Do You Support the Underdog as a Shopper?

There are many crowd-pleasing movies and books where the protagonist is an underdog who will beat the odds to triumph in the end. So as an audience, we tend to root for the underdog.

Is the same true when you’re shopping?

All other things being equal, would you prefer to buy a product from a major, national company or a small, local business?

Ah, but the question isn’t that simple because very often those other things aren’t equal. The big business may offer a better price or greater selection, or may provide more appealing financing. The small business may provide incentives of its own, by going the extra mile or being closer to your house.

There is yet another way that it’s not so simple to call the small business the underdog. Suppose, for example, that a huge company brings very low prices, saving people a great deal of money. Suppose further that this helps many low-income families live a little better. Aren’t those families the underdogs? So maybe if a huge business is helping people who could use the help in some way, then the business is supporting the underdog.

Here’s an interesting puzzle: When it comes to buying books from Amazon or a local bookstore, who is the underdog? Amazon is the huge company. Does this make the local bookstore the underdog?

Amazon supports millions of underdogs: indie authors, indie musicians, indie filmmakers, small business owners, small publishers, etc. This is in addition to underdog consumers who may derive benefits from shopping at Amazon. Furthermore, Amazon features success stories of indie authors and small business owners right on their home page from time to time.

Yet the local bookstore is an underdog, too, right? I don’t think it’s so clear-cut in this case. I know many people who would argue the point each way, and both arguments sound good to me. One is an underdog, but the other supports many underdogs. (Now maybe there are other underdogs who are being disadvantaged in the process… I don’t know, but if there is, that’s yet another complication to consider.)

Let me back up. It’s not always right to root for the underdog, is it? Suppose the favorite has worked tremendously hard, learned much from experience, and has rightfully earned the spot as the favorite. Should we automatically root for an inexperienced underdog who comes along just for the same of favoring the underdog? That doesn’t seem right to me.

If you think about the movies and books that feature an underdog, very often the protagonist displays positive character traits and is up against an evil villain.

My point is that character is important, too. It’s not just about figuring out who the small guy is. If the big business has a positive influence on the community, while the small business shows some signs of negative character, for example, that changes everything. Or at least, it should.

Suppose you’re an author (which will be easy to do for many of you because you are). Let’s say that you walk into a bookstore and discover that they have a flat-out “No!” policy regarding self-publishing or the management treats you condescendingly or you otherwise have a bad experience there. Are you likely to support that bookstore in the future?

(I’m not saying that they have to carry all self-published books; just that they should be open to the idea and base the decision on the merit of the book. If they have a few indie books on a shelf for local authors, that will earn my support. How they treat the inquiring author is very important, too.)

If instead you walk into a small, local bookstore that makes you feel like a royal prince, wouldn’t you feel compelled to drive traffic their way and do your shopping there, too? (You should.)

Does the underdog support other underdogs and treat other types of underdogs well? How about the big business? Also look at character. These are important considerations to me.

When it comes to buying a product, quality is also important. Perhaps the big business and small guy don’t have equivalent products. If one has superior quality, it’s more like comparing apples to oranges.

Finally, let me mention one more thing about buying books. This time, let’s look at the publisher instead of the bookseller. The indie author or small publisher is the underdog compared to the big publishing giants, right? Maybe not.

A book may have a small-time author who got a contract with a big-time publisher. And the big-time author was an underdog once upon a time, until many readers supported that author enough to turn the author into a success.

I suggest that there are many gray areas here.

Chris McMullen, author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers, Vol. 1 (formatting/publishing) and Vol. 2 (packaging/marketing)

Creativity: Good or Bad for Books?

Imagination is a good thing, right? I believe so.

It’s good to be creative as a writer, isn’t it? No argument from me there.

So books should show originality, don’t you think? Got my vote.

Nonetheless, here comes a great big BUT!

(Those who can spell realize I’m not talking about anatomy.)

Just to be clear, I’m not going to argue against creativity. I’m in favor of it.

Consider this: Does the bookselling industry discourage certain types of creative storytelling, rather than rewarding it?

Here are some examples of what I mean:

  • Suppose you write something so different that you’re breaking ground with a brand new genre. It doesn’t stand a chance of getting browse category visibility. How will readers discover it? The book is inherently disadvantaged.
  • Readers have an expectation for what to expect in terms of storyline, characterization, etc. in any given genre. The author who deviates from these expectations risks negative reviews for being creative.
  • How do romance readers react when the ending doesn’t turn out to be happy? Is there a significant readership for specific types of unhappy endings in this genre? There are some types of originality that many readers aren’t willing to support.
  • Even creativity in cover design has a significant potential downside. Many readers judge their interest in a book based on a cover. They are familiar with how the books they tend to read tend to look. If a book doesn’t look like it belongs to their genre, they might not check it out.

Do readers want to read the same types of books every time? I don’t.

First, I’m not saying that all forms of creativity pose problems. Some don’t, but others do.

If you want to write a romance, for example, there are already a variety of popular ways to go about it. First, there are subgenres, like contemporary or historical. If you choose a subgenre, there is plenty of room to follow a model while still being very creative. You don’t even necessarily need to follow a particular model. Yet there are some features that are high-risk to change – like taking away the happy ending, or giving the protagonist certain types of flaws.

The point is that while there are endless possibilities that do work, there are limits to it – i.e. there are some features that can hinder sales significantly if changed.

And something completely different is especially challenging to sell.

The problem of a new category is tough for the author or publisher to work around. But it can be done. We have genres now that we didn’t have in the past. So it is possible to breakthrough with something quite unique. Statistically, however, there have been many people with ideas for new types of books, but the ideas that actually opened the door for a new genre have been very rare in comparison.

It would be easy to solve this problem. Suppose, for example, that Amazon created a new book category called “Fresh and Exciting” or “Out of this World.” Don’t you think readers would check it out? Wouldn’t it also attract authors? It could be a very popular category. It has potential.

(Sure, there would be some not-so-good books in there. But you can find such books in all categories. When they don’t sell, they fall to the bottom, out of the way, where they aren’t harming anyone. And some of the books at the bottom are fairly good, but just not selling for whatever reason, and some readers will be happy to find them.)

Right now, the closest thing is “Other.” The name is important. It’s just not the same. “Other” suggests that the book just doesn’t belong.

But as it is, the bookselling industry seems to discourage, rather than reward, such innovation on the part of the author.

Writing a book that’s appealing to readers is important for sales. With the modern self-publishing revolution, every author has ample room to exercise creativity. However, if readers don’t respond well to the originality, the book won’t sell.

Even if many readers do appreciate the originality, some readers who don’t may inhibit sales through negative reviews.

So it’s not just the booksellers, like Amazon or Barnes & Noble. It’s the readers, too. Even if the book does have significant appeal, those readers who don’t like the change can influence sales through reviews.

Then there are agents and editors, who are looking for books that are highly marketable. They may be reluctant to take a chance on too much novelty. It would seem easier for a big publisher to attract readers with something fresh; but it’s also a risk.

Shouldn’t the system encourage innovation, particularly if the book is very well done?

How about you? Do you search for highly original books? Have you read anything that’s really clever and different lately? Do you reward originality in your reviews, or criticize the author for the deviation? Do you help spread the word when you find something very creative and also enjoyable to read?

(I have: For example, Reapers, Inc. by Dave Hunter. I thought the concept was cool; even the cover seemed different in a good way.)

We read books. We are part of the readership. From our end, the best we can do is help to promote original thought and encourage it through positive reviews.

Imagine H.G. Wells writing The Invisible Man, Jonathan Swift writing Gulliver’s Travels, or Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein. Or imagine trying to write realism when romanticism was popular.

We have a very healthy variety of books today. Yet what are your prospects for setting the trend with something totally new?

If you haven’t already seen it, you should check out Misha Burnett’s clever idea for a new writing software package (his irony should be obvious, but I’ll mention it, just in case):

Chris McMullen, author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers, Vol. 1 (formatting/publishing) and Vol. 2 (packaging/marketing)