the efficacy of such advertising, especially given how much folk online complain about ads, and no evidence of the validity of the statement “many mag­a­zines pub­lish fic­tion sur­rounded by com­mer­cial mes­sages” as a counter-argument to ads being disruptive when reading fiction, especially since fiction has all but disappeared from mainstream periodicals, and the majority of small lit mags actually don’t publish their advertising the same way as commercial periodicals, often opting to group them together at the back…).

There’s simply too many important things going on here to worry about who the major players in such a thing might be. I mean, clearly Google and Amazon would be the go-to folks, because they are the go-to folks for saturating everything with advertising, but why is *that* what should matter in this discussion?

Ah, I misread part of that. Thought Carr’s piece was the WSJ piece for a bit. Will have to re-read now.

i’d love to get ads in books, maybe similar to how Pandora for Andorid does it, with a little banner ad that changes periodically. it’s pretty unobtrusive and i’m more than willing to put up with it or (heavens!) click on one to keep using a great free service.

so if it means reducing the cost of ebooks i’m all for it. i’m a big fan of dead tree and since the electronic version is often 90% of the price of a new copy I prefer paper. if ad-enabled ebooks were only 50-60% of the cost of paper that’d be pretty compelling to me.

what i’d really like is a risk-free way to try a new book right now:
1 dollar for 100 pages for 10 days. i could so get on board with that. a rent-to-own scenario where, once i’m in the story, i’d more willingly pay the ad-enabled or ad-free cost to get the whole thing. or if i don’t like the story it’s not a big loss on my end.

Sylvie says…

Amazon’s one such company. It has all sorts of demographic data about their readers and it’s e book market share is about 60%.

Ding ding ding ding ding!

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