You probably have a favourite brand of coffee shop. It’s the one that you like to come across while shopping in a mall or on the high street; the place where you know you can spend a relaxing few moments, enjoying a good coffee while reading or just people watching, a spot to catch your breath before you rejoin the crowds.
What attracts you to that particular brand or name? Perhaps you have fond memories there, perhaps you were introduced to it by a good friend, perhaps it was the first coffee shop you ever went into, perhaps you just like their coffee better than others — whatever the reason, there is some confidence that you will return there at some point to re-experience something with which you have a warm familiarity.
As someone fascinated by books, you might well have a favourite bookshop. It might be local, or located in the centre of your nearest city. You know that there, browsing books, you can be refreshed and perhaps emerge with a new adventure or two to be read later.
What attracts you to that particular book or author? Perhaps you have recollections of an earlier story by them; perhaps you were introduced to a certain author by a friend; perhaps that kind of book appeals to something in your make-up — whatever the reason, you know you feel drawn towards that section of the bookshop every time.
Now imagine there was a shop which sold your stories.
Not a bookshop which sold other people’s books too, alongside yours — a shop with your name on it, selling only your fiction.
Let’s just imagine for a moment that you had such a shop. Visitors would probably have a favourite section; they would know that by selecting a particular kind of book, they can expect an invigorating or adventurous or fascinating read. Some would prefer one type of tale, some another; perhaps many would like a whole range, because they wanted different kinds of fiction at different times or in different moods.
It’s a sort of idyll. What it suggests is both a dream and a way forward to making that dream come true.
The first factor arising from this picture of an imaginary shop is that it would probably need to be full of a range of goods in order to achieve viability. You could, I suppose, focus on Westerns, for example, but you would need a concentrated flow of Western-loving readers to sustain the shop financially; you’d do better to diversify a little and thereby hope to attract readers of other genres. You might want to write in different styles, explore different lengths of story, work on plot types and character development so that a whole range of potential readers were more likely to be happy.
The next thing that comes up would be placement: where would such a shop ideally be placed so that the most potential readers might see it and wander in?
And the third thing is marketing: how would your potential readers know you were there? Not the entire rest of the world, mind. You’re not going to want to waste time, energy or money on attracting vast crowds of people who may not be interested in what you’re selling. You only really want to let the right sort of people know.
Right now, of course, the model for the struggling writer is based on… well, a struggle. He or she writes whatever he or she wishes, then hopes that publishers will issue calls for submissions which match that, or, conversely, the writer waits on tenterhooks for submissions to be called for, then frantically writes to try and fit their fiction into parameters that someone else determines.
To switch this around, we have to begin imaginatively — something relatively easy, you would think, for writers, but something which turns out to be stubbornly difficult, mainly because the default model of operation is so fixed in writers’ minds. ‘You write,’ says the model, ‘and if you’re lucky, you get published. Money in exchange for what you produce? Forget it!’
Your writing world is at the effect point of the reading world — or so it seems.
Readers want particular things, and if you ain’t got what they want, they’ll go elsewhere. But they don’t really know what you’ve got, because access to you is in the hands of complete strangers miles away — the publishers.
Imagine Starbucks trying to sell coffee by taking a hot cup of coffee to every open coffee shop and asking them to try it. If the shop owner likes it, he or she orders a couple of cups — but doesn’t pay you. Starbucks know that their coffee is great — but their future is at the mercy of these decision makers in other shops.
Silly analogy, isn’t it? But that’s what you’re trapped in as a writer right now: you’re taking your steaming cup of excellent 'coffee', your fiction, around to any shop you can find, begging strangers to read it in the hope that they will order gallons of the stuff.
They hardly ever do, do they?
What did Starbucks do when they knew they had some good coffee to sell?
Starbucks was founded by Jerry Baldwin, Gordon Bowker, and Zev Siegel, in Seattle. Its founders had two things in common: they came from academia, and they all loved coffee. Their business was named “Starbucks” after the first mate in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Coffee-roasting entrepreneur Alfred Peet, a Dutch immigrant who had begun importing fine arabica coffees into the United States during the 1950s, opened a small store, Peet’s Coffee and Tea, in Berkeley, California, specialising in importing first-rate coffees and teas. This inspired the Starbucks founders to base their business model on selling high-quality coffee beans and equipment. Baldwin and Bowker then experimented with Peet’s roasting techniques to create their own blends and flavours. By the early 1980s, Starbucks had opened four stores in Seattle. Now it's all over the world.
What differentiated them from their competitors was their top-quality fresh-roasted coffees.
I know, I know — you don’t make coffee, you write fiction. But as a writer striving for success you could learn some incredibly valuable lessons here.
1. You love writing. That’s a given.
2. You want to write high quality fiction. That’s an assumption.
3. What might differentiate you from your competitors might be to do with quality. That’s a supposition.
You could start your own Starbucks, but with stories.
‘What about my website?’ you may ask. ‘Isn’t that a kind of shop?’