It has been a while, but I have often pondered the question of why books don’t have ads. (See here, here and here). Chris Anderson (the guy with the long tail) contemplates giving away his next book for free but with ads inside (here). [HT: Marginal Revolution]:

Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired magazine who made his own splash last year with his book The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More, returned to the convention to talk about the possibility of giving away online his next book — which he fittingly intends to title “free” — to readers who were willing to read it with advertisements interspersed throughout its pages. (He still intends to sell the book traditionally to readers who’d rather get their text without the ads.)

Now this is an interesting idea, and while previously I found explanations of why books don’t have ads unconvincing, the economist in me worries that, whatever the reason, Anderson’s experiment may reveal it.

Previously I have noted that, if you were selling information and there were advertisers willing to pay to be part of it, then you would be better off by selling some advertising space, reducing books prices and selling more books. But, of course, we never see advertising in books.

So why not?

  • Too costly to print: doesn’t seem plausible as magazines find that OK and they have colour glossy ads.
  • Readers won’t look at ad: but if The New Yorker or The Economist can have ads, why not some trashy or popular novel? Why not a textbook?
  • Authors won’t wear it: well, maybe JK Rowling, but Dan Brown or Michael Crichton or some unknown.
  • Publishers don’t want it: if there is profit in it, why would this be the case?
  • Libraries won’t wear it: OK, then provide a special version for libraries without ads. Often they are charged more anyway.

As you can see, it is a real puzzle as to why there are no ads in books. Actually, some books have ads for other books, but why not Coke?

One thing I am currently working on is that idea that if we compare books with, say, television, ads in books could not be subtly interspersed in the text of a book. Instead they would appear and the reader’s eyes could easily move past them. In contrast, an ad break in television works when consumers are watching images and then a new one comes up that is an ad. Much of the time they break away but you only have to observe yourself in this environment to know that your attention can be held.

This theory of mine has progressed more than I have time to deal with today so I will return later to explain how it might encompass newspaper ads, some web sites, as well as billboards.

For the original post, click here.

Peter Fray

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