David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

Should Novelists Sell Advertisements?

Jane Smiley writes in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times about product placements in novels. Apparently a writer sold product placements in his adolescent novel to the Cover Girl line of cosmetics. The result? Lots of publicity, triple the initial print run, and coverage in places like the Los Angeles Times.

True story: I tried to convince my publisher to sell advertisements in my novel Infoquake.

They didn’t go for it, which is probably to their credit. You might think that there was some high-minded editorial principle at work here, but honestly the discussion never even reached that level. It simply wasn’t practical. Printing an ordinary black-and-white trade paperback is difficult enough without the added burden of dealing with camera-ready art, getting client approval, sorting out the legal angles, etc. And if you stack on top of that the hassles of 4-color printing, it turns into a logistical nightmare.

I think the main impediment to selling advertisements in a book like Infoquake isn’t so much the logistics as the print run. Obviously, you need to have a minimum number of eyeballs to make the investment worthwhile for a prospective advertiser — and needless to say, a debut novel from an unknown SF writer simply doesn’t make the cut.

So let’s say you’re not David Louis Edelman’s publisher but Terry Pratchett’s, or George R. R. Martin’s, or Orson Scott Card’s. Why not sell advertisements?

It seems to me that the benefits to a prospective advertiser would be enormous. You’ve got an audience that’s at least in the hundreds of thousands, if not the millions. Plus you’ve got the opportunity to keep your message in front of your audience for years. People toss glossy magazines into the recycling bin with hardly a thought, but they’ll be carting around their raggedy, dog-eared copies of Ender’s Game for a lifetime. They’ll read it and re-read it and pass it on to their friends.

Obviously this type of advertising wouldn’t be right for everything. You couldn’t use a novel ad to push 2-for-1 specials on liters of Sprite. But what about companies looking for long-term branding opportunities? I assume Microsoft, Apple, Disney, Verizon, and Sony are going to be around for another ten years at least, and they have long-term interests to look out for, long-term identities to maintain.

The only serious drawback I can think of for an advertiser is the long lead time. Given the notoriously long production cycle in book publishing, you face the prospect that your company’s product will be outmoded or obsolete by the time the book rolls off the printer. But again, if you’re promoting a brand rather than a specific widget, I don’t see why this would be a deal-breaker.

Not only could this work for advertisers, I think it could be a boon to artists as well. What if you could ensure that the publisher makes up its printing costs before the book even hits the shelves? What if you could get a company to underwrite the distribution in exchange for ad space, or get a company to pay for a higher print run?

Here’s what would happen: you would sell more books and make more money.

Of course, there are going to be purists that will object to the entire idea of selling ads in a novel. They’ll say that there are certain things that should be off-limits to advertisers.

But the novel hasn’t been an entirely advertisement-free zone for years. Most genre mass-market paperbacks are padded with enticements from the publisher to buy backlist titles; often they’ve got excerpts from the author’s forthcoming work tacked onto the end too. Would it really be that much of a tragedy to have a few extra pages from third-party advertisers? Would you toss your copy of Accelerando in the trash heap if there was a nice, tasteful “Think Different” Macintosh ad mixed in the endpapers? I don’t think so.

I still have a lot to learn about the book publishing business, and I’m sure I don’t quite have all the economic factors down.

But I think this idea could work. Why not?

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  1. kevin from become-a-copywriter.com on December 15, 2006 at 12:57 pm  Chain link

    That day HAS to be coming.

    It seems as if the novel is our only refuge from bloody advertising.

    Once the movie industry decided that those captives before a movie begins was rich unmined territory, I returned to my novels.

    Because, there must remain some places on earth where we don’t have to learn about Sour Mentos.


  2. Matt on December 18, 2006 at 2:49 pm  Chain link

    wait wait wait…they have sour mentos now? man i’ve had my head in the books for too long.

  3. Ken on June 22, 2008 at 11:51 am  Chain link

    I remember reading one of my dad’s battered, dog eared paperbacks when I was about twelve or thirteen. We’re talking 30 years ago now, unfortunately. Anyway, it was a seedy American crime thriller (and exactly what I wanted to read at that age) and, smack bang in the middle, it had adverts! A couple of pages of glossy, full colour adverts, mainly for cigarettes I think.
    I’ve never come across it since, so maybe it didn’t turn out to be that profitable.
    Great blog, by the way, even if it is filled with endless promotions for your books.
    😉 (Just read your post on Cory Doctorow and self promotion.)

  4. David Louis Edelman on June 22, 2008 at 4:58 pm  Chain link

    Ken: Now that you mention this, I’m having very vague recollections of seeing something similar in some of my parents’ trashy mass market paperbacks from thirty years ago. Next time I’m at a used book store, I’ll have to start perusing the old thrillers and see what I see.

    (And endless promotions for my books? Wherever did you get that idea? 😉 )

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