Should books have ads?

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 In fact, the ability of books to endure for decades (or centuries) is more of a minus than a plus, since out-of-date ads only confuse current campaigns.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.

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  1. Nooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Why should I have to *pay* to look at an ad? That is going way too far.

  2. Sylvia, do you pay for magazines? With ads in them?

    Actually I wouldn’t like ads in my books either. Publishers would need to weigh the small amount of income that ads might bring in against the possibility of lost sales.

    That’s why I say you shouldn’t worry. I don’t see this happening except in very specialized books, such as computer software manuals.

  3. Some people pay for clothes with Nike swooshes on them.

  4. Actually no, I don’t subscribe to any periodicals. But in their case, I think we all understand that the price is subsidized by advertising, which is fair enough for what is essentially throw-away content. I don’t think that is fair for books, which are, or at least should be, more lasting and have enough value in themselves to warrant the buyer paying the full price for it. If a book isn’t worth the price to publish it, I think it just shouldn’t be published at all.

  5. Sylvia, I very much appreciate your comments, and you make some good points. But you know, there has been for the past few decades a kind of crisis in independent publishing. The plight of the independent bookstore has gotten most of the press, but if you look at what has happened in book publishing the past quarter century you see a distressing story of independent publishers folding or being consumed by large corporate publishing. Yes, there are and I think always will be many small shoestring presses, but at the midscale level the recent history has been one of a great diminishment of diversity and literary dedication. Books are not really economically viable under the current model, which is why the corporate publishers have gone to a blockbuster model in which most of the profits come from a small number of intensively promoted titles. The difficulties of publishing are very real, and it is too simple to say that we should just let the marketplace determine which titles get published.

  6. My immediate reaction was NONONON! But I understand that independent bookstores, like independent books, are under immense financial pressure. However, would ad placement help or hinder independence? If you (publisher, bookseller, et al.) can only sell a book because you are beholden to a corporate master, doesn’t that seriously compromise independence? Suppose books on the current administration were only published by independent publishers? If getting them to the market was only possible via ads placed in the books, how critical would the author be? How analytical would he (or she) be allowed to be (prob there’s a splint infinitive there but no matter). I guess there’s no easy answer in these days of multiple distractions but I would hate to see books go the way of so many things – overwhelmed by ads for coke, nike and whatever. Or disabled by the printing equivalent of DRM where you can download an e-book from but you can’t copy it, print it, transfer it from your computer or your iPod or share it with anybody without the contents being disabled.

  7. I guess I’m not aware of a crisis in publishing. Almost all the (in-print) books I’ve bought lately came from small, mid-size or academic presses, and I keep hearing of new books coming out of local presses I’ve never heard of. The diversity of books that I have access to through big sellers like Amazon is absolutely mind-boggling (certainly more than my local bookstores could ever hope to stock or sell profitably). Online selling connects specialized books with dispersed markets. Now should be the *best* time for smaller publishers.

    Nancy brings up a very good point about editorial control by advertisers. We certainly don’t want that.

  8. Did you see this article from the New Yorker – “Twilight of the Book”

    Oh noes! Say it isn’t so!

  9. Oy. That was a bit much. I love the part about how reading ability had dropped by one point on a 500 point scale! Oh noes indeed.