A new startup is currently developing a new platform where users will be able to read for free in exchange for viewing adverts.
Dubbed Eleven, the service will be launching into beta later this year, starting with Android. It's going to feature ads inserted at chapter breaks, and will use the funds to pay authors.
Edit: this service is now called Inara, and it is going to launch in September 2017.
According to Eleven co-founder and CEO Glenn A McCreedy, Eleven's "Story Driven Advertising system uses proprietary algorithms to contextually match the ads to the ebook story and the reader profile" while still preserving the reading experience. He told me by email that Eleven is "ramping up for a crowdfunding campaign to start in the March/April timeframe", and in the mean time authors and readers are invited to sign up to be notified of the launch.
Many details are still up in the air at this time, but I can add that rather than a completely free service, Eleven will offer three service tiers: Free, Gold, and Writer.
The Free tier will be ad-subsidized (and the writer tier is aimed at authors), but at the Gold tier "users pay a small monthly subscription fee to have access to an even larger library of books, with fewer ads AND the private buyers club where they can buy the newest titles with no ads available for a lower price than anywhere else online".
It sounds like Eleven is hedging its bets, and given the history of ads in books they would be wise to do so. Ads in books are not a new idea; they're not even a new idea when it comes to ebooks, and their checkered casts a dark shadow over Eleven's future.
The ad-subsidized ebook model has been tried several times over the past decade, and so far none of the efforts can be called a roaring success.
There's Readfy, a German startup which is letting users read for free from a catalog of some 50,000 (German-language) titles in exchange for viewing adverts. It's too early to call Readfy a success, but it is at least making enough progress to last month.
Bookboon is a publisher that started with a model similar to Readfy. You could download one of their ebooks as a PDF for free, so long as you did not mind the advert on every other page.
The publisher touted some success with this model (55 million downloads in 2013), but ads alone apparently weren't enough to sustain the company. It later expanded into selling the ebooks outright and charging $4 a month for access to its catalog (Bookboon Premium).
And then there is Wowio, a startup which tried the ad-subsidized ebook idea twice. The first time around it offered Bookboon-like free downloads, and then in 2014 when it announced plans for Readfy-like free access to a catalog of ebooks.
It's hard to say whether either model worked out for Wowio, although it did boast of paying half a million dollars in royalties in the 4th quarter of 2007. In fact, it's hard to say anything about the company given that it vanished into the ether some time last year, but I think it's worth noting that its biggest success was a time before ebook sales had really taken off. Consumers may have lost interest once the Kindle Store became popular.
(Attempts to contact Wowio and its founder failed.)
All in all, perhaps the only successful example of ad-subsidized ebooks would be Amazon, which is using adverts to subsidize the cost of Kindle ereaders and Fire tablets.
That's not a ringing endorsement for the practice of subsiding the price of the content, however, and the history of adverts in print books raises similar doubts.
Any discussion of ads in ebooks will inevitably lead to mentions of the historical presence of ads in print books. Examples date back as far as the 1850s, but the practice reached its peak in the US in the 1960s and 1970s when book publishers realized there was an opprotunity:
The story of paperback advertising started innocently enough: with babies, in fact. In 1958, the Madison Avenue adman Roy Benjamin founded the Quality Book Group, a consortium of the paperback industry heavyweights Bantam Books, Pocket Books and the New American Library. Despite the lofty name, the group’s real purpose was to sell advertisements in paperbacks, and its first target was the biggest success of them all: Dr. Benjamin Spock’s “Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care.” A 1959 Pocket Books print run of 500,000 included advertisements by Q-Tips, Carnation and Procter & Gamble. By 1963, a 26-page insert in Spock was commanding $6,500 to $7,500 per page, and ads were spreading into mysteries and other pulps as well.
The ads were popular with everyone but authors, who didn't appreciate being used to pitch tobacco products:
Publishers, on the other hand, were more than happy to take blood money from tobacco companies and put their ads in books taught in schools. Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye, for example, sported adverts from Lorillard Tobacco Company.
Another notable example was Dr Benjamin Spock, who sued S&S in 1973 for putting ads in his Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care. According to the NYTimes, Spock lost his suit, and the practice continued until The Authors Guild reportedly banned unauthorized ads in its model contract.
Ads in print books has been tried at least once since then, but for all intents and purposes the practice has been relegated to the scrap heap.
However, that detail is less important to today's news than the fact that ads in print books did not result in free print books. Sure, the publisher gained additional revenue, but the books weren't free to the consumer because, according to my sources, the ads just didn't generate that much revenue for the publisher.
And that brings us to a fundamental problem with any platform funded by adverts. Digital ads pay far less than print ads, so if the revenues from ads in print books were disappointing then the ads in ebooks will generate anemic revenues - at best.
Will Eleven succeed where others failed, do you think?
image by Andrew Mason