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Ad-Supported Free Books Arrive
Posted On February 13, 2006
Perhaps information really does want to be free. Citing the desire to create new revenue streams for authors, mega-publisher HarperCollins ( has announced the first free Web-based, ad-supported, full-text business book. Go It Alone! The Secret to Building a Successful Business on Your Own by Bruce Judson is now available on the author's Web site (, where an affiliate link to Amazon, not the publisher, can also be found. Not only can the book be read at the site, but it can also be searched. HarperCollins Publishers is calling the project a test of a new business model. Some self-published authors also offer ad-supported books online, but HarperCollins' move is the first by a major publisher.

For now, the project is limited to the one book, with publisher and author sharing the advertising revenue. The author's contract was specially amended to accommodate the arrangement. Company spokesperson Erin Crum said: "We are exploring how online advertising programs can add value for publishers and authors. The results will be measured by the income generated through ads, number of page views and visitors to the site, and by sales of books from the site. If successful, this kind of digital product might be a new format that supplements the paperback edition."  

In December 2005, HarperCollins announced that, in order to control its own assets, it would work to create a digital warehouse for its books as a basis for offering content to consumers in new ways with a variety of partners. That its first partner is one of its own authors says much about the company's intention to live up to its own PR. Author Bruce Judson is, appropriately, an expert in Internet marketing and contextual advertising, a senior faculty fellow at the Yale School of Management, and a successful, award-winning entrepreneur. His book was published in hardcover in 2004 and was named one of the best business books of the year by Library Journal. The paperback was recently released.

HarperCollins has previously indicated the desire to control its own digital assets rather than let others scan and store them. (Until now, the company has sent its books to others for digitizing, such as Amazon, which produces Search Inside the Book pages for its online bookstore.) Nevertheless, Go It Alone! is hosted not on HarperCollins' servers but on the author's, which are under the control of a Web site company. The company says that they will evaluate where future free books should be served from on a case-by-case basis.

As Web users have embraced the idea that "information wants to be free" and have resisted paying for digital content, businesses and even individuals with Web sites have increasingly migrated to the ad-supported model. But not book publishers. A few specialized publishers and aggregators, such as technical book publisher O'Reilly and business book aggregator Books 24x7, have been offering digital books on a subscription basis. Publishers of consumer books, however, fear that putting their books online will expose them to piracy and have enlisted their trade organization, the Association of American Publishers (AAP), to sue search company Google to prevent that from happening.

On Judson's site, the book, displayed in HTML rather than as a PDF, is flanked by clickable Yahoo! text ads. Because the content of these contextual ads reflects that of the page on which they appear, some of them may not be attractive to readers. For example, in Chapter 9, "Lessons from Some Inventive Companies," ads for medical devices, blood glucose test strips, and similar medical supplies appear because the author presents a test case involving a medical device company. However, Chapter 8, "Managing Extreme Outsourcing," presents ads sponsored by companies offering outsourcing services.

The navigation is unsophisticated. There is a clickable table of contents, but one can only scroll forward and back in a chapter one page at a time and there is no way to get back to the table of contents directly. Each page includes just a couple hundred words, so it's not easy to print the whole book. There is an index, but it isn't clickable.

Even though Google has popularized contextual ads on the Web, many books displayed through Google Book Search are not surrounded by ads. There are, however, links to stores where the books can be purchased. Where ads appear on Google, publishers share in the revenue, although exact proportions and amounts are kept secret. It is not yet known whether Microsoft's pending MSN Book Search will include ads. Some authors have been up in arms about the idea that others may make money from their works. The Authors Guild, which represents 8,000 writers, is suing Google to stop the giant from digitizing copyrighted books held in major libraries without explicit permission from rights holders.

Ad-supported digital books spark the same fears in publishers and authors as other types of digital content. If they are pirated and widely distributed without the ads, revenue will be lost. Go It Alone! is unlikely to meet this fate because of its odd formatting, which will discourage copying. Yet it is difficult to see whether this one experiment will yield results that can be extrapolated widely.

Paula Berinstein is publishing trends columnist for Searcher and producer/host of the podcast The Writing Show.

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