Branding and the written word

JA Konrath makes a point about advertising in a recent post of his incredibly informative blog, The Newbie’s Guide to Publishing.

It’s getting harder and harder to get picked up by an agent, become published, and make money at writing. While other forms of entertainment are getting cheaper, the cost of books goes up and up. We’re paying for the Big Publishing House, the editors, the printing, the distribution. Were I not a member of the Stephen King Library, I could not honestly say that I would own every hardcover of his works save for two, and I’m a rabid fan.

One of the arguments with product placement in novels is that the writer should be concerned with writing a good novel, rather than selling a product, and that a good novel will sell all by itself. We all know this is fluffy, PollyAnna, rose-colored thinking. While I agree with this in principle, in reality, many well-written novels never make a dime and what could be a successful, satisfying career in writing becomes a pipe dream or worse, a bitter memory. Books don’t sell themselves. It takes a connection with the work and the writer for a reader to be compelled to run out and purchase it. Becoming a successful writer takes more than just writing quality fiction – you need to sell it because no one else is doing it for you anymore.

Books don’t sell in a vacuum, and publishers don’t have, or won’t use, the marketing budget they used to.

I love to write. I also want to share what I do with the world. I’d like to make a living out of it, but it sounds like people expect me to do it for free. There are lots of professionals out there doing what they love – doctors for example – and they’re getting paid well for it. If you don’t think that what they’re doing doesn’t involve some product placement and endorsement, you clearly don’t understand how huge a business the medical industry is. Doctors get grants from pharmaceutical companies to conduct drug trials, hand out samples, write prescriptions. It’s still a business, even if the doctor loves what he does.

I think about athletes who have endorsements – Tiger Woods, for example. He drives a new Buick every year and practically breathes NikeOne. Aside from the clothing he wears and the commercials he appears in, he doesn’t discuss his endorsements. They affect his game in the sense that it’s the equipment he uses, but they don’t define him as an athlete. NASCAR drivers have stickers all over their vehicles and uniforms. It doesn’t affect the quality of their driving.

Why are writers and the public general so offended by the concept of product placement in novels when the same principle is used in movies and television shows? When you see an actress drinking coke in a movie, do you question her or the director’s artistic integrity? Do you wonder if a portion of the script rewritten to say,

INT. DINER – NIGHT
Maggie Mae takes a swig of her Coca Cola beverage.

Maggie
Now, that’s refreshing.

Maggie levels her rifle and blows away the zombie menace humming the Coca Cola jingle.

It doesn’t happen.

Sorry.

And if you don’t think product placement doesn’t affect your favorite actress when she’s not on screen, it shouldn’t matter who they wear on Oscar night or what items are in their swag bags at Sundance. The fact that you know what a swag bag *is* proves that. It does matter, because people actually care who’s wearing what. You may never be able to own a pair of earrings designed by Harry Winston, but you know who that is, don’t you. Product placement create buzz. Buzz creates demand. Welcome to advertising.

Question – for those of you who read but just sometimes – would you buy a paperback book that costs $2.99 instead of $8.99, even if it meant there were ads in the back, perhaps a coupon for a 2-liter beverage or maybe a discount at a restaurant, both featured in the book? Would you even care?

Look, some writers endorse products in their novels and they don’t get paid for it. Our characters wear a certain brand of clothing, drive a certain car, use a certain piece of equipment in their course of work, be it a 9mm Beretta or their Pilot G-2 .07mm pen. What they use is as much of a character as the character, and it helps the reader visualize it better. To be extremely general about it can sometimes be as obvious as not branding. One of the characters in Isle of Shadows wears a Dramamine bracelet, in fact brags about its effectiveness to his companion. Sure I could say motion-sickness wristbands, and people who write literature would nod approvingly, but if I could get an endorsement from Pfizer to offset the cost of the book, it would mean a less expensive book for you and a raise for me.

Part of me wonders something else – when we publish, it’s not just our name we’re selling, it’s also the publishing house. See that logo at the bottom of the spine – that’s not our logo. You ever not pick up a book because of who published it? That’s branding too, we’re selling our publishing house – we’re a sub-brand, an imprint of an imprint.

The world of Publishing is changing, unfortunately, Publishers aren’t changing with it. They spend less on getting their authors out there, so the writers have to depend on marketing themselves. Frankly, were it not for the stigma of self-publishing, we’d have no need for publishing houses at all. With dedicated friends, I have editors, and with POD companies like BookSource and Lulu, I have a print and distribution network. If I want it to sell, I have to line up readings and try to talk booksellers into carrying it. I’m already doing all of the work, and still I’m supposed depend on a publishing house to do … what, exactly? Add legitimacy to my work? Won’t readers who become fans do that for me? When an athlete on a basketball team, scores an endorsement but fails to perform on the court, he gets his contract bought out and traded to a new team.

When an author publishes a book through a big publishing house but fails to sell a certain number of units, the writer doesn’t get traded to a different publishing house. The writer gets dropped. Writers don’t have rally towel nights or bobblehead dolls. Book tours are long arduous affairs with cheap motels, bad food, and events where no one may show up at all. And somehow were supposed to feel grateful because we’re writers and we’re doing what we love.

I don’t think asking for a little endorsement assistance is too much to ask.

0 thoughts on “Branding and the written word

  1. I have to admit that it is hard to pay that kind of money on writers that I know nothing about. It is to costly now to take that risk and we’ve all been burned by luke warm writing. I won’t even pick up a book if the cover has poor artwork. If the publisher cares so little to package the book I don’t want to take a blind risk on the writing.
    However, I do really like buying books like the best scifi of 2006. At least then you can get a good sampling of writers out there and if you would like to read more of their work.

    Anything that makes the book available to the public is fine with me. I deal with advertising in mags, why would books be all that different?

    JDC

  2. Hi Monti,

    Thanks for an excellent post, and the link to Konrath’s site is very handy too! In fact, his April 4th entry addresses exactly the issue I’ve been musing over/stuck at over the last few days. Very timely!

    But as for product placement, I have no problems with it, as long as it’s germane to the plot. Obvious shilling takes me right out of the moment though, especially on film/television. Funny that you mention Stephen King, because in my opinion he handles brand-names in his stories very well. I think that perhaps in print it is easier to impose on the Reader, as he/she can allow it to intrude to whatever degree they desire, whereas on the Screen it is more “in-your-face” (which = “the height of rudeness” to me). Nothing more annoying than trying to follow spoken dialogue without being distracted by the oh-so-carefully spread fingers clutched around a Coke can so that their corporate logo can be seen. Ugh.

    *scratches “Coke” off the shopping list*

    Now that I think about it, product placement in writing seems to bring more depth and color to the scene, while on the Screen it is more of a distraction. But I suppose that showing recognizable name brands beats all of those generic-looking items that look too fake, and as you said, this provides more information about the character using them.

    While I wouldn’t buy an ad-compromised version of a book by Neil Gaiman or King, I would buy a book with ads on it by an unknown author I’d like to take a risk on, as long as I can remove them (say, by perforated tearout cards attached to the cover). However, I wouldn’t like it, no ma’am! But ANYTHING that will work to bring us new and interesting readers must be a good thing.

    Too many things to comment on, but your assessment is spot-on!

    Good luck in your endeavors 🙂

    ~PBS