Recently there has been a spate of media coverage of our yet-to-be-published teen novel Cathy's Book: If Found Call 650-266-8233, sparked by our announcement of a unique arrangement between the authors and Procter & Gamble (the book mentions some Cover Girl products and P&G is helping to promote the book). A New York Post headline says "Read My Lip-Gloss, P&G Tells Teenagers." A self-proclaimed watchdog group writes to 350 book columnists calling for a review boycott. The New York Times editorial page says Cathy's Book "captures the weird coalescence of the shape-shifting culture adolescent girls live in, where the borders between advertising and literature, novel and lipstick go unpatrolled." And author Jane Smiley pens an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times entitled "Best Sellouts List," decrying Cathy's Book and product placement.
It is interesting to hear so many opinions from so many people who never requested an advance copy, especially Ms. Smiley (whose publicist confirmed she did not read the book). Ms. Smiley is a wonderful writer and we admire her most recent book, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. But perhaps she neglected to mention her 14th way of looking at a novel: discussing the book without ever having read it.
Cathy's Book tells the story of 17-year-old budding artist Cathy, who is trying to understand what happened to her older, slightly mysterious boyfriend, who has abruptly broken up with her and disappeared. Cathy investigates, turning up clues and following the surprising places they lead. If she comes across a phone number, she calls it—and the reader can, too, and listen to prerecorded messages, deepening the story. If a company is mentioned, the reader can Google it, and follow where it leads. The novel proceeds from book to fictional Web sites to actual Web sites, as the writers weave real-life elements into their narrative, all in the interest of extending the reality of Cathy's journey.
Ms. Smiley speaks admiringly in Thirteen Ways of authors who accomplished groundbreaking reworkings of the novel. Authors Jordan Weisman and Sean Stewart are similarly ingenious in their reinvention of the somewhat tired teen-lit genre, and not a moment too soon—a recent study by Scholastic reports that reading declines precipitously after age eight. Only 16% of those age 15 to 17 read every day. And "the number one reason kids reported that they don't read more is because they can't find books they like to read" (emphasis added). At a time when books compete with films boasting Hollywood marketing budgets, ubiquitous reality TV shows and the play-action of computer games, isn't it time for a smart, hip, interactive novel like Cathy's Book?
As a publisher, we support our authors' right to write the book their way. The relationship between the book and P&G was not covert—it's disclosed both on the copyright page and in the press release we put out, and no money exchanged hands. It is ironic that Cathy's Book critics see a cause célèbre, when literature is filled with product mentions to enhance verisimilitude—from James Bond's Aston Martin to the Prada bags carried by countless characters in chick lit. Other media are awash in advertising and product placement. The very publications looking with arched eyebrows at Cathy's Book could not exist without advertising. And teens are savvy media consumers, far more used to sorting through content and advertising (simultaneously) than their parents ever were. Just ask my 13-year-old daughter.
The history of publishing is filled with examples of works that succeeded in the face of outrage, criticism, bans, boycotts and misrepresentation. So the real question is: Does the book deliver? Is it a compelling read? Are the characters involving? Do you enjoy spending time in their world? A raft of foreign publishers think so; we have signed publishing deals in nine countries. Motoko Rich, whose New York Times article first announced the book deal, requested and actually read the galley, and called it a "surprisingly lyrical addition to the teen lit genre." This fall we will publish Cathy's Book, and reviewers, editorial boards, watchdog groups and teenagers will have a chance to pick up the book and decide for themselves.
And Ms. Smiley, we're sending a copy of the book to you. Let us know what you think. After you've read it.
|David Steinberger is president and CEO of the Perseus Books Group.|