An Advertiser-Supported Publishing Model

Every day, close to a pound of newprint, much of it covered with four-color printing, is delivered to my doorstep – in one of the most inefficient and labor-intensive ways possible – for something like $0.25 USD. To produce it, scores of well-paid employees labor twenty-four hours a day.

Locally, the retail price of this daily wad of paper has increased just once in the last decade, and at least in some cases the per-day cost of long-term subscriptions has actually decreased.

That’s the newspaper, though. The rest of the publishing world hasn’t followed suit.

The principal cost of making a paperback book is the paper – a comparatively expensive commodity whose market forces ensure a steadily-increasing price. This is why the retail price of books has in the last decade risen from $5.99 to $6.99 to $7.99 for most mass-market titles, and even $8.99 or higher for some. Yet your daily newspaper contains far more paper than any but a Peter F. Hamilton paperback, and is one-sixteenth to one-thirty-second the price. Why?

The answer to that question is easy – your newspaper is (heavily!) subsidized by the advertising it contains. Newspapers aren’t the only form of media supported by advertising revenue – radio, television, most magazines, and many websites are as well. But books, which predate all these other types of media, and which used to contain advertising, don’t. Strange, isn’t it?

For some reason, advertising in books seems to have fallen out of favor in recent decades, but I wonder whether it isn’t time to reconsider the possibility. When you think about it, most paperbacks already contain ads – for the author’s, or publisher’s, other titles, usually – in the last few pages. That seems the logical, unobjectionable place to put unobtrusive ads – rather than, say, blank verso pages at the end of chapters.

Could advertising sales make a difference to the cost of books? If large enough, I suspect the answer is yes, and emphatically so. Let’s look at some numbers, shall we?

The local newspaper, the Pioneer Press, has a weekday circulation of around a half-million, and charges for weekday, black-and-white ads at around $200 per column inch. A full-page ad runs around $20,000, give or take.

That’s for a huge, (hopefully) eye-catching full-page single-color ad seen by a half-million people or so once, on one day, and then discarded. While everyone would doubtless like to advertise in books with half-million print runs, most paperbacks probably get published in numbers a tenth or less that size. Suppose you cut the price accordingly – $2,000 for a one-page ad in a paperback. Advertisers would snatch those up on a hurry – but it wouldn’t make much of a difference to the price of most books, if you have a reasonable (say, eight to twelve) number of pages of ads in it. Now, sixteen to twenty-four thousand extra dollars per title could help subsidize an awful lot of first novels, and there are probably no shortage of advertisers willing to take the gamble that a new author might become the “next big thing”, so this isn’t necessarily a completely bad idea.

Up the ad price a bit, though, and advertisers are getting rather less of a bargain, but still a pretty good deal, given the more permanent nature of books compared to newspapers. A newspaper ad is forgotten within forty-eight hours; an ad in a book will keep getting seen for years. Could publishers sell one-page paperback ads for $4,000 apiece? $5,000? I’m pretty confident they could, and you’re now talking about dollar figures significant enough to cut retail prices – not to newspaper levels, obviously, but certainly back down to what they were a decade ago, if not even less.

Sure, it smacks of welfare-state subsidization and all kinds of evil things like that, but everyone wins, don’t they? Advertisers get exposure to a large and captive audience, readers get to pay less for their books (and, one hopes, thus buy more books), publishers make more money, and are able to take chances on more new authors, who get the opportunity to get published outside the sucking black hole of vanity presses.

If anyone loses, it’s booksellers, who would likely be opposed to the idea for two reasons: One, making a percentage off each sale, they have a vested interest in keeping book prices trending upward. (Never mind that most bookstores make the vast majority of their money from hardcover sales – and the vast majority of that from, typically, less than a hundred titles per year.) Two, booksellers – the big market giants, like Borders, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Chapters – are likely candidates for advertisers, and it is far from inconceivable that the totalitarian egotists at B&N, for example, would throw giant screaming hissy fits if asked to sell books advertising their competitors. (Don’t bring logic into this; nothing B&N does makes much sense, and they’ve done things far more petty.) The few remaining independent bookstores might have similar qualms, as well.

If there are any authors reading this, I’m curious about something: Assuming you got the same advance, against the same (dollar-figure, not percentage of price) royalties – i.e. you wouldn’t lose money on the prospect – would you be bothered by six to eight pages of ads at the end of your paperback, if it meant your book sold for, say, $2 less? Assume your publisher has pretty strict standards as to who can advertise – no gambling or porn websites, for example, no pharmaceutical, cigarette or alcohol brands, or stuff like that, and that advertisers, recognizing the (relative) permanence of the medium, advertise mainly brands, not products. (Because, let’s face it, it’d be kind of weird to buy a book four years from now, finish it, and come to an ad for, oh, Call of Duty 4, or something like that.)

Me, I think it could work – and I also suspect it’s never going to happen, just because the publishing industry is too resistant to change…

Published in: Geekiness, General | on January 29th, 2008| 1 Comment »

Both comments and pings are currently closed.

One Comment

  1. On 12/1/2008 at 2:13 am Gene Cash Said:

    Old (10 years or more) science fiction paperbacks used to have ads for fan conventions in the back. I wonder why they stopped.

    I also can’t figure out why print-on-demand hasn’t taken off. Nothing pisses me off than a really good technical book like “Stages to Saturn” being out of print.