I didn’t learn an awful lot in my high school economics class. (Case in point: at the beginning of the recession panic, I raised my hand and asked my teacher to explain what would probably happen with the national debt over the next ten years. She said it was too complicated and not to worry about it.) Mostly, we were told to not go into credit card debt. So far, I’m doing pretty good on that one.
But there is one lesson that has still stuck with me. Even though it wasn’t the lesson I was supposed to be learning.
One day, our teacher brought in a sack of food and asked for volunteers for a demonstration. Food + high school students = an unlimited number of volunteers. One lucky participant was chosen and blindfolded. Then he was given two cookies, one generic and one Oreo brand. And so on, with products like orange juice, crackers, and fruit snacks. Each time, the student was supposed to raise his right or left hand to guess which product he thought was the brand name one.
He guessed right about 50% of the time. And even then, he admitted, “I’m just picking one. They taste exactly the same.”
Granted, this lesson on the relative unimportance of brand names might have been lost on the saggy-pants volunteer wearing a shirt proudly emblazoned with Abercrombie and Fitch, upping the cost about 400%, but the point was supposed to be clear: you don’t have to pay more for a quality product.
I say “supposed to be clear” because I learned a different lesson: you can charge more for a product if you market it well.
Seriously, now. Let’s think about this.
Wheat Thins? $4.29.
Wheat Crisps? $1.24
Taste? In my opinion…exactly the same.
In other words, the quality of the product is equal. But Wheat Thins and the Nabisco empire has name recognition and pretty packaging, while your local supermarket’s lowly “crisps” does not. That explains why Wheat Thins can get away with a price that’s more than three times as much as the generic.
If you’re applying this principle to the writing world, this seems terribly unfair. Joe Breakout Novel magically got discovered and now sells millions of copies, even though the writing is terrible. Meanwhile, you can’t even get a publisher or agent to look at your stuff because you have no “platform,” no built-in audience waiting to buy copies of your books by the truckload.
That’s actually the first place my mind went as a bored high school senior in economics class. Shouldn’t writing be judged on quality alone?
I forgot a few things, though.
First, it took work to make Wheat Thins memorable. The generic brands were almost certainly responses to the popularity of that cracker, so Wheat Thins are the original. In some way, they deserve their fame.
Application: Some works are less popular because they’re basically knock-offs of someone else’s original concept. No matter what you want to say about Twilight, they were the first of their kind in YA lit. That’s going to pay off, and it should.
Second, people still eat Wheat Crisps. The generic product may not be as well-known, but there are many people who recognize a quality product when they taste it.
Application: If you focus on what you can control—the quality of your writing—and stop complaining about the oppressiveness of the system, you will find readers, because readers are looking for quality writing. That’s not to say you shouldn’t do marketing. You should. That’s part of creating a quality product. But what you shouldn’t do is spend all your time using “can’t break into the market” as an excuse for not writing.
Third, this is an analogy based on groceries, and it’s not going to fit in every way.
Application: There are a lot of variables—especially in the digital world—that aren’t accounted for. The “generic vs. brand name” may be a traditional model of how publishing worked…but all of that is changing quickly. Researchers are pointing frantically to trends that say that soon, with the rise of easy distribution, writers can do their own marketing, reach niche audiences, overcome the stigma of self-publishing and otherwisely get rid of the middle-man when it comes to getting their writing out there for people to read. That levels the playing field in a way that’s never been seen before.
So, the moral of the story is not that you should try to become really famous, get a brilliant graphic designer to create cool packaging for your books, and then charge higher prices for them. The point is, you get fans by creating a quality product and doing all you can to get it out to the people who will be interested in it.
You will probably still be a “generic,” at least for a while. But that’s where everyone starts. Sure, you can wait around for luck to give you the big break that launches you to “brand name” status…but those stories only happen every now and then. The rest? Hard work, quality writing, and paying attention to trends in publishing.
And probably listening in your high school economics class. You can learn some interesting things there.