Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Product Placement in Books: Authors Selling Out?

I've just finished reading the Mindstar Trilogy by Peter F. Hamilton. Set mostly in and around Peterborough, England (and in orbit), the novels are Mindstar Rising, A Quantum Murder, and The Namo Flower. They are set in a post-global warming era in the not-too-distant future, and are excellent reads. The books are liberally seeded with fascinating ideas involving nanotechnology, society and politics, human-computer interfaces, biotechnology, and more. Though they're more than a decade old, they could just as well have been written this year.

So: the books have grand ideas, interesting characters, engaging setting, and fascinating events--but one thing really stood out in a somewhat jarring manner: the overuse of brand names. The names are mostly from the mid-1990s, when the books were written, which accounts for part of the jarring. There are some brand names that no longer exist, or which are unlikely to exist--like Rockwell hand weapons, Westland parawings, Bedford trucks, and etc. This is probably the result of exposure to a school of novel-writing that posits that the writer should use brand-names (in any fiction, not just SF) for verisimilitude. That's fine, but a little goes a long way.

All of which is not to criticize Hamilton so much as to a) recommend his work and b) introduce the subject of product placement in books.

Does it happen? Do writers accept money to have a character drink Coca-Cola rather than Royal Crown Cola? To drive a Kia rather than a Toyota? I don't believe it happens much. It's been going on in films for years; one of the most blatant instances was the menage of corporate brands on the sides of trailers towed by trucks rolling out west in E.T. And there's always been buzz over what kind of car James Bond would be driving in the next film. (Nothing beats the Aston-Martin DB-5, for my money.) And it has a long tradition in television (closing credits of My Three Sons: "Cars provided by the Chrysler Corporation.") But I have yet to meet a novelist who was paid to equip her protagonist with a Acer laptop or have her buy a ticket on Southwest Airlines.

Writers do that sort of thing on their own. If they like Fords, their characters drive Fords. A writer who drinks Lipton tea will have his hero dipping a Lipton tea bag in a cup of hot water. But, again, out of the many scores of published writers I know (from first-time novelists to repeat bestsellers), none have picked up money for flogging a product.

Non-fiction writers do better at this, though they don't get cash (unless they're writing a book about a product for the manufacturer), I received a new computer in exchange for offering to acknowledge the fact that I used it to write a particular book, in the book. The manufacturer went out of business before the book was published.) I've noted other writers crediting software and computer hardware in their computer books. But even that is rare. Otherwise, I might have scooped up some cash for talking about certain institutions and products in CROSLEY and eBay.

I think the reason that this happens so infrequently is that there are so many books (tens of thousands every year) that marketers would have to pay tiny amouts to get in every possible book. And books are not seen as having the same clout as television or film or popular Web sites. And many writers are so independent that they wouldn't agree to taking money (actually, most of those people wouldn't take such payment--or wouldn't admit it--for fear that their writer friends would accuse them of being phoney and selling out. And many of their writer friends would do just that--probably out of jealousy.)

But I'd take a thousand bucks to mention the ____ brand of ____ in my next book. Or, in my next three books for $2,250. It can't hurt.

Anyway, I'm interested in hearing from anyone who has been paid to include a certain brand in a novel, or as an example in a non-fiction book. Or anyone who knows of such a deal. I recall reading about the possibility of this in one of the news magazines a couple years ago, but if it happened I've forgotten it.

I'll be posting on a related topic, freebies for reviewers, magazine writers, and book authors, in a day or two. In the right fields, you get all sorts of free goodies. As I understand some bloggers do--which points to another interesting topic: bloggers selling promotional posts.
Copyright © 2007, Michael A. Banks

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