Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border

Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border
photo by Gene Tunick of Eureka, Montana

Monday, September 17, 2012

Tip O'Day #396 - Ads in eBooks

You’ve probably heard of today's guest blogger, bestseller Scott Nicholson – my Kindle is full of his books – who provided the following update of an article he wrote in December 2010. He says, “Amazingly, I finally made a prediction that came close to the mark… I’ve gotten out of the ‘writer babble’ business for two reasons: (1) I don’t know as much as I thought I did, and (2) it’s all changing so fast that even the boldest predictions of digital evolution quickly become laughable.”

I don’t even use traditional publishing as a reference point anymore, because that is so far removed from most writers’ realities that it may as well be Shangri-la or Hollywood. The indie vs. trad debate is now only meaningful for a small group of people, and they are all making way more money than you or me.

So you are in it, and if you are lucky, you made a nice little nest egg back when everyone was standing on the sidelines deciding whether indie was the way to go. Hopefully, you shook off the intellectual shackles that chained us to the agent speed-dating sessions at writing conferences and were hammered and locked into place by “publishing experts” with 20-year writing careers in the old system. You know the mantras: “Get an agent,” “Only hacks self-publish,” and “You can’t produce and distribute a book without the advice of publishing experts.” Basically, ego affirmation. Of course the experts didn’t want to lose their position of authority (and in the agents’ case, the intermediary status of being the first in line to get checks.)

But the gate was left open and the horses all got out of the barn, or something like that (come up with your own gatekeeper metaphor; I am writing this for free!). So now we have a market where the 99-cent eBook had a year’s run, and the pool was finally beginning to find stratification (crappy books sinking, good books nailing stable plateaus) when Amazon unleashed the latest version of indie roulette — the free eBook.

I'm on record as predicting the flat-text eBook era has an outside range of five years, at least for fiction — specialized non-fiction and manuals will continue to be valuable for their content alone. I believe eBook sales will continue, but certainly not with expanding profits for all involved. Now that there are thousands of free Kindle books available every single day, how long before readers come to expect and even demand free books exclusively?

That’s not even considering the impact of lending libraries, public libraries, and subscription services, which will soon create a Netflix type of system for most eBooks. Under such a scenario, it’s difficult to see the average book being worth more than a nickel a download.

Freebie roulette. Great for readers. Good for Amazon (maybe in the short term, but it is hard to figure the long term). Terrible for authors. At least for those authors who aren’t prepared for the future and the cataclysmic changes that will inevitably unfold.

The market is diverse enough to support many different price tiers, but writers who want to survive in 2015 will need to make money from free books, or they will soon quit writing.

I only see one outcome: ad-supported or sponsored books. At first blush, you'd think NY has an advantage, since Madison Avenue is right there. But can corporations, with their large structures, be able to compete when indie or smaller entities can react more quickly to present conditions instead of protecting some imagined status quo?

J.K. Rowling can inspire a Pottermore built around her brand, and James Patterson, Tom Clancy, and Clive Cussler have already built factories around their names (and, yes, V.C. Andrews, you can roll over in your grave two or three more times for all I care, because this is all your fault). But most of us are not factories or we wouldn’t have to indie publish.

This points out the new era of the branded writer. And not just "writer," but "content creator" and even mere "idea marketer." A personality is more suited to building brand identification and audience than a publisher is. I say "James Patterson" and you get an image. I say "Random House" and what do you get? Randomness. We've seen it here locally: "Ray's Weather" is where you check the weather and "Todd's Calendar" is where you click to find what's happening in the region — and both are ad supported. You can get the free content elsewhere but you don't get the human personality attached.

I'm already experimenting with the ad model because I believe it is viable. I am counting on Idea Marketing being one of my foundational pillars. I am not quite sure what it all looks like right now, but I look at it this way — you don't need NY in order to give away tons of free eBooks or to spread an idea or to build a social platform. You are the idea you want to spread.

Other authors will say “I’ll never sell out.” (Ironically, those are usually the authors who have given most of their incomes to agents and publishers…) I don't blame people for sticking with what worked in the past. It all goes to how invested you are in a certain system and how the alternative looks, and, of course, the turf where you’ve staked out your ego. Publishing-industry talk on eBooks uses phrases like "managing risk" and "cautious adaptation." That is why those of us in the trenches knew Barnes & Noble was in serious trouble when most in the “publishing industry” only realized it recently when BN’s horrifyingly bad third-quarter reports came in. They are working off of old data while I work off the data I got an hour ago.

And my data says this may be the very peak of the Golden Age of digital publishing. The $9.99 novel may be dead this year, since three-quarters of the current bestsellers are low-priced indie books. As fast as major publishers yank their name-brand authors out of digital libraries, ten new indies cram into that virtual shelf space. Maybe forever. James Patterson’s factory can’t run on $2.99 eBooks, but mine can.

But what happens when the $2.99 and 99 cents drop to permanently free? Where’s your sponsor? Are you willing to go there? It's not going to be as clumsy as an image of a refreshing Bud Lite popping up when the main character enters a bar (though it's not unthinkable at some point). Can you see Jack Reacher with a favorite brand of soft drink, or Bella Swan wearing only Calvin Klein? At what point is your willing suspension of disbelief shattered? At what point do you realize the ad is the only reason the book can exist at all?

My informal polling on ad-supported eBooks yields statements like: "I'll quit reading before I put up with that." I also remember saying I'd never carry a cell phone, or be on Facebook, or give up my vinyl albums, or start thinking that maybe nuclear energy is the best short-range answer to our energy addiction. Or that I’d ever read an entire book on a screen. And it really doesn’t matter what our individual opinions are. Free books are here, and Amazon is already using sponsorships to lower Kindle prices. The future has already arrived and we just don’t recognize it yet.

I don’t know the answer, but I am deeply invested in the question. So, ads in eBooks. As readers and writers, what is your opinion?

Scott Nicholson says he’s the bestselling author of “a bunch of books” and also released The Indie Journey: Secrets to Writing Success, found here, because some people still think you can buy the secret instead of be the secret. Follow him on Facebook, his blog, Twitter, his website, or Scott's newsletter.


  1. I think it would stratify indie publishing in the way that publishing houses stratified their authors. I.e., who's going to be successful? James Patterson gets an ad from Coke, not because his characters drink Coke, but because the ad gets embedded in the book and he sells a million copies, but Mark Terry or someone else, if they're lucky at all, gets an ad by the local Hardware store that pays maybe $100 because, well, they're local, and Mark Terry doesn't sell that many books local (or that many books nationally, for that matter).

    I have suspected the free book thing is a double-edged sword, and every indication is that Amazon is constantly changing their algorithms so the responses are different. In August I put my novel THE DEVIL'S PITCHFORK up for free for 24 hours and downloaded over 8500 copies. As a friend of mine commented, a year or so ago those numbers would have really affected my other books significantly as well as Pitchfork. Well, they affected them, but I'm not sure if "significantly" is the right word. He pointed out their algorithms changed. It's an interesting experiment for me, but I'm not really sure how useful the Free book thing is ultimately - i.e., in the long run.

    I note that my own Kindle has quite a few "free" books on it by people I wanted to try, but I haven't gotten around to reading most of them. And I'm more skeptical now, simply saying, "Really, are you going to download it just because it's free or because you're actually going to read it."

  2. Yes, Mark, 4,000-plus free ebooks every day will generally make free ebooks worth less. So it's not just the market algorithms, it's that several hundred thousand books have been free at one time or another. A complex problem.

  3. I have been saying this for years. And did it again for those who haven't caught up:

    The Ad-Filled Vision Of Jeff Bezos