Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Writing the Bestsell-out?

from James

A very recent young adult novel (which I have not read, and which is not important for this blog, so I am not going to mention it) has sparked considerable debate about product placement in novels. According to Publishers Weekly, the novel helps to promote a cosmetics product that is popular with young girls, and the cosmetics company has thrown some serious marketing dollars behind the book. The author is reportedly very excited about the arrangement.

We’ve seen it for years in movies—the soda can on the table, the billboard in the background, the logos on the shirts. It’s all over reality television (do Simon, Paula and that other guy on American Idol ever really drink from those Coke glasses that are fixtures on the table in front of them?)

But books?

Books certainly have the power to sell products. It’s been over a decade since I read Grisham’s novel The Firm, but I can’t even mention that book without craving a Red Stripe beer. Of course, Grisham didn’t take money to have his characters drink Red Stripe. It was all part of the Caribbean Island experience.

Occasionally I get e mails from readers who don’t seem to care if the author has taken money or not. Or, they assume that because an author mentions a product that he is in fact getting paid to mention it. I once had a reader tell me that he closed the book and would never by another one of my novels after reading in Chapter 2 that my character was drinking a Diet Coke. I should have written “diet soda.”

Let me say for the record that I’m against product placement in novels—at least to the extent that it means an author is getting paid to put it in the novel. But I’m not against mentioning products in novels. If I write that a guy got out of his car and put on his black jacket, does that tell the reader as much about the character as a guy who steps out of his Porsche and puts on his Armani jacket? Do you know as much about the character who got dressed and went shopping as the woman who put on her Chanel suit and didn’t even bother to check the price tags at Hermes?

And what about restaurants? I have lots of favorite ones in Miami, and from what I hear from readers, they like the local flavor. But for people who insist that my characters should drink only “diet soda,” do I have to make up nonexistent restaurants? Or is it OK to have Jack Swyteck like the same places in Miami that I like? Maybe a better question: If I go to that restaurant after the book comes out, is it unethical for me to accept a free glass of wine from the appreciative owner? A free meal? A 10% ownership interest in the establishment? (NOTE: I do always make up the restaurant if something bad happens there, like murder or heartburn).

There's also a humorous component to brand names. Dave Barry, for example, seems partial to Buicks, as in: The president spoke eloquently to a group of dignitaries, unaware of the fact that he had a booger hanging from his nose the size of a Buick. Is it really just as funny if it's the size of a "car"?

But maybe the reader who complained about Diet Coke had a point. There are many people who would probably argue that you can tell a lot about someone who drinks Diet Coke as opposed to Diet Pepsi, but maybe in some circumstances it’s enough to say “diet soda.” I don’t know the answer to that one. I do know, however, that if Pepsi or Coca Cola Company is paying me to have my characters drink their product, then my characters no longer have a life of their own. They are defined by forces outside the world in which they exist. And why would I want to screw up THAT world?

Red Stripe, anyone? Cheers.


  1. Jim,
    My characters drink what I drink. Luckily for them, I have wide-ranging tastes. Jake Lassiter guzzles Grolsch beer; Steve Solomon prefers Morimoto Soba Ale; Herbert Solomon is partial to Jack Daniels on the rocks. (Unlike Sinatra, he does not insist on four ice cubes, no more, no less).

    I'd be happy if any of those companies pulled a truck up to the house and dropped off a few cases for goodwill. Otherwise, they'll keep getting free plugs.

    I rely on Renee for descriptions of women's clothing. Otherwise, I'd foul up preparing Victoria Lord for court and dressing the SoBe models for sashaying down Ocean Drive.

    Only recently did I learn, for example, that "Mizrahi mules" were not a beast of burden in the mountains above Lake Como.


  2. I'm not a fan of generic descriptions like "diet soda." What makes a character interesting is the author's use of telling details, the more specific the better.

    Tucker Sinclair only drinks champagne. Dom Perignon are you listening?

  3. I agree that it's kind of a mixed bag. Sometimes it's better to have more detail and include a brand name, but other times I think it's just as relevant to your story to not include a brand name.

    Taking money to include it in your novel is just ridiculous though, I think having a character drink a Bud Light versus a Blue Moon just because Bud Light gave you money Definitely changes your character.

    I'm still a little shocked that this is even being considered? I guess I shouldn't be in this day and age... man, that made me sound old.

    Gosh Darnit.

  4. Fortunately, the concept does have some limits. I don't suppose Smith & Wesson will be offering any of us writers any dough for using their product as the murder weapon.

  5. I mention a specific brand of expensive tequila (Don Julio) that my character, Julie Collins drinks because...its the best tequila on the planet. I can buy it and write it off as research. So far, I haven't gotten a free bottle. Or even a free shot.

    I like learning about new brands I haven't tried. However, there are authors who go too far trying to impress readers with their excessive knowledge of beer, fine whiskey or bourbon by naming dozens of obscure varieties, spending paragraphs describing the taste, the color, the "smoothness." These instances really aren't doing anything to further the plot or characterization, but are used to show readers their ignorance about "finer spirits", oh, and that the author has done their research.

    So sue me for my plebian tastes.