Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Monday, February 11, 2008

Coke and Pepsi Part II

Okay, unlike some authors who shall not be named, I really do have something to say about Coke and Pepsi—and it does kind of relate to writing even. There is an interesting problem you face when trying to get shelf space for a new product. Let’s say you have invented a new cola. This cola is ten times as good as Coke or Pepsi. It makes RC Cola taste like yellow snow, and don’t even get me started on how much better it is than Shasta.

You have done all of your research, taste tests, cost comparisons, marketing surveys. The works. So with your portfolio in hand, you take you new cola to Dave Dopey, the head of 11-7, a chain of 2,000 mini-marts.

Dave listens to your spiel. He tries a taste of the sample. And . . . he loves it! It’s the best tasting cola he’s ever tried. Success, at last! You begin to celebrate your new found customer, when Dave drops a bomb shell. “I’m sorry,” he says. “But we are not going to carry your cola.”

You are crestfallen. How can Dave admit your cola is much better than Coke or Pepsi, but decline to stock it? There are many possible reasons—advertising budget, co-op deals, brand recognition. But for the purpose of this blog we will focus on only one issue—shelf space.

Here is the problem. Dave already carries Coke, Pepsi, and a small supply of RC Cola. He currently sells $5 million of cola products. In order to carry your product, Dave will have to take something else off his shelves. That would be okay if your product would increase his sales revenue. But the fact of the matter is that people who drink cola already buy Coke, Pepsi, or RC. Your product is unlikely to attract new cola drinkers. All it will do is cannibalize sales of his other colas. Since he won’t stop stocking the three colas he already carries, he is giving up valuable shelf space for nothing. Since you don’t have a following yet, he won’t lose potential customers looking for your product, so he tells you to come back when you’ve built up your brand further.

You go back to the drawing board. Remembering the problem you faced last time you decide to come up with a flavor of soda nobody carries. Being a whiz at this kind of thing, you develop cherry-lime-chocolate blast. Again you do taste tests and all the appropriate research. Again Dave loves the taste of your product. And again he turns you down.

“Why?” you ask. “Surely you don’t sell any sodas to lime, cherry, chocolate aficionados. This is cool new stuff. It will stand out.”

“That’s exactly the problem,” Dave says. “There’s just no market for this sort of thing. People aren’t ready for it.”

Thus we come down to a dilemma as soda manufacturers and also as authors. On my Farworld blog, I’ve been running a poll. The question asks fantasy readers what types of books they prefer. The range goes from the standard, tried and true, elves and swords to a book like nothing they’ve ever read before.

Not surprisingly, all but two of the votes fall in the middle. People either want something a little new, but with familiar concepts or they want standard fantasy with a twist. In the world of sodas, consumers would be telling us they want something familiar but a little different. Lemon-lime with a hint of orange or a strawberry cola. What they don’t want is the same-old same-old or anything really radical.

In the world of books, we are fighting for shelf space as well. We have to fit into a slot that retailers and publishers are familiar with how to sell, but we must be different enough to stand out. Is that what you look for in a book? Is that what you write?


At 2/12/2008 11:37 AM, Blogger Worldbuilder Robin said...

I have to admit that I had trouble choosing what to pick on your poll, since I couldn't see much difference between the two "middle" choices. Further, I couldn't really decide how much represents a twist in the basics, and how much is something completely new. Would Harry Potter simply be a generic wizard put in modern times? Is The Golden Compass something completely different, or a twist on alternate history?

Personally, I want something that catches my attention, whether it's the same old setting or something completely out of left (or right) field. It's hard to quantify. If I'm not intrigued by the description (and not the "advanced praise" nonsense), I don't read it. Better, if I'm not hooked after the first page, or even the first paragraph, I probably won't read it. (Which means I've really gotta punch up my first paragraph!)

The book I'm writing started as a development of a "unique" magic system based loosely on the elements. But there are six elements, and one of them is NOT Fire. The story is to some extent a vehicle for me to describe and explore that magic system. I don't know where that falls between "unique" and "the basics with a twist", though.

At 2/12/2008 12:31 PM, Blogger Jon said...

Did you notice that the nature of magic is rarely explored in Harry Potter? What makes some people wizards and others not? Where does the energy come from? Why do you have to have a wand? (Unless you're Dumbledore, of course.)

I started writing a magical fantasy novel myself, but I found myself getting too involved in the history of how it all came about rather than in the story itself! (Fun to contemplate, hard to make progress.)

And now for the really important question: where can you get RC Cola? I haven't had one in YEARS!

At 2/12/2008 1:46 PM, Anonymous Jennie said...

Rob, you've made a good analogy and you've done it by taking a good look at reality. I'm concerned that so many writers are trying to invent another reality when the market will only support a finite number of Harry Potters. The shelf space issue is real, so is consumer interest and loyalty. Even in the realm of realistic books, people want familiar concepts with interesting twists. No matter what genre a writer chooses, the majority of the public will only buy what they can relate to, which limits the market for anything too extreme no matter how well written.

At 2/13/2008 2:38 AM, Blogger Tristi Pinkston said...

I want to try some of that cola.

At 2/19/2008 6:40 AM, Blogger SilverRain said...

I'm not a writer, yet, but I'm an avid entertainment reader, especially in the fantasy genre. When I'm looking for a change, I switch genres for awhile. Generally speaking, I want familiar with a twist. I read for entertainment more than enlightenment, which means I don't want to have to work too hard to get into a story. If something is entirely outside my realm of familiarity, I'll read it occasionally, but not often.

On the other hand, I've had trouble finding really good, recommendable books lately. Every author is trying to get that "twist" but the twists are all the same. Even though I'm reading for entertainment, I want something in my books that enlightens in order to consider a book really good. In the fantasy-type genres, especially, I want some sort of overreaching insight into the nature of the world or humanity. Rather than just doing a twist for the sake of a twist, I want something that helps me see the world a little differently afterwards.

As much as I'm not a raving fan of Harry Potter, that is what Rowling at first somehow managed to begin doing: to write a story that illustrated human behavior in a new way. When her books fell flat, it was because she stopped developing her characters in realistic ways. Rather, they became too cliche or became simply vehicles to move the story along. To me, the story is the frame. The characters are the art.


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