Buy now, and get a free Billys Pan Pizza…

by Michelle Gagnon

So I stumbled across an interesting piece in the LA Times the other day about an editor-turned-agent-turned-entrepeneur who has hooked up with the site “OpenSky” to help authors market more than just books to their audience. She listed one intriguing example: fellow crime fiction writer Michael Koryta has a book set in an old hotel in Central Indiana known for its “Pluto Water,” which apparently has health benefits. If Koryta hooked up with Open Sky, the novel could be tied to both the promotion of the hotel and of the water (OpenSky would find a supplier to bottle and ship it).

Another example: A cookbook author not only sells books through OpenSky, but also hawks a favorite barbecue sauce and grill. The author pockets 50% of the profit, with the rest going to OpenSky and others involved in the transaction.

It’s an interesting model. While the author of the piece jokes about whether or not Steig Larsson would have considered peddling the coffee his protagonist drinks, one of the things that struck me while reading THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO was the name dropping. Salander never had a mere generic pizza, she always ate “Billys Pan Pizza” (and lots of them). Likewise, the computer she used (a Mac), the cigarettes everyone smoked (Lucky Strikes), the cell phones they placed calls from (Sony-Ericssons)…all were named repeatedly, to the point where I wondered if Larsson had been secretly hoping for product placement tie-in deals.

Television has already started experimenting with this possibility. Some of the next generation cable boxes will enable consumers to click on the screen if they like, say, the dress that a character is wearing, which will immediately place an order to their account. And voila, a few days later they’re sporting Eva Longoria’s maxi dress.

So should authors consider going to same route?

There are certainly arguments against it (as I read the article, I could almost feel the collective shudder of horror emanating from traditional publishing houses). Books are seen by many as more than a mere commodity. A friend of mine compared it to offering happy meal trinkets when buying an oil painting. But in this age of dwindling marketing budgets, can books afford not to think outside the box? Film and television studios have both incorporated significant product placement in their offerings to offset revenue reductions. And with more books being consumed electronically, does it make sense to integrate links for people who develop a hankering for “Billys Pan Pizza” while reading the novel? Wouldn’t a cross-marketing campaign like the one pitched for Koryta’s book benefit everyone involved?

As I read it, I tried to think about what OpenSky would be willing to sell from my books. I suspect that night vision goggles and Glocks wouldn’t be their first choice, although both figure prominently in my last book (and in retrospect, I probably should have incorporated more specific brand names). But it is set in Mexico City- a link to a tourist agency, perhaps? Or an airline? Better yet, the best security company to call should you get kidnapped?

Is OpenSky offering just another opportunity to sell out, or could it provide a much needed boost to authors struggling to market and make money off their work?

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18 thoughts on “Buy now, and get a free Billys Pan Pizza…

  1. I read the article in question and it gave me a headache. I still want to be that author of long ago who got to sit in isolation, write their manuscript, turn it in, and let the publisher do the rest. *-)

    I can see the potential value of linking books and other products, but I was also thinking about what damage would be done to the quality of books in an effort to be a billboard for some product (loved the McD’s Toy with the oil painting bit). I can see it now–we’ll underwrite your marketing but you have to mention McDonald’s 500 times in your manuscript. Oye. An easy way for art to become hardboiled economics.

    And some books would seem to lend themselves to this concept more easily than others.

    I’m sure there’s value in it if the concept isn’t carried to extremes.

  2. Interesting article! I can see it now. My tie-in with the Fat City Mysteries would be my favorite diet program, diet cookbooks, and, of course, my favorite fattening foods to cheat with (HoHo’s, anyone?). Plus beauty products and the best clothes for curvy women. Ah, I have dollar signs floating over my head, lol.

  3. It sounds like just one more thing to lower the quality of books. Besides, unless the author is selling a ton of books it wouldn’t be worth the effort required. And if the author is selling a ton of books then there’s really no point in selling out.

  4. Having not read the article, I have to say that the idea does have merit. Many (many) years ago, I purchased a series of books. Each book came with a collector’s card that was unique to that book and part of a larger collection I was involved with. Although these products (the book and card) were bound by a common thread, where the novel was influenced by the product and the product inspired by the novel, they were still effectively two different products. I read the books, which were not terrible, and got the bonus product along with it. A win-win for me and the makers of both.

    Regarding more generic “mentions” of products, television and movies do it all the time. They call is merchandising – should we call it selling out? Think of popular kids’ movies and the action figure/cheap costume industry. There’s a lot of money to be made in that area. It makes things somewhat easier when the product you’re selling already exists and is produced by another company.

    Would I do it in my own work? Maybe, but probably not. Does it hard-boil the book industry into a product line? Isn’t it that already? Don’t we brand our stories as it is? If the model were reversed (free/discounted book with the purchase of a large pepperoni) would we care so long as someone was buying it to increase our word-of-mouth advertising?

  5. I’m debating a version of this question right now. I wrote a mystery about car racing, and I used a real brand of car, a real race/racing series, and some real media because it was important to the story. Now that I’m planning publicity and marketing, I think, “why shouldn’t I trade on the fact that I mentioned a magazine for some publicity in them,” and “why shouldn’t I see if GM will help me promote since I wrote about a Corvette.” I have not yet reached the, “maybe they’ll give me a cut if my link gets a sale.”

    Mostly what comes up for me is the personal moral dilemma as I write the next in the series, because I think I draw the line of incorporating real products at “done for the story” vs. “done for a marketing promotion.” And maybe if I satisfy myself that it’s done for the story, I should market the result any old way I can….

  6. Product placement could be fine, as long it’s done with taste and restraint. (Which it won’t be by some, but that’s life.) If someone wants to pay me to have my hero drive a Ford instead of a Buick–and it doesn’t detract from the rest of the book, then have at it. Some will slather their books with product names in the hope of scoring, but they’ll run the risk of losing readers f they’re too obvious.

    Another concern not yet address will come from the publishers, who are going to try to collect their taste of this revenue stream, if it becomes common.

    (My favorite part of this post was reading that some in the industry are horrified at the prospect of books becoming commodities. For those who work on the business side of publishing, that’s exactly what they re.

  7. I’ve been thinking about this some more. Any author, right this minute, could set up a blog or web site, sign up as an Amazon Associate, and provide links and Google ads to commodities that are associated with their books and brand. No one has ever done that (that I know of), and I can’t imagine anyone would consider doing that as part of a branding effort. It would be considered tacky and extremely gauche, at least by other authors. I’m not sure how readers would react to it. Whether that attitude will change with the advent of OpenSky, will be interesting to see. Certainly it’s hard for many, if not most, authors to make a good living from their writing these days, and the floodgates to commercialism may be about to be flung open. If the stigma of “selling out” starts to fade, this type of cross-marketing could easily become a free for all. And, looking forward into the future, with new ebooks that contain video, there’s the potential that we may even include popup ads, videos, for products related to books. Yikes. Authors will become part of the barking, yawping commercial circus on the Internet. Is it wrong? Who is to say. Will it happen? Probably.

    Great post, Michelle.

  8. Seems to me it would be an easy jump to product-placement links in ebooks with Kindle-style readers. Click on a product name mentioned in the story and get a virtual coupon or the ability to order the product. Or a flash advertisement. There’s always one more way to make money.

  9. I wouldn’t mind getting paid whenever my heroine drank a Starbucks coffee! I don’t see the harm if the mentions are limited. Besides, the future may be in these types of tie-ins and multi-media. Think of the Vook.

  10. Hee hee! I love it. Next thing ya know we’ll have highlights throughout our ebook on Ipad that places orders… God, we think formatting is a nightmare now! But seriously I wouldn’t be surprised. And I’m curious about Billy’s Pan Pizza now. When are they opening a US franchise?
    *more giggles*
    You just can’t get too serious when so much is changing so fast.

  11. Michelle – I think you have foreseen the future.

    Independent if good or bad for writing’s sake if Vegas was handling action on this type of product placement developing I would bet heavy.

    Consider specifically the value of certain well recognized characters. John Sanford’s Lucas Davenport buys his shirts at xxx and runs yyy computer hardware.

    Mitch Rapp uses xxx cologne and drinks xxx booze.

    Kathryn jokies about her characters but certainly her readership might be influenced by the very products she suggests.

  12. I figured this would elicit both positive and negative responses- as I suspect it will in the industry at large.

    I’m excited by some of the possibilities opened up by the iPad- slideshows of locations from my books, or links to supporting books and articles. And making money off links to products that already organically appear in my work would be a bonus.

    However I also understand the fear that down the road, this could lead to mounting pressure to shoehorn in products regardless of whether or not they fit the storyline.

  13. A few years ago I read a Jack Higgins book that made me wonder if he was being paid by Bushmill’s Whiskey to advertise for them. I will admit though, the numerous mentions of it in the book prompted to buy some…and it was pretty good.

    That being said I think there is nothing wrong with making a bit of cash from products related to our stories. After all if all we wanted to do was tell stories, we’d give them away free. Since we’re trying to make a living at this, why not market ourselves toward the hope of making as much money as we can.

    Tom Clancy’s video game series probably made him as much or more than his books did. Add to that T-Shirts, Hats, and such and that’s quite a subsidiary income.

    On that note, I’ve decided to come up with several products based off of my books and characters. Such as:

    1. CIA Agent Kharzai Ghiassi Metal Lunch Box, with a genuine wire garrote in the handle (from the audio book Karl’s Last Flight)

    2. Pastor Mike Farris Prayer Book with compartment for Silenced Walther PPK in the pages (from audio book Faithful Warrior)

    3. Portable Electromagnetic Nail Gun for construction and self defense (from short story Geeks Rule)

    4. AK State Trooper Lonnie Wyatt Lingerie Collection includes silk teddy in blue or red or hot pink and real handcuffs (Lonnie’s a really hot Asian lady with a black belt from audio book 65 Below)

    5. Wylie Coyote T-Shirt & running shoes with little wings on the sides. (Not from any book of mine, but I’ve always wanted one of those).

    And by the way, all of the audio books I mentioned above are free to download from my website, http://www.basilsands.com. Cuz I really am in it for the story telling … at least until I can make a buck or two from it.

    and no… I’m not going to model the lingerie for you … trust me, we’re all better off if I don’t

  14. Michelle, this isn’t quite the same thing, but in the early 1970s paperback publishers sold advertising space in the books. You would be reading along and then around page 270 or so you’d find a glossy page advertising cigarettes and the like.

    Perhaps more on point…several years ago a heavy metal band did a song about Wolverine, the comic book character. The CD that included the song came shrink-wrapped with a special edition Wolverine mini-comic. It got the CD into comic book stores.

    Sometimes, of course, the plug is a fan shout-out. There is a scene in LA-308 where the camera pans over a nightstand, where rests a copy of TRAITOR by Dean Coonts. No plug per se; the director just happened to like the book and included it in the shot.

    Where I would have a problem with all of this would be where the artist — musician, author, etc. — has their work tied to a product at the request/demand of the publisher. For example, my book is being published by a publisher whose parent company also owns a music label and wants me to insert the name of a band they’re plugging into a scene. No.

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