Publishers Mix It Up with Advertising Online

July 5, 2007 | 2 min read

Using the words “advertising” and “books” in the same sentence seems to cause panic among fans of literature. Recall when Nigel Newton, chief executive of Bloomsbury Publishing, lashed out at Google Books for the “predation” of their “silly ads” over a year ago. In the intervening time, our favorite works of literature have not been overrun by ads, but some publishers, aware of the value of their Web presence, have begun to experiment with advertising, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The WSJ article takes Frommers.com as a case study. The travel imprint of John Wiley & Sons drew at least 728,000 unique visitors in May and, along with the Web sites for its Dummies do-it-yourself series and CliffsNotes educational books, brings in $10 million to $15 million annually.

For publishers of reference books, guides, and manuals, the compatibility with advertising is pretty obvious. After all, newspapers and magazines have loads of this sort of content – particularly in the form of reviews of films, music, restaurants, travel destinations, etc. – and they do quite well selling advertising against it. With loads of original content, there’s no reason why a site like Frommers.com shouldn’t experiment with making more of that content free to readers and ad supported.

Moving away from the more utilitarian publishing categories, however, the questions become a bit more challenging, a fact that I think is betrayed by the confused identity of many publisher Web sites. Typically they offer what seems to be a hybrid of a catalog and original content, though neither end up being terribly useful. On the Web, people want access to all the available information. Why would readers browse for a book on the HarperCollins Web site when they could go to Amazon or Google Books (or even the library) and see everything that’s available on a particular topic. Likewise, there is plenty of free, ad supported, quality original content available online from magazines and newspapers.

While selling ads against an excerpt from the latest Philip Roth novel is not likely to be a winning proposition (though the New Yorker manages just fine), publishers could ratchet up their original content offerings in order to promote their own products as well as to bring in ad revenue and highlight their brands.

Publishers have dabbled in this sort of thing before. Random House once had an online literary magazine called Boldtype, but cut it loose in 2003, and the site has enjoyed a second life as a part of the Flavorpill Network of sites. Bold Type in its current incarnation may not be the perfect model for publishers looking to create a new revenue stream on the Web, but the point for publishers to remember, I think, is that they are purveyors of content, and with a little creativity publishers could easily extend their expertise in this area to the Web.

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.

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