Advertising Revenue For Book Publishers


I dropped Adsense from my FonerBooks website in 2011 in protest of their support of copyright infringements. Thanks to DMCA dashboard, it's gotten easier to combat infringements, so I'm reconsidering.

Back to 2010 I had written:

Foner Books earns a little over $25,000 a year from the Google Adsense program for publishers. It’s been fairly consistent over the past four years, with the total amount over $100,000. I don’t show Adsense ads on all of my pages, in fact, Adsense appeared on less than a quarter of the total page views my site attracted during this period. I’ve never tried running more than one ad block on a page, and I prioritize book marketing, sending potential customers to Amazon or selling eBooks direct, over generating advertising revenue. It seems to me that advertising on the top of the page works best when the audience is primarily interested in purchasing a product or a service, and that advertising at the bottom of the page works best when the audience is primarily interested in information, i.e., how-to material. I once worried about advertising making the site look spammy and reducing organic linking, but Adsense has come to be seen as a standard design feature for professional websites, and is a welcome addition for active shoppers.

The best feature of online advertising for Foner Books is that it allows us to earn something for our publishing efforts without having to sell a book or an eBook (we don’t sell subscriptions). It opens up a whole world of monetizing content on a chapter or article basis, and importantly, allows us to earn some return on research and time spent developing material for books that may never reach the publication stage for one reason or another. Traditional book publishing is a hugely inefficient enterprise, with a small number of “hits” paying for a large number of “misses”, but through the distinct economics of online advertising, the “misses” may earn more from advertising in the long run than some of the “hits” in print. For authors and publishers who follow the approach of publishing draft material online to generate feedback and gauge demand, early advertising revenue offers another metric to predict the ultimate commercial viability of the work.

So, given all of the upside to advertising, why do I bother with books or eBook at all? For starters, paper books remain my primary source of revenue. I earn more from my paper books printed through Lightning Source on demand than I do through eBooks, Adsense, Amazon Associates and special sales combined. Next, Google Adsense is essentially a black box for publishers. I don’t know how they choose the advertisers for my pages, how they decide on my share of the advertising revenue (the ads themselves are sold through the Adwords auction process), or what they have in mind for next month, much less next year. Book sales, while greatly dependent on my “partnerships” with Lightning Source and Amazon, neither of which would notice if Foner Books ceased to exist, are less dependent on Google. Direct eBook sales, the fastest growing share of my publishing revenue, are heavily dependent on Google as the main source of search traffic and potential eBook customers.

Advertising is a brilliant match for publishing, but as newspapers and many other publishers have learned, that doesn’t mean that the economic model that worked in the pre-Internet print world can be migrated online without serious modification. One reason publishers give for ignoring the potential of advertising revenue has nothing to do with economics and everything to do with snobbery. It’s the perception that serious book publishers shouldn’t sully themselves with advertising, which by definition, they assert, targets the great unwashed. Unfortunately, by holding back quality book content from the Internet, publishers are hurting themselves and the public. Perhaps one in a thousand of the people who read my work online buy a book from me, but many of the other nine-hundred and ninety nine find exactly what they need or learn that my books and writing approach don’t suit them, which is equally valuable. The individuals finding my website through search don’t glance at the page and say, “Oh, here’s another scam site where they’ve published tens of millions of pages about nothing to cash in on advertising.” Ironically, the reason that a large chunk of web searches lead to pages whose only content is automatically generated questions (without an answers) or top ten lists ground out by contract writers for a low hourly wage is because they don’t have any competition on those search queries.

Another argument book publishers make against online advertising is, “We tried that once and it didn’t work.” At the risk of creating more competition for myself, let me suggest that you try it again, and make a real effort this time. Experimenting with monetizing a high traffic website isn’t something you can leave to the intern or assign to the web design team, it has to be carried out by somebody with a business head and the authority to carry out large scale trials on the website. That person needs to be able to modify web pages without calling three meetings and writing an action plan for committee approval for each trial. It doesn’t take weeks or months to figure out whether advertising will work well with particular content, days or hours can be sufficient on a high traffic site. Just make sure the person in charge has hands-on experience with online advertising, even if it’s through a hobby site. If you need outside help, make sure you find a consultant who has experience with advertising on a publisher site where the primary goal remains selling the publisher’s books and media products.

Some publishers simply believe that their content won’t do well with advertising. I don’t know any way of determining that without systematically experimenting with an ad network like Adsense and its nearly infinite universe of advertisers. If all of your books are about getting through life with nothing but old newspapers and masking tape, there may be a limited number of advertisers interested in that content and they probably won’t pay very much. But you never know. A book about traveling overseas while dressed in newspapers may monetize well with ads for high fashion or mental health services while abroad. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the Adsense’s ability to find relevant products and services for even the most eclectic content on my website. Although the Foner Books advertising revenue is all brokered by Adsense, it’s diversified across a dozen topics within the site, the largest of which accounts for less than a third of the total.

Advertising alongside book content or professional journalism isn’t some get rich quick scheme based on shady search engine manipulation or requiring wholesale link generation. If your content is good, the search traffic side of the equation will largely take care of itself. Book publishers have a tremendous advantage over community websites and newspapers when it comes to advertising because they can be assured of generating a large portion of their visitors from people looking for information or products (also known as shopping), as opposed to people who are simply socializing or getting their daily fix of aggravation. The main question you’ll be faced with is whether you want to establish your own ad sales effort, or simply sign up with a network like Adsense, let them do all the heavy lifting and be satisfied with the results. If nothing else, take a look at your competition and see if they are monetizing any of their book content through advertising, because any incremental income they earn will directly impact your ability to compete with them in the print book world.


Anonymous said...

I am suprised, I had nver seen any Google Ads on your site. Where do you put them normally?

Morris Rosenthal said...


I don't run ads on pages that primarily draw regulars, such as the main page of the blog or the home page of the website. There's no reason to assume those people are returning over and over again because they are interested in the ads. And somebody just asked why I don't run ads on blog posts - I do, but because I'm a fanatic for tracking and use individual URL channels, it's a lot of manual work, and I haven't gotten around to it for a year or so.

Ads work well primarily with search visitors, and I never bought into the notion that you should try to maximize page views and show visitors as many ads as possible. My goal in web design has always been to present whole solutions or ideas on a page, not to run visitors in circles. I suspect a good proportion of ads work when they do a better job of addressing a search query than the content on the page. I think ad brevity is a large factor as well. Some people are just searching for quick answers, and they'd rather pay for them than get a free thousand word lecture from me:-)


Henry Baum said...

I poked around your site and couldn't find an ad. $25,000 is an amazing take. Care to link to one of the pages with ads? Curious how you do it.

Morris Rosenthal said...


Pointing out ads would be a violation of the Adsense terms of service.

Pretty impossible for you not to see one if you really looked around, they're on around a quarter of my page views.

I often put them at the bottom of the page, way below the fold. They are nothing special, the default simplest colors, etc.