Is it time for product placement in fiction?

A month after my first novel, SOMETHING MISSING, hit the store shelves, I began receiving the occasional but persistent email from readers asking and oftentimes accusing me of having made product placement deals during the writing of my book. It would seem that my frequent use of specific brand names in the book had struck a nerve and caused them to wonder why an author would choose to be so specific. Clearly, they had not read anything by Stieg Larsson.

I answered those emails with the assurance that my attention to detail and use of brand names was only an attempt to paint the clearest picture possible in my reader’s mind. But I also told readers that if Subaru had wanted to pay me for my mention of my protagonist’s Outback, I would not have complained.

A year later, at my first author talk for UNEXPECTEDLY, MILO, a reader asked if I had ever considered contacting Smucker’s and working out an endorsement deal with them. The protagonist of that book, Milo, is saddled with the compulsive need to open jars of Smucker’s grape jelly, and so this particular brand of jelly is featured prominently in the book.

Again, I told the reader that the use of the brand name was not intended to garner any corporate attention or an advertising windfall, though I also admitted that it would have been a great idea had I thought of it soon enough.

The Wall Street Journal created quite a kerfuffle with a piece suggesting that it won’t be long before ads find their way into e-books.

With e-reader prices dropping like a stone and major tech players jumping into the book retail business, what room is left for publishers’ profits? The surprising answer: ads. They’re coming soon to a book near you.

I'm still reading books the old fashioned way, so I can't say for sure how I feel about the possibility of ads on an e-reader, but I can assure you that I would hate to see them on the pages of a pulp-and-ink book.

However, product placement might be a different story.

While I can’t imagine striking deals with companies before or during the writing of a book, I find myself wondering what would be wrong with my agent contacting companies like Subaru or Smuckers after the fact and attempting to make a deal?

If UNEXPECTEDLY, MILO is made into a film (it's currently optioned for film at this time), the producers will undoubtedly attempt to do the same, and even change the brand of jelly if necessary in order to make a profit.

Why shouldn’t authors also cash in when they can?

As I think about this idea, I find myself wondering if deals could also be struck during the writing of a book as well?

Consider this:

I am writing UNEXPECTEDLY, MILO. I decide that one of Milo’s compulsions will be the need to open jars of jelly in order to release the pressurized seals on the lid. I grew up eating Smucker's grape jelly, so this is the brand that I am inclined to use, but I contact my agent and inform her that jelly will be playing an important role in my next book, appearing multiple times and always in a favorable light. “I’m inclined to use Smuckers,” I tell her, “but the actual brand name is unimportant, so if you can make a product placement deal with a jelly company, go for it.”

Is there a problem with this?

Naturally, there would be a concern that an author might write a book with the sole purpose of product placement, or that the proliferation of product placement might somehow erode the creative process and bastardize stories, but wouldn’t those books stick out like sore thumbs?

Wouldn’t these authors be spurned as sell-outs?

Wouldn’t these stories ultimately be ignored?

Companies investing in literary product placement would want these books to garner favorable reviews and sell well, and as such, the use of product placement would need to be subtle and appear as a natural part of the story anyway. Over-the-top, ham-handed product placement would do these companies no good.

A brand of jelly was predestined to appear in UNEXPECTEDLY, MILO, and if choice of brand name is arbitrary, why not make some money in the process?

I’m not entirely sold on the idea yet, but as a writer who frequently mentions brand names as a means of being specific, the idea of product placement and the profits that it might garner has a certain appeal to me.

Stieg Larsson’s books could have brought in a fortune on product placement deals.

Another fortune, that is.