by: Alexandra Alter
The heroine of "Find Me I'm Yours," a new novel by Hillary Carlip, is a quirky young woman named Mags who works at an online bridal magazine and is searching for love in Los Angeles.
But the story also has another, less obvious protagonist: Sweet'N Low, the artificial sweetener.
Sweet'N Low appears several times in the 356-page story, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. In one scene, Mags, a Sweet'N Low devotee, shows off her nails, which she has painted to resemble the products pink packets. In another, she gets teased by a co-worker for putting Sweet'N Low in her coffee.
"Hellooo, isn't it bad for you?" the friend asks. Mags replies that she has researched the claims online and found studies showing that the product is safe: "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."
The scene was brought to you by the Cumberland Packing Corporation, the Brooklyn-based company that makes Sweet'N Low. Cumberland Packing invested about $1.3 million in "Find Me I'm Yours."
Product placement in a novel might strike some as unseemly. But "Find Me I'm Yours" is not like most novels. It's an e-book, a series of websites and web TV shows, and a vehicle for content sponsored by companies. And if it succeeds, it could usher in a new business model for publishers, one that blurs the lines between art and commerce in ways that are routine in TV shows and movies but rare in books.
When RosettaBooks publishes "Find Me I'm Yours" as an e-book on Monday, it will be sold through all the major digital retail channels - Amazon, Apple's iBook store, Barnes & Noble's Nook store and Kobo.
But RosettaBooks is also trying to bridge the digital and physical divide by marketing the $6.99 e-book with postcard-size cards marked with codes that readers can use to download the book. The cards allow e-book creators to market and sell digital books in physical retail stores, hand them out at promotional events and give them away to readers.
The cards are also a way for authors to attract corporate sponsors. Since publishers can print different batches with special codes, a company could buy 10,000 cards to give away, with brand-specific sponsored content that would be bundled with an e-book. RosettaBooks is printing an initial batch of 15,000 cards for "Find Me I'm Yours."
And because the e-book cards are marked with individual download codes, they offer access to detailed information on how readers engage with the book, including how much time they spend immersed in it, how far into the story they read and whether they reread certain passages. "It delivers high-power analytics, which is much more valuable to advertisers," said Arthur Klebanoff, the RosettaBooks chief executive.
RosettaBooks - an independent digital publishers that offers works by Kurt Vonnegut and Arthur C Clarke as well as nonfiction books about history, health and current events - is one of several publishers experimenting with e-book cards.
HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster and Open Road Integrated Media are also testing e-book cards as a way to sell or give away digital books at author events and conferences, and - in a few cases - offer them in retail stores. RosettaBooks has already printed e-book cards for a handful of nonfiction titles, and has distributed about 100,000 of the cards at conferences, college campuses and author events.
"Find Me I'm Yours" was conceived as click bait from the start. Ms. Carlip, the author of four other books, including "Girl Power: Young Women Speak Out," set out to write an interactive multimedia narrative packed original videos and with links to websites that enhanced the 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.
To flesh out the fictional world, Ms. Carlip built 33 websites that connect to the story line, with dedicated themes like spirituality, weddings, goofy pet photos and videos, and public apologies.
As readers progress through the story, they can click on Bridalville, the bridal humor website where Mags works, and read articls and watch videos or visit Freak4mypet.com, a site where Mags's ex-boyfriend posts photos of her dogs (and where readers can post their own funny pet images and videos). The e-book features videos of an actor portraying the mysterious, attractive stranger as part of her scavenger hunt.
The sites are intended to host sponsored content - a pet food company might sponsor an animated series on Freak4mypet, for example - as well as user-generated material. In the novel, for example, Mags's ex-boyfriend builds a website to apologize for cheating on her, and readers can visit the site Ms. Carlip built and post their own confessions.
"Find Me I'm Yours" has taken three years and $400,000 to develop. It is the first project to come out of Storyverse Studios, an entertainment company Ms. Carlip co-founded this year with Maxine Lapiduss, a TV producer and writer for shows including "Roseanne," "Ellen" and "Dharma & Greg." They run the business, which has 35 writers, web developers and a social media team, from several bungalows in Studio City in Los Angeles.
The investment from Cumberland Packing, their first big corporate sponsor, helped pay for the development of the websites, and the company is sponsoring a fan art contest. Ms. Carlip is working on a sequel to "Find Me I'm Yours," and Storyverse Studios is developing several comedy web series and a reality show that link back to the novel.
Ms. Lapiduss said that in addition to the sponsorship deal with Cumberland Packing, negotiations were underway with five other large companies, including automakers and food and beverage producers. Ms. Lapiduss and Ms. Carlip say the readers they are seeking to reach - young women - are brand conscious consumers who won't be put off by copious mentions of products.
The novel is littered with brand names - the main character rides a Vespa and drinks Red Bull (the companies behind those products are not sponsors). And Ms. Carlip said Sweet'N Low was in the novel before Cumberland Packing was approached about becoming a sponsor, but the product's role was beefed up after a deal was reached.
Steven Eisenstadt, the president and chief executive of Cumberland Packing, said he saw "Find Me I'm Yours" as a way to reach younger, female consumers and to combat "latent myths" about the health risks associated with artificial sweeteners. He said he was particularly excited about integrating his company's products into the story line, rather than delivering the message through an outright ad.
He said he especially liked the idea of having a main character who loves Sweet'N Low and has to defend her use of it. To help shape the scene, the company showed Ms. Carlip some of the research Mags cites when she argues that the product is safe.
"It seemed like a more modern version of product placement on TV," he said. "They're cleverly and carefully having a product written into the story, but doing it in a way that didn't tarnish the integrity of the piece."
from: NY Times