Advertising and books

Scott Karp has a long post today about books and advertising — as in, “can advertising in books be a business model?” — picking up a theme included in Tim O’Reilly’s post about eBook economics that I blogged about the other day.

Here are some quick points I’ll throw into this thread:

1. Many business books are themselves ads: Do I need to explain this? For many consultants, professional-speakers, celebrity pundits, etc., having a by-line on a book is a required prerequisite for “club” membership. Often, these books play some part in the revenue stream of the individual, but many times they are, at best, loss-leaders. Some book publishers have even gotten into the “booking” business to participate in the lucrative revenue streams associated with publishing — but that aren’t about selling books. Indeed, one of the most creative-marketing author-marketer-speakers I am aware of, Seth Godin (to use an example of someone who is familiar to lots of bloggers) often gives away eBooks because he knows they enhance his “brand” and will help generate revenue in other ways. While he can — and does — sell books in conventional ways (very successfully, as some of the books he has given away digitally have simultaneously become bestsellers in print), he demonstrates that books can also be ads (or, in his case, brand-building marketing tools).

2. The Whittle Larger Agenda Series: Thanks to the New York Times new “free-the-archives” policy, I can magically point back to some of their stories from the late 80s and early 90s about Chris Whittle’s success at single-sponsor advertising-supported books. The books were about 100 pages long — I have a few sitting in a library at home — and were sponsored by FedEx and others. They were distributed to about 150,000 “business leaders” and were written by such luminaries as John Kenneth Galbraith, David Halberstam, George Gilder, Edward Jay Epstein, Richard Holbrooke, Daniel Seligman, William Greider, Robert Waterman and James Atlas.

Before concluding the concept was not successful — as in, if it was successful, how come it’s no longer around? — I’ll point out that a lot of the ideas Whittle had in the late 80s and 90s were extremely successful — he just didn’t sustain that success because he was always onto the next great idea. The success of his ideas, however, is evident today by the explosion in custom publishing over the past two decades. It can also be seen in the number of Whittle alumni who are still having an impact in publishing and media. In other words, Whittle is to publishing what Tucker was to the automobile. (Obscure sidenote: Personally, however, I was always more a fan of Phillip Moffitt.)

3. Ads are ubiquitous, so why not in books?: When ads are in bathrooms, in the buckets used to place items when you are checking through airport security, in restaurant menus and before, after and during movies, why are books sacred? (Personally, I hate being bombarded by all this spam and will gladly pay a premium to keep from seeing it — but, alas, I seem to be in a minority.)

Later: 4. The book is a publishing format, not a business model: Upon reflection (i.e., driving into the office), this reminds me of a recent discussion in which the future of magazines and magazine business models was being debated (among friends) in which I noted the magazine format can fit into lots of different business models. The same goes for the printed book or eBook format, as well.