Advertising in E-books

Advertising in E-books

How would you feel about advertising being in your e-books?

Ow…ow…that hurt my ears, folks!

I get it.  You don’t want it.  You’ll pitch your Kindles out the window, dive out another window, and never read anything again as long as you live!  You’ll hold your thoughts until your brains turn blue!


This comes up from time to time.  It sometimes happens when somebody stumbles across an old story about Amazon having filed a patent connected to advertising in e-books.

The patent does exist…it’s here:

US patent application 20090171751

However, that’s not the one that is going to stir up the debate this time.  It’s been around for a while,  and nothing has come of it.

It’s this story in the New York Times:

E-Books Entice Marketers as New Frontier for Ads

I think my readers tend to be pretty even-tempered folks, but if any of you need to put some liniment on after those violent knee-jerk reactions, we’ll wait for you.  😉 

Okay, let’s look at the possibilities.

At one end of the spectrum is the No Tolerance for Advertising position…“Not nobody, not no how!”.  😉 I think that’s where a lot of people think we are now, and where they think we always have been.

At the other end is Full Frontal Advertising.  In the middle of a book, you’d get an ad that is unrelated to what you are reading…like an antacid ad in the middle of Romeo and Juliet.

In between, there are a lot of other possibilities…and I think that some of them could succeed commercially…and yes, be accepted by a lot of consumers.

There are two key factors to me in the nature of the advertising: intrusiveness and appropriateness.  It’s a grid with two axes.

  • Most Intrusive, Least Appropriate
  • Most Intrusive, Most Appropriate
  • Least Intrusive, Least Appropriate
  • Least Intrusive, Most Appropriate

I think the first two are the hardest to sell.  If you can’t read without being “interrupted” and if the interruption has nothing to do with what you are reading, people will tend not to accept it.

If the ad is appropriate and doesn’t interrupt, people might actually appreciate it.

Ow…let me explain.  🙂

Let’s say you were reading a travel book about Hawaii.  In the very back of the book, there is a coupon code for $500 off airfare.  That would be nice, right?  Not all the books we read are fiction with a driving narrative throughout.  It’s non-intrusive…it doesn’t show up until you’ve read everything else (although it could be in the Table of Contents).  It’s appropriate. 

What if the fact that the ad was in there made the book cheaper for you…maybe even free?

That might be worth it, right?

How about this as another way to be fairly unobtrusive: product placement?   Doesn’t it seem silly sometimes in a realistic novel when they never go to a Starbucks?  Yes, it’s fun to have fictional places, but it can be a bit jarring…like the 555 telephone numbers.  The publisher could be paid for using the Starbucks name, and the author could approve the use of the name.  It doesn’t have to be, “Let’s go to Starbucks…my favoritest place ever with the new Curry Latte for only $3.95.”  😉

Starting to see the sliding scales?

Let’s deal with existing and former advertising that we already have or have had in paperbooks.

First, there is often a list of other books in the series at the front or the back of the book.  That’s an ad, right?  Sometimes, there are ads for other books…even a sample chapter.  It’s an ad that’s informative, but still, it’s there partially to get you interested in the other books.

Second, there were actual ads in mass market paperbacks a few decades ago.  Some of you will remember them…you’d be reading a novel, and you’d run into a full color, glossy cigarette ad smack in the middle.  Why don’t we have those any more?

My guess is that it just wasn’t cost-effective for the advertisers.  Many, many books sell under ten thousand copies.  Most places, you’ll reach that many people with an ad for a car wash in the middle of the night on the dinkiest TV station in your town.  On TV, they’ll also run it several times…repetition helps.

I also think most readers just skipped it…that they didn’t really read it, and it probably didn’t produce many sales.

If you go back further, quite a few of the novels we consider classics (Dostoevsky, Dickens, Doyle) were originally published serialized in magazines…magazines which I assume had advertising.

My feeling?

Advertising in e-books is inevitable. 

Ow!  😉

Not in all e-books…I think it may be optional.  Choose an advertising supported copy, save a couple of bucks…maybe get it free.  The ads could be just in the front of the book (sort of like the advertising you choose on Hulu), or in the back. 

I think non-optional ads are less likely, at least initially.  People do accept advertising in their media: TV, magazines, movies (previews, for one).  However, reading a book is a very intimate experience, and we don’t like people messing with that.  People reacted pretty strongly to the Popular Highlights feature when it was first introduced…but lots of people are participating.

Will it be more successful for advertisers than those old mass market ads?  I think it could be…first, I think several people are likely to read an e-book on an account.  It may be more possible to reach the demographic you want.  Second, the ad can evolve over time (not in a copy you’ve already downloaded, most likely, but as other people download from the store).  That could help.  People may also be more able to handle distractions than they were in the past.  Our e-books go with us in a way that our paperbooks couldn’t.  We are already reading them in much more distracting environments.

It has started, by the way: if you read the article I linked above, you’ll hear about already doing e-books with advertising.  They are also doing things the other way…buy something else, get an e-book.  Subscribe to Maxim, get the original graphic novel of Cowboys and Aliens. 

My guess?

We’ll see advertising in some e-books, and it will succeed if they can balance intrusiveness and appropriateness.

What do you think?

I’m guessing some of you have more to say than you can do just answering that poll.  Feel free to leave me a comment…

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.


20 Responses to “Advertising in E-books”

  1. Erika Says:

    Does anyone remember when they used to put adverts for similar books in the same genre in the back of a paperback book? Those weren’t too annoying, and I could accept it if ebooks went that way, esp. if there were a discount in price because of it.

    But ads elsewhere in the text or product placement? No, thanks.

  2. Erika Says:

    Ah, yes, they were in the middle, too, weren’t they? I can see that being very irritating for the ebook format, though–“We now interrupt your regularly scheduled reading for an advertisement!” LOL.

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  4. Tom Semple Says:

    James McQuivey, guest on the latest TKC (Kindle Chronicles) podcast, discusses this. I mostly agree with him about what is likely to happen, and why ebook advertising is in our future.

    If I pay for an ebook, I want it ad-free (except for the usual ‘other books by this author’ or ‘other books in this genre by this publisher, at the end where I can ignore if I like).

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Tom!

      I haven’t listened to that one yet, but I might. I’m not a big podcast person…although I’ve been on TKC, and think Len is great.

  5. Tom Semple Says:

    Something that needs to get worked out is: who gets the ad revenue? Retailer? publisher? author?

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Tom!

      Well, that depends a bit on where it happens in the cycle, and that’s tricky. Could a retailer insert an ad into a book after the publisher has finalized it and worked out the royalty with the author? While DRM (Digital Rights Management) would make that tricky, it might be possible to do it on the front or back of the file. I don’t think that’s going to happen, though. It could be that a discount for the (non-Agency Model) book is given if you agree to get the ads separately. Outside of that, publishers and authors always have to work out revenue sharing…that’s what royalties are all about. The author could get a direct share of advertising revenues….or it could reduce the consumer price of the book which sellls more copies for the author’s royalty tally. If the royalty was based on the lower price, though, that wouldn’t work well for the author. With Wowio, I’m guessing the publisher is working directly with that retailer and the author isn’t involved.

  6. tuxgirl Says:

    I’ve always thought it would make sense for the kindle to have something akin to their “customers who bought this book also bought” section of the website at the end of kindle books, with links into the kindle store. However, it would be even better if it was “customers who rated this book highly also rated highly.” Or, if they can do it without customers going crazy about privacy, “customers who finished reading this book also finished reading”. I don’t actually see those as “ads,” although I guess that is what they are… 🙂

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, tuxgirl!

      That makes sense to me…and yes, I would consider that advertising, but advertising I wanted. 🙂

  7. Rebecca Says:

    Maybe it’s because I might be from a different generation, but I keep being surprised when I see the list of other books the author has written or other books in a series and it’s NOT turned into links. That just seems like a win-win.
    I also would be very happy to find that the last page of a book I’ve read says. “Want the next book in this series? Click here to buy it from Amazon for 25% off our regular price.” It is helpful, but also smart because that moment is the likeliest time in the universe I’m going to want to buy the book they are offering. Just when you’re feeling that vacuum of “oh, no! it’s over!”
    On the subject of product placement within e-books, I have wondered if that is already happening – when describing what kind of car the cool protagonist drives, etc.
    If online TV is any indication, I think MANY people will even put up with a mildly intrusive form of ad (say, an ad between each chapter – not, like, banner ads) if it makes the book significantly cheaper [like you said, think Hulu]. The key is to give people the CHOICE. The people who would hate it don’t have to have it. But there are those whom the ads wouldn’t bother enough to outweigh the benefit of being able to buy twice as many books a month as they used to be able to afford. Or to read a bestseller for free.
    When it comes to non-fiction, I am surprised to not already see a LOT of turning things in books into links the way you see in articles online. To me, that is barely advertising – it’s just underlining – you don’t HAVE to click through. And it seems like one of e-books’ advantages over old-fashioned paper books that people should be promoting.

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Rebecca!

      I agree…although I don’t think it’s necessarily generational. 🙂 Boomers on big on technology…I also think a large percentage of Kindle users are from the “Greatest Generation”.

      I’ve suggested exactly what you say…a link to buy the next book with a discount. In fact, I agree with your comment in many ways.

      I’d be fine with an anthology of short stories, and in between each short story, there’s an ad for a book by the author I just read.

      I actually have the kind of click-throughs you describe in at least one of my Kindle store titles. Since the links are in the blog, and some of the titles include “reprints” from the blog, the links are in the Kindle store titles as well.

      Oh, and it was interesting in Draculas

      when they included the authors’ correspondence. One of their discussions was about product placement…but apparently, they didn’t get it. 🙂

      I’m also close to putting out a book of quotations (I’ve always wanted to do that). In it, I’ll probably link to ways to get to the sources in many cases. That’s really the same thing…and my guess is that people will appreciate it. That would be my hope, at any rate. If you read a quotation from a book, movie, or TV show and loved it, might you be interested in reading/seeing the source? I think that’s not unreasonable.

      My Kindle 3 book is a higher priority (Quick! Before they update the software!) 😉 , but the quotation book is closer to being done.

      Again, I agree very much with your comment!

      • Rebecca Says:

        Oops, I didn’t mean to insult anyone’s age there, Bufo. Perhaps it was all that talk about cigarette ads in the middle of paperbacks — back when dinosaurs roamed the earth — that threw me. 🙂

        Seriously, though – I’m glad to hear you’ve got a Kindle 3 book in the works! I had been wondering if one was on its way imminently/eventually. I’ll definitely be getting a copy. Even if it has [gasp] a link to a product or two in it! :o)

      • bufocalvin Says:

        Thanks for writing, Rebecca!

        No problem…I try not to reveal too many inherent personal details (that seems more tolerant to me), but when I tell people I worked with punchcard machines, that’s kind of a clue. 😉 I do have a parent who wrote a DOS textbook which people used for a long time…adaptation to and embracing of technology is surprisingly not very generation-specific.

  8. P. E. Simpson Says:

    I don’t like the idea of ads on my kindles and I have three. One of the reasons I bought them was because TV wasn’t worth watching with all the ads and I could carry my books along with me to work or where ever I was going. It steals memory from future books you want to put on your Kindle. I regard my Kindle as something I control, not something anyone has a right to control. I would rather pay 50 cents or a dollar more a book to avoid the ads.

    I think it will hurt the sale of Kindles. I was planning to buy two more for family, but will wait to see the outcome of their decision on the ads. I doubt educators will put their text books on the Kindle if they put ads in them. It would be a big distraction for students that have a problem focusing on their reading. If there is some product I wan’t to know about I can Google it or do a search on Amazon if it is something they carry. I think there are far too many ads we are forced to view all around us. You can’t watch a news clip on the Internet wihout listening to an ad before you view the clip. I just turn the sound off until the clip comes on, but with the Kindle you couldn’t do that. What about the people that depend on listening to the Kindle because of poor vision? They would be forced to listen to the ads.

    What if the Kindle belongs to a child and the ad is inappropriate for their family values? I can see that this is going to be a big problem Amazon is going to have to study at great length. The only way I could tolerate ads is perhaps as a screen saver you could turn off quickly and I don’t think they should do that either. The screen savers we have now at least have some class.

    Amazon is not hurting for money and I think this could do a great deal of harm to their Kindle business. I love my Kindles and I would like them to stay just the way they are. I want total control of what is on them.

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, P.E.!

      It’s a carefully thought-out comment, but I think you are tying this too much to Amazon. If the publishers start putting ads into the books (and some already have), they’ll be there. Amazon might be able to get the pubishers to do just as you say (although you inverted the way most people would say it)…give a discount for books with ads. If you are going to wait for Amazon to make some kind of decision, I think you’ll be waiting forever…I don’t think it’s going to be their decision.

      I’m not as all as worried as your questions seem to suggest. Advertisers want to sell things: that isn’t going to happen if they offend people. They wouldn’t put an ad for birth control in a children’s book, for example. Ads cost money…if they don’t work, they won’t do them. Remember that serious readers are a relatively small market…compared to TV watchers, for example. With TV, you can do an edgy ad that appeals to one percent of the audience (and offends ten percent), and probably make a profit. That wouldn’t work with book ads.

      Would you reject a book because it has a list of other titles by the author? That’s an ad, right? Let’s say you read a book about a famine, and there is a public service ad to contribute to relief of that famine…in the back of the book….would that be okay? What if, when the book mentions a relief agency, there is a hyperlink you can click to go to that agency’s website?

      I don’t think what I called “Full Frontal Advertising” is at all likely for the vast, vast majority of books. In books where it happened, I think the purchasers would expect it and choose it, in exchange for free or low-cost books.

      I don’t think it’s likely that you’ll be involuntarily subjected to intrusive, inappropriate ads…readers, as a group, aren’t that big a market.

      We’ll see what happens, though.

  9. Allison Says:

    I want an ad at the end of every kindle book in a series that links to the amazon page of the next book in the series, so I can just click to go to the next one.

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    […] in the context of what you are reading. I suggested that might happen in e-books back in 2010 (Advertising in E-books). I looked there at the two axes of intrusiveness and appropriateness. For example, a coupon code […]

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