catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

Why don't books have ads?

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Why don’t books have ads, like newspapers and magazines? That’s the interesting question Joshua Gans is asking on his blog. The potential advantage is that if advertisers paid some of the publisher’s costs books could be cheaper. The possible reasons why not Joshua comes up with are:

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 Rawlings, 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.

I think the main reason is not likely to be any of these, though there are some authors who probably would object. It is that advertisers want to know how many people they are reaching and who they are, and it is hard to know these things for books. For newspapers and magazines, the Audit Bureau of Circulation provides independent data on sales, and the Roy Morgan Readership Survey tracks who these readers are. This means that advertisers can target the audience they want to reach by choosing the right newspapers or magazines. Until relatively recently when BookScan started, there was little reliable data on book sales, just publisher’s reports and bestseller lists compiled by newspapers, usually based on surveys of only a handful of bookstores.

Even with BookScan, I don’t think we have the pre-conditions for the large-scale introduction of advertising in books. Newspapers and magazines usually only have small changes in circulation and readership from issue to issue, but it is hard to know in advance how many copies a book will sell – some books have to go into multiple re-prints because demand vastly exceeds initial estimates, while many others end up being remaindered. There are a few authors – such as those Joshua mentions – who reliably produce bestsellers. The publishers could perhaps increase their revenue still further from those titles. Even then, advertisers would probably demand that they pay only according to sales (as authors often only get paid according to how many copies the book sells). This means that publishers would have to take some of the risks of advertising, which they may not be inclined to do. It is also means that the possible consumer benefit of advertising, lower book prices, probably won’t materialise because why would the publisher risk bestseller profits from the sale of the physical book for the sake of what would be lower per unit revenue from advertising? If it occurred, book advertising would help publishers through windfall gains from ad revenue but not readers through lower book prices.

Even with the retrospective BookScan data we still don’t know, beyond anecdotal evidence, who is reading the books that are sold. This is a particular issue with books compared to newspapers and magazines, because they are often bought as gifts and may not be read at all, or the reader may become bored and stop reading before the ad (instead of skipping to the next article, with newspapers and magazines), or may be bought by people like me who for non-fiction titles often have no intention of reading cover-to-cover, but instead only reading those parts that particularly interest me.

And there is the added issue of when the book will be read. A lot of advertising is time-contingent, alerting consumers to short-time price shifts or to the many goods (including books) that have relatively short shelf-lives. So even if all the other obstacles to advertising in books could be overcome, the fact that there will usually be months and possibly be years between the ad being placed and being read, only goods or services that don’t change much, or non-specific brand promotion, would be suitable candidates for book advertising.

Joshua’s post notes a few instances in which there have been ads in books. It’s not surprising that somebody has tried this idea, but nor is it surprising that it hasn’t caught on. For the above reasons, it’s not likely to be a strong competitor for the advertiser’s dollar.


Written by Admin

March 26, 2006 at 7:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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