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Advertising and the eBook: A future alliance?

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Amazon KindleIf consumers want $9.99 eBook titles, someone must help pay the freight, according to the big publishers. That's why many of them are eying various ways to add advertising to the mix -- but there are some important technical and cultural readings why that won't happen any time soon.

At yesterday's eBook Summit, folks from the big houses were all bitching and moaning about the lack of a suitable profit margin on a $9.99 eBook title. When you've got a bloated overhead and a system more geared toward servicing the middleman than serving the consumer, such concern is warranted. Having no such overhead, we are less concerned, as the system deserves to die. We'll save our observations of overhead bloat for another time; today, we'll address one "solution" that is being debated in the big houses: advertising.

The rationale for considering advertising in books is simple: another source of revenue. It has nothing to do with serving the reader. Right now there are no models for including advertising in a book; we don't know of any schemes to serve ads on the bottom of the book page or slap a "sponsored by" line at the top of every page. For now it's really just a pipe dream as the big publishers thrash about in favor of a eBook publishing strategy.

We're not entirely sure advertising is the answer. For starters, selling advertising is a specialty onto itself; you need dedicated sales and marketing staffs to do it correctly, and given that the big houses have absolutely no expertise and little experience in selling advertising (throwing an ad to the back of a Suze Orman book doesn't count, guys), it will take some effort and investment to set up an ad staff.

Then there's the question of delivery. Since so many books are sold in a static format, there's no way to serve the ads that really work in terms of generating revenue. We did some asking of friends at Google, and they confirmed the advertising giant has nothing in the works -- save perhaps mobile ads -- that would fill this need. There's no mechanism in the Amazon Kindle, Sony Reader or Barnes & Noble Nook to poll an ad server for a dynamically served ad. This is not an inconsequential technical consideration.

Finally, there's the cultural issue: will readers accept advertising? Do it in a way that gets into the face of the reader -- like all good direct-response advertising does -- and many readers will inevitably be irritated. Do it in a more subtle fashion and advertisers will never receive a suitable return on investment.

So let's put the vision of advertising on eBook where it belongs: on a long wishlist, to be addressed at some point as eBooks evolve. Just don't throw a advertising line in the spreadsheet any time soon. --Kevin Reichard

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