In which I am conflicted about weblog advertising

If you read this weblog regularly you know that I often post about how the industry is changing, and the additional burdens being placed on authors. Publishers have adopted a sink or swim approach: instead of publishing 100 novels and backing up each of them with real marketing and advertising, they publish 1,000 novels, provide little support for any of them, and watch to see what will sink and what will swim.

This is not so much a complaint as it is an observation. That is, I know that talking about this is not going to change anything. In fact, my guess would be that things are going to get worse. The whole industry is evolving and will continue to evolve in response to new technologies and the increasing cost of traditional book printing. How that will shake out in the end is anybody’s guess, and authors have no influence on the outcome.

The simple reality is that any midlist author has to take at least some responsibility for marketing, and in many cases, the whole burden falls on the author. This means hiring a publicist, or trying to handle things on your own. Buying advertising space in magazines, for example (very expensive and not very effective); arranging readings; providing online resources for readers. Forums, reading guides, excerpts, etc etc.

And then there is weblog advertising.

It seems a fairly straightforward thing: You can make money by putting ads for other people’s stuff onto your weblog or website, or you can spend money by placing ads for your stuff on other weblogs and websites. Google’s Adsense is probably the biggest and most organized approach to hosting ads to earn money, and Google AdWords is the opposite side of that coin: you go there to buy space on weblogs and websites to advertise what it is you are selling. Another example:

Blogads are ads that appear in blogs and other independent web sites. Each “strip” of Blogads is managed by an independent publisher who sets prices and decides which ads appear.

It seems straightforward, but it isn’t, simply because this is an industry in its infancy and things are volatile. And there is, of course, the issue of ethics. What does it mean to sell advertising space on a weblog? Are you responsible to your advertisers in any way? Does accepting money for ads compromise the content of the weblog in some way?

This is the question that bothers me and still, I do sometimes spend money to place ads on other websites. I don’t do this often, because I’m not convinced that it’s a good use of marketing dollars and also, because marketing dollars are precious. Most of my budget goes into giving away books — I spent close to $700 last year doing just that last year — which seems to me a pretty good way of getting the word out there and keeping readers interested. Certainly $700 in books goes a lot farther than $700 in ads.

If I buy advertising space on other weblogs, then I must be okay with the idea in general, right?

Not exactly. This is why I’m conflicted. I understand that people put time and effort into weblogs and would like some return, but I also am bothered by the way the whole process works. There are author weblogs and review weblogs that accept advertising (Making Light, Bookslut, Filthy Habits, Smart Bitches, and Beatrice are some examples.) Of these, I have
advertised twice, briefly, on Smart Bitches, who have reasonable rates. This seems to me a good place to invest my marketing dollars, because their readership is very, very large and pretty well targeted for my novels. Do they owe me any consideration, given the fact that I advertise with them? Absolutely not. Will other people see it that way? That’s the question.

The Smart Bitches make decisions about advertising based on the needs of their weblog, which is common sense and good business practice. They run ads primarily for new novels, but also for services such as book-rental companies. This strikes me as a conflict, for the simple reason that I’m not nuts about the idea of the ad for my book running next to an ad for a company that exists to take business away from libraries, and royalties away from me. But it’s my choice, in the end: I don’t have to spend the money to place an ad there. I could give away a couple pile o’ books, instead.

I don’t have ads on this weblog, because (1) it’s another layer of complication I don’t need; (2) I’d worry about conflict of interest; (3) it seems tacky. I wish I could come up with another word, but that’s the only one that fits. Unless a person’s sole income is derived from blogging or running a website, I am uneasy. If I go to an author’s website and find a lot of ads, my attention is not on the content of the website, but on the ads, and not in a way the advertiser would hope for. I wonder about connections that probably aren’t there — but I do wonder, and thus I’m not getting what the author was hoping I’d get from the weblog.

Do you notice ads on weblogs? How do you react when you do notice them? Do you have any reservations about ads? And, do you ever buy a book or a service based on such ads? I’m really curious about this, and would like to know what you think.