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)