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Coming Soon: Product Placement in E-Books?

By Hannah Johnson

Last week, we wrote about an article in the Wall Street Journal in which Ron Adner and William Vincent argued fthat advertising could be the next step in the evolution of e-books, earning publishers some extra cash while they wait for e-book usage to hit a critical mass that will return more profit.

Paul Carr of Techcrunch also wrote about this WSJ article, but he had a different reaction. While acknowledging the arguments from avid readers of fiction and literature that advertising would interrupt the absorbing world that a book of fiction creates, Carr says there is something far more dangerous for the state of literature than advertising in e-books: product placement.

Thanks to leaps forward in technology, P&G’s ‘Lipslicks’ placement could be limited to, say, 10,000 reads of the book, after which the character suddenly starts wearing something different — either a newer Cover Girl sub-brand, or perhaps something from a rival manufacturer. Whoever makes the highest bid defines the character for the next batch of readers.

Since Ian Fleming defined James Bond by the Rolex on his wrist, many of our most popular literary heroes have been characterised as much by the products they use as by the lines they say. Once those key traits are perpetually being altered at the whim of the highest bidder -– a prospect that technology has made very real indeed — well, that’s when the misty-eyed defenders of old media will really have something to write about.

Carr also argues that the technology of placing ads in e-books is not a hindrance so much as the “armies of ad sales people” publishers would have to hire. These sales people would actually have to read all the books they are selling against, in order to know which ads would be relevant. They would also have to guess who was reading these books in order to target ads at a specific demographic. Carr says both of those things are unlikely to happen.

So what is the answer? Is there a future for advertising, product placement or any kind of branding or promotion in books?

Perhaps the “armies of ad sales people” won’t work for the publishers but rather for an advertising platform built just for e-books. Representatives from the platform are the ones who liaise between advertisers and publishers to place the right ads with the right books, and of course take a hefty chunk of the money paid by the advertisers. And I wouldn’t be surprised if such an ad platform was owned by Amazon or Apple, companies with enough money to start such a project and enough clout to negotiate a good deal for themselves.

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