Things have recently heated up over on the Wylie-Merrick blog on the topic of advertising in books. Scott Jensen, a reader of the blog, was invited to post his ideas about the future of e-publishing, which in his opinion will mostly involve books being free to consumers.
We’re all familiar with the phrase “there’s no such thing as a free lunch,” but I think we often forget what it really means. “Free to the consumer” for example isn’t quite true. In Scott Jensen’s view of future publishing, advertisers will bear the cost of producing and distributing the e-books. Scott seems to like the idea and has some interesting concepts for actually integrating the advertising into the book-reading experience.
Nothing against Scott or his ideas for his own writing, but for me, as a reader … it gives me the willies. While a consumer downloading these books wouldn’t pay any cash for the book, he/she would pay in time spent viewing advertising between chapters. Like commercials on television. Because we all love commercials on television, right? I was called an “elitist” for my hatred of commercials, but I know I’m not alone.
Almost since the beginning of television, people have been devising ways to avoid watching commercials. They go to the kitchen for a snack, let the dog out to pee, or myriad other household chores that only require two minutes. The VCR allowed people to simply fast forward through commercials. Tivo does the same. The incredible popularity of television shows on DVD makes it clear that lots of people enjoy watching TV without the commercials.
Are all those commercial-skipping people elitists? Are they all wrong? Would they be joyfully converted to enjoying commercials in books? You know, the books that vast numbers of Americans can’t be bothered to check out “free of charge” from the library now? Would those books be more attractive with ads in them?
It has been suggested that “free” books, paid for by advertisers, would be beneficial to poor people. The masses, if you will. I don’t get it. Seriously. I’m not being snarky, but I don’t get how e-books with commercials in them would make more books available to poor people. Poor people can already get books from the library. Even dead broke homeless people can get a library card where I am.
When I was a kid, being raised by my hard-working single mother, we always got our books from the library. There wasn’t some Big, Evil, Greedy Publisher lording it over us because we were poor, twirling his mustache and saying, “No books for you, dirty little Okie.” That’s why I find it hard to imagine businesses as Duddley-Do-Right, come to save the day with their advertising dollars. Corporations advertise to sell more product, in order to benefit their shareholders, not to provide a public service.
The thing we don’t often think about is what’s being sold. When a television broadcaster sells advertising time to a business, the business isn’t buying x minutes of broadcast time. The business is buying x viewers. Advertising is valued based on the number of expected viewers for the time slot. So if I’m watching television, the advertisers are buying my time. They’re buying me. To be honest, that creeps me out a little. Especially if I carry that feeling over to reading.
I love books. Right or wrong, I trust books. When I’m reading a good story, I’m vulnerable in a way I never have been while watching TV. The last thing I want is to have companies pitch their goods and services to me while I’m in my wonderful-happy-reading place.
This isn’t just speculation on my part. When I was about eight or nine, I bought a book at a garage sale that hooked me like a fish. It’s a fairly famous fantasy book, part of a trilogy, which I didn’t know at the time. All I knew was that from the first sentence, I was in love with that book. It was an older paperback, and some of you will remember that in the late sixties and early seventies some paperbacks came with advertisements. Hard cover stock, often in full color, bound into the middle of the book.
This book that I fell in love with had one of those glossy, color ads. Right in the middle, stuck between two pages of a scene in which the main character came to terms with the fact that she was responsible for the deaths of two men, and that if she didn’t act, she would be responsible for the death of a third. Very intense reading for a nine-year-old. Would she save this man, trapped in the dark and afraid?
I turned the page and there. There was the ad. For cigarettes. Ah, yes, those were the days, when you could advertise cigarettes almost anywhere. Including in books that were on the cusp between young adult/adult. In a fit of annoyance, I ripped the ad out, but I still remember clearly what brand of cigarettes it was, what the ad looked like. I still have that book, the cover torn and utterly worn down at the corners, and the spine warped by the little raised ridge of glossy cardstock where I amputated the ad. Where I declined to be sold to the high bidder.