If a Web startup that went live in August succeeds, free ebooks may come to mean more than such hoary classics The Ancient Art of War, Paradise Lost, and The Odyssey. Unlike most free ebook packagers, WOWIO (http://www.wowio.com) offers modern, in-copyright works. Titles range from novels by Arthur C. Clarke and Kurt Vonnegut to William Stryon’s The Confessions of Nat Turner. Contemporary graphic novels and comics are also available, together with a number of out-of-copyright classics by writers such as Emily Dickenson and Jane Austen.
WOWIO downloads are provided to registered users as free PDF downloads, and are supported by full-page ads. Publishers share in the ad revenue, as do authors (though the amount that trickles down to a given author is likely to be miniscule, given the kinds of percentages specified in author contracts).
Most readers may find ads in a WOWIO ebook a bit startling the first few times. The ad pages in WOWIO ebooks are larger than the regular content pages; hence, when an ad comes up, it gives the impression of jumping on the screen. And the ads are in full color.
How many ads appear in a book? WOWIO founder William Lidwell says, “the goal is to keep it under a ratio of one ad page per three content pages. By comparison, many magazines have ratios as high as 1:1.” It doesn’t appear that the company has achieved the 3:1 ratio as yet; WOWIO versions of Player Piano and Cat’s Cradle contain six ads each.
Digital Rights Management (DRM) begins with positive identification of each downloader. WOWIO users are required to provide conventional identifying information (name, address, phone), and then positively verify their IDs with a credit card. Lidwell emphasizes that the credit card information is not retained, and no charges are made.
A unique identifying number is issued the user, and it is included on each page of every ebook the user downloads, along with the downloader’s name on the cover. Thus, if a WOWIO ebook is distributed, WOWIO or its publisher can go to the original downloader.
This “custom publishing” of ebooks goes beyond identifying the downloader. Ads included in an ebook are based on a demographics questionnaire that users fill out during signup. The company also provides a feature that allows users to filter potentially objectionable ads. Users do not receive ads for alcoholic beverages, gambling products and services, tobacco, or sexually-oriented products and services unless they that request ads in any or all of these categories be included in their books. Additional categories may be added in the future.
All titles are already available for sale as ebooks elsewhere, including Rosetta Books (http://www.rosettabooks.com).
WOWIO is not the only organization to bring ad-supported ebooks to the Web. A Minnesota company called Freeload Press http://www.freeloadpress.com offers free ebook versions of several dozen college textbooks in a variety of disciplines. The ebooks contain ads from companies such as Fedex Kinko’s and Total Recall Learning.
Students can also buy special ad-supported paperback versions of most texts from Freeload at substantial discounts over regular prices.
Of course, not every textbook students may need will be available from Freeload Press, and this likely to remain the case. But with textbooks averaging $90, most students will take anything they can get.
At least one attempt to subsidize textbooks with advertising preceded Freeload. In 2005 McGraw-Hill tested a program involving discounts on ebooks carrying ads. The program failed to generate enough interest to warrant continuing it. Ad-bearing ebooks might have been more attractive if they had been free. By the same token, hardcopy books with ads offered at discounts would probably have been more successful.
Also of note in the free ebook arena is the Baen Free Library (http://www.baen.com/library). Operated by science fiction and fantasy publisher Baen Books, the Baen Free Library has since 2000 made novels by noted writers such as Lois McMaster Bujold, Andre Norton, and David Drake available for download in multiple formats. The ebooks contain no advertising; the service is to promote the publisher’s titles and SF/fantasy in general.
Copyright © 2007, Michael A. Banks