discussions writing & publishing

Novel Advertising

From the Wall Street Journal:

With e-reader prices dropping like a stone and major tech players jumping into the book retail business, what room is left for publishers’ profits? The surprising answer: ads. They’re coming soon to a book near you.

I’m not giving Rupert Murdoch any more money, so I’m not paying to see the rest of the article; but I’ve a good idea what it may be talking about, and the concept is enough for a good debate.

Publishers have for decades advertised other novels in the backs of books. If you pick up any book, there is a good chance that the publisher has given a blurb for other works by that particular author, or a plug to visit their own website to see more. Even in some SFF novels, there have been ad swaps (I presume they’re swaps) with genre magazines. Also, it’s been a recent phenomenon for product placement within the text itself.

But what about advertising other items in the backs of books? If advertising is kept relevant, as it tends to be on television, we might find all sorts of clichés popping up: chick lit with dodgy wine advertised in the back. Political thrillers with MANLY razor blades.

Of course, the thing to bear in mind is – just how many novels the average author sells. Here’s a clue: not many. Not many companies will want spend money advertising their product in a book that sells only a couple of thousand copies. The genre of literary fiction doesn’t stand a chance. This sort of thing can only really be of use for the very commercial end of the publishing spectrum.

Would any of this interrupt the reader experience? I’m not so sure anyone cares to be honest. Unless ads are slap bang in the middle – right in between chapters, perhaps – then I doubt it will bother people, though with e-books I can see that being something that will happen. In my grouchier moments, I’d say good on publishers if they do consider this – with supermarkets and online retailers squeezing every last penny out of them, every little helps them stay in business; although I can’t see this being a huge revenue generator for the most part.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

23 replies on “Novel Advertising”

I think, and hope, that advertising in books will be something that is restricted to e-books. And I actually think that is logical when you consider that e-book fanatics seem unwilling to pay enough for their e-books that authors and publisher can make a living off them.

I’m sure the technology is there to make you watch a 30, 60, or 90 second commercial before being allowed to start reading a chapter. Much like you have to sit through a short commercial before seeing a CNN news-clip on the web. With e-reader devices being wireless there should be no problem in keeping the commercials fresh, and changeable, so that would be perfect for advertisers.

Of course there would have to be some negotiations on who gets the advertising revenue. But I could see e-books selling for full price without advertising directly from the publishers. Booksellers would then get a 30% discount when they buy a book for resale, much like the agency-model. Any further profit or discount to the customer being offset by inserting ads into the books.

It will be interesting to see where this is going. Will readers buy cheaper books with advertising, or will they pay a higher price for ad-free books?

Now my first thoughts are:

Then the books themselves are going to be free right?

The trouble with ads is they imply free content even if we pay to watch and read adverts all the time – think Sky/Virgin and any magazine you buy.

And it’s scary how many copies that books don’t sell.

I read a Bookseller article on the increase in Holmes-related book sales and they were getting excited by 184 copies. That’s even after a big TV series…

I can see some brands paying for some Lit Fic books for the association of endorsement that the ‘name’ brings – and Fay Weldon I’m sure was paid for including certain brands in one of her books.

But if they stick ads at the back of books I’d be OK with that. It’s not as if we don’t get ads on everything else!

Buying an e-book and watching an online video are completely different. Not only would it increase the size on the download, but I would not sit through some stupid ad playing in the middle of my book at bloody midnight, when I just want to quietly read.

If that were to happen, I would simply increase the number of books I already pirate. And don’t say pirating is bad for authors – $25 paperbacks are bad for authors. So I stand by my cheaper is better beliefs when ebooks (and any digital material) is concerned.

I’m not sure how well advertising within books, especially ebooks would work. As you point out, most authors really don’t sell a huge amount, so the benefits to someone placing advertising are going to be negligible.

Incidentally, whenever we’re talking about “what is to be done about digital content?” the answer is inevitably “advertising!”

The thing is that (1) surely it just becomes tuned-out white-noise (hell – thanks to adblock, I haven’t seen an online ad for years). (2) This faith in advertising seems somewhat misplaced. The pool of people who are able to pay money to hawk their wares in, alongside books, music, films, games, tv is surely finite. I’d have thought that this would favour the bigger sellers eventually.

I think, Daniel, that you’re right that pirating isn’t bad for the authors in the sense that it probably doesn’t make the vast majority of them worse off – purely because most don’t sell enough to give up the day job.

Also, I’ve read many authors, including the likes of Charlie Stross who, (unless I’m misjudging this) is not an opponent of file-sharing, have nonetheless pointed out that removing the cost of producing the paper-book, storage and distribution actually saves very little in the cost per unit of e-books.

I think the problem is that neither side of the argument is really willing to give any ground, which leads to name-calling and no progress.

Incidentally, I’d agree that $25 (£16 or so) seems a bit steep. But given that (in my experience) paperbacks in the UK are generally between £5 and £10, I’m not sure where you’re coming from (used to happen all the time with music “well, it’s ridiculous that CDs are £15!” except they aren’t; and hadn’t, at this point, for years).

Well, I care for the interrupted experience. The idea of ads dropped mid-books sends me on orbit !
I just stopped watching TV 25 years ago when they introduce ads mid-movies. I won’t bear it with books. I guess I would feel more sedate if it were done at the beginning or end of the book. It’s not as if we’re not used to ads…

@DanielChuter I would think ads would be streamed to the e-reader for example once a week, so the code necessary would not take up much space in the download. And there would be dedicated memory on the device for ads.

That being said, pirating could be the Achilles-heel of e-books. If book-pirating become a large enough problem I could see two solutions:

1. This is highly unlikely, but e-books disappear.
Unlike movies, games, and computer programmes books are not in itself a digital product. If pirating of e-books gets to the point where publishers and authors stop making money, the logical solution would be to stop making e-books. As I said, not very likely, but if the problem gets large enough it would a solution.

2. The DRM gets moved to the device.
This is already true of consoles. I don’t know how this works, but Playstation 2/3 and Xbox 360 can tell if your disc is a copy. To play a copied disc you need to install extra hardware, a chip I think, in the console. The number of people willing to this is minimal compared to the amount who gladly download a pirated programme. And it is detectable, as shown by the fact that Microsoft banned thousands of users from Xbox-live for doing this.
I actually don’t understand why this has not been done already with computers and DVD/Blue-ray players. E- readers are new, so this solution should be workable.

Solution two would also remove the DRM debate that is currently taking place. Allowing any valid file to be read on any e-reading device.

Thanks for the comments, guys. Firstly, I’m against advertising in essence, let alone with books. But things in publishing are very tough. Margins are tight – as a result of people demanding cheaper books, and as major outlets saying, “we won’t sell your books unless you give more discount to us”. So, it is a way of clawing back some cash.

Would it weaken the content? Well, as I said, publishers have advertised their own books in the backs anyway, so it’s nothing new. It’s potentially going to be exaggerated.

Daniel, with ebooks, I agree it’s also bad to do that – but I can actually see content featuring adverts either alongside or before it loads up. Just look at what newspapers are doing with online content, and maybe on a pay-per-click feature.

But this is only going to be for the Grishams et al of this world.

Gav – does it imply free content? I don’t know. You get movie trailers, right?

I feel you’ve missed a prime opportunity in telling us what products would be advertised on the back of which authors’ books. Let’s see…

I feel Abercrombie’s books would probably be prime revenue for a line of vanity products, probably ones designed by Joe himself, up to and including a shampoo bottle with his face on it.

You, of course, would advertise your favorite brand of porridge.

Or perhaps we should run information pamphlets advertising salvation in the Church of Bilsborough?

What about product placement!

When Hurran the Elf Slayer has killed a battalion of the the Dark Legion he likes nothing better than to kick back with a Mountain Dew.

And what about Barrathus the Bold who is now able to rescue maidens in distress quicker than ever, now he has traded in his trusty steed Deathbringer for a new Land Rover Discovery 4×4

Genius! We’ll all be millionaires!

I’m pro-advertising in essence, as it pays the mortgage (but against bad advertising as it makes me a social pariah).

Your numbers argument (“why buy ad space in something that only 1,000 people see?”) is outweighed by the depth of the audience’s absorption in that particular media.

Buy TV space – you’re talking to the millions, but all those millions are off making a cup of tea, and actually resent you for taking you away from the show.

Put something clever into a book – even at the very back – and you’ll have 1,000 people that could become fiercely loyal to your brand, because they see your product as intertwined with the content. “Kal-El uses Gillette because it’s the only blade strong enough for his invulnerable skin, huh? Cool….”

There’s also a matter of cost. Getting a publisher to carry your ad is going to be vastly, vastly cheaper than getting the Times to do so (and, again, far, far less than TV too).

Of course, you need a publisher willing to spend the time on this project, an agency willing to sell the idea & a brand willing to take the (granted, pretty minor) risk. Those might be your real barriers…

As a consumer, I would never accept a book with ads. As a writer, I’d do everything in my power to prevent my work being used in this way by my publisher. I do accept that in some cases, it might well be out of my hands.

But then I consider that including a blurb or even an excerpt from another of the author’s works – or one from the publisher or another author is not the same thing as an advertisement for even “related” products that are not books. I might like to know about these, but I’ll never thank anyone for an ad about a new line of trucks or a superior laxative.

If the future of e-books include ads, then I suspect that there will be programs created to remove them. I hope so, but if not, then that would be a reason for me to avoid the format.

Currently I use ad blocking software for all online activity – which includes watching the few television series that I view on rare occasion. Updating this regularly means no ads, full stop – outside of actual product placement within the show which again for me is a deal breaker. There are plenty of movies and series who do not us this, and those who do, simply lose me as a viewer; small loss I imagine.

For those of you with sites who feel this is “cheating” you out of advertising revenue, all I can say is that I am sorry but that I *strongly* differ in my opinion on this subject and choose not to support the culture of ads. If you wish to put your site behind a pay-wall, so be it, but I’ll not be visiting it then either.

I do not believe that advertisement is a beneficial part of our society. I think it’s one of its ills. If the death of advertisement meant the loss of “free” television – this would be a boon to the overall culture, not a tragedy in my opinion.

You of course may feel differently and vote accordingly to your taste by choosing to accept ads. I hope we don’t have to make this decision soon with e-books, at least not before the secondary market in ad blocking software can catch up.


Sam – I can easily put my name to a couple of brands of porridge, and vegetable seed companies.

Adrian – ha, that’d be great! I can see Brynd being the type to kick back with some of my favourite real ales in exchange for a few bottles being sent the author – a coincidence, of course.

Jared – a good point of course. There’s a very loyal readership for the most part. I think the danger is if you reach the stage of an author being a disposable read, just how loyal would that readership be then? All in all, I can’t see SFF profiting too much. The money will lie in that haze of mainstream books – chick lit, thrillers, and the likes – at least at first.

Eric – what if the margins for carrying an advert were favourable – and that meant that an editor would then have the money to take on your book? Without the money, there would be no opportunity. Just playing devil’s advocate, of course, but the point being that sometimes margins really are that tight. It varies from publisher to publisher of course.

I’ve seen books with advertisements in them before: a couple of mystery novels that I picked up from an author I know (Nancy Means Wright) had a number of advertisements in the middle of the book, aimed towards the people whom the publisher thought would be receptive: older readers. Not only is it a fad that seems to have not taken off, publishers will have to target their ads appropriately, so I’m not sure that we’ll see too many ads that make no sense whatsoever in the books. Plus, they won’t want to oversaturate their products: as in movies, people already complain that there are too many, and don’t go to them. I can see the exact thing happening with paperback books or ebooks.

When I was a kid, some of my parents’ old genre mass market paperbacks (mysteries and such) had advertisements right in the middle of them; I seem to remember them being color and on thicker paper, like you might see on cards you tear out of magazines. These were probably published in the 60s.

[Steps off his high-stepping, hollow horse made out of cardboard soap boxes before it crumbles under him, weakened by the English rain…]

@Mark – I can only imagine how difficult things are right now in Publishingland. Really, so I won’t contradict you. But if a few pounds sterling of advertising revenue is all that stands between good literature (or even just decent) being published and the abyss, could writing as a paying profession simply be over?

How much are we willing to give up, to support it? Artists have always had to make hard decisions about following their pure artistic muse and making money. Of course many of these ended up starving, so perhaps not a good example. Commercial books are important of course, so should we accept the inevitability of ad-content could be one more aspect of their “commercial” nature?

I don’t have any answers to any of these questions, perhaps you do. As usual, thanks for the interesting discussion,


Here’s an angle that shouldn’t influence whether or not publishers include advertising in books, but is interesting to consider: historical value. The only way we know, for example, how readers have interacted with their books is by the hard evidence they leave behind in the object itself – dog-earing, marginalia, underlining, etc. That doesn’t seem so important right now, but the older a book is, the less evidence there is relating to how readers interfaced with it. Two hundred years from now, the copy of City of Ruin that has been written all over will be as valuable, if not more so, than the pristine first edition sitting in the British Library.

A great deal of information about readers gets lost over time, including the makeup of the target audience. Advertisements are evidence, slight though it may be, of what kind of reader the publisher (if not the author) thought would pick up the book.

As a reader, the last thing I want in my books is advertising – especially product placement, a cynicism-inducing turnoff. (Ye gods.) As an historian, however, I can say that, for better or worse, that information does have some value – or will, someday.

I think ads in the backs of books will largely be ignored. I read the blurbs of other releases that might be included on the final pages of books, but any more than that and I think they’d just be tuned out – same with magazine adverts, internet adverts and so forth. To properly grab the attention of the reader, they’d have to pop out at you in some way – this would SERIOUSLY annoy me when reading a novel.

I’m concerned that if this works, we’d start to get adverts within the text – as you do on websites, when they have an “Advertisement Break”. Naturally, one skims right over it.

As for product placement… Would we notice some of it? If it was excessive, sure – I remember reading an article years ago about Fay Weldon’s Bulgari deal (it’s mentioned in the article Mark links to), and not really thinking much of it. If the products were targetted, would we really notice? Someone picks up an iPod, a Sony something-or-other, a Kindle (imagine – a book with Kindle product placement, read on a Kindle…), steps into a specific car brand… Would we think it’s product placement, or just the author picking a brand? If all of this happens in a Fantasy novel, of course, that’s a different kettle of fish entirely.

There are ways for this to be done discretely and in good taste, but I can’t imagine that will last long if it proves lucrative.

On a totally personal note, however, I enjoy books as one of the last bastions of ad-free media. I wouldn’t want that to end…

Books haven’t ever been ad-free media. Not just the cigarette ads (mentioned above – I actually find them charming, in a perverse way).

But think about the inside of every book – the “also by this author” page? However subtle? That’s an ad. It is a commercial communication trying to sell you more products, based on your preference for the product in your hand. We don’t mind, because it is non-intrusive & well-targeted.

And that’s just one example. The logo on the side of the book. The blurbs on the cover from other authors (generally from the same publisher, at that). One could argue that a cliff-hanger ending is an advertisement, as its intention is to get you to buy the second volume.

Again, there’s good advertising and bad advertising. Lumping them all together is dangerous.

I’d like to point out that Anne (above) used this post as an excuse to defend WRITING IN BOOKS. A sin FAR FAR WORSE than advertising.

Historical shmistorical! Next, we’ll have “spine-cracking”, “dog-earing”, “page-folding” and all sorts of barbaric activity.

Eric – well, for the most part, things aren’t *that* bad. Potentially for medium-sized imprints. But things could get that bad.

Anne – I’m with Jared on this one, I’m afraid. 🙂 Unless of course the person who wrote in it is far more important than the author, and trebles the value of the copy.

Stefan – what about if it was in between chapters? Is it only a bad thing if it ruins the experience?

Going down memory lane here: when I was a kid, we’d go to a cinema that had an electronic organ rise up from the stage about half way through, and some chap would play various dodgy tunes as we all filtered out to buy an ice cream. Now that interrupted the show, sure, but it had a charm about it which I kind of miss now… The point being, not all interruptions have to be garish and nasty.

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