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Selling Out Takes a Lot of Bottle
by Bill Fitzhugh

If, in the final accounting, I am remembered for nothing else, at least I will be remembered for being the man who ruined literature once and for all. Of course there are those who will argue Jackie Collins beat me to this claim long ago -- and she may in fact have won in the distaff category -- but according to more than a few folks over here, I am the winner. So if you’re looking for some way into the record books, look elsewhere. I’ve beaten you to this one. The ruination of the literary form known as the novel has been laid at my feet, so bugger off -- this one’s mine.

How did I do it? Simple. I became the first novelist to use product placement in a work of fiction. Product placement, for you literary purists, is a form of advertising previously restricted to the famously whorish mediums of television and film. One of the earliest and most famous examples of product placement was in Steven Spielberg’s 1982 film E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.

The way I understand it, the script originally called for the kids in the story to use M&M candies to lure the wrinkled little space guest into their home. However when the producers contacted the candy maker and suggested they pay for the privilege of having their product featured in the film the candy maker balked. So the producers contacted the makers of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and asked if they would be interested. They were and sales of Reese’s soared when the film was released. Ever since then film makers and advertisers have expanded this unholy alliance to the point where product placement is all but required in Hollywood movies. When MI-6 gives James Bond a BMW you can rest assured somebody gave one to the film’s producer as well.

Flash forward sixteen years. I’m in the throes of writing Cross Dressing, a satire on religion and advertising. My research has me neck deep in obscure Catholic theology and modern advertising theory when (finally) a thought occurs to me. Sadly it wasn’t an idea about character development or an ingenious plot twist. Rather it was about how to get a little publicity when the book is released.

Now you may ask why such crass considerations would ever cross my mind. The answer is, again, simple. I’m in the business of writing books. Unfortunately it’s not enough just to write them, they must be marketed as well. And, in the U.S. at least, publishers aren’t famous for how well they market the books of their mid-list authors. Without marketing, fewer people know about your book. When fewer people know about your book, fewer buy it. When fewer people buy your book, you’ll soon be looking for a new publishing contract. Thus the crass consideration.

Before my first novel (Pest Control) was published I asked my agent what sort of publicity campaign the publisher would do for it. He said they would send copies to reviewers and hope for the best. Fortunately debut novels are considered ‘newsworthy,’ especially when they sell to a major Hollywood studio as Pest Control did, thus the book received a fair amount of attention in the press.

When my second book, The Organ Grinders, was about to be published I was told to lower my expectations about press coverage. As my U.S. publicist explained, "Author publishes second novel" isn’t considered a newsworthy item. Absent an ‘angle’ I was told, it was nigh unto impossible to get PR for any novel not written by a best-selling author.

So I was left to my own devices to find an ‘angle’ for Cross Dressing. As I said, it came to me while writing. Since my protagonist is a hot shot in the advertising business and since much of the book is a satire about American hyper-consumerism, I thought it would be considered ‘newsworthy’ (and ironic) if I made Cross Dressing the first novel to feature product placement.

My U.S. editor the idea but said I would have to make the deal as they didn’t have a clue where to start. After a few quick calls I had a list of companies interested in helping to make literary history. For reasons of artistic integrity and pure laziness I wanted a product that was already in the book. I felt this strategy would shield me from accusations of writing to accommodate a "sponsor" while simultaneously saving me the trouble of writing any new pages.

The novel doesn’t feature anyone enjoying fast food or applying cosmetics, but there were a few scenes involving cocktails. Then another idea hit me. I had sold the book’s film rights to Universal Studios. Universal (at the time) was owned by Seagrams. Two calls resulted in a deal wherein I would replace generic references to drinks with Seagrams’ products.

Now, before all this happened, I was under the impression that money changed hands in a product placement deal. Since I was doing this for publicity, not cash, I thought I might do the deal for a single dollar, or I would donate the money to a charity. However, when I discovered the deals were typically done in exchange for the "placed" product (in this instance, hooch) I had to reevaluate my position. It would be more than a little insensitive to send a couple of cases of single malt scotch to the Diseased Liver Association, am I right? So I accepted (and disposed of) them in my own selfless way.

Just before the book came out, my publisher sent copies of Cross Dressing to magazines and newspapers, with letters explaining the product placement deal in the hopes of generating some publicity. It worked. Brill’s Content and Publisher’s Weekly did articles on the deal. Time Magazine and Entertainment Weekly both made mention of it as well.

The only problem was, no one seemed to get the joke. It was clear from the articles that certain people in the book world were taking exception to the deal. The gist of what they’re saying was that I had cheapened either literature in general, or the novel form in particular.

For example, in Sean Gullette’s article for Brill’s Content (June 2000) Jonathan Galassi, editor-in-chief at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux is quoted as saying, "Well, I think it’s pretty lame."

Well, imagine my shame. Such a stinging indictment was hard to swallow, but what really bothered me was that poor Johnny Boy just didn’t get it. And he wasn’t alone. Since so many are having a problem getting this, allow me to explain.

Cross Dressing lampoons the advertising industry. To so something as brazen as product placement in something as sacred as a novel is to make a joke on the subject. Now, had I done a product placement deal in a book that had nothing to do with advertising, that would have been selling out. As I said earlier, if I’d had to add drinking scenes to the book to accommodate the product, that, too, would have been selling out. But what I did was to name the drinks that were already in the book -- in fact the names are so overstated in ad-speak as to be a joke. Get it? In a book ridiculing advertising? Ta-da! Irony.

While I had anticipated a mild backlash to the deal, it never occurred to me anyone would attack it so viciously. I mean the notion that my product placement deal could harm literature in some way my novels haven’t already done is just plain silly. As if by this time next year, E. Annie Proulx will be revising her latest manuscript to oblige a corporate sponsor, substituting a nicely placed scene involving the ‘new condom for cowboys’ at the expense of mood or real character development.

"But Bill," someone cried, "doesn’t this deal fundamentally cheapen the novel as a form of literature? No, of course not. You want to know what does? The pitiful advances so many novelists get. That’s what cheapens the novel. But me? I lack the influence, thank you very much.

Still, there are some tut-tutting critics who are saying I crossed a line no one else had dared before. As if there are thousands of authors out there who had considered doing a product placement deal for their novel but decided the whole transaction would sully literature and, thus, in defense of the Muses they decided not to do it.

Pu-leeze. All I can say is, that’s pretty lame.

[For full details on the product placement deal, see the June 2000 issue of Brill’s Content. For less than full details on the deal, see the March 24, 2000 issue of Entertainment Weekly or the May 1, 2000 issue of Time magazine.]

Article originally appeared in The Guardian, Monday, November 6, 2000.  Reprinted with permission.

Visit Bill's terrific website at http://billfitzhugh.com

 

 

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