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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > May 2014

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Vol. 34 No. 4 — May 2014
Would I Read an Ad-Supported Ebook? Probably.
by Ben Johnson

If people will camp out in February for a free box of doughnuts, I am certain that many readers would accept the inconvenience of a 15-second advertisement over that of driving to the library. But there is more at stake here than our time and our money.
It is difficult to measure exactly how many advertisements we encounter in a single day; depending on who you ask and how they count, estimates can range from 250 to 3,000-plus. But when you consider our time spent watching TV, surfing the internet, browsing magazines, and driving down the highway, it is safe to say the number—whatever it is—is a large one, and it’s growing.

Advertising, it seems, is a significant and unavoidable part of the human experience in the modern world, wherein commercials serve as cultural touchstones, landmarks of shared experience in an otherwise fragmented media landscape. While we are used to smelling perfume samples in our magazines, singing along to jingles on our way to the supermarket, and tweeting the relative merits of Super Bowl commercials, our books remain strangely quiet. Their sturdy covers, standing like walled cities, seem to have held off the multifront advertising offensive, their contents safely sealed off from the din of the countless ads battling to distract our eyes and ears.

Shades of Dickens

Of course, some have dabbled with book advertisements before, often only to see skimpy returns and pushback from readers and authors. A century or so ago, the work of authors (including Charles Dickens) was serialized and supported by ads—a model that, for a number of reasons, is all but dead today. For one thing, most books today are lucky to sell a few thousand copies, a number too small to catch the interest of major advertisers. Also, many publishing agreements give authors the final say on what advertisements will appear alongside their text, and many authors have been understandably reluctant to mingle their vision with that of a corporation.

But now, in the 21st century, our methods of publishing, discovering, distributing, accessing, and reading books are sufficiently different from the practices of the previous century, causing many to revisit the idea of advertisements in books—a model that may be ripe for a comeback. Sixty years ago, it was authors who fought the hardest against advertisements, arguing the presence of ads would disrupt or compromise their vision. But authors today are less empowered, and exceedingly few earn their livings solely from writing. Increasingly, many authors are accepting royalties with little or no advances. Operating from this impoverished position, they might be more willing to accept advertisements if the ads proved to be sufficiently tasteful and lucrative.

Another factor that has historically hindered attempts to incorporate advertising is length. Advertisements work best alongside shorter content, as they disrupt the flow of longer works. But increasingly, the market is changing in ways that resemble the publishing models of old. In the past year, St. Martin’s Press, Tor Books, and Amazon have successfully published dozens of serial novels that read similarly to episodic cliffhangers, keeping the audience coming back for weekly installments. And with the growing use of reading devices, it seems a large and increasing number of readers are seeking out stories that can be digested in a single sitting. As Sean Platt, the co-author of several serials novels, notes, “The Dickens model actually fits better now than ever because people want bite-sized content.”

But even as novels are increasingly being doled out onto screens in episodic bits, that other hallmark of the Dickens model—advertising—has been strangely absent. But why should this be the case?

Advertising has been baked into every emerging medium, folded into every existing medium. And yet, somehow, reading is still considered a solitary, intellectual activity, an invisible something happening within the opaque confines of our skulls. In Victorian times, the distinction between “commercial” and “literary” works was not at all clear, and today, the distinction between “book” and “not book” is becoming similarly nebulous. Popular ebook formats, after all, are little more than protected HTML files and are theoretically capable of displaying banner ads and capturing click-through rates and page-view measures—capabilities that have not escaped the attention of internet advertisers.

The Google Effect

Diagram from a Microsoft patent demonstrates how advertising would be served to the ebook reader.In recent years, Yahoo, Microsoft, and Amazon have all filed separate patents for delivering Google-like contextual advertisements to ebooks. These patents closely resemble familiar schemes of online advertising wherein user profiles combine with content on the page to generate advertisements that, theoretically, are interesting and relevant to the reader. Some patents even go so far as to suggest that the user will benefit from a price break as a result of accepting the ads.

A 2009 patent filed by Amazon claims:

Including advertising and/or related content with on-demand printed content may prove advantageous to a consumer. For example, a lower price may be offered to a consumer regarding a request for on-demand printed content if the consumer is willing to accept advertising in the printed content.

Indeed, in 2014, we are quite used to ad-supported reading and barely notice those boxes floating in the periphery of our screens. Microsoft’s patent would take this familiar model to the next level, delivering contextual advertisements that “provide targeted advertising to consumers using relevant consumer information, as well as contextual information associated with the e-book hosting the advertisement.” These advertisements would, for example, make a pitch gleaned from not only the page content but also from the nature of the book itself, so that advertisements running in your science fiction novel, for instance, might offer up Chewbacca slippers and could perhaps feature Chewbacca himself.

As reported by Digital Book World, a survey conducted by an internet startup named eBookPlus, Inc.—a self-proclaimed “pioneer” of the sponsored ebook market—found that nearly half of U.S. book buyers would prefer to read a free, ad-supported ebook than to pay even 99 cents for an ad-free download.

There is no denying that a lower cost is good for consumers, but is it good for reading? And would readers accept, or even welcome, advertisements in exchange for free content? Such schemes have been roundly rejected in the past, but in 2014, have we become sufficiently desensitized to ads to capitulate?

Even a cursory survey of booklover discussion boards reveals decidedly mixed reactions, with many readers dismissing ad-driven books as a pipe dream. But are book advertisements really so far-fetched? Five years ago people claimed reading would never catch on with back-lit devices, and now you would be hard pressed to find a coffee shop or commuter train not populated with iPads. Indeed, I dismissed the idea of advertising in books until I stopped to consider that, although I spend hundreds of dollars on gadgets, I am apparently unwilling to spend $1.99 (an exorbitant sum?) on Star Wars Angry Birds—opting instead to download the free, ad-supported version.

Victims of Circumstance

So reader sentiments aside, when you stop to consider the market dynamics at play in the book publishing industry, the change seems logical if not inevitable. Consider that, as traditional barriers to publishing continue to erode, an already bloated inventory of titles continues to swell even as the demand remains flat—which is to say, we are reading fewer books but publishing more, and there is fiercer competition for ever fewer eyeballs.

With file sharing sites offering up tens of thousands of pirated titles, with competition from new independents and with Amazon actively driving prices ever closer to the magic 99-cents mark, how long can publishers expect to survive on retail sales alone? As people become accustomed to free apps, free music, and free videos, how long can they be expected to pay for books? And as authors see their advances drying up, how long can they be expected to write without a new source of income?

The vast majority of Google’s considerable revenue—some 96%—comes from selling and delivering “relevant, cost effective online advertising.” What makes Google (and the internet in general) so appealing to advertisers is its ability to quantify, with a high degree of accuracy, the number and types of people exposed to their message. Whereas radio advertising, for example, is less targeted and provides fewer measures of effectiveness.

Books have escaped the radar of advertisers since the times of Dickens largely because, until now, options for targeting, delivering, and analyzing timely advertisements have been limited. But new digital formats are shedding a light on the once hidden world of personal reading, and reading is no longer an invisible something happening within the opaque confines of our skulls.

Amazon, for example, collects data on not only what book you bought, but when you started reading it, if you finished it, when you stopped reading it, how long it took you to read it, and what pages you highlighted. With this level of access to exactly what a reader is doing, reading is no longer an intimate exchange between an artist and a reader, it is Big Data (and Big Data is big money).

Global book sales are insubstantial compared to the trade in internet user data, and advertising might be a tempting carrot for revenue-starved publishers. Indeed, for Amazon founder Jeffrey Bezos, books were always a means to an end, a way of gathering data on affluent shoppers that could be leveraged to sell higher margin goods. And if ebooks were free, the distribution would grow, making them even more appealing to advertisers.

As one blogger notes, on ebookPorn

Digital publishing needs to find a new revenue model more tailored to the new way we need to distribute content on the convergent web because the page and the screen work differently. Pages are bound and packaged and easily sold as a unit. Screens instead are projected and broadcasted on. It is streaming content not a physical product we are reading on our phones, Kindles, iPads and laptops. Broadcasted media is usually free or accessed on a rental or subscription basis. This model requires new and more flexible revenue flow in order to support it.

Ah, “But what about libraries,” you say? Libraries provide content that is both free and ad-free and, therefore, occupy a unique niche. But even so, libraries are not immune.

Human beings are naturally lazy, and we will almost invariably take the path of least resistance to get what we want. For some people, buying a book is preferable to waiting through a 4-week holds queue, and for others, it is not. But if there were a free, legal alternative—one by which we could get a book without driving, without waiting, and without spending any money—would we take it? Library ebooks are notoriously cumbersome and often require users to establish accounts, download multiple pieces of software, wait through endless holds queues, and wrestle with restrictive licenses.

Which begs the question, “Would I do it?” Would I read an ad-supported ebook?

A Tale of Two Trade-Offs

If you had asked me this question a year ago, I would have said, “absolutely not.” But now I am not so sure. To explain my change of heart, we have to go back.

As the curator of a sprawling personal music collection consisting of hundreds of records and countless digital files, you can imagine the surprise I felt as I stood in the middle of a convention room floor surrounded by rare and valuable recordings only to find, for the first time in my adult life, that there was nothing I wanted to buy.

It was early 2013, and I had recently discovered Spotify—a streaming music service that is free for users willing to sit through a few advertisements—and, suddenly, the records in my basement, the digital files floating in my cloud-based media player, and even some of my shellac 78s were all superfluous. Yes, the advertisements were an inconvenience, and as much as I professed to hate them, standing there at the music convention, I simply couldn’t bring myself to spend money on an album I had already encountered on Spotify.

So much of my personal identity is represented by my music collection, and so much of my disposable income has been invested in assembling it. Could I really give it up that easily? Apparently so.

I had long ago abandoned the notion that newsstand magazines were anything besides glossy vehicles for advertisers, and I would occasionally pause to note the postmodern irony as I sat through a 15-second advertisement on YouTube before getting to my 15-second movie trailer. But albums? Albums were different. Albums were works of art—sacred things, not momentary diversions. At their best, albums were the product of a certain authentic genius that stood in opposition to the shallow jingles of advertisers.

But that day, I purchased a single record (Coltrane’s A Love Supreme) and left the record show–the sad, final act of defiance against my new puppet-self? The Coltrane record stared at me from the passenger seat as I drove home. I used to think his expression on the cover was intensely spiritual, but on that day, it was unmistakably scornful. It occurred to me that once I was home, I would have to walk angry John Coltrane past another of my collections—my books—on the way to his final resting place in my music museum.

What about my bookshelf? Would I have spent $70 on the complete Proust if I could have had a free copy with in-text advertisements for Timex watches? Probably. Definitely. But what about my paperback copy of On the Road? Would a 15-second commercial for Expedia featuring San Francisco cityscapes have been so bad? I mean, I never even finished the book. Besides, accepting advertisements has become more familiar—as the Special Offers on my Kindle saved me $20, which was almost enough to buy a leather cover.

So I stood before my bookshelf thinking that it, like my music collection, would soon cease to be a valued and dynamic space—that it would be unceremoniously replaced by another noisy, buzzing screen.

Medium as Message

At a recent conference, author Charles Stross argued that “as the traditional verities of publishing erode beneath the fire-hose force of the book as fungible data, it is only a matter of time before advertising creeps into books, and then books become a vehicle for advertising. And by advertising, I mean spam.”

Does Stross’ dystopian vision of a world where “feral books will stalk readers, sneak into their e-book libraries, and leap out to ambush them” seem overstated? Well, remember that it comes on the heels of a “shoppable” book published by Ralph Lauren and a deal between McDonalds and WHSmith that has established the fast food giant as the U.K.’s biggest distributer of children’s books.

Regardless of my indignation, I learned long ago to never underestimate the allure of a free product. If people will camp out in February for a free box of doughnuts, I am certain that many readers would accept the inconvenience of a 15-second advertisement over that of driving to the library. But there is more at stake here than our time and our money.

As communication theorist Marshall McLuhan famously said, “The medium is the message.” That is to say, the form of a medium embeds itself in the message, and the medium influences how the message is perceived. And if the perception of the message is inherently tied to the medium, our perception of books will necessarily change when we allow sponsored content.

Books and reading have historically held a venerated position in our minds as items inherently good, worthwhile, and of lasting value. But as books come to contain fewer pages and more ads, how long will this perception persist? As distributers relentlessly push prices downward (leaving the market awash with millions of barely edited titles and a population of readers conditioned to think of books as things of minimal value), will books come to be perceived as widgets, momentary diversions, and masturbatory trifles? If they do, our mission as librarians will suddenly become more difficult to articulate and defend.

One who would argue that books and reading will always be valued as they are now should consider how similar market pressures transformed our perception of clothing. Once an investment, today we spend less than 3% of our income on clothes; we purchase shirts on a whim and discarded them a week later, and the quality of the product is just good enough to survive the 90-day return window.

These same price pressures are turning books into threadbare Goodwill-fodder, and as a result, the day is coming when we will treat books like drive-through coffee (buy, consume, throw away, and forget). When books are cheap, ephemeral things—less akin to works of art and more akin to tabloid magazines—our perception of the medium will gradually and necessarily change. In this environment, an institution that saves and shares books will be rendered ridiculous—something akin to a hoarder or trash merchant.

With the creation of the printing press, the literate elite bemoaned a decline in standards as more people were able to quickly and cheaply publish books even while the progressives argued the new technology would be liberating and empowering. But while the printing press established a market where there was none before, new models of book publishing have to compete with digital media, most of which are supported by ads.

The institutional status of the library is tied and anchored to the status of the book, and as the book diminishes in perceived value so does the library. Divorcing ourselves from the book brand is unthinkable. It would be like McDonalds getting out of the food business. But someday in the near future—surveying the desolate, ad-plastered publishing wasteland—people may forget why they placed so much value in libraries. When that day comes, we had better have an answer.

I am fairly certain that many readers (myself included) will ultimately welcome in-book advertisements in exchange for free content, assuming the ads are tastefully placed and the price heavily subsidized. Who knows? Maybe libraries could sponsor free downloads accompanied by an ad of their own: “This book was brought to you, ad-free, by your local library.”

So as I put John Coltrane on my turntable and open a nearby library book (A Tale of Two Cities), I make a conscious effort to enjoy these, my last moments of solitary, unobserved, ad-free reading:

Chapter 1: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. …

Ben Johnson ( is the collection development librarian at the Council Bluffs Public Library in Iowa.
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