October 14, 2013

Ad-driven ebooks are worse—and closer—than you imagine


Car insurance ads in the middle of Flaubert? Seems like a natural fit.

Self-styled ‘forward thinkers’ love e-books. They love them. They want to marry them. They want to have grotesque half-digital babies with them and grow old with them and be buried beside them in a toxic e-waste grave.

But when a real futurist looks at e-books, the results can be decidedly less romantic. Charles Stross is not only one of the most celebrated science fiction writers in the game today, he’s also one of our great tech prognosticators, making predictions so rational and seemingly inevitable, you’ll almost forget that they’re terrifying.

In Frankfurt this past week, Stross took part in a loose collaboration with a few others—Dan Gillmor and Jane Friedman among them—to predict the future form of the book from creation to consumption. The standout piece in the entire project is Stross’ essay on the future of book discovery. Allow me to quote at length:

In the future, readers will not go in search of books to read. Feral books will stalk readers, sneak into their ebook libraries, and leap out to ambush them. Readers will have to beat books off with a baseball bat …

as the traditional verities of publishing erode beneath the fire-hose force of the book as fungible data, it is only a matter of time before advertising creeps into books, and then books become a vehicle for advertising. And by advertising, I mean spam. …

Authors, expecting a better reaction from the reading public than is perhaps justifiable in this age of plenty for all (and nothing for many) will eventually succumb to the urge to add malware to their ebooks in return for payment. The malware will target the readers’ ebook libraries. The act of reading an infected text will spread the payload, which will use its access to spread advertising extracts and favourable reviews throughout the reader communities. …

Finally, in extremis, feral spambooks will deploy probabilistic text generators seeded with the contents of your own ebook library to write a thousand vacuous and superficially attractive nuisance texts that at a distance resemble your preferred reading.

This is great stuff—the essay, not the spectre of ad-driven authorless ebooks clamoring for your attention—in part because the basis for it all already exists. This is not so much a “what if”, or even a “please don’t” but more of a “duck and cover.”

We do have more books available than ever before—certainly more than readers could ever need or support. And that’s before one takes into account the book-seeker’s bane, that insane ocean of ‘books’ that are simply scrapes of Wikipedia articles or Gutenberg Project files with a cover slapped on them, usually available in digital or print on demand editions.

And of course advertising in books is nothing new, or even really such an egregious notion. But when those ads are, essentially, demanding and connected and perhaps even—this would not be so impossible given the increasing integration in devices of cameras meant to trace where we’re looking—unavoidable, things could get pretty irritating in a hurry.

A few things might lessen the impact of the ebook adpocalypse Stross is predicting.

At the moment, most ebooks are read on Kindles, though Kindle apps, or to a much lesser extent through iTunes and Google Play. Each of these companies limit, for the moment, the amount of active code possible in an ebook. So long as most readers are getting their ebooks in these walled gardens (and only until these companies insist on inserting ads themselves) this might limit some of the most invasive malware ads.

Another potential mitigating factor: ebook ads, the passive kind and the fiercer bits of network-spamming malware, will be about as effective as they are now. That is to say, if you don’t find yourself wildly clicking away from a video on Youtube to buy as much as you can of the shampoo you just saw an ad spot for, if you tend not to take the advice of every twitter spambot that DMs you with hot new deals, then chances are ads in ebooks may not win you over any more easily. That won’t stop them from appearing, of course, but it’s satisfying to know that advertisers are spending money on nothing.

And lastly, maybe the worst case Stross points to (and I don’t doubt he could come up with much worse indeed)—malware scraping your library to generate the simulacra of a book you’d read, the better to serve you ad content and co-opt your device to feed out more malware—isn’t all that bad. An algorithm digesting and regurgitating near-books in an endless kaleidescopic not-library sounds, to me, more than a bit magnificent.



Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.