News Item: Land Rover, the British automobile concern, commissions noted author William Boyd to produce a 18,000 word novella prominently featuring its vehicles.
I turned on the [Brand Name withheld until naming rights are negotiated] coffee maker. Alison, my wife, had already gone to her downtown office, and I was glad to have a few minutes to gather my thoughts before hitting the phone lines to shake down Corporate America for endorsement fees.
Product placement fees being new to the world of fiction writing, I was still working out the ask. If William Boyd copped a reputed six-figure deal from Land Rover, surely mention in a Nick Kocz short story—which might be read by as many as a dozen people, family included—might be worth a few bucks.
My latest creation, a short story featuring the cunning yet consumer-friendly antics of a cat that might, depending on which corporate rep retuned my call first, be named Purina or 9Lives or Friskies, was still in its formative stages. I had leverage on my side: I could bend my story to the will of whichever ad executives were willing to show me the cash. Should, say, an airline pony up, I’d have the cat fly to whichever locale best suited their needs. I was flexible. The cat could down a six-pack of Budweiser, smoke Camels out of its butt, shellac its lips and cheeks with Maybelline or Revlon products, develop an addiction to an erectile dysfunction medication.
But now pedestrian concerns came to mind. I googled kitty litters, found the phone number for the leading brand’s New York office. When a receptionist answered, I asked to be routed to the promotions department. Moments later, a youngish-sounding man picked up the line. He coughed indecorously into the receiver, and asked, “How can I help you?”
I introduced myself as an emerging short story writer who may one day produce a paragraph of staggering genius. Which was true: theoretically speaking, great things are still possible in all our lives.
“So for fifty bucks, I’ll have my cat crap on your litter.”
“The opportunity cost of silence is staggering”
“I don’t understand.”
“Think of it: my staggering genius, your kitty litter. A match made in heaven, no? Certainly a bargain for fifty dollars.”
The promotions man hemmed, making me wonder if I should be speaking to his senior colleagues. He coughed again, apologized for coughing, and said, “Um, so are you asking for coupons or product samples? We don’t give out consumer-sized free samples anymore, but I could mail you a coupon. Would you like that?”
Something meta, I sensed, was being proposed. Though my normal artistic aesthetic didn’t slouch towards post-modern shtick, I would try to make it work. Gears started to creak in my head. I would build a scene into the story where the cat would open a mailbox and be overjoyed by the discovery of an envelope containing the kitty litter coupons mailed by this youngish-sounding promotions man.
“So for fifty dollars my cat will receive one of your coupons in the mail, take it to the grocery store, and buy itself a supply of your litter. Would you want the cat to do #1 or #2 in the litter box? I’ll stress the litter’s absorbency or its clumping properties but if you want both, it’ll cost an extra ten dollars.”
Almost every week articles appeared on the internet detailing the impossibility of supporting oneself solely on the earnings of one’s short stories, yet now I foresaw new revenue streams, new opportunities. Such was the severity of the man’s nagging cough that, if I wrote him into my story, I could recommend he medicate himself with over-the-counter remedies, opening up the possibility of pharmaceutical placement fees. If he refused the advice, I’d shake down funeral homes and cemeteries to determine his final resting spot. My cat story would serve as a model for a whole series of animal-related tales, each subsequent volume exploiting a household pet to get at their apologists, outfitters and purveyors. I’d launch them as free e-books and pump up their circulation figures by “purchasing” thousands (or millions?) of copies myself. What industry, what manufacturer wouldn’t want a crack at my market?
But despite the vast untapped potential I offered, the promotions man continued to cough, continued to hesitate.
“Okay. You drive a hard bargain,” I said, plunging myself back into wheeler-dealer mode. “For five extra dollars, you’ll have the cat do both #1 AND #2. A dump and a pee, got it? One each. Fifty-five dollars in total.”
A moment later, the line went dead. I envisioned him marching into his senior colleagues’ offices and, between coughing fits, outlining my proposal and arguing vigorously for the authority he needed to authorize the deal. What was fifty-five dollars to a large corporation? Hour elapsed while I waited for him to call me back. I picked up the phone again and reached for the telephone directory. Decisiveness was not necessarily an attribute commonly ascribed to emerging short story writers, or at least it wasn’t ever ascribed to me, but as I flipped to the funeral home listings, I already made the decision that the promotions man would fool-hardily refuse the two tablespoons of [Brand name withheld pending negotiations] cough syrup I was going to offer him in my short story.