Publishers are in a quandry. How can they make money in tough times?

What if McDonalds gave ebooks away with a Happy Meal or Big Mac?

They would not need to give away files through the drive-through window. This would work like the Monopoly game with little pull-off tabs on the drinks, food boxes, fries, etc. On the tab there would be a code that would be entered at the McDonalds Web site. The code would entitle the tag holder to select from a group of ebooks. Happy Meal tags would lead to a list for kids. Big Macs another list. The list might vary from day to day or be modified on a weekly or monthly basis. Either way, McDonalds would be getting Web traffic, and a small amount of the cost of the Big Mac would go to pay a publisher or author. With “Billions and billons” sold, the potential income for publishers and authors could be significant over time.

Because the access is through a Web site, customers could even be given the opportunity to request titles. Imagine the impact on currently out-of-print titles, books that don’t make money for anybody, except for a few used book dealers.

The code could be randomized and time-limited in such a way that it could only be used once, avoiding unwanted “theft”.

The “inventory” cost would certainly be lower than the current cost for the little toys given out with a Happy Meal. Real cost would be the disk space and network charges incurred for delivering the ebook file.

The file would best be available in an e-reader agnostic format. I wouldn’t want McDonalds to need to sell or distribute a Ronald-McReader, though they might want to, come to think of it, especially for the kids’ books.

Maybe this is a chance for competition, too. If Burger King got behind some authors, with other authors for McDonalds and Wendy’s and Taco Bell and Ken’s Steak House and Arby’s and…you get the idea. Publishers could pit these retail giants against one another. “GET STEPHEN KING’S LATEST HERE!”, “WHERE’S WALDO?…WENDY’S, OF COURSE!” Maybe an author or agent could boost the per copy price to the author that way.

Is fast food even the “best” choice for doing publishing sponsorship? All you need is a company willing to pay for the right to distribute copies of ebooks. I’m not sure it would need to be an exclusive right. The method would drive traffic to a company’s Web site, for sure. Would romance novels be a hit with customers of Ralph Lauren or Victoria’s Secret? Teen authors at Hollister?

E-reader sales could really take off, too. The classic chicken and egg dilemma might be solved. Both are now on the menu at most fast food restaurants along with “the beef”.

Update (June 18, 2009) Just for the fun of it, I sent the suggestion to McDonalds through their Web site. The sent a reply (looked like boilerplate) saying they don’t acknowledge or accept suggestions from outside the restaurant system. It sounds like legal battles over ideas have happened before. But, hey, this is an open source/open education/open idea blog. Maybe McDonalds or somebody else will follow up on it anyway.