How branding dates your book

Over the past few weeks, I’ve taken a lot of time out to read books. It’s been great, but in all of them I’ve picked up, I’ve noticed a recurring issue. Name-dropping brands and franchises in your book lends it a certain real-world appeal, but you encounter an immediate problem: It dates your work.

Now, if you’re setting your novel in a specific time frame, the use of brand names can help create immersion. Children of the 90s never called them in-line skates; everyone had Roller Blades. And while they first emerged in the 1800s, a zipper was called a ‘clasp locker’ or ‘separatable fastener’ until 1923. Using the proper terminology creates realism in your fiction.

But it can destroy it, too.

One of the books I read was published in 2008 and was designed as a “near future” kind of fiction. Everyone was still using radios and gasoline, but we had self-driving cars and tablets instead of desktop PCs. It was all pretty plausible, but one mistake broke the illusion.

The main character referred to a Borders bookstore.

Now, you might not think this a major issue, but in the context of the book, she could have easily just referred to the place as a “franchise bookstore” or “major bookseller” instead. It was–ironically–the only time in the entire book that the author referred to a franchise or brand, but it was enough to make the context crumple. Instead remaining of a vague “near future” that we haven’t quite reached even now, almost a decade later, the book became dated when Borders folded and closed all stores in 2011, not even 3 full years after this novel’s release.

It’s still plausible as an alternate universe, of course, a world where bookstores don’t fail and find themselves forced to close, but it’s a shame it has to come to that when dropping one word would have preserved the realism for years to come.

As technology permeates our lives, it’s something I see crop up more and more often, too. References to Netflix, iPods, iPads and eBay will only have as much lasting length as those brands, but they litter modern books alongside names of soft drinks and coffee shops.

Omitting the brands in favor of a generic lends your writing longevity, shifting it from an obvious era to an ambiguous “some time in ___ century” window. It might be more difficult or require more vigilance in editing, but it’s worth it, in the end.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, that book reminded me I have an old Borders card I need to throw away.

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