Will Ads in Books Destroy the Industry or Save It?

With publishing numbers taking a nosedive, the industry is scrambling to find a way back to profitability. Could ads in books be the answer?

Last week, MediaBistro’s GalleyCat and The Wall Street Journal reported on what may soon be a disturbing new reality for readers everywhere: ads. But advertising directly in books, print or otherwise, offers its own particular set of problems which may keep publishers from calling up their buddies in the biz anytime soon.

Advertisements and sponsored content are nothing new. As Ron Adner and William Vincent point out over at the Wall Street Journal (somewhat ironically, from behind a paid content wall),

Even though periodicals like the New Yorker and the Atlantic [sic] have printed ads alongside serious fiction and nonfiction since their founding, purists will surely decry ads in books. But historically, the lack of advertising in books has had less to do with the sanctity of the product and more to do with the fact that books are a lousy medium for ads. Ads depend on volume and timeliness to work, and books don't provide an opportunity for either.

Thanks to the digital revolution, though, timeliness and volume may no longer be an issue.

Full Page Glossies or Pop Up Banners?

We’ve all seen bad ads, and been attacked by evil internet pop-ups at some point. But there are several ways publishers could include advertising material in books--ways which many of us, particularly those folk in the internet generation, are already inured to.

As anyone who’s picked up an Apple doohickey in the past couple of years knows, Apple’s app store (there’s something frighteningly poetic about that alliteration, as if Jobs and his well-paid ad execs spent years crafting it) is full of “lite” versions of apps. Most, if not all, are free versions of the software supported by small advertising banners above and/or below the app’s content. Sometimes, such ads are irrelevant; others are surprisingly useful.

Consider Hootsuite, a popular Twitter client with a companion app. Using the lite version of the software, I’ve ignored 90 percent of all ads, and clicked through on two offering cheap VoiP (voice over IP, e.g. Vonage or Skype) services, since I’m always on the lookout for an easier (read: cheaper) way to call my folks in Australia. The ads Hootsuite and other lite software run are, like television and print ads, carefully targeted to a specific demographic, in this case, persons comfortable with online communication. Running an ad for a VoiP service in The Idiot’s Guide to Basket Weaving Monthly might be off-base; it’s also a very unlikely scenario.

It’s possible publishers with strong e-book catalogs will go the lite route. But what would they advertise? History suggests other books, for starters. Remember those pull out pages at the back of Nancy Drew, complete with order forms? They still exist in genre fiction -- such as Lorna Barrett’s Booktown Mystery Series--so readers can immediately find works in a similar vein. In the case of e-books, in-book advertising is also a great way for digital-ready publishers to hawk their back catalog.

Outside of books, though, there are still a lot of possibilities. In the book-lite digital version of a novel, ads could be updated almost instantaneously, capitalizing on in-the-moment trends. Although advertising within a print book would be harder due to timing issues, it wouldn’t be impossible. Concept ads for larger companies looking for brand recognition are a feasible option (particularly if advertisers pay upfront).

Not sure about ads where company reputation is the product? Large corporations, such as GE, Cisco, BP, and even Coca-Cola and Pepsi regularly advertise for brand recognition more than product. Fortunately -- very fortunately -- magazine style full page glossies probably won’t show up in your favorite reads due to cost restrictions. And if cost restrictions (color in a black and white book, paper style, etc.) aren’t quite enough to keep glossies out of novels, reader response will certainly tip the scales against. After all, much as I love curling up with a good book and a mug of hot chocolate, I don’t want to see a two page spread for Lindt in the middle of the latest Hunger Games book.

If you’re having a hard time envisioning pages of advertising in your next book club pick, stop by the newsstand and pick up an issue of Archie. Comic books have had targeted in-story advertising for decades. Granted, in the '50s it was for x-ray glasses, and in the 80s for Fruity Pebbles, but you get the idea. It’s not a big jump to imagine a couple of pages touting the virtue of Jack Daniels in a gritty crime procedural full of hardened cops, or an end of volume interstitial with details on cheap tours of the Louvre in a new edition of The Da Vinci Code.

As Adner and Vincent write (again, behind the safety of a paid content wall),

Authors are likely to be concerned not only with the idea of ads, but with what particular ads are placed in their books. Imagine the value -- and controversy -- of placing pharmaceutical ads in healthy-living guides, or partisan attacks in political memoirs. Writers, agents and publishers will have to negotiate a fundamentally new arrangement when ad-driven e-books become a reality.

In short, getting ads into books will be a messy, costly process. Outside content may require a ratings system, incurring additional fees, and a whole new echelon of people seeking to wrest control from authors could be on the way. But things move slowly in publishing, so this is all speculation until the canary stops singing.

Product Placement

Before you begin retching at the idea of product placement coming to a book near you, stop and think for a moment. Specificity is a stock rule in most beginning writing classes, and many writers swear by it. Every day, all over the country, writing teachers are making the argument that “the car drove by” is a weak description, arguing in favor of stronger descriptions like “the red Volvo skidded past.” As a result, some authors are almost writing product placement into their novels already. In his best-selling Millenium trilogy, Stieg Larsson uses brand names every time there’s even a smidgen of opportunity, giving free advertising to the likes of Apple (her rucksack contained her white Apple iBook 600), amongst others, regularly.

Of all the in-book options, product placement is the slipperiest slope. In 2001, author Fay Weldon was widely criticized by fellow authors for penning a novel for Italian jewelry maker Bulgari. Although the novel was originally intended as a private endeavor, The Bulgari Connection was published by Atlantic Monthly Press (now Grove Press).

In a 2001 piece (Your Ad Here, by M.J. Rose), author Rick Moody (The Ice Storm, Demonology, The Four Fingers of Death) points out that

"It's naive to think that writing doesn't already submit to the hegemony of multinational capital...Moreover, these multinational corporations, through their editorial apparatus, exert considerable pressure as to content in books."

Moody also points out that actors and celebrities regularly “shill for corporations”. But actors and celebrities on television and in other media aren’t the same as ads directly in books. According to the Salon piece, Janet Evanovich, author of the best-selling Stephanie Plum series, more concerned with the quality of the reading experience and meeting reader expectation than in the morality of commercialization.

"I suppose I feel the same way about this as about authors' proselytizing their beliefs in their books ... if it's obvious and obnoxious then it doesn't work."

But Jason Ashlock, founder of the Movable Type Literary Group, isn’t so sure ads in book are the end of the literary world, tweeting,

"About this advertising in books idea. Is it really that bad? Obv we don't want it to disrupt the reading experience, but ... Isn't there a way to incorporate select, tasteful adverts that provide revenue, appeal to readers sensibilities?" (via GalleyCat)

(Read more about the issue on Twitter with Ashlock’s hashtag, #adsinbooks.)

Appreciating Ad Content

Although advertisement riddled content is far from ideal, some readers could benefit from advertising subsidized books. High-priced titles such as textbooks, specialty guides, and even dictionaries are beyond the reach of many students, putting a strain on the library system. Secondhand copies of textbooks, while filling some of the gap, are often beat up or even out-dated; lower-priced textbooks would make books, and education, more accessible across the board. Could this lead to trouble? Of course -- our kids’ lives are already saturated with ads, many of which are in the name of a better tomorrow (sports drinks, health supplements, fitness devices, educational programming).

There are a multitude of ways advertising in books could go wrong. We could end up with a poorly organized system of patronage and an era of censorship in the name of political correctness. But we could also end up with an industry wherein writers earn enough to keep producing creative work, publishers can afford to take greater risks, and low-income families can afford textbooks. Somewhere, there is a line between what’s okay and what’s not -- we just haven’t programmed our ad-supported iPhone GPSs to find it, yet.

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