I don’t have a Kindle with special offers & sponsored screensavers, so I don’t know how targeted are such offers or screensavers (read, ads). However, if Amazon isn’t personalizing their ads based on a person’s reading history already, then they must at least be planning to do that at some point.
Please sit down for this next bit, my readers. I think that targeted advertising on not only e-readers, but also e-books, could be a great thing. I know what you’re thinking (or at least I presume that I know), what kind of unethical person am I? Aren’t I betraying the library profession creed to even have thought such a thing? What about our sacred, inviolable privacy? Our privacy, for goodness sake! Am I also against motherhood and apple pies if I’m for personalized advertising?
I hope not! Frankly, however, I don’t find the idea of big websites collecting information about me and then using that information to try to sell me stuff that scary. Provided that the targeted ads they aim my way are not obnoxious, i.e. I can easily tune them out, I don’t feel that I’m worse off to have been offered some consumer goods. Moreover, since targeted advertising is usually coupled with free services (e.g. Facebook, Gmail) or reduced prices (Amazon special offer Kindles), I’m happy to have the opportunity to parlay my power as a potential consumer into lower prices/more services. Finally, I’d like us to keep in mind that the counterfactual to targeted ads is not no ads at all, but untargeted ads. Why wouldn’t I prefer to see products marketed to me that I may actually be interested in instead of, say, terrariums for my (nonexistent) pet snakes?
In case you’re still queasy about getting ads on your books, remember that you get previews with your movies & DVDs and commercial breaks with your TV shows. Even on NPR has commercial breaks, except that they’re called “messages from our sponsors”. The dearth of ads in books up until this point isn’t due to any perception of books as being sacred. Instead, it’s because when physical books were the only form books take, advertising in them was ineffectual. Books that are advertised in other books can go out of print before a consumer lays his his eyes on the ads. This “problem” has now been solved with the advent of e-books.
Such being my feelings on the subject, here’s my pitch for how advertising can be targeted for e-books. At the very least (the unconditional probability, a statistician would say), when a person buys a book, this book Library of Congress call number is mapped into some product, the ad for which can be displayed at the beginning or end of the book. (One “next page” click, and you won’t see the ad anymore.) How can this mapping be done? The mapping can be as simple as you think it is for some books. Reading travelogues? How about an ad from the business bureaus of those destinations? Self-help, cook books, or instructional manuals? How about a toolkit or the specials from a national grocery chain such as Safeway? Biographies? Something related to the person being written about, whether it’s his own writing, or an offer for a postcard from his home town? Obviously, some books will be more difficult than others, but nothing is insurmountable if a group of librarians and a marketing team get together.
The next step, should Amazon or Google Books, choose to take it (or if they haven’t already) is of course to condition the ad not only on the current purchase of the book, but also on other information about the purchaser previously gleaned. It can be a book purchasing history, a location, or other demographics. Getting queasy again? Remember that these companies already have this kind of information. This is information that you gave them: the address you gave to Amazon so it can mail you stuff, the history of books you purchased so they can be archived & accessed on the cloud. We’re only debating how this information can be used, and whether that usage can benefit us as the consumers. I think it can — an ad-supported e-books is likely to be cheaper than one without, just like NBC shows are cheaper than HBO, just like The Economist print edition is cheaper than its ad-free e-edition. Who knows? Maybe we can even get some of these e-books for free if we’re willing to click past not just one ad situated at the beginning but several of them dispersed throughout the book. If we prefer not to do that, there should be the option of buying the ad-free books, the equivalent of opting for HBO, or watching The Big Bang on DVD instead of while it’s being aired.
I believe that targeted advertisement on e-books expands the choice of the consumers. For any e-book reader, therefore, these ads should weakly increase their well-being. Anyone’s privacy, after all, is his own, and giving him the option to open up his private life in return for something is a choice he can make.