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Is the Last Ad-Free Medium in Jeopardy?

Posted by Barry Silverstein on December 15, 2010 11:30 AM

The online world has brought us the wonder of instant free global knowledge, but with it has come the reality that "free" really isn't. Often, advertising is the price the consumer pays for unfettered access to a vast wealth of information.

Now, it seems, that same principle is being tested with pretty much the last ad-free medium available — books. Publishers and authors have long resisted placing ads in printed books, but with the e-book market rapidly growing in acceptance, the publishing model not only might change; it is changing.

The Wall Street Journal reports that marketers are in the process of testing all manner of ads as e-books gain traction. The Journal cites the example of Wowio, a digital book store that gives away e-books because "our sponsors hope to earn your business by covering the costs of your books."

A current Wowio promotion offers a free e-version of Gulliver's Travels to customers of Fandango, one of the site's advertisers, tied to the theatrical release of the same name.

Similar to an online video with pre-roll and mid-stream ad insertion, Wowio sells e-books with three pages of ads: at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of an e-book. The WSJ says Wowio is "experimenting with techniques to insert ads between chapters and to target ads using profile information that users submit to its website."

Brian Altounian, Wowio's CEO, comments that "most readers will accept" advertising if it is designed to give access to valuable content — an argument used by the roughly 80% of online advertisers who use behavioral targeting, which the FTC is trying to control in the US through a Do Not Track service for consumers

Still, don't expect the majority of e-books to be peppered with ads anytime soon. It is unlikely ads will appear "without author approval," says Random House spokesman Stuart Applebaum. "It would be an unpleasant distraction in the middle of a narrative. This is going to be a lot more complicated than putting an ad at the back of a paperback." It may also open a new line of warfare between digi-tetchy authors and publishers: revenue-sharing.

Brand marketers are watching closely to see if big advertisers are willing to pay for the privilege of reaching thousands of readers rather than millions of online consumers, and how messaging is being targeted to specific readers.

These days, after all, marketing is all about targeting the right person with the right message at the right time. If a reader can be coaxed (or incentivized) to look at and respond to a relevant ad in an e-book, that may make this emerging medium a cost-effective way to reach prospective buyers.

The possible coalescence of literature and marketing is something to watch as e-books sales continue to take off this holiday season.

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