In an e-mail interview with PW, British novelist Fay Weldon discussed why she agreed to write a novel commissioned by the chic jewelry maker Bulgari, and responded to publishers, writers and readers critical of her venture into literary product placement.
Weldon, a highly regarded literary novelist, provoked some measure of controversy by agreeing to write a novel for which Bulgari paid an undisclosed fee to have its name and products mentioned a certain number of times. The novel is called The Bulgari Connection and was originally published in a limited edition of 750 and distributed at a Bulgari corporate party. It was subsequently published in the U.K. by HarperCollins. After some initial concern about the book, Grove/Atlantic, Weldon's U.S. publisher, will release it in October. Grove/Atlantic will not receive any payment from Bulgari.
Judy Hottenson, a spokesperson for Grove/Atlantic, emphasized to PW that while the publisher was originally concerned about the agreement, "we decided the book was a kick and we wanted it. We also didn't want her to go to another house. We have no problem with the book." Hottenson noted that Grove had no plans to pursue similar deals in the future, adding, "This is one of a kind." Announcement of the deal was hailed by some in the industry as long overdue HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman gushed, "this is fantastic... It gives me a lot of ideas" and a chance for stodgy trade book publishing to reap some of the financial rewards taken for granted by Hollywood, where product placement in films and TV shows is standard practice. On the other hand, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, president of the Authors Guild, said, "It erodes reader confidence in the authenticity of the narrative." And several writers, including Michael Chabon, Elizabeth McCracken and Jason Epstein, were leery of the implications of the practice for serious writers.
Of course Weldon isn't the first novelist to think about literary product placement. Bill Fitzhugh, a comic novelist known for publicity stunts, may have been the first to do it. In his novel Cross Dressing, published by Morrow in 2000, a featured character drinks Scotch, so Fitzhugh approached Seagram and got a modest in-kind payment (according to Fitzhugh, film product placement usually is bartered for services) of "an undisclosed sum of Scotch."
Industry professionals contacted by PW were split predictably: editors cautious, agents wildly supportive. Beau Friedlander, publisher of indie literary house Context Books, mused: "No publisher would pass up the right situation. But would Charles Bukowski sell placement to Thunderbird wine? Danielle Steel might do it, but would Michael Crichton?" Robert Weil, executive editor at W.W. Norton, an editor whose authors include NBA winners, told PW, "Maybe John Updike's characters could all wear L.L. Bean. Personally, I wouldn't be comfortable with it, although support from a foundation would be totally different."
But agents Manie Barron of the William Morris Agency, and Ira Silverberg of Donadio & Olson Literary Representatives, suggested to PW that since most publishers are already chasing third-party financial support for marketing and promotion, why not just be up front about their involvement?
"Marketing is always at the table for a book acquisition," said Barron, a former editor at Random House. "We've already opened a Pandora's box. Let's call it by its real name." Silverberg said, "We've all used promotional opportunities from liquor, cigarettes and fashion companies. We live in a culture that barely supports writers. I'm trying to put money in the pocket of my writers. I'd like to see what would happen if the ones claiming purity were offered the money."
Weldon told PW that she did it "because it was fun... because I wanted to write a novel about the world of charity art auctions, where rich men and women sit on little gold chairs and exploit artists... and here was someone to pay for it." She also said she tends to "outwrite my publishers. They can publish a novel a year, I can write one in eight months. Here was a way to of slipping another one in." Besides, she said, there is always "spoken or unspoken pressure" from the publisher's marketing departments to "write a chic-lit book," or not to write "another domestic novel."
She said she "didn't care much" whether the deal prejudiced readers and critics against the book. "The novel must sink or swim on its merits. It's the novel I wanted to read which nobody else had written." And she said, most importantly, "halfway into the book I realized I was actually writing a good novel."
She called the book "a one-off," but suggested that, like product placement in film or sports, readers would likely become accustomed to the practice "without being overly cynical." She emphasized that "you have to match product and writer rather carefully," and said "a page in front saying this novel is sponsored by Tiffany or Armani or Wrigley Gum would at least make it clear what is going on." But she also said getting companies and foundations to "sponsor up-and-coming young writers" might be a better way.
"A novelist working in the U.S. or the U.K. is lucky if he or she earns at more than subsistence level," Weldon said. "I blame the readers, not the writers. They're an idle lot, they don't read nearly enough," she joked. "If they did, none of this would be necessary."