19 August 2010 @ 09:34 am
Ads and E-Books: Money Should Still Flow Toward the Author  

Ron Adner and William Vincent recently wrote an article about ads appearing in e-books for the Wall Street Journal. The entirety of the article is behind a paywall, but here is an excerpt.

What would the world look like with ads in books? For consumers, the free samples of digital books now available would surely include ads. Because not every consumer who reads a sample chapter will buy the book, it’s reasonable for the publisher to extract some additional value. Seeing ads in the sample may also convince a reader to pay for a premium, non-ad version of the full-length book. The old market segmentation of paperbacks and hardcovers will be replaced by ad-supported or ad-free books.

Publishers will need to come up with new ways of evaluating a book’s commercial value. What is a best seller? Today the criteria is simple: total unit sales. Yet with advertising in the mix, a book downloaded 100,000 times but never read (think of that yet-to-be-opened prize-winning 600-pager) may be worth less than one downloaded 50,000 times and read cover-to-cover. Unread books suddenly become less profitable to a publisher.

Though I want to, I’m not going to rant and wring my hands over the idea of ads coming to e-books. It will surely happen, as surely as product placement proliferates in film and television. But I was a screenwriter first, and I’ve spent 15 years working with a variety of levels of product placement.

So what I’m going to rant about today- and I hope both agents and authors take this to heart- is the fact that WE NEED TO GET PAID. Period. This is NOT gravy money for the publisher, this is money- like subrights- that should be split between publisher and author/agent. And this is why:

You generally have three kinds of advertisers interested in product placement.


This is a non-creative placement. This is straight up pay for visibility- if your character is using a computer anyway, here’s 1000 bucks for that computer to be a Mac. If your character is having breakfast anyway, here’s 1000 bucks for that bottle to be full of Sunny Delight. These advertisers don’t really care HOW you use their product. They just want a money shot. Money shots in no way affect the story.

In an e-book, this would be akin to your copy-editor going through with an extra mark- let’s call it $$$- using it each time you mention a brand name, or something that could BE a brand name.

You can stet or accept those marks, the publisher takes the manuscript to the companies and say, “Can we has 50 bucks for Iris drinking RC Cola instead of Coca Cola?” The story is already there; the publisher is just selling the gift of money shots.

Sometimes, part of the payment for these simple money shots is the merchandise. In television and film, it serves the purpose of providing the exact model the company wants to advertise- but we get to keep these items once the shoot is over.


Manufactured money shots aren’t creative placement either, but they aren’t initially part of the story. Let’s go back to our imaginary copy-editor. She reads through your manuscript as is, and then adds a new mark- $?. This indicates places where you COULD have your character use a brand name item, though she doesn’t currently do so.

This could be as subtle as adding a line where your character puts on Nike trainers before going off to slay the Formor Demon. Or it could be as extensive as adding an entire scene where your characters go to Pizza Hut and drink Coca Cola while they discuss the entire rest of the plot.

You’d have to create these advertising moments, so it’s not as simple as accepting the change. You’ll have to craft an advertising moment in your manuscript.

So while these manufactured money shots don’t really alter the structure of the story- you’re still adding something to the text to specifically facilitate the advertisement.


As a screenwriter, I didn’t really mind the money shot placement. They’re not hard to throw in, and they don’t screw up my story. And sometimes, I could have fun with them. Samsung Mobile was one of our sponsors for years, and they were AMAZING. They didn’t care HOW we used their product in our films (if we used them at all- they got a producer credit, so either way, they got exposure.)

Consequently, I blew up Samsung phones, I drowned them, dropped them down wells, and in one memorable script that proved that Samsung was most interested in making good movies, not good commercials, I used their cell phones to record teenaged serial killers on a murder spree.

I tell this story with a great deal of fondness because this is not how product integration placement usually works. It’s an EXCEPTION, not the rule. And the rule… sucks.

For product integration placement, oooh, you get tons of money. And you give up tons of creative integrity. Marketing flacks come up with ideas of how you could use the product in your work. They write lists of ways you CANNOT use their product in the work. (Generally, nothing that would put the product in any kind of bad light, or compare it to a competitor.)

Sometimes, you get pages and pages of data about the product, including the product’s personality. They specify how many times they want to see their product on screen, and more specifically, HOW they would like to see it.

An example from a recent film project I worked on- our sponsors sell hair spray. They didn’t just want a can of hairspray on the shelf in the bathroom while the character talked to herself in the mirror. They wanted this character, for no particular reason, to sing in the bathroom and use the can of hairspray as a microphone.

That scene had nothing to do with the story, or the tone of the story, or good filmmaking. But I had to get it in there, and I had to figure out how to make it work- because that’s what the client wanted. (How many times have you seen that scene, friends? Now count how many times you could see the brand of hairspray/cola/whatever on the can she sings into. Mm hmmm.)

Even more exciting (read: horrifying) about product integration placement is that the sponsor has to read and approve the placement. Imagine this, authors- you finish your revisions and turn the book into your editor. Normally, you get your line edits, your copy-edits, your FPPs, and then it becomes a book. Throw in an extra step after line edits, where the advertiser gets to read your manuscript and make comments that you have to integrate.

And not all of these comments will be about the pages with the product. After all, the whole book has to set the product off in a good light. They can, and they will, and they will be allowed, to change aspects of the story to better serve the advertising.

Now you know why broadcast television series have been massacred in recent years by cable series. A show on ABC has to pass through the producers, and the studio, and the advertisers. A show on HBO has to pass through the producers. It’s obvious which one has more story integrity.


So the authors of this WSJ article are probably right- ads are coming to e-books and there’s not much we can do about it. But I don’t want authors and agents to look at it and think, well, let them link to Prada, it’s not a big deal. It IS a big deal, and we must understand how advertising is going to affect both our bottom line and our books.

We may have no choice about the coming commercialization of our text, but we absolutely have a chance to make it benefit writers and agents, as well as publishers. Product placement should be treated as a subright- I propose, on the same percentages as foreign rights subrights. Approximately 25% to the house, 75% to the author.

If we’re going to be forced to put advertisements in our books, we have a right to be part of that decision. We have a right to profit from that decision. And if we’ve learned anything from e-book rights royalties, authors and agents need to establish that baseline early.

Product placement should earn down our advances, and it should feed into our royalties. Merchandise payments should be paid first to the author and agent, then the house. (We’re more likely to need two new laptops than Giant Conglomeration Business Inc., don’t you think?)

And I think that authors should be allowed to decline, at the very least, product integration offers. Anything that fundamentally changes the text ought to be very, very expensive for the sponsor, and very, very acceptable to the author.

Change is coming; I hope this time we can be ahead of it.

Originally published at MSUFaL. You can comment here or there.

Tags: ,
Jessica Spotswoodjessica_shea on August 19th, 2010 01:49 pm (UTC)
This is fascinating, Saundra. Thanks for your insights!