Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Why You Should Be Cheering for the Ad-Subsidized Kindle

It's so easy to predict the reaction of the literary web to some stories. Combine the specter of Amazon with inserting advertising into the reading space, and you have yourself a sure-fire whipping boy. Which is too bad, because the new ad-subsidized Kindle is a really, really good idea.

For some, the idea of advertising in literature is anathema; it contaminates the sacred space of art-writing. The publishing business, literary historians, and writers themselves have long gone to great lengths to keep the business of books outside the realm of literary discourse. It is devilishly difficult to know much, if anything, about the economics of literature: how much writers are paid, how many copies a particular book sells, and the other ledger items of publishing seem to be actively obscured. This has, in turn, created the illusion that money and literature are somehow separate.

The division of "writing" from the literary-publishing economy has been a real obstacle for the ongoing viability of the publishing business. Thinking that literature exists beyond the pale of economics allows and excuses a variety of practices and beliefs that are detrimental to the maintenance of a healthy, diverse literary economy. For example, in what other business can you borrow, subsidized by state and local government, the products of an entire industry? That literature exists in an imaginary space outside of financial pressures makes it even more subject to economic forces.

So that's one reason to be interested in the new ad-subsidized Kindle. When you now flip on your Kindle to read the new David Mitchell, you see a Buick ad first; it will be difficult to maintain an artificial separation of the business of writing with the texts themselves. Some argue that introducing advertising into literature will cheapen it. I would argue just the opposite; commercializing the literary space will reinforce the idea that that space has financial value, just as the annual ritual of tracking how much a 30-second spot during the Super Bowl costs reaffirms the value of the Super Bowl.

I think advertising in e-readers is exciting for another reason; it has the potential to open up channels of discovery. Book advertising is notoriously difficult, to the point that most people don't see any book advertising in their daily life. That "word-of-mouth" is the most powerful force in the industry speaks to the ineffectiveness of literary publicity. That said, the kind of reader-centric, targeted opportunity that integrated literary advertising presents is unprecedented.

Say I am the publisher (or, increasingly, author) of a novel about race relations in the South. Buying and crafting a specific ad that would appear to the tens of thousands of people reading Kate Stockett's The Help on their e-reader would seem outrageously appealing. From a reader's point of view, this might even be helpful; finding titles like a book you are currently enjoying is usually a task you have to take to your local bookseller, as long as they know what they are talking about. For most readers, this is a friction point that will not be surmounted. In this new scenario, a sample of the advertised, related work is just a couple of clicks away. (And if you don't think this can work, remember that Google's empire is built on accessible, contextual advertising.)

It is somewhat unfortunate that this effort is starting with Amazon, since most interested in publishing look upon them warily. I don't particularly care if this new Kindle sells, but I do think that it is in the best interest of publishing if something like it succeeds.

Through April 15, I am donating all referral fees generated through The Reading Ape to an effort to buy Rock City Books up in Maine. So if you have a little Powell's, Indie Bound, or Amazon shopping to do, click through the below links and a percentage of your purchase will go towards the effort.


  1. I think the advertising on eBooks and eReaders is inevitable and, quite honestly, a good business plan. However, that only will work if the consumer has something in it, cheaper eBooks, free readers, etc.

    Right now, I don't think many people will pay $114 to be advertised to.

    Here is a post I wrote about this subject back in September: New Business Model? Advertising in Books http://manoflabook.com/wp/?p=69

  2. I have to admit, my stomach sank when I read that news item this morning. Thank you for giving me a different take on it, though. Definitely food for thought. Maybe HarperCollins et al will go a bit easier on libraries if they have new revenue streams.

  3. Paperback books already have advertising in them. Usually at the back they'll be a few pages of book adverts, sometimes there might be one at the front. As long as the adverts are relevant and are either at the start or end, I wouldn't see them being any different. However I wouldn't like to see adverts for diet tips or dating sites like the rest of the web is full of.

  4. The division of literature and money is taking a beat at Joe Konrath's blog and on several indie publishers's blogs since money is the big topic of conversation these days. Everyone wants to know why Barry Eisler jumped ship and who were the bidders vying for Amanda Hocking's attention. Lesser known authors are talking money, too, and pointing to experiments in changing the price on their books to experiment with placement on Amazon, so this is a very timely post. In the end, money is and has always been a factor, as Mark Twain discovered when he decided to hire a team of door-to-door salesmen to sell his books.

  5. Well thought and articulated post. A freemium model will work nicely in this arena, allowing the accommodation of the borrowing "subsidized by state and local government" with preview and interstitial ads. If this model were adopted, a device that allows web click-through would be preferable. Regardless, the attempt to adapt that I see the publishing industry attempting is much better than the preserve-at-all-costs-including-looking-silly business model applied at the NY Times.

  6. I think you have a very valid point - one that a lot of us had not considered. It is a very intriguing idea. I don't know that it will take off when the discount for the device is only $25, but there's something to be said for making the move in that direction.

  7. Man-
    Why do people need a discount to be advertised to? You pay for movies, magazines, cable, etc and still get ads. Just because ads haven't been integrated into the median e-reading device doesn't mean that they won't be.

    The problem with that though is that this revenue isn't going to HarperCollins, but to Amazon. Publisher missed the boat on integrating advertising into books in a serious way.

    Right, though those ads are almost always for other books by the same author or from the same publisher. That is not a robust advertising economy nor an avenue for discovery.

    I think you are right that there is increasing willingness/necessity to raise the financial curtain on publishing. I don't think I'd heard that story by Twain, but Whitman self-published and hand-sold LEAVES OF GRASS's first edition. This is nothing new, just new to the conversation.

    Freemium might work, though the "free" model will to most users win over time I think. Unlike mobile apps or software, there is no real added value to the premium version except that it has fewer ads--and ads are easy to deal with.

    I think Amazon's particular implementation is wrong-headed as well. I would have set the same price, but included a 50 or 100 dollar credit with the ad model. Similar real cost to Amazon, but a more interesting proposition to the buyer.

  8. It IS possible to reconnect literature and economics if you subscribe to BookScan, run by Nielson, that tracks the sales history of any book published after 2000/1. The UK version is a bit more accurate than the US because the latter doesn't have access to Wal-Mart and Sam's Club and a few other non-book retailers. But it's not bad. All the publishers certainly subscribe to it.

    As for advertising, I don't think I'd mind book adverts on a kindle, but I don't really want to watch car ads in any format.

  9. I like your take on this, but I would (a) echo Indie's point about the price being all wrong and (b) warn that I don't think many of these ads will be book- or publishing-related. The fact that Amazon is billing this as a Kindle with "Special Offers" makes me think it's not going to be based on publicity per se, but that Amazon is using the positioning of sites like Groupon. Of course, an "offer" could be for a discounted new title.

    And one other note--word-of-mouth is the most important type of marketing for any industry, so that alone isn't a sign of the book world's trouble with publicity.

  10. litlove-
    Bookscan doesn't count; that's insider baseball. I'm talking about the public consciousness. In music and movies, ticket and record sales are newsworthy items and feed back into the commercial prospects of the industries.

    You probably are right that the ads won't be as targeted as I think they should be. Still, I'm less invested in this particular device and deployment than I am with the larger trend.

    Also--word of mouth is the most important type of marketing for aircraft engines? soybeans? municipal bonds? Opening weekend for movies?

    Still, I think I see your point. My idea is that in other word-of-mouth industries, word-of-mouth can be, in some cases, sparked by advertising.

    When was the last time a mass-market book ad got anyone talking?