I’m Outraged!

Now that the war between Amazon and Hachette has ended (at least temporarily), I’d like to mention another unsettling development that may be even more threatening to the future of publishing. I learned about it from a recent article in the New York Times, “E-book Mingles Love and Product Placement.” Go ahead and read it. I’ll wait.

Okay, if you don’t want to read the whole thing, I’ll give you a summary. An author named Hillary Carlip has written a novel titled Find Me I’m Yours, which was published by e-book publisher RosettaBooks earlier this month. According to the Times, the book is about a quirky young woman named Mags who’s searching for love. The plot sounds fairly conventional, but the e-book is linked to a whole series of websites and web TV shows that supposedly flesh out the story. I think that’s a pretty cool idea, actually — I’m all for experimentation and interactivity. But what’s not so cool is how Carlip got the money to pay for all those web extras. Cumberland Packing Corporation, the company that makes the artificial sweetener Sweet’N Low, invested a whopping $1.3 million in Find Me I’m Yours.

That’s a surprising number, right? Because novels, in general, are not great investment opportunities. I usually don’t get calls from venture capitalists begging to buy a piece of my latest manuscript. So why is Cumberland Packing so sweet on Carlip? Because her novel says nice things about Sweet’N Low, and in particular, defends the safety record of the artificial sweetener. Here’s a quote from the quirky Mags: “They fed lab rats twenty-five hundred packets of Sweet’N Low a day…And still the F.D.A. or E.P.A., or whatevs agency, couldn’t connect the dots from any kind of cancer in humans to my party in a packet.”

My favorite part of that quote is the “whatevs agency” bit. It’s like the author knew her main character was showing a suspiciously deep knowledge of food-safety testing, so she had to pull back a little. According to the Times, this kind of product placement was appealing to Cumberland Packing because it gave the company a new way to reach younger women and fight “latent myths” about the dangers of artificial sweeteners. The company even provided Carlip with the research statistics that Mags recites so dutifully in the novel.
I was utterly flabbergasted and outraged when I read about this. It’s so darn sneaky. When you read a novel you’re not expecting it be a commercial! I went on the Amazon page for Find Me I’m Yours and saw no mention of the Sweet’N Low connection (except in a couple of one-star reviews that don’t appear on the main page for the book). I’m sorry, but that’s just deceptive. There should be a big warning across the top of the page. Newspapers and magazines are required (by their trade associations, I believe) to clearly mark advertisements to distinguish them from editorial content, and I think booksellers and publishers should do the same.
You might argue that it’s not fair to force this requirement on the book industry, which shouldn’t have to operate under the same rules that govern the press. But readers get a lot of useful information from novels. I’ve learned a lot about handguns from Lee Child. Thanks to Leo Tolstoy, I know plenty about nineteenth-century Russian mores. I’m certainly not going to demand that fiction be factual, but if some corporation is going to push its products in a novel, at least be upfront about it.
Here’s one piece of information you won’t find in Find Me I’m Yours: researchers recently reported that artificial sweeteners can interfere with the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar, triggering changes that can lead to diabetes. One of the substances investigated in this study was — surprise! — saccharin, the sweetener in Sweet’N Low. You can read the full story here.

Stick that in your coffee, Mags.

34 thoughts on “I’m Outraged!

  1. Mark, thanks for a post on writing.

    Kathryn discussed this book in her post on Tuesday. I totally agree with all your comments. I hope you and the rest of TKZ gang will keep us updated on how well the book is selling, i.e. how readers are responding to a “novel” commercial. I, for one, prefer my novels commercial free.

    Thanks for the post.

  2. Wow. That’s low.

    I know a fellow author who has a sponsor that requires the mention of their product a couple times per book. That seems harmless. But Sweet’NLow is taking it to the extreme.

  3. I actually know the backstory on that, Mark. I learned that the NYT got it wrong in that piece–the company approached the writers only after the book was completed, and did not fund the project as it was developed. I will attempt to contact the author and see if she would like to address the issue herself.

    • And that, by the way, is why I didn’t mention the NYT article in my post on Tuesday. The most interesting thing to me was the multimedia, interactive aspects of the book. I didn’t want to fuel a controversy that might have been based on partial or incorrect information.

    • Kathryn: If you’re going to insert yourself into this discussion, I think it really behooves you to disclose that you wrote a glowing, 5 star review of the book on Amazon. I know you wrote a rave report on it on this site, but it feels like you should disclose that you are a particularly enthusiastic fan of this thing while you are in this discussion.

    • I think people could glean that I liked the book from my blog post, Jeanne. We do not accept payment for positive comments at TKZ, so I am not required to disclose everything I have ever said about a subject.

    • Kathryn: Yes, I understand. I am a former ethics teacher, so I see it from the lens of where the power in the situation lies, not in terms of payment. You have more power b/c you are a moderator here. But, I do understand that not everyone cares–this is my particular bugaboo–lol.

  4. Hi: Would love to address this since what the NYT printed was absolutely not the case. Brand names were already scattered throughout my book. The main character, Mags, drives a Vespa; she creates a signature drink – a “Drambully,” made with Drambuie and Red Bull; she eats Funyuns for dinner, and is hooked on Sweet’N Low. That’s youth culture.

    Since we have created a new approach and genre (“Click Lit”) and Find Me I’m yours is an interactive, multi-platform entertainment experience with original videos, 33 websites, and web series, we had to find an non traditional way to finance the project.

    We approached several brands to be part of the Find Me I’m Yours STORYVERSE — meaning one of the websites — and finally found Cumberland, the makers of Sweet’N Low. They’re a family-owned business that has supported the arts for many years so we tied them to the website already in book called Worship the Brand, devoted to brand-inspired art and fan art. Cumberland even provided money for substantial cash prizes for contests we’re launching to encourage and support artists and creativity.

    I was so grateful for their help and their belief in what we were doing that not only did I give them a transparent shout-out on the ABOUT page of http://www.worshipthebrand.com, but I also offered to add any message they felt was important to them in the book or on the site. It was in that spirit that I beefed up one passage about Sweet’N Low that was already in the book — because I happen to use and love Sweet’N Low. Every other product or brand mentioned stayed in the story – not because they paid to be in there, but because using and referring to brands is an authentic part of millennial culture, and that vernacular was always part of the book.

    So because we found an unusual way to support an nontraditional project, the sponsorship tie became the headline rather than the story itself — that we’ve created a new paradigm in publishing and entertainment by presenting an innovative way in how stories are told and experienced.

    We appreciate Kathryn seeing that and focusing on the real story here! We see nothing more ethical than artists staying true to their vision and finding ways to fund it themselves so it won’t get diluted and changed by publishers, studios, or networks who are more concerned with profits and the bottom line.

    Maxine and I have both experienced that firsthand, and it’s what propelled us to find a new way to raise money in the first place — to NOT have to sell out.

    • I’m sorry if I repeated incorrect information, but the Times ran the story two weeks ago, and I assumed that if there were any errors in it you would’ve asked them to run a correction by now. Have you asked them to? And what specifically is incorrect? The Times story did mention that Sweet’N Low appeared in the novel before Cumberland became its sponsor and that the role of the sweetener in the story was beefed up afterwards. Is it not true that the company showed you research supporting their case to help you shape one of the scenes?

      Sorry again – I’m getting worked up about it because of the potential health consequences for readers. Diabetes is serious.

    • Bloggers who write sponsored posts are required by law to write “sponsored” in prominent and clear place on the post. It sounds like you have this information on one of the websites connected to this book. You need to have the fact that this book was sponsored and who sponsored it clearly in the book itself. For all intents and purposes, the fact that you include Sweet n Low as a prominent part of the book and that it was sponsored by Sweet n Low makes your book one giant ad.

  5. As a reader and consumer, I appreciate the author taking the time to stop by.

    Perhaps its a sign that I have not reached maturity yet, but I feel compelled to say it. I told you so!

    Ok, now with that out of the way, I will maturely point back again to our Renaissance masters. They had sponsors too. Do we call them sell outs? Perhaps look at the CumberLand Co. as the modern day Medici family. They weren’t a perfect family tree by any means, but thanks to them we have some pretty beautiful art.

    I would caution against limiting what a writer writes even for what might be a good cause. Slippery slopes. Very slippery slopes.

    • Writing is story telling. News should only be news. Simply the facts without opinion or bias delivered with passion or sponsorship. But we haven’t had unbiased news for decades. It is human nature to editorialize everything. Even the weather.

  6. I’m still trying to equate $1.3 million for one or two lines of product placement in a novel of unproven success. What did I miss?

    • It’s not the novel placement they paid for as I understand it. It is the online content placement. And since this is a new venture for a ground breaking project it is likely to get a ton of exposure. It is also probably just drop in the bucket of their marketing expense.

      Even if it does not get the anticipated traffic it’ll still be a big tax write off for the vendor.

  7. Anyone remember a novel back in 2001 called “The Bulgari Connection”? Fay Weldon cut a deal with Bulgari jewelers that she had to mention their name a minimum of 17 times in exchange for £18,000. She managed to slide in 34 references in such juicy prose as “They snuggled together happily for a bit, all passion spent; and she met him at Bulgari that lunchtime”. Maybe she should have held out for more cash?

    Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, I guess.

  8. This makes me angry and sad. So called “Sponsored posts” are already common in blogging (especially food blogging). I guess I’m not surprised that this is starting to happen with books. I get that writers need income (I am an author of 2 traditionally published books). But this practice turns books into giant ads. I really think that the authors need to have the fact that their book has been sponsored by a product that is a key part of the book front and center in the book itself. Also, to be honest–the author saying that Sweet n Low is created by a family-owned company, blah, blah, feels like they are trying too hard to justify this. Sheesh. Bloggers sell their souls for packets of Ranch dressing. This author has sold her soul for Sweet n Low.

  9. To be honest, I don’t get why folks get worked up about stuff like this. Why not get paid for product placement, especially when that product placement is already there anyway? I know that for myself, if I like a product I’ll try to put it into my story if it fits. If that product’s owners want to pay me for additional mentions, oh yeah! Even better!

    It is no more of a sell out than a writer selling his or her own art for money as opposed to giving it away for free. Jack Higgins mentions Bushmills Whiskey dozens of times throughout his Sean Dillon novels. John Gilstrap mentions Lagavulin Scotch in all of his. I assume it is because these are their favourite drinks. Why not get paid for the mentions? Everybody wins.

    • I agree, if it is something the author believes in or likes, it is their business. If you don’t approve, don’t buy it but I have to admit I’m curious to see how it all works and if I can get some ideas for marketing my own work.

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  11. I am curious. Would those of you who are offended by paid product placement have been so upset had she not been paid? The same mentions were already in the book, after all.

  12. It’s not the product placement that bothers me. It’s the fact that the novel’s main character argues that Sweet’N Low is safe when the scientific evidence is very much undecided on that issue. And this is exactly the part of the book that Cumberland Packing paid for! Here’s the quote from the New York Times story:

    Steven Eisenstadt, the president and chief executive of Cumberland Packing, said he saw “Find Me I’m Yours” as a way to reach younger, female consumers and to combat “latent myths” about the health risks associated with artificial sweeteners. He said he was particularly excited about integrating his company’s products into the story line, rather than delivering the message through an outright ad.

    He said he especially liked the idea of having a main character who loves Sweet’N Low and has to defend her use of it. To help shape the scene, the company showed Ms. Carlip some of the research Mags cites when she argues that the product is safe.

    • I think the inconclusive speaks for itself. I am not a fan of Sweet ‘n Low but I know some who can’t live without it. I think most of us are smart enough to make our own decisions about whether we like something or not. Having the facts, and for that I appreciate people like you who try to see that the facts are out there, to make informed decisions. But even with the facts there are those who will continue with risky behavior i.e. sex without condoms and smoking.

  13. The idea of “millennial culture” seems bogus enough all by itself. But when I got to Wren’s assertion that the privately-owned business making Sweet ‘N Low is a “modern day Medici family,” I understood just how many have followed Alice down the rabbit hole.

  14. This is nothing new. Nora Roberts has used the product placement of Pepsi in all of her In Death books. And she’s rarely photographed without a can of Pepsi in her hand or at her elbow. It doesn’t bother me because I don’t drink soda with or without sugar. It is what it is.

    • But Pepsi never paid Nora Roberts to have one of her characters argue that the soft drink (diet or otherwise) is harmless. That’s the difference.

  15. This whole issue reminds me of Anne from the ‘Anne of the Island.’ Remember when she found her friend Diane had added the information about baking powder to her beloved story and submitted it to the Rollings Reliable Baking Powder Company in their contest? Anne knew that writing should be writing, not advertising. It’s just wrong.

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