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Words From Our Sponsor: A Jeweler Commissions a Novel
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
One of the first scenes in the British writer Fay Weldon's new novel
takes place amid "the peaches and cream décor" of the Bulgari jewelry
store on Sloane Street in London. There, attended to by "charming girls,
and men too," the real estate mogul Barley Salt pays £18,000 to buy his
scheming second wife, Doris Dubois, "a sleek modern piece, a necklace,
stripes of white and yellow gold, but encasing three ancient coins, the
mount following the irregular contours of the thin worn bronze."
Readers may not know that Bulgari, the Italian jewelry company, paid Ms.
Weldon an undisclosed sum for a prominent place in the book, fittingly
entitled "The Bulgari Connection." It is scheduled for distribution by
the small publisher Grove/ Atlantic in the United States in November.
The arrangement is believed to be a first for the book industry,
traditionally one of the few corners of the media free of sponsors'
pitches and plugs. The Bulgari connection is certainly the most highly
visible episode yet in an ongoing courtship pairing authors and
publishers desperate for marketing support with companies eager to
capitalize on the power of a reader's immersion in a book, from
organizing children's books around the names of well-known candy or
cereals to holding literary readings in fancy boutiques. As a publicity
stunt, one little-known writer last year persuaded Seagram to sponsor a
satiric novel that happened to involve Scotch. Ms. Weldon, however, is a
marquee author writing explicitly at Bulgari's behest.
If "The Bulgari Connection" sells well, publishers and booksellers expect
more like it. "I think this is fantastic," said Jane Friedman, chief
executive of HarperCollins Publishers, part of the News Corporation
(news/quote) and the book's British publisher. "It gives me a lot of
ideas ‹ what better way to spread the word than to have a commissioned
book? And if you are going to talk about jewelry you might as well talk
Marketing executives are equally enthusiastic. Michael Nyman, who handles
similar deals in other media as president of the marketing firm Bragman
Nyman Cafarelli, part of the Interpublic Group of Companies (news/quote),
said books were "part of the next wave of product placement." Consumers
spend more time and attention on a book than a film or television show,
he said. "It is a more personal relationship with a book; you can curl up
on a chair with it, you read it before you go to sleep, it is very near
and dear to people."
But some bristle at the merger of marketing and literature.
"It is like the billboarding of the novel," said Letty Cottin Pogrebin,
president of the Authors Guild. "I feel as if it erodes reader confidence
in the authenticity of the narrative. It adds to the cynicism. Does this
character really drive a Ford or did Ford pay for this?"
The Bulgari connection is all the more unusual because Ms. Weldon has won
critical accolades as the author of more than 20 literary novels,
including a few best sellers. And her United States publisher, Grove/
Atlantic, is a literary press.
"When the approach came through, I thought, `Oh no, dear me, I am a
literary author. You can't do this kind of thing; my name will be mud
forever,' " Ms. Weldon recalled last week. "But then after a while I
thought, `I don't care. Let it be mud. They never give me the Booker
Prize anyway.' " The Booker Prize is Britain's most prestigious literary
The idea for the sponsorship originated with Francesco Trapani, Bulgari's
chief executive. "When you take out an ad in a magazine, you only have a
certain amount of space in which to speak," he told the fashion magazine
W, which reported the deal last month. "That is why product placement ‹
whether you're talking about books, movies or Hollywood stars ‹ is so
important to us."
Other executives tapped Ms. Weldon. Mr. Trapani had not read her work.
The company initially ordered a special printing of the book, but always
hoped that a traditional publisher would embrace it, Mr. Trapani said
Ms. Weldon's agent, Giles Gordon, said that he loved the idea. "Does it
matter if you are paid by a publisher or paid by an Italian jewelry
firm?" he said. He added that he would recommend product placements to
other clients, too. The current crop of "chick lit" novels and memoirs
about the lives of young women offers potential for touting vodka,
cigarettes, clothing and other brands, he said. "The sky is the limit."
Ms. Weldon may have been receptive because she once made her living
writing copy for the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather.
Ms. Weldon's contract required her to mention Bulgari at least a dozen
times. "I thought, this is absurd," she said, "Let's do it honorably ‹
without any pretense. The problem with product placement is when you try
to do it without being noticed." She decided to make Bulgari jewelry the
centerpiece of the novel, easily exceeding the stipulated requirements.
Bulgari approved the manuscript without change, she said.
The resulting book returns to some of the same themes as Ms. Weldon's
best-known novel, "The Life and Loves of a She-Devil," about a spurned
and vengeful wife. But in other ways it is a departure from her oeuvre.
Ms. Weldon customarily writes contemplative, literary novels about
working women or intellectuals. "The Bulgari Connection," about 200 pages
long and written in less than six months, is faster paced, less
descriptive and relies more heavily on plot. It is a dark social comedy
about the foibles of the very rich. Its heroine, Grace McNab Salt, has
recently emerged from a jail sentence for attempting to run over her ex-
husband's new wife, Doris Dubois, an avaricious television celebrity who
favors Bulgari's bulky jewelry. They clash at an auction over a painting
depicting a Bulgari necklace.
The world of the novel differs from contemporary London mainly in that
Bulgari appears to be the only jeweler in town. Many of the characters
are its devout patrons. "The copy editor told me, `I never wear jewelry
but I am going to get some now,' " Ms. Weldon said proudly. "It is a good
piece of advertising prose."
Ms. Weldon said her publishers initially considered changing the title to
avoid the taint of paid sponsorship. But they were quickly convinced it
was essential to the story.
Grove/Atlantic published Ms. Weldon's other recent books in the United
States but balked at the commercial nature of "The Bulgari Connection."
"They didn't even want to read it if it was associated with a product,"
Mr. Gordon, her agent, said.
Judy Hottensen, a spokeswoman for Grove/Atlantic, said: "We definitely
questioned it. Then we read it and we loved it." She emphasized that
Grove/Atlantic had no relationship with Bulgari.
Although Bulgari is not paying the publishers, Mr. Gordon and editors at
HarperCollins said they expected that Bulgari would help get attention
for the book. Mr. Trapani, of Bulgari, said promotions were still under
Bulgari's relationship with Ms. Weldon could also complicate the book's
reception. Chris Avena, a manager at the BookHampton bookstore in East
Hampton, N.Y., said, "I don't know how many of us here on the staff would
be able to get past the concept to find out whether it is a real book or
a piece of advertising."
But Ms. Weldon said she was delighted with the novel and would consider
another commission, if the product and the timing were right. "It doesn't
matter where the idea comes from," she said. "The novel is still what you
want to write."
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company
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