Did you know that one of the first uses of peanut butter was as a protein source for a physician’s patients who had no teeth? “Lost your dentures again, Edgar? Here, have some peanut butter.”
“What’s that stuff?”
“Never mind. It’s good for you.”
ALONG CAME PEANUT BUTTER
In its early days of commercial use, the Skippy brand had the corner on the market. Then Jif was introduced to the world, apparently named just enough differently from Skippy as to not cross trademark barriers. “I’ll be there in a skippy, or a jiffy.” We see what you did there, marketing geniuses.
A missionary returned from overseas and later reported his biggest meltdown upon re-entry. He’d stood in a modern grocery store, in the peanut butter aisle, frozen by the overwhelming options of varieties of peanut butter–creamy, chunky, extra-chunky, mega-chunky (otherwise known as peanuts), organic, no-stir natural, with the jelly swirled inside (which looks pretty in the jar but like a mud pit after a week of use), large, small, single-serving packets…
And that…in a nutshell…explains why novelists have a hard time finding readers.
Thanks for stopping by. Have a great week.
Oh. You’d like to know the connection? Consider this.
PEANUT BUTTER AND FICTION
Today’s reader is a returning traveler standing in the peanut butter aisle. “SO MANY CHOICES! I…guess I’ll try…maybe the red one? No. There’s a pretty cover. Wait! That’s a brand I recognize. But so’s that one. Grrr! I probably should read healthier, so I’ll take the all-organic classic with the– No. I’m in the mood for something a little different. This one’s cheaper. Cheaper’s not always better. This one looks interesting. ‘Perfect for the discerning palate.’ Hmm. Maybe not. I don’t need fancy. Just something to read! I know. I’ll Google recommendations. Great. More than a million options. I think I’ll make a ham sandwich.”
Yes, the rumor is true. More than one million self-published books hit the market in 2017, and among those were hundreds of thousands of novels. Add in the traditionally published novels in that single year, plus all the books written in the past decades, plus the classics from previous centuries, and the options are nothing less than overwhelming.
ARE PEOPLE MIGRATING TO ALMOND BUTTER?
Several recent articles in industry publications have discussed falling fiction sales in the years 2013-2017. See this article in Publishers Weekly for opinions and observations on the trend. Of interest to authors are these points noted in the article, among others:
Fiction, more than nonfiction, depends on readers discovering new books by browsing. Now, with the number of physical stores down from five years ago…publishers cannot rely on bricks-and-mortar stores providing customers with access to new books.
Review space in mainstream media has been slashed, cutting off another possibility for readers to learn about new fiction.
Publishers have found breaking out new writers—never mind developing new franchise authors—increasingly difficult.
Creating authors who can draw readers via name recognition alone is crucial to selling novels. Research done by the Codex Group shows that the author is the most important factor in a person’s decision to buy a novel. Codex founder Peter Hildick-Smith says that with so much inexpensive genre fiction now available at “subprime price points under $5” (from such channels as Kindle Unlimited), publishers must invest to develop brand name authors who can command premium-price loyalty.
(Above quotes from “What’s the Matter with Fiction Sales?,” Jim Milliot & Rachel Deahl, PW, Oct 26, 2018)
With Skippy, Jif, and Peter Pan on the shelves, what chance does Acme Peanut Butter have, no matter how tasty it is?
THE PEANUT BUTTER APPROACH TO FICTION
What’s a novelist to do? How do we find our readers, and how do we interest our readers in our brand of “peanut butter”?
- Create a quality product. There’s no substitute for quality.
- Observe what other varieties are doing well. Do that.
- Observe what other varieties (novelists) are doing poorly. Don’t do that.
- See what’s missing from the shelves.
- If you’re going to do something different, make sure it meets the customer’s felt needs.
- Entice readers to try your novels–appealing, professional cover; samples; solid marketing; building a reputation…
- Watch for and take advantage of review opportunities.
- Consider a scratch-and-sniff feature on your social media pages. You scoff. But as they say, “Don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it.” Scratch-and-sniff may be a little out-there, but innovation is more necessary than ever.
It’s not an inconsequential issue. And, in many ways, no laughing matter. But understanding a little more about contemporary challenges of getting your novel noticed by agents, editors, publishers, and the reading public is not so unlike the process of converting peanut butter from a protein source for the toothless to a staple on the pantry shelves of all but the allergic.
In the 1930s, the process of hydrogenation increased shelf life, increasing peanut butter’s commercial appeal. What’s the next innovation that will increase our novels’ shelf life…or find them a space in an already crowded market?
No, really. What IS that innovation? Comment below with your genius suggestions.
In the mean time, keep creating great novels readers will purchase because they’ve come to trust your work.