advertising is not the answer

advertising is not the answer

Go read a Web page. Who paid for it? Today, there are only three common answers:

For example, Eastgate Systems just paid an internet provider to send you this issue of HypertextNOW. (We do this because Eastgate knows that people who think seriously about hypertext are likely to read the hypertexts Eastgate publishes, and \ use the hypertext tools Eastgate designs.)

Advertising is wonderful for many things, but it is not now, nor is it likely to become, a useful economic support for serious writing or for the exchange of serious ideas. This is not because ads are intrusive or vulgar or distracting, but because serious ideas -- the kinds of ideas and creations that really matter -- aren't a good way to attract crowds.

Let's look at the numbers. Today, prime placement of an ad banner on a popular site can be bought with a phone call. Advertisers will pay about 2-8 cents for each viewer. So 10,000 readers is worth about $500. [This was in 1998, early in the net boom. Prices fell considerably after 2000.]

A vital new discovery in orthopedic surgery . . . will rarely attract as large a crowd as the Atlanta Braves or Oprah Winfrey or a naked lady.

Today, a decent print run for a first novel from a distinguished publisher might be 10,000 copies. That novel represents the culmination of years of practice, the crowning achievement of a young writer's career, a milestone many writers pursue in vain. A few hundred dollars seems a shabby reward to divide between the author, the editor, and the publisher. But even this is really a very optimistic case: most good novels don't sell 10,000 copies. The situation is even less attractive for the arts and sciences. A vital new discovery in orthopedic surgery or synthetic organic chemistry will rarely attract as large a crowd as the Atlanta Braves or Oprah Winfrey or a naked lady.

Is 2-8 cents per viewer too low? Probably not. That price range coincides with the cost of buying names from mailing lists. (Mailing lists cost a little more, but they are somewhat easier to target.)

What these numbers point to, and what any look at the communications industry will show, is that advertising supports information with broad appeal. Finely-crafted hypertext, on the other hand, excels at creating a dialog between individual readers and the text, at adapting itself to the specific needs of specific readers. Advertising is a poor fit for supporting serious writing.

Paying for what we read makes more sense than paying advertisers.

This should not be a surprise. Nor should it be a disappointment. Advertising-supported media, such as TV, give the illusion of something-for-nothing only by obscuring who ultimately pays for (and chooses) the content. Rather than selling her work to an advertising agency, or to the heterogenous mass of Web-surfers, a serious creator wants to gain the attention of a smaller, more specific, and (to her) more significant audience. Members of this audience, in turn, are willing to pay more than 2-8 cents for serious work that will interest, move, and reward them. Paying for what we read makes more sense than paying advertisers: it is more efficient, and gives individual writers and readers a chance to be heard.

If technology can be of any help in this arena, it is not by supporting serious work through a magical free lunch, courtesy of advertising. It is through allotting to writers (and, dare we say it, to editors?) a larger portion of what readers must pay, and allotting rather less to administrators, paper companies, and advertising agencies.

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Eastgate Systems, Inc. 134 Main Street, Watertown MA 02472 USA.

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