Ads: The Future of ebooks?

I’m going to propose something controversial, perhaps even blasphemous. My fellow authors may spurn me and say my dangerous ideas will ruin the industry. But here it is anyway: I think eBooks should have ads in them.

Now before you write me a nastygram, hear me out.

Today Amazon announced that AT&T has joined the ranks of advertisers on the Kindle. As odd as this may sound, it isn’t really new. Amazon first debuted the Wi-Fi Kindle with Special Offers in April and the 3G version in May, which gave marketers new ways to ply their wares to consumers on one of the most popular gadgets out there. General Motors, Olay, and Chase already sponsor ads on the Kindle. If you agree to buy a “special offers” Kindle and see all these sweet ads, you shave some money off the purchase price of the Kindle. The AT&T deal is notable because it gives an even bigger discount for the 3G “special offers” model (15% drop to $139). Ads on Kindle offer nice discounts on products from Amazon and other companies, and they appear on the Kindle’s screensaver when the device is turned off and also appear on the Kindle’s home screen. Amazon’s “special offer” Kindles don’t show ads within the actual content of the books, yet.

Most of the industry pundits are looking at this news from a competition perspective, especially as Amazon continues to fight off the iPad and other e-readers. But there’s another angle here that a lot of people are overlooking.

We’re seeing ads on a book platform.

Think about that for a second. The ad-supported model that has worked on just about every form of modern media is finally encroaching upon the book market. It’s a sign of the times, but we need to go a step further.

Ads in readable material are nothing new. Magazines have had them for ages. So have comic books. But booky books (the kind without many pictures and lots of pages) have never really been a good platform for advertising, besides the occasional 1 page ad at the end of the book, which sells other titles by the same publisher. But as digital books on eReaders, smartphones, tablets, and even PCs become more common, the opportunities for advertising get better and better. Although the purists are all filled with book nerd rage about this possibility, I think it might actually help the book industry in the long run.

Just about every other form of entertainment is ad-supported these days. TV? Ads. Radio? Ads. Mobile apps? Ads. Web? Ads everywhere you look. Even the movies you see at the theater are doing product placement more than ever. Hell, some movies are just 2-hour advertisements (Transformers, for instance, is really just a big toy commercial). Books, especially novels, may need to get with the program, especially since the novel is already the least-favored form of fiction now.

So what would an ad-sponsored book world look like? Well, imagine that all the books you could ever want were available to you for free, legally. You would simply go find it, download it, and start reading. Authors would make money on the same model most of the web works on: the content’s free, and the ads bring in the money. The ultimate goal of the author is to get people to read their work, after all, and when it comes to exposure, nothing beats the free price point (as the app markets on iOS and Android have shown us). Many indie eBook authors are already doing well with content that is already almost free (99 cent eBooks on Amazon are becoming increasingly common), so free is just the next logical step.

Here’s the thing: through ads, authors may make even more money than before. Instead of a one time payment, authors will get a cut of recurring ad revenue that accumulates as users read their digital books (and for series like A Song of Ice and Fire with books that have over a thousand pages, that’s a lot of opportunities to show ads). Maybe this would work on a commission basis, or pay-per-click, or pay-per-view. But whatever it is, it’s a continuous form of revenue for the writer. For example, if a writer has a chapter that takes place in Monaco, and at the end of the chapter the reader is presented with an ad for a heavily discounted trip to Monte Carlo, the commission from that sale could be orders of magnitude greater than the sale price for the book. eBooks could even be used to serve up video ads and trailers for movies in that book’s genre. Your epic fantasy book could be used to show trailers for The Hobbit movie, and its assorted merchandise. And of course, if you prefer to not deal with ads and pay your one-time fee, you’ll have that option (once again taking a page from the mobile app industry).

Google showed us that context-sensitive, relevant ads can be a big winner for blogs and online magazines. There’s no reason it can’t work for books too.

Free, ad-supported books on digital platforms with good ad-serving capabilities could be just the boost the book market needs. The Kindle with Special Offers has a prominent position on Amazon’s bestseller list, proving that readers are willing to deal with ads in exchange for a lower price. We just need the literary industry to be proactive for once, and take the lead in using technology to its advantage.

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