Friday, July 6, 2012

Amazon is Like a Chowder Festival

by Pete Morin

Like most self-published novelists looking to crack the Amazon sales riddle, I’ve spent some time in the Kindle customer forums, and trawled the myriad of eBook sales websites that offer freebies, near freebies, advertising, interviews, etc. After nearly a year of it, I can confidently say that I have no better idea today how to sell successfully than I did the week before I uploaded Diary of a Small Fish.

And that’s okay, because the playing field is different today than it was then. Hell, it’s different than it was yesterday, and it’ll be different tomorrow.

But while I have been unable to extract any stone tablet Strategies for Novel Marketing that apply across the board to all fiction, I do occasionally come up with a nifty metaphor to keep my blogging active and current.

Amazon is a chowder festival.

For those unfamiliar with New England clam chowder (I shall not abide a diversion to that inferior stepson, the Manhattan clam chowder), it is a recipe with base ingredients of clams, potatoes, onions, and cream (or milk), and has been around in limitless varieties for hundreds of years. You can add dill, or rosemary, or coriander, or chocolate—anything—but the bottom line is, if you haven't used the magic 4 ingredients in roughly correct quantities, your chowder will fail.

In summer months, many seacoast communities have Chowder Festivals, where local restaurateurs compete for the prize of Best Chowder. I was, for a time, an avid participant in the Cape Cod Chowder Festival (now in its 32nd year!). The winner of the contest is not chosen by culinary experts of the chowder genre, however.

The winner is chosen by customers.

This is where the Amazon-chowder metaphor works, I think.

Chowder eaters come in all varieties. Some understand the fundamentals of chowder (can’t have too many potatoes or too few clams, can’t use too much pork fat or bacon, and for god’s sake, forget about the corn starch!), and some haven’t a clue what good chowder is, they just like to taste. I overheard one “judge” express his adamant preference for chowder thick enough to stand a spoon upright. This is utter heresy, as chowder aficionados know, but as the old saying goes, the customer is always right.

Still, while clueless chowder judges may indeed outnumber the culinary experts (you can tell by the plaid shorts and sunburn), never do they elevate a pasty gruel to the top of the chowder heap. Why?

Just because. No product ignorant of cooking fundamentals tastes good. Crap chowder always tastes like crap, even if you salt the hell out of it. People will taste it, go “Ewww” and move on. They don’t have to determine that the potatoes were mushy, the onions were undercooked or the clams were spoiled (I’ve seen that train wreck before). They just “know.”

A novel is like chowder. It has clams (plot), potatoes (characters), cream (voice) and onions (structure). In a good novel, each ingredient is of good quality, and in proper proportion to the whole. Too little of one (or more) results in a reader’s diminished enthusiasm. Too little of all is a revolting experience.

There is a lot of bad chowder out there on Amazon. But Budweiser isn’t the #1 selling beer in the world because beer customers have discriminating palates. A Burger King Whopper isn’t made by a graduate of the American Culinary Institute. But damn, it tastes good.

You can’t worry about that, though. You can’t make a sublime paella and expect it to sell better than a Big Mac. The numbers just don’t work in your favor.

But you can always make a good chowder, if you just get the basics down. Then you can add whatever you want to make it your own.

Amazon is the ultimate test kitchen. There is always a multitude of tasters, looking for cheap eats. Give them more for their money than they expect, and you’ll do okay.

Just don't add corn starch.

Pete Morin is the author of Diary of a Small Fish and can occasionally be found swimming in his own pond.


Jean Oram said...

Awesome post, Pete. Man, I was hoping for a miracle there for marketing, but I suppose you make a good point. It is about the customers and building a product that appeals to them.

Jemi Fraser said...

Love this! Although should I admit to never having tried chowder???

petemorin said...

Never had clam chowder?!

For shame.

Susan Roebuck said...

That's a lovely analogy! And, you're right, you can't make a sublime paella and expect it to sell better than a big mac :-) The problem is, of course, the number of readers as well as finding the tiny hidden ingredient that makes your book stand out. Fabulous post - I'll remember it.

petemorin said...

Thank you, Susan. Sounds like the culinary simile hit home with you.

I remember going to a Portuguese-American BBQ where I asked the lady making the fried chicken what her special ingredient was.

She said, "A whole lotta luuuuuuuuv."

Cat Woods said...

LMAO. I love New England Clam Chowder. Love your post, too. So very true.