Free books with ads?

It has been a while, but I have often pondered the question of why books don’t have ads. (See here, here and here). Chris Anderson (they guy with the long tail) contemplates giving away his next book for free but with ads inside (here is the story). [HT: Marginal Revolution]

Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired magazine who made his own splash last year with his book “The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More,” returned to the convention to talk about the possibility of giving away online his next book — which he fittingly intends to title “Free” — to readers who were willing to read it with advertisements interspersed throughout its pages. (He still intends to sell the book traditionally to readers who’d rather get their text without the ads.)

Now this is an interesting idea and while previously I found explanations of why books don’t have ads unconvincing, the economist in me worries that, whatever the reason, Anderson’s experiment may reveal it.

One thing I am currently working on is that idea that if we compare books to, say, television, ads in books could not be subtly interspersed in the text of a book. Instead they would appear and the reader’s eyes could easily move past them. In contrast, an ad break in television works when consumers are watching images and then a new one comes up that is an ad. Much of the time they break away but you only have to observe yourself in this environment to know that your attention can be held. This theory of mine has progressed more than I have time to deal with today so I will come back and explain how it might encompass newspaper ads, some web sites, as well as billboards.

Update: this post appeared in Crikey on 7th June 2007. In an extended form …

Time to book some ad space between the covers?

By economics professor Joshua Gans, who blogs at CoreEcon

It has been a while, but I have often pondered the question of why books don’t have ads. (See here, here and here). Chris Anderson (the guy with the long tail) contemplates giving away his next book for free but with ads inside (here). [HT: Marginal Revolution]:

Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired magazine who made his own splash last year with his book The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More, returned to the convention to talk about the possibility of giving away online his next book — which he fittingly intends to title “free” — to readers who were willing to read it with advertisements interspersed throughout its pages. (He still intends to sell the book traditionally to readers who’d rather get their text without the ads.)

Now this is an interesting idea, and while previously I found explanations of why books don’t have ads unconvincing, the economist in me worries that, whatever the reason, Anderson’s experiment may reveal it.

Previously I have noted that, if you were selling information and there were advertisers willing to pay to be part of it, then you would be better off by selling some advertising space, reducing books prices and selling more books. But, of course, we never see advertising in books.

So why not?

 

  • Too costly to print: doesn’t seem plausible as magazines find that OK and they have colour glossy ads.
  • Readers won’t look at ad: but if The New Yorker or The Economist can have ads, why not some trashy or popular novel? Why not a textbook?
  • Authors won’t wear it: well, maybe JK Rowling, but Dan Brown or Michael Crichton or some unknown.
  • Publishers don’t want it: if there is profit in it, why would this be the case?
  • Libraries won’t wear it: OK, then provide a special version for libraries without ads. Often they are charged more anyway.

As you can see, it is a real puzzle as to why there are no ads in books. Actually, some books have ads for other books, but why not Coke?

One thing I am currently working on is that idea that if we compare books with, say, television, ads in books could not be subtly interspersed in the text of a book. Instead they would appear and the reader’s eyes could easily move past them. In contrast, an ad break in television works when consumers are watching images and then a new one comes up that is an ad. Much of the time they break away but you only have to observe yourself in this environment to know that your attention can be held.

This theory of mine has progressed more than I have time to deal with today so I will return later to explain how it might encompass newspaper ads, some web sites, as well as billboards.

 

Some comments from Crikey readers:

Rosemary Stanton writes : Re. “Time to book some ad space between the covers?” (Yesterday, item 19). Contrary to your claims, some popular nutrition-based books do contain advertisements. The Australian Institute of Sport’s two books Survival for the Fittest and Survival from the Fittest (both published by Murdoch) are peppered with ads from Nestle, extolling the virtue of their products. Catherine Saxelby’s popular books Nutrition for Life and Food – What’s in it (both published by Reed) have ads for pork, specific oils and margarines. Nutrition Australia’s book The Secret of Healthy Children (Focus Publishing) also has heaps of ads. I was originally approached to write the foreword and promote this book, but was dropped. I understand that the publishers decided to accept advertising, but any involvement from me was unacceptable to the advertisers. (Their involvement would also have been unacceptable to me.)

Chris Edwards writes : You forget yourself; Matthew Reilly had advertisements in his internet version of Hover Car Racer . Canon Printers and Universal Pictures (I think) sponsored pages of his books so he could distribute it for free, as it was. He was then able to sell it in a print version. Perhaps this is the way forward for books.

Mike Smith writes : Interesting question. Some ads would work, some not, lots of ads would become dated quickly in the lifetime of a book (consider an ad for a particular model of car), on the other hand, an ad for Coca-Cola would probably work. Consider that there are many subtle ads in some books in the actual plot (aka product placement) that are working far more effectively than overt ads would.

5 thoughts on “Free books with ads?”

  1. Back in the 1950s and perhaps ’60s, paperback books often had several pages of ads at the back, although they were typically for other books by the same publisher and thus not a source of direct revenue.

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  2. Nice idea. Perhaps ads would work in the books of top selling authors but most books only sell 2-3,000 copies max in Australia or so I am told.
    The cost per thousand of audience is typically about $20 in Australia and therefore most books would be lucky to sell a page for a few hundred dollars. Perhaps the ideal would be for publishers as a house to do a deal. So say a cookbook publisher could run ads for, say, mineral water through its whole list of cookery books. Or a publisher of academic finance texts could take ads from recruitment companies across its whole series.
    While the numbers do look small for the publisher, if the author was the receive a decen slice of the sale proceeds it could multiply what they make from their books.
    There is also the problem of the shelf life of an ad which may become out of date within a few years while a book may take a many years to take off and sell out.

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  3. In the 19th century books did have ads. I have several from that era which contain ads at the front and back (not between text). Cook books naturally tended to have ads for appliances but others carried more general advertising, often for items which seem amusing or even bizarre today.

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  4. The problem with books is not with the idea, I belive the problem is with the implemetation. You can’t simply have writing then advertisement then writing, as noted people simply read around it. Similary for vertical or horizontal banners. You need to have the advertisement integrated into the page so it takes effort for the reader to read around it. If the writing flows around a complex shape it takes effort to ignore the shape, thus the advert will be noticed or read. To go one further , I have often thought the way to curb the current copyright problems with the ‘illegal’ downloading of television shows/movies/music is to embed advertisements into the material. Unlike the current M.O. of placing advert segments within a tv show etc why not create banners that flow over the screen or pop-ups? Damn irritating but if you want to view something for free you put up with the ad. If you pay for it you don’t get the ad. Simple really.

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  5. I have done it.

    I am a Danish author and in 2003, I published a collection of poems, financed entirely by ads. And to quote from my own website:

    “Just like in magazines or papers, the advertisements in Bestseller are placed inside the book. However, they are placed on the inner cover, by the colophon, the contents and wherever there was natural room, but not among the poems. Thus it is avoided that the advertisements disturb the reader along the way. The income from the advertisements made it possible to print the book in 3.000 copies (which is probably the largest print run ever of a first edition of a Danish collection of poems) and to give all copies away for free all over Denmark. In comparison, Danish collections of poems are usually published in first editions of 300 to 500 copies and cost about 20 to 30 Euro or 25 to 40 US Dollar.”

    ,-)

    /peter

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