Unless you’re living under a rock somewhere in the Outback, you’ll know that Facebook went public on 18 May, with an initial value of $104 bn (that’s a 104 followed by 9 zeros), putting owner Mark Zuckerberg in danger of becoming the richest man in the world. The reviews were mixed: I understand it had a weak opening, and the plot meandered a bit, but I don’t think Mark is worrying too much about that—he’s too busy trying to find a place to stash 104 billion dollars.
$104 billion! And for what?
Does Facebook produce anything? At the end of the working week can anyone in that company point to anything they did and say, “Look, we created that?” Are they providing an essential service, beneficial enough that people will pay for it? No. The only thing Facebook does is get 900 million people to look at it every day, and because so many people are looking at it, advertisers are willing to pay Facebook handsomely to slap ads on their pages.
That is all Facebook is, a vehicle for advertising; they have no intrinsic value and yet they are making billions. At least in Bill Gates’ case, what he produces allows people, like myself, to be more productive; software is still an intangible (you can’t take Excel out behind the barn, paint it red and set fire to it), but it provides a service valuable enough that people are willing to pay for the applications. Can you imagine MS-Word being distributed for free, supported by advertising that pops up periodically or is embedded in the header bar?
Unfortunately, I can, and I shudder.
I shudder because I wonder if books could go the same way. Might publishers soon become so desperate for revenue that they begin selling page space to advertisers? It seems a logical move: books are—to one way of thinking—just one step away from magazines, and magazines exist primarily because of the glossy ads that appear on practically every page. So the next bestselling novel is just an ad waiting to happen. Also, I think eBooks would be well-suited to something like this, as people are more used to navigating around ads when they are reading things electronically. Facebook, for example.
I’m not going to spend a lot of time worrying about this, mainly because I have enough on my plate as it is, but also because it is already happening. Some books already come with ads in them (I’m talking about product ads here, not ads for the author’s next book, which don’t count) and although I have not yet seen an ad in an eBook, that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Or that they won’t soon.
Would this be a bad thing, though?
(Thinks about it for 5 seconds)
To answer my own rhetorical question, I believe it would be bad: bad for writers, bad for readers, bad for society as a whole and good only for publishers who, in all likelihood, would not pass any of that goodness on. Despite any initial promises to the contrary, I’m sure publishers would consider advertising dollars to be additional revenue, not alternate revenue, so don’t believe them if they tell you that ads will allow them to sell books at a reduced rate. (Remember when cable TV came into being? The hype stated that, because you paid for the service, the channels would be commercial-free. How long did that last?)
As a reader, I would really object to leafing through ads while trying to read the latest thriller. And as a writer, I would feel that my work was being sullied for the sake of a few shekels, and as a book-lover in general, I would be horrified to think that any collections of literature passed down in history from this point forward would be punctuated by tawdry advertisements for breath mints, home owner’s insurance and/or condoms.
But, again, I’m not going to worry about it; they will do what they will do. It’s just that the power of advertising—via Facebook—got me thinking. I just hope it hasn’t got the publishers thinking.