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Advertising in books

I just had a horrible, horrible thought. What if books had advertising in them? Not product placement in the story like “quoth the raven, eat at Burger King”, but real honest-to-goodness ads every three or four pages, just like in magazines. Publishers could print two versions of every title:

1. A normal version of the book at the current regular price; let’s say $36 for a hardcover.

2. A version with advertising that costs, oh, 50-75% less than the normal version. That same hardcover would cost $9-18. The ad version of the same book in paperback might go for only $4.50.

Supported by advertising, publically available texts like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, or Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels could be free. Free books!

Financial issues aside, I believe the world is a better place without advertising absolutely everywhere. But if advertising makes books more affordable — and in some cases absolutely free — and therefore accessible to more people, it’s hard to argue that it wouldn’t be a good idea.

Reader comments

peteApr 17, 2003 at 11:13AM

Well, you used the magic word - free.

Of course even without being free, I wouldn't mind seeing books cheaper due to advertising. I'm thinking of the technical books especially.

I'd buy more reference manuals from someone like O'Reilly because they're the type of books where I grab it, look something up, and then put it on the shelf more than I pick it up and read chapters at a time.

Besides, you could always cut a piece of white paper the same size as the ad and glue it right on top of it, it would then ge a great place to write your notes!

Cory DoctorowApr 17, 2003 at 11:22AM

Paperbacks used to have cigarette ads bound into their middles -- just where the photo-plate signature goes in biographies and other illustrated texts.

hosenpantsApr 17, 2003 at 11:25AM

plenty of free jane austen at the library, and next step up from there would be all the two dollar editions at the used shops.

if you have a real desire to read, you can do it on the cheap if needed - if you have a strong desire to collect, you'll probably steer clear of the ad version just like collectors steer clear of book club versions.

hell, why shouldn't publishers charge the same prices they do now, AND put the ads in the books - why bother with the inexpensive versions at all - seems to be working for the movie theaters; the more ads i watch before a flick has no effect on the retarded price i pay for the movie. the no ad version could be the "collectors editon" - $50 instead of the ad filled $36.

DiggetsApr 17, 2003 at 11:45AM

As Cory said, it was tried. In the '70s I think. The response was overwhelmingly negative. I remember seeing a science fiction book as a teenager (bought used!) with the Newport "I'd rather fight than switch" ad in the middle. Remember that one? It showed a woman with a black eye smoking her Newport. Needless to say, NOW had some issues with that ad.

I'm kinda digging the product placement angle. Pepsi should do their own versions of the classics, with Huckleberry Finn enjoying a refreshing Pepsi One while he wolfs down a delicious Burrito Supreme and Border Friz-eyes from the Bell. They could distribute the books to middle schools for free!

Before you get offended, remember that that's what food companies do already. For instance, Kraft will do a food pyramid chart with all of their products listed as examples, then send these posters to poverty-stricken home economics classrooms around the country. It's very common, why not books as well?

mcwetboyApr 17, 2003 at 11:54AM

Pardon my cynicism, but I can't help but think that what would happen instead is that hardcover books would stay the same price ($36, say, to use Jason's example), but include the ads. Precedent: movies aren't any cheaper as a result of ads at the start of each screening (movie theatres make their real money in concessions and such ads, not the films themselves). Publishing is a marginal enough business that I'm sure they'd pocket the difference.

mcwetboyApr 17, 2003 at 11:58AM

Apologies for more or less rehashing hosenpants's comments above, which for some reason didn't register during my initial read-through.

jkottkeApr 17, 2003 at 12:00PM

The publishing companies inserting the ads and making people pay full price is certainly a possibility. Lazy companies with established rackets (movie industry, television industry, publishing industry, music industry) are certainly prone to doing such things.

HaidiApr 17, 2003 at 12:11PM

I bought an old Georgette Heyer novel from the 70s on eBay and there were three ads in it -- one for a brand of women's cigarettes, one for Sanka, and one for "Music - the lively new fragrance from Faberge."

It sort of freaked me out, to be honest.

Here's the Sanka ad if anyone's curious:

padraiginApr 17, 2003 at 12:14PM

Just scrape the change out of your couch cushions and go buy your classics in Dover editions for a buck or two each.

That said, I do kind of like the idea of free/ad subsidized books. I'm a huge reader, I'll take money out of the grocery budget to buy a book if I can't stand being on the library wait list for it. But ultimately, I'd rather have the libraries themselves be ad-supported, and leave the books out of it.

EricApr 17, 2003 at 12:22PM

problem: advertising is ephemeral, books are not

katyApr 17, 2003 at 12:26PM

In September 2001 the novelist Fay Weldon wrote what was, certainly at the time, the world's first sponsored novel. Entitled The Bulgari Connection, it was, you guessed it, sponsored by the jewel house, Bulgari. According to this article in the Guardian, Weldon was required to mention the name of Bulgari at least 12 times. It was originally intended as a private venture, but was then released for commercial publication. Nevertheless, fairly scary stuff though it is, the fact that this was a year and a half ago and doesn't seem to have spawned hundreds of similarly-sponsored books gives at least some hope that this won't be a trend throughout the publishing industry...

Khoi VinhApr 17, 2003 at 12:26PM

I think one inevitable danger would be that, like most advertising-driven media, only the content that successful supports advertising would survive. That is, publishers would eventually come to realize that it would be in their best interest to print books that not only generate lots of sales, but that also generate lots of ad dollars.

They would then look for the books that would satisfy both these criteria. This may not be dramatically different from the problem we have today with good literature getting published, but in my opinion, it would probably exacerbate it.

ScottApr 17, 2003 at 12:29PM

Or how about paid product placement in novels?

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. But it better times still with Fritos® brand corn chips!"

"There she blows!- there she blows! A hump like a new Volkswagen Jetta®! It is Moby-Dick!"

DavidApr 17, 2003 at 12:30PM

Travel books from Time Out and a few other places come with ads inside. This always annoys me because it's more weight to lug around with you, unless you take the time to carefully rip them out. I wouldn't mind so much if I felt I was getting a deal on the sale price of the book, but the ad-cluttered guides don't seem significantly cheaper than the non-ad-cluttered guides.

Dave S.Apr 17, 2003 at 12:32PM

Eric, I completely agree in a romantic, longing for purity sense. But advertisers are hardly going to care about how their ad reads in 50 years as long as it moves product now.

Besides, old ads are often amusing. Due to that very ephemeral nature, rarely will you find ads from decades past. It's great fun to see what was once considered a good ad campaign, and how odd it looks given today's context.

Pétur Rúnar GuðnasonApr 17, 2003 at 12:38PM

You seem to wander from "horrible" to "not so bad" and eventually "pretty good". Good work!

sixtoeApr 17, 2003 at 12:41PM

Instead of plunking down $10 next time on Amazon or at Borders, why not give it to your local library? After all, as hosenpants said, there are plenty of free books there.

Tom KarloApr 17, 2003 at 12:42PM

I don't think it attractive to anyone, either from the publishing side or the advertising side.

Advertisers only care about the immediate period impact -- maybe a month or so, maximum. After that, they're on to a new campaign and any returns on those book ads certainly aren't going to be credited to the agency/marketing department responsible. Worse yet, books are printed in runs, so you could have your ad being published "new" for a year or two after your placement. That would restrict the ads to only the most generic "branding" campaigns.

Book publishers won't see it as economic. Figure you're going to get $10 cpm, max. That's $0.01 cents per ad -- probably almost as much as printing a four-color, full-bleed, laquered, book quality plate into the book would cost. How many ads in a book? Magazines aside (which I would postulate sometimes are bought for the ads), figure you could have maybe a double ad every 16 page folio. For a 320 page hardcover, that's what, 20 or 40 ads? Even optimistically we're talking $0.40 per book.

Would you take the version with ads to save maybe $0.25? (I'm assuming the publishers would want some profit from ad revenue.)

jkottkeApr 17, 2003 at 12:43PM

problem: advertising is ephemeral, books are not

I thought about that as I wrote the post, but many books have short shelf lives. They are published, on the shelf for a few months, and then they're gone.

Also, advertisers would have to think about advertising that would be appropriate for media that may be utilized over a period of months or years. An ad for the new Toyota FastCar might not work so well, but a general branding ad for Toyota might.

May WooApr 17, 2003 at 12:49PM

I spent my childhood in the library reading the classics for free...and I've made it a rule not to buy any book that can be easily gotten at the library (most general fiction and non-fiction that fall within the $10-$25 range). I live in an apartment with only 400 sf of space so I need to make rules like that. The kinds of books that I spend money on are reference, technical, and art / design related books. Books of this sort generally cost $30-$70 and while I can't imagine that advertising would work in art / design books (since many of them are "collected") I think it would be a good idea for technical books (since these have a limited shelf life).

I for one don't resent commercial advertising or think of it as "evil." It's human to create things (whether it's art or a service or a product) and to want others to see or buy or pay attention. I also think that a lot of art we now revere was really just advertising for Jesus.

TimApr 17, 2003 at 12:55PM

I shudder at the thought. Free books? That's what libraries are for.

Chas. PorterApr 17, 2003 at 1:10PM

What? Are you nuts? How can you even think such a thing, much less unbar the gate and let that monsterous thought out for a walk? WE'RE DOOMED. We have to try and get that idea back in its cage before sundown or all hell's gonna break loose. Who is with me?

johnApr 17, 2003 at 1:17PM

do we have to bombarded w/ ads all the time? what's next advertising on our tombstones for a 10% discount off of its purchase price? AAUUUUGGGGHHHHH!!!!!! (a la Charlie Brown)

AndrewApr 17, 2003 at 1:51PM

Some states have started banning the practice of advertising in school textbooks, although if you've read Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation", you'll recall examples of corporate sponsored textbooks that teach nutrition using Burger King, or math using Skittles, or whatever. That seems like a profoundly evil tactic used by corporations only with the most desperately underfunded public schools.

Technical books must be some of the worst excesses of the publishing industry: often bloated and go out of date quickly. Do any tech publishers use recycled paper? How many of those books are recycled? Who knows.

doriApr 17, 2003 at 1:59PM

sorry dude, i HATE the thought.

imagine all the wasted paper on advertising. imagine all the additional destruction of the environment. imagine the pain in my ass, as a new york resident, getting bombarded with even MORE advertising than i do already. honestly, it's so bad i can't even use a public restroom without an ad staring me in the face.

for free books, there's a much better option - one that's a little less harmful to the environment. In most places, library cards are free.

Biologic ShowApr 17, 2003 at 2:18PM

I remember buying a copy of The Omen in paperback around 1981 that had cigarette ads in the middle of it. I guess they tried it and it didn't work.

alexApr 17, 2003 at 2:25PM

The problem is that most books don’t sell enough copies to be attractive to advertisers. Your run of the mill hardcover might sell 20,000 copies whereas a magazine ad would reach that many in a week. The other problem is that Barnes and Noble, which mostly controls books marketing, wouldn’t want advertising in their stores that they didn’t get a piece of. But the biggest problems are that books are on such a wacky long term schedule (usually a year from acquisition to publication), and big sales are a result of national publicity hits -- ad agencies would go nuts trying to figure out the value of their campaigns. It might work in mass market publishing, but again, the reach is so limited that it would hardly seem worth the effort.

DanielApr 17, 2003 at 2:27PM

I think it would reflect back on the author, and often in ways they wouldn't appreciate.

In a magazine, you read through a shared space - many authors. In a book, you're completely in the author's domain, so anything extraneous is going to point right back at them. Guilt by association.

As an example: What ad would fit in a William Gibson book? (I would think he'd fight it)

Jason FriedApr 17, 2003 at 2:57PM

Jason K, do you envision full page ads or in-line ads like banner ads? Would you favor one or the other?

Matt HaugheyApr 17, 2003 at 3:24PM

Imagine the popup ad opportunity.

"pull this lever"

Wow, watch the x10 woman pop out of the page!

StephApr 17, 2003 at 3:56PM

Katy mentioned:
"In September 2001 the novelist Fay Weldon wrote what was, certainly at the time, the world's first sponsored novel. "

Eh? So what about all those novelization-of-the-movie books, then? The Buffy the Vampire Slayer novels, the endless Star Trek novels, the TSR book-shaped-objects, the really atrocious Lord of the Rings novelizations by that hack J.R.R. Tolkien (good god, couldn't they have found a better writer? And what's up with Aragorn breaking into song every five pages?).

Anyway, books-as-advertisements have sort of already happened if you look at it from that angle, in that feeding the fires of the fans makes them keep coming back for more. Just sayin'.

JonathanApr 17, 2003 at 4:03PM

If the author solicited the advertisements and became sponsored, he/she could incorporate the brands into the story. In addition to the publisher making money off inserted full page ads, the author's careful repetition or placement of brand names would provide a handy added margin.
Movies already have corporate sponsors. BMW had high profile place in a James Bond movie, Austin Powers highlighted Jaguar, etc.
Just like with television advertising, you could target your ads to certain genres in order to maximize ad conversion.
Just think of the popularity of, for instance, a certain shoe brand if people heard about it in Harry Potter!

jkottkeApr 17, 2003 at 4:25PM

imagine all the wasted paper on advertising.

There are definitely lots of good reasons not to do advertising on a societal level and this is definitely one of them. I feel bad everytime I see an issue of Vogue, bloated with ads, all that paper and ink used just because Gucci decides they want to. I don't subscribe to magazines partially because of this...I feel really guilty when I don't read them and end up wasting all that paper.

AmyApr 17, 2003 at 4:49PM

I don't know about books containing full-page or half-page ads, like those you would find in magazines. But I wouldn't mind, say, a page just after the title page of a book that had a list of "sponsors," much like the way PBS doesn't show advertising but thanks their ever-growing list of "friends."

If you consider writing art (which I think many many writers do), placing an ad at a chapter break could be considered equivalent to slapping a sizeable corporate logo in the corner of a finished painting.

Unfortunately, I think we may be headed toward advertising in books without a price break. We get commercials at movies in the theatre and on DVD, and we're not paying any less for those.

John JeskeApr 17, 2003 at 5:03PM

a little tasteful tattooing inside the cervix & we could be born consumers. how about all that empty space in our churches? vending machines in the confessional? DARE ads in 'Naked Lunch"? a truly vile idea.

Daniel StoutApr 17, 2003 at 5:34PM

Here's an idea: let's get a bunch of advertising together, add a little commentary, put a slick cover on it, and charge, say, $14 or so. Oh, wait, Communication Arts already does that.

The argument that advertising is somehow free or makes things "free" is fallacious. Is your beloved Burger King simply giving away $340 million every year on advertising? No, the cost is passed on to consumers, which makes products cost more, not less.

peter dApr 17, 2003 at 5:38PM

It seems that advertising is colonizing still more spheres of life, occupying still more of what used to be public spaces. People have their heads tattoo'ed with logos, the heADspace advertising scheme rents out peoples' foreheads temporarily for brand names, people are paid to mention brand names in casual conversations etc.

I'd hate for advertising to move onto books; I'd be willing to pay, say, double the cost for an ads-free book and keep the reading experience intact. It's one of the few places I can still escape from branding and advertising, at least for a while.

AdamApr 17, 2003 at 5:49PM

Sponsorship of clothing has already happened; books are all that remains. We'll see designer trees and grass before the end of the century.

Sean ConnerApr 17, 2003 at 7:47PM

I found a book in the emergency room last December (waiting to hear news of a friend in an accident). The book, published in 1971 had four ads in it. I found them amusing enough to scan and post them to my blog (and my friend was okay).

druApr 17, 2003 at 9:13PM

Or, we could put a progressive tax on ad revenue and give all the money to libraries. So: 0% for small publications, and 50% for Condé Nast profit vehicles.

European-style mediatheques would be nice, too.

Kip IngramApr 17, 2003 at 10:18PM

A lot of those public domain works are already available for free as etexts. I'd prefer an electronic version (which I can store and read using the Palm organizer that I already carry) with no ads than a free paper version that had ads in it.

Wolfgang FlammeApr 17, 2003 at 11:10PM

Seen unexpected ads already in german books a while ago. However just one ad page, closely related to content and story and there were no other pricings except paperback and regular.

fredApr 17, 2003 at 11:35PM

I recently downloaded my first free e-book, but I have yet to read any of it. This should be an interesting experience, but I just like the feel of bound pages in my hand!

SparkeyApr 18, 2003 at 12:27AM

There's a big problem here: Free things with ads die out. That business model doesn't work. Remember FreePC? FreeDSL? What about that phone service that let you place free long distance calls in exchange for listening to ads (5 minutes per 15-second ad). They didn't work.

What does work? Business models where the advertising income is supplemental. Take magazines, for example. I still have to buy a magazine with ads. They don't just give it to me because it has advertisements. I pay to watch The Cartoon Network, even though it has ads. And we all watch ads when we go to the movies. Advertising alone doesn't support these things. It merely supplements it.

Hell, I get angry every time I see someone wearing a t-shirt that says "NIKE" on it across the front, or with a Pokemon character on it, or a skateboard logo or something like that. The way I see it, NIKE should pay me to walk around town wearing an advertisement for them. Not the other way around!

AndreaApr 18, 2003 at 1:23AM

Jim Munroe used several brand names in one of his novels, and then sent invoices out to the corporations, billing for each time he used their product. Hilarity ensued.

pApr 18, 2003 at 1:24AM

bottom line - i'd rather be able to afford more books, even if i have to thumb past ads.

ACHUKAApr 18, 2003 at 3:17AM

People have mentioned advertising in books from the 1970s. The early Penguins and Puffins from the 1940s carried ads - e.g. for children's shoes in Puffins.

DaveatronApr 18, 2003 at 5:02AM

That's a fantastic idea! You should extend it to other print media. Magazines, like Wired, could become incredibly cheap if they carried large amounts of advertising. This is definitely the future.

jkottkeApr 18, 2003 at 8:13AM

Magazines, like Wired, could become incredibly cheap if they carried large amounts of advertising.

Ho, ho, funny guy. A subscription to Wired is $12/yr and ~$4 at the news stand. If there weren't any ads, it would be, what, $10, $20 a copy?

rdurbinApr 18, 2003 at 10:47AM

Actually, that is pretty funny.

Books are sacred. Besides, we have more than enough opportunities to process advertising elsewhere.

Media companies are getting so large it's becoming way too easy for them to push advertising promoting their other owned interests.

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.