The Novel Approach

Sean Gullette
Originally Published in Brill's Content
2000



Long before he decided to write the first novel with product placement, Bill Fitzhugh knew being a scribe in L.A. was a tough racket. "Desperate is more like it," he says of his years struggling to sell radio comedy, screenplays, pilots, and sitcoms. "You do whatever you have to, to try to get somebody's attention." Frustrated, he took a novel writing class at UCLA, and by 1997 it worked: the sale of two moderately successful novels led to a "low six-figure" four-book deal with HarperCollins.

But by the time Fitzhugh handed in his third book, "Cross Dressing"-- "a satire of the advertising and religion industries"-- his publicist, Marie Elena Martinez, told him, "'Author Publishes Third Novel' is just not newsworthy. You'll have to come up with something else. What have you got for me?"

He thought about it and came back. "It was a bolt out of the blue," says the book's editor, Tom DuPree. "He said "product placement" and I said, 'wow,'...and the publicity people said, 'Great, if you can pull it off.' It fits this book." The P.R. firm Bragman, Nyman Cafarelli suggested Fitzhugh try liquor importer Schiefflin & Somerset. "I though, 'oh perfect, a liquor outfit--he'll be a single malt scotch snob.' Then it occurred to me that Universal Studios, who had bought the film rights to the book [for $1.25 million], was owned by Seagrams, and they might get bent out of shape if I did product placement with these other guys."

So Fitzhugh rewrote four scenes featuring his protagonist, jaundiced advertising man Dan Steele, interacting with Seagram brands, and sent them to Tony Grana, a placement V.P. at Universal.

Dan headed for the bar. 'How 'bout a drink." Father Michael perked up a bit. "Got any scotch?" "Only the best." Dan pulled a handcrafted wooden box with an etching of the Glenlivet Distillery and it's founding year prominently displayed on the inside lid. He held it up as if it were a holy relic. "This is a limited edition collection of five vintage-dated single-malt Scotch whiskeys produced by the world-renowned Glenlivet Distillery." Carefully, almost religiously, Dan pulled the 1968 vintage from the box...

And so on. Grana (who declined to comment) interofficed the proposal to Seagram Spirits and Wines executive Wendell Unzicker. "Bill happens to be an aficionado of scotch; we sent him some product," says Unzicker. "No changes were suggested. This was a handshake kind of a deal." But Grana forwarded Fitzhugh a memo about the passages, in which Unzicker writes, "after they have their shot of vintage Glenlivet, I trust the blend they drink will be Chivas Regal," and suggests changing a mention of Martell V.S.O.P to the ultra-premium Cordon Bleu cognac. Fitzhugh incorporated the notes. "In fact," says Fitzhugh, "Dan's boxed set of five vintages of Glenlivet becomes a very important thing in his life."

"I think it's a scream," says Peter Bart, the editor-in-chief of Variety. "In film, years ago, if you showed someone drinking a glass of whiskey, you bet that the producer or the director would get a few cases. Nowadays, the deals are very complicated: someone may get money, but someone also may get a car; and of course in some deals there are very large advertising tradeouts. It's all become something of an embarassment."

"Well, I think it's pretty lame," says Jonathan Galassi, editor-in-chief at Farrar Strauss and Giroux, of the Fitzhugh story. "It doesn't enter into the kind of work that we're publishing. But I guess nothing should surprise us." What if one of his authors, say John McPhee, wanted to give Audi a few mentions in an upcoming book and arranged to get a Quattro. Galassi laughs. "I guess that would be between him and Audi. I would tell him it's not a great idea."

"Dan Steele, deep down, is a good guy trying to make it an impure world," says Fitzhugh of his compromised ad man. Sound like Bill Fitzhugh? "Yeah, pretty much. At least I did it with a little irony." "This wouldn't work for most books; it's not the beginning of a trend," says DuPree. Has the publicity-stunt aspect of it worked out? "There have been some calls. I think this story is one example."

Peter Bart doubts books are the billboards of the future. "But if you write a book that becomes a bestseller," he says wryly, "you should go back into it and put in some brand names, see what you can get for yourself. Now there's an idea."