Can books work as content marketing?

In Content Strategy by Rob JohnsonLeave a Comment

I like books. I still read them. But books have, for many years, been the poor cousins of content marketing, neglected by everyone except service industries like law or financial planning, where they were used as a way of establishing “thought leadership”. But two new literary projects from last year pointed to some interesting ways books can be used to build brands.

Last December, espionage novelist William Boyd released a novel called The Vanishing Game (read it at which was paid for by Land Rover. A month earlier, a new novel called Find Me I’m Yours was published in the United States—which came with associated websites and web TV shows, which was conceived of and funded by the Cumberland Packing Corporation, makers of Sweet’N Low—a product much beloved by the main character, and featuring heavily in the story.

Both caused a bit of hand-wringing about product placement in the literary world (there’s a good article about it in the Australian literary magazine Overland, if you’re curious, and the New York Times ran a fascinating piece explaining the Sweet’N Lo connection to Find Me I’m Yours here). In both cases, the product plugs, such as they were, seemed a little clunky—but that just drew attention to the fact that a bit of shilling was going on here.

The idea of companies funding literature in return for a presence in the story isn’t new—in 2001, author Fay Weldon wrote a book specifically for jewellery-maker Bulgari, to be published privately and given to special clients. But with general agreement between Weldon, her publisher, and the client that the book—called The Bulgari Connection—was as good as anything else Weldon had ever written, they decided to publish it. It was met by outrage from the literary establishment at the time, even if there was some agreement that it was a good read.

More recently, in Australia, Anna Funder wrote a novel commissioned by Paspaley Pearls where there was much proud discussion about how she hadn’t plugged the company’s products in the text (although it was illustrated by pictures of a model wearing the pearls). This is despite Paspaley’s very public involvement—the company is credited in the front of the book, and it’s available through the company’s website. I can’t imagine how it would in any way damage the fictional narrative to give the pearls a plug, to be honest.

But getting bogged down in product placement is missing what’s really interesting here. Fifteen years ago, the idea of getting a ‘name’ author to write a book was a mark of prestige—like getting a famous rock star to play a concert at your office Christmas party.

But The Vanishing Game and Find Me I’m Yours are very much conceived of, and executed as, contemporary e-books. The former is on a tumblr, where the latter is distributed through Amazon, iBooks, Barnes & Noble and Kobo, and links out to sites where readers can share their own related content.

The book publishing world, while initially a bit suspicious about how they could interact with the digital world, is now embracing all the distribution (and tracking) advantages of digital publishing. The distribution muscle of e-books is what eventually won over the book publishing world. Both these books are triumphs of clever distribution—finding new ways to get ideas about how the world works through to larger groups of readers.

And with one industry and a pile of creative minds putting that much effort into doing so, it makes sense for brands to piggy-back on their efforts.

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