Sweet or Low: The Novel That Ads Built

Sweet Or Low: The Novel That Ads Built

Our friends at Urban Dictionary define "sell out" like this:

One who betrays a cause for personal advancement.

By that definition, Hillary Carlip's newest bookFind Me I'm Yours, might not technically involve selling out. Sure, Cumberland Packaging Corporation, makers of Sweet'N Low, forked over $1.3 million for the novel and various supplemental web sites and web shorts. And sure, there are plans to track many of the reading habits that go along with the book, such as how far people go into the book, how long it takes to read, and whether people re-read passages. And granted, the chief executive of Rosetta Books has this to say about the novel:

It delivers high-power analytics, which is much more valuable to advertisers.

And yes, it's pretty easy to see the premise as less-than-original and focused more on sending readers to various web sites than telling a story:

The novel, a romantic comedy, centers on Mags, a quirky, struggling artist in Los Angeles who is heartbroken after she discovers her boyfriend cheated on her. When she finds a videotaped message from a handsome stranger, she is convinced they are soul mates and sets out on a scavenger hunt to find him.

But does Find Me I'm Yours represent the newest version of selling out?

If Carlip is to be believed, the novel was written, for the most part, before Cumberland Packaging Corporation was involved, and in fact, the main character already had a thing for Sweet'N Low. The presence of the little pink packages of chemical granules may have been beefed up a bit, and the character may or may not have a new agenda that involves defending artificial sweeteners against those who would malign them unfairly, but is it selling out?

Does it feel like selling out when a character says:

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.

Maybe it's the cost of doing business. After all, Find Me I'm Yours is not just a book. There are web shows and sites that help fill in the book's universe. 

Okay, you got me. The web sites may or may not have their own sponsored ads as well. And it might be foolish to assume that the web shows won't have any ads slapped up front. 

The more you read into it, the more it feels like the book was a vehicle for ads from the beginning, and if that was the extent of the artistic vision, it would seem that we really don't have a sell-out on our hands after all. 

Find Me I'm Yours doesn't represent the most interesting case of supplemental content and advertising in eBooks. It does make a person wonder, however. What if a book, a new book by your favorite author, could only come to light because it was funded by a large corporation? How would you feel about your favorite book if you knew it was written thanks to generous funding by the makers of Beano?

Any way you slice it, hooray for commerce.

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Josh Zancan's picture
Josh Zancan from Crofton, MD is reading East of Eden by John Steinbeck November 3, 2014 - 2:49pm


On the other hand, if somebody hands me a stack of cash to make sure my characters are drinking Jack Daniels instead of "whiskey", I'm doing it.  I'll even call Coca-Cola to see if they want to cash in on the mixer.

Granted, that's easy for me to say because I have plenty of whiskey-drinking characters and it wouldn't change anything about the character or story.  It wouldn't affect anything, really (in fact, in some of my stories, I already JD by name and that's without any influence).  But if Captain Morgan comes to me and says, "how about instead of whiskey, they drink our rum"...I don't know.  I'm very picky about the booze my alcoholics prefer.  So I'd feel awful if I made that compromise, but if the check is big enough, I might not feel so bad.  And if you called me a sell-out, I wouldn't argue.

At the end of the day, I guess it's not really a sin, so long as it doesn't directly influence the story or the characters.  If I'm doing it anyway, fine.  All that web series stuff sort of rubs me wrong, though.  It's like, c'mon.  That's just obnoxious.