Friday, September 2, 2011

Product Placement...In my Book?

Remember when Archie Bunker used to call out to Edith, “Edith, bring me a beer”? A moment later, Edith would come running over with a can of…‘BEER’ that looked like this:
Maybe you’re too young for that. Maybe you remember someone on TV drinking a soda in a red can with a curvy silver line snaking up the can, but no name on it? Or pulling a cigarette from a pack that looked suspiciously like Marlboro, but again without a name? (Hell, have you actually ever seen anyone smoking on TV? It sure doesn’t happen like it used to).

Product placement has a long history on TV and in the movies, but it’s become an art form unto itself over the last thirty years. In addition to being framed by ‘This show is sponsored by…’ announcements, products are deliberately and carefully paraded in front of our eyes in a not-so-subtle attempt to get us to notice – and buy – them.

Is this the future of books?

Last week, at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Ewan Morrison set off a firestorm when he declared that the demise of paper books was imminent. Furthermore, he stated that the move to all-digital books would mean the end of the professional author as we know it. Not surprisingly, this has stirred up quite a bit of controversy and dissenting opinion. I certainly hope he’s wrong, but that’s not what I’m writing about today.

E-books are certainly taking up an ever-larger share of the market. This is good news for readers who have embraced e-books, and is a mixed bag for writers. Royalty rates are typically higher for e-books than for printed books, but advances may be shrinking or close to non-existent. Authors Graham Swift and Morrison both envision a time when writers won’t be paid at all, or barely enough to get by. I don’t know what the future will bring on this front, but the e-book revolution opens up a new potential revenue stream: product placement.

Imagine the following: an author is paid to have his characters drink Coca-Cola products exclusively. The word ‘Coke’ is underlined in your reader, and an image pops up showing a Coke can, or a little voice whispers ‘Coke is it!’, ‘It’s the real thing’ or whatever the Coca-Cola slogan of the day is. What if, during an intensely-emotional scene, you write, “Terri pulled a tissue from the box on the bedside table and blew her nose.” See what I did there? Is this something that could help authors make the money that Morrison insists is going to disappear? Would the text of our books start looking like Nascar drivers or the jerseys of European hockey clubs?

This may not be as far away as you think. An Absolute Write thread linked to an article about a device that can add a soundtrack to an e-reader, and will actually pace the soundtrack to your reading speed. Personally, I don’t like the idea of devices reading me while I’m reading them any more than I like the idea of letting my car park itself

And then there are the sidebar ads. One of the reasons we have so much free content on the web is because of all those little advertisements that pop up or sit quietly on the sides or buried within the text and images of news stories and the like. MSN is the default page when I open my web browser. There are at least five blocks of ‘real’ ads on the page, plus numerous ads that masquerade as news stories and link to programs that originate within the family. Is this something we will see within the pages of our e-books? Will authors be able to sell space in their books to Google Adsense? It would certainly seem easy enough to do.

I suspect most readers would balk at the idea, and raise holy hell. Just like we did back in the late ‘70’s when the until-then commercial-free sports station on cable TV that carried the Rangers and Islanders started slipping commercials in. We protested, and it did no good. And now, it’s an accepted and expected part of the deal. Sure, readers would howl about the inclusion of ads in books, but how long would it last? The first time Stephen King has ads for Coke or Burger King in his e-book, he’ll still sell millions of copies despite the outcry, and before you know it, we’ll all be used to it, and there won’t be any other way to read.

And if we don’t get paid for actually writing out books, as Morrison and others think, maybe this will be all that we’ve got. I surely hope it doesn’t come to this.

What do you think? Will advertising soon be appearing in e-books? If you could, would you allow it in yours?


Graham Swift on royalty rates and e-books and also here

Ewan Morrison on the dim future of authors

And a dissenting opinion from Joe Konrath (and thanks to Donna for pointing it out).

An article on the Booktrack.

Have a great weekend, all.


  1. Wow. Thanks for the shout out, Jeff.

    The idea of commercials/ads in my ebooks makes me nuts. Some of the things you suggested in here would really take away from the reading experience. I hate the ads in magazine (you know, those ones you have to rip out because they force it open in the wrong place when you're looking for something else). I wouldn't mind something more subtle like specific references to products (and they paid for the space in your book). So instead of tissues it says Kleenex, for example. Or instead of soda, it says Coke or Pepsi. But nothing more. Any other ads would have to be in the very beginning or at the end. Nothing in the middle.

    Well, those are my preferences, anyway.

  2. Ugh. I have a feeling you're onto something here. If this is one of the only ways to stay afloat in the future, then we might have to accept it. However, I can't say (as of right now) that I would enjoy that as a reading experience. Hmm...

    I think I'm with Donna on this one. I could deal with subtle name dropping, but ads would be a little distracting. We've already seen Kindle go this direction to offer
    promotional pricing.

    Great post, Jeff! It's very thought provoking. I'm going to tweet about it. :)

  3. I hate this but you're right. I mean isn't the new Kindle cheaper because it's "ad-supported" or some BS like that? I hope this doesn't happen. For the love of God, I just want to read a book--it's the one place I don't HAVE to put up with ads.

  4. Lisa -- I'll be honest, I'm still hopelessly rooted in the mid-twentieth century when it comes to books. We don't have any sort of e-reader (my wife does most of her reading now on her droid) so I'm not really sure what they're capable of. But the ability to pop links into text is easy enough. Yesterday I was at a site that had a mini video ad pop up when I moused over a word. If this Booktrack thing can play music based on where you are in the text, it's probably not too big a leap to pop up ads.

    I don't like it. I'm old enough to remember when the boards at NHL rinks were all white. Now, every inch is covered with ads, including light up, changeable ads, and they superimpose logos on the end glass for the 'benefit' of TV viewers. I think ads in e-books are inevitable, and, if that's the case, then the money better flow to the author.

    Thanks all, as always, for reading and commenting.


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