Recently there has been an increase in calls for the inclusion of ads in printed books (this “On the Media” report, for example, touches on the idea). There’s a degree of desperation in this — supposedly it would help to address the difficulties of making publishing profitable. Alongside these calls has been the inevitable hand wringing about sullying the sanctity of the book by adding a smudge of commerce. Not that the publishing industry doesn’t have dirty laundry, but it’s felt unseemly to display it publicly.
I say there’s nothing wrong with putting ads in books, and if publishers can really make money this way they should go right ahead. It’s been done before — pick up any mass market paperback from the 50s. The real problem lies on the other side of the equation — the advertiser’s side. Most books produce very small numbers compared to other media. At North Point Press we once had a book make the New York Times Bestseller List when it had only 30,000 copies in print. An ad in a book will get far fewer views or listens than one on television, radio, the internet, magazines, or even the endangered daily paper. Moreover, books today have a short shelf life in stores. Yes, they do have a long life in libraries, used bookstores, thrift stores, and home shelves, but few advertisers are looking to pay big bucks for stale downmarket exposure years from the point of purchase. In fact, the ability of books to endure for decades (or centuries) is more of a minus than a plus, since out-of-date ads only confuse current campaigns.
In general, print media advertising is more about brand exposure and awareness than direct selling. This requires a level of market saturation that would be difficult to achieve through book advertisements. Face it: the virgin pages that publishing people are agonizing over sacrificing on the altar of commerce are just not that desirable. The valuable parts of a book for an advertiser would be the front cover, spine, and back cover, because these don’t require opening the book and could get some store hits from book browsers. For many books these are also the only areas that are full color. But to advertise in these areas would probably kill sales pretty effectively in all but a few market segments.
There may be some niche markets where advertising could work. For example, in a book about whitewater canoeing a discount code for canoes and canoeing supplies might generate some modest sales. Travel guidebooks and other regional publications could get local ads. But in general the reason that books don’t currently have a lot of ads, while magazines and newspapers do, has nothing to do with the purity of book publishers compared to magazine and newspaper publishers and everything to do with the relative value of the book as an advertising medium.