Faye Weldon Speaks Out

"I wrote a letter in my own defence in this month's Authors Guild Bulletin - my plea being that in the current climate novelists should never sniff at unexpectecd commissions from unlikely sources...they being as likely to be honorable as any of today's market-obsessed publishers, whose appetite for literature is minimal. My main problem at the time of publication was that my British publishers were saying what a fantastically good thing product placement novels were, and so I could hardly explain that the Bulgari Connection was not actually a product placement novel - which I would see as an already written work into which product names were dropped in exchange for money, which I myself might be a little sniffy about - but a novel about Bulgari, in the same way as when an artist paints a portrait it is about the sitter, but doesn't affect the quality of the work. You can never win, but why should you want to? I was in Brussels the other day, where a popular young male writer had been commissioned to write a novel about Harley -Davison motor bikes and it was getting rave reviews...so it can happen, but I still think the likelihood of the corporate novel becoming a major feature in the literary landscape is unlikely. I'm far more concerned about corporate histories into which the truth drops into the gaps between sentences, in the paid attempt to whitewash, but then I would be, wouldn't I. It is a terrible truth that we all try to oblige and please our masters, and that they are our employers. I try and please Grove/Atlantic all the time..."

Read the original NYTimes article about The Bulgari Connection.


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Sponsored Books - Publishing Opportunity or Artistic Sell-Out?

Summary of our recent survey and panel discussion at BookExpo America
Yes, books are a potent part of our culture. One need only scan history to see the impact of Plato's Republic; The Bible, Darwin's Origin of the Species, Hitler's Mein Kampf; these volumes have exhibited awesome power to bring about changes within a society.

Books are the modern equivalent of our primitive ancestors' fireside storytelling, and despite technological advances and new media, books remain a hugely important icon. When things like "sponsored fiction" and conglomeration of long-esteemed publishing houses occur, we take notice. Any blatant commercialization of the sacred art of literature causes debate.

Sponsorship and commercialism run rampant in our culture, be it young athletes with lucrative contracts or Revlon buying its way into the script of All My Children. Where is this trend heading with regards to books and literature, and what are the consequences? Will it bring new opportunities to otherwise under-funded authors and publishers, or will it compromise artistic integrity?

Hence, the recent survey IP Online conducted and panel discussion I moderated at the BookExpo America 2002 Educational Program, "Sponsored Books - Publishing Opportunity or Artistic Sell-out?"

In general, the survey prompted very little criticism of the sponsored fiction concept as used in The Bulgari Connection - the strong pro-author sentiment greatly outnumbered those who felt Fay Weldon took it too far. And even then, critics felt a disclosure of commercial intent on the book's cover would have sufficed. Many respondents made strong points about giving authors and independent publishers more opportunities and financial viability through commercial partnerships and sponsorships.

"We actively seek commercial participation for many of our books, because we find that the marketing provided by the commercial partner benefits the performance of the book within the book trade," wrote Stephen Morris of Chelsea Green. Others pointed out that a sponsored book of non-fiction was different than a Bulgari-type novel. "I don't think it's a fine line at all," said novelist/journalist M.J. Rose. "I think it is a very clearly delineated line and there is no reason to cross it. There are myriad ways corporate America and advertisers can support the fiction world without it turning to product placement."

Author and publisher Burt Levy wrote to remind me of his own experiences with sponsored books, the middle-of-the-night idea he had to bring auto racing's penchant for sponsorship and advertising to book publishing. After all, the former pro racer was writing books about that world, why not imitate its funding methods? Read the rest of that story below.

We'll also be discussing the non-fiction sponsored book, a genre that has opened up another avenue of opportunity for authors and publishers. Author Ronda Gates has written two "sponsored" books for divisions of Procter and Gamble that were used as gifts at a health information conference. "I can tell you that if it wasn't for this 'market' I don't believe I would be published today -- there is too much competition." Gates was hired for her writing style and her ability to do a quick turnaround, and she is now known as a writer who can address a variety of health related issues. "The effort has changed my career, and generated more work writing health brochures, pamphlets, etc.-- contracts that would never have come my way if I hadn't done the commercial ventures. So I'm for anything that improves my writing skills, provides an opportunity to enhance knowledge of women's health -- and PAYS THE BILLS."

We also asked about the conglomeration of major publishers, and what the effect on books and literature. A resounding majority of you expressed distaste for mega-publishers, citing lack of diversity and the ability to take chances. Many said that this opens opportunities for independent publishers.

BookExpo Session Synopsis: The publishing of The Bulgari Connection, a novel sponsored by the Bulgari jewelry company and written by respected British author Fay Weldon reminds us how the line between commercialism and entertainment has blurred, and raises questions about the purity of literature as an art form. We discussed pros and cons of the issue, and also covered non-fiction "sponsored books," such as corporate histories, product biographies, and other branding and image-building books that are becoming more prominent today.

Panelists included Judy Hottensen, Associate Publisher at Grove/Atlantic (who published The Bulgari Connection in the US), Peter Osnos, Publisher and Chief Executive at PublicAffairs (a prominent publisher of biographies and books on cultural affairs), Jeff Rodengen, president of Write Stuff, a leader in the field of published works on industry and technology, and Jerome Kramer, Editor and Co-founder of BOOK magazine.

Peter Osnos set the tone by bringing up the broad issue of how convoluted the "transactional vocabulary" of publishing has become -- and how royalty payments and retail pricing have gotten inflated to a crippling degree. He suggested there may be alternatives. "We're all entitled to figure out how to make ends meet. In this case, a good author, to make ends meet, wrote a book that became an advertisement, and issue became how to present this book to the consumer. The consumer is a grown-up who can make their own choices. What we need to do is be straightforward with the people we're trying to reach, tell them what we're doing, and then figure out how to publish good and important things in ways that allow us to go on being independent publishers. It's a matter of applying standards, thinking through these issues, and continuing to publish books worth publishing. You cannot go wrong by being clear, up front, and forthcoming, and then letting people decide about the books for themselves."

Jeff Rodengen described how his company has published 74 books, mostly corporate biographies of American companies such as Cessna, Chris Craft, and Pfizer, and that none of them were financed or sponsored by the subject company. "My philosophy is, 'Always tell the truth and tell it as loudly and as broadly as you can.' So I go to someone like Russ Meyer, the CEO of Cessna, and say, 'I want complete access and complete freedom for myself and my staff to review your archives, to interview your executives, your vendors, and your customers, and all you can expect in return is a comprehensive, truthful account of everything I find.' More often than not, they'll say "Yes, it's a deal." He pointed out that his books did not differ greatly from typical biographies in that the story of a corporation is largely about the people who run it.

A lively debated ensued, and Rodengen answered many questions about his publishing model: How many books are bought by the subject company? Are the subjects allowed any editorial review? This fascinating topic will surely be explored further on these pages in the future.

"I think the most bizarre aspect of this conversation is the 'sacred cow' aspect of literature," said Jerome Kramer. "In every other form of entertainment in this culture it's understood that product placement is commonplace. You're going to see the Sopranos drinking Coke, and Spider Man will be drinking Dr. Pepper, because they worked out a deal. That's accepted, and it doesn't get in the way of the entertainment value. Personally, I don't like product placement. I don't like it in movies or on TV, and I find it especially glaring when it occurs in literature. But, conceptually, I think it's disingenuous for us to think that people trying to make a living as writers or publishers should somehow disconnect themselves from things that work elsewhere in the marketplace."

Kramer also brought up a topic covered in the current issue of BOOK, on the biography, authorized vs. unauthorized, and whether or not you can you get permission from someone to do their biography and end up with a completely honest and complete portrait (see sidebar for related comments from Faye Weldon).

An audience member who is the publicist for a book about to be released with a subtle corporate product placement asked the panel how reviewers might react to it. Judy Hottensen recalled when The Bulgari Connection was released and became NYT front page news -- "Grove/Atlantic, being a small, independent publisher of literary fiction and carrying some of the artistic weight of the world on our shoulders, now suddenly publishing a book with a product endorsement -- it attracted a lot of attention. Reviewers were very skeptical and very curious -- and we decided to let it stand on its own. The sponsored aspect of the book was not part of the marketing plan, or a publicity stunt. I think you just have to be honest, there's no way around that."

* * * * *

Sponsored Book Survey Questions & Answers:

1. Are you aware of any fiction (other than The Bulgari Connection) that features a product placement or any other method of advertising?
19% yes - 81% no
Choice comment: "I did read the Bulgari Connection, by the way and I found the connection c completely inoffensive. Of course I love Bulgari's dazzling jewelry, so I was happy to read about them in the story."

2. If you are an author or publisher, has an instance come up where you had to make a decision for or against commercial participation in one of your books?
18% yes, and I decided for commercial participation
6% yes, but I decided against commercial participation
76% no, it has never come up
Choice comment: "Let's face it, to say that the character pressed an adhesive bandage to her wound doesn't have quite the impact as saying the character pressed a Donald-Duck Band-Aid to her wound. The visual recognition in the reader's mind is instantaneous. Did she sip scotch or Chivas Regal? Did she drive a sports car or a Ferarri? While commercial reference is repulsive to some, it offers the reader immediate images. And if you can get the company that makes the Chivas, the Band-Aid, the Ferarri to pay to have their product mentioned, all the better." Betsy Lampe, publisher

3. Has a book you've written or published ever been licensed by a corporation or institution for use as a marketing tool?
18% yes - 82% no

4. Do authors deserve the same opportunities as other creative artists (rock concerts sponsored by beer companies; art exhibits sponsored by automotive manufacturers) to seek well-paying promotional contracts?

83% yes - 12% no -- 5% uncertain
Why or why not? "It is easy for the literary community to denounce an author for 'selling out.' However, considering the poor treatment they receive at the whim of literary agents and publishers, I personally cannot blame an author for doing all he or she can to advance and be read by the widest possible audience. Filmmakers routinely sell advertisers like Coke, Budweiser, Marlboro, and Gatorade a spot in popular films. Authors should have the same right without being criticized for merely earning a living. A book and an author have limited shelf life. Too few get published; too many get abused." - Nicholas Battista, author

5.There are very few remaining large publishers not owned by conglomerates (example: the recent sale of Houghton Mifflin to Vivendi Universal, which also owns Universal Studios, Spencer Gifts, numerous record labels, telecommunications companies, etc.). How do you think book publishing is being affected by these conglomerate buy-outs?

Choice comment: "There is a continued squeezing out of talent other than best-selling authors, and in turn, a burgeoning opportunity for sharp independent publishers to fill the void. Problem: once stars are born, the conglomerates will attempt to seduce them." Philip Dale Smith, publisher

6. Based on your personal experience as well as knowledge of the industry, do you agree that in the past couple of years more companies and organizations have embraced using books as marketing tools? 72% yes -- 19% no - 9% uncertain
Choice comment: "Certainly films have become advocates for products so I guess it was bound to happen to books. The money might just be too good to pass up. But it's up to authors and publishers to be sure values and ethics are not being lost in all of this." Robert Giron, publisher

7. What do you think will be the long-term effects of commercialism and conglomeration on book publishing and literature?
Choice comment: "Story telling is an integral part of the soul of mankind. Nothing will destroy it. Independents will spring up and the conglomerate influence will decline. Their short term influence, however, will putrefy the culture and the residue will fertilize an upsurge in creativity and a multiplication of new voices." Warren Adler, author Sponsored Books - the Independent Publisher Way

Burt Levy and his Think Fast Ink publishing beat Faye Weldon to the punch at sponsored fiction, although the book, Montezuma's Ferrari featured multiple sponsors in an "advertising section" of the book. Levy, a veteran sports car racer whose manuscript was turned down by "damn near every publisher in New York" self-published his first novel the "old-fashioned way" -- by taking out a second mortgage on his home -- only to have it picked up by St. Martin's Press after the second printing. "At this point I thought, 'Geez, we finally hit the big time! It's all gravy from here!' Only problem was that my editor at St. Martin's was the only one who really believed in it, and we didn't get much in the way of advertising or promotion. It hit the mainstream bookstore market without fanfare and, to borrow one of my friends' favorite sayings, 'laid there like a lox.'"

Levy was becoming rather disenchanted with the economic viability of publishing. "Even when we owned it, it wasn't until halfway through the second printing that we began to catch up to even. As a businessman, I could see that this was not such a great deal. When I finished the sequel, Montezuma's Ferrari -- which, by contract, St. Martin's had the option for -- we couldn't reach a deal since I wanted a commitment to an advertising budget and promotional plan."

"So I was back on my own, looking for a publisher. And then, literally in the middle of the night, I woke up with this idea: 'Why not fund the book the way motorsports is funded, with sponsorships and advertising?' Like most middle-of-the-night ideas, it didn't sound quite so good in the morning. But, with no other offers in hand and knowing that doing it the way we did the first book was not a very sound way to make money, I decided to give it a shot. And that's when I came up with the idea of integrating the ad and sponsorship section into the context and era of the story--making it an integral part of the experience rather than the usual 'brought to you by' method."

Levy's concept evolved into a sponsor-and-ad section inserted into the book, presented as a vintage sports car enthusiast magazine from the same era as the story, with all the feature stories trumpeted on the "magazine's" cover relating to characters and events in the story's narrative. Included were period ads, often provided and produced by advertisers like Mercedes-Benz of North America, and appropriate photos of period cars and events, all in an effort to make it enhance the reading experience rather than cheapen it. Levy raised $55,000 in advertising in two months, and Montezuma's Ferrari got reviews and publicity from the likes of Publishers' Weekly, USA Today and Fox News, as much for, Levy admits, the way it was done than for the actual content.

"The problem for all publishers is that all the production costs are front loaded, and being able to absorb these costs either in whole or part is a great benefit to the bottom line," says Levy. "As to the question of whether it is 'pandering' or 'artistically compromising,' I would suggest that, at least with my books, the 'ad' section is woven into the theme and ambience of the stories, and they have been very well received. In fact, the response to our solicitations for the new book has been extremely gratifying."

His new novel, The Fabulous Trashwagon (the third in the "Buddy Palumbo" series) will feature a color ad section presented as a "race program" from the first-ever race at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin in 1955, with sponsors and advertisers listed as "race entrants" in the program. Levy stresses that in order for the sponsorship concept to work, "the ad section has to be an integral and appropriate part of the experience," and that "each book has to be different and unique in the way it incorporates the ad section."

Levy will debut his new book in July at a big vintage auto race at Road America this summer, and the track is making it a major feature of the weekend. Good target marketing? Definitely. Dead-on commercialism? You bet. Independent publishing success story? Zoom, zoom, zoom...