Thursday, 16 September 2010

Books are like ice-cream

A couple of days ago I was idly semi-listening to Radio 4's The Food Programme. It was about ice-cream.

Now, I don't consume much of the stuff, except when in Italy, because I rather not have any at all than have poor quality. This is NOT how books are like ice-cream, because I have to be reading something all the time, even if it's rubbish. Even if it's train time-tables or ketchup labels. There are lots of people like me - logophiles? Anyway, addicts of the written word (and the spoken, come to that).

Ice-cream comes in lots of flavours but I have my favourites - coffee, gianduia, nocciolato to name but three. But that's still NOT how books are like ice-cream, because although I have my favourite writers and genres, I like a wider range of kinds of book than I do of ice-cream flavours.

No, what caught my attention was that big companies like W***s will give retailers a freezer in which to display ice-cream in but then the shopkeeper is obliged to stock a hefty percentage of the supplier's products in that freezer.

That made me think about the kinds of promotion that publishers pay booksellers for - inclusion in the Books for Giving Christmas catalogue, table position, window displays. Isn't it a bit similar?

OK, the ice-cream manufacturers are giving something away and the publishers are paying but the end result is the same: the customer buys what they see.

Now there might be gorgeous ice-cream made in the traditional style by Yum Yum Cottage*, on a farm with Jersey cows and soft fruit picked from a poly-tunnel that morning, but what are the chances of finding Yum Yum Cottage ice-cream in enough shop freezers, in the limited space allowed by Messrs W***s** et. al. and competed for by everyone else to make that a known brand?

What are the answers? Yum Yum can't afford to hand out free freezers any more than small publishers can afford to pay the promotional prices asked by bookshops. Nor can big publishers afford to pay the "added value" mark-up on every title they publish. I heard over ten years ago from a major publisher who did not want to be quoted that this could amount to £1 per copy.

Please suggest answers in comments.

What I can tell you is that the result is the same. People buy what they see and what they have heard of even what they can't see and haven't heard of may be better. You can't blame them. Just think of the best-selling ice-creams in the country and compare the flavour, ingredients, appearance with that of any really good ice-cream you have ever tasted (e,g. Brivido on Nanni's in Siena or Vivoli or Festival in Florence) and reflect.

Now think of the best-selling books. THAT is how books are like ice-cream.

* Fictional brand
**Not fictional brand


Leslie Wilson said...

I believe Italian ice cream is always made with single cream, never with double, which is what upmarket ice cream producers in this country use, and thus muffle the flavour. My fave Italian ice-creams are frutti di bosco, hazelnut, apricot, and pistachio. These are rarely available over here. I was inducted into good ice cream in Italy, and in Italian ice salons in Germany, as a kid. So, like you, I won't eat nasty ice cream. I won't read bestsellers, either, they are just like Walls or Mr Whippy. As you say, how to market the real thing? When the purveyors of the machine-made, flavoured stuff have so much pushing power. Excellent metaphor, Mary, it works on all levels!

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure an answer is needed. W***s are not driving Yum Yum etc out of business: people who know about and like Yum Yum know where they can get it.
We may think "but wouldn't it be better if lots and lots more people knew how wonderful Yum Yum is?": but history suggests that if Yum Yum were to somehow manage to become a well-known and successful brand, they would then be bought out by one of the big firms, and rapidly lose what made them special. Cf H****n D**Z, B*n and J***y's.
The same may well be true of publishing…

Mary Hoffman said...

@undyingking (nice name) I think Yum Yum might well go out of business because how are people to know they are IN business in the first place?
I think the analogy breaks down a bit because it's the writers more than the publishers who might suffer more by people not knowing their books exist.

michelle lovric said...

This reminds me of Norman Mailer's lyrical biography of Marilyn Monroe. I seem to remember he explained her universal trans-gender appeal thus - that she made sex seem like ice-cream.
So publishers just have to make books actually seem like ice-cream and ...?

ps I'll have a yohurt frutti di bosco with a scoop of coffee too, please. Or pistacchio from Grom in San Barnaba, Venice.

Mary Hoffman said...

Nocciola, that's what it's called! I daren't edit in case I lose the comments.

Right then, we all have to make our books like ice-cream. I'll start thinking of a good tasty title.

I don't know Grom, Michelle, but look forward to discovering it.

Anonymous said...

(this is Mo by the way, hello!)
I guess Yum Yum needs to be careful not to overextend itself. It should be able to grow sales by word of mouth, if its product really is that terrific.
But yes, it's different for the authors. I suppose big publishers do need to establish new bestseller-writers every now and then, but I've no idea how they make those sorts of judgements about who to promote from the lower ranks.

Sue Purkiss said...

I'm interested in Michelle's suggestion that publishers need to make books be like ice cream. I recently read some of Tove Janssen's short stories, and was idly wondering how it was that I came across her. I'd never read the Moomins, never heard anything about her. And then I realised - it was exactly that: The Winter Book, with its touchable blue cover, its spare but beautiful design, its easy-on-the-eye font and layout - it was like delectable ice cream. It made you want to pick it up and look at it, and then you were hooked.

Mary Hoffman said...

Oh Mo, hi! I think I knew that once. We all wonder about those publishing decisions. It's usually a case of Big Advance = Big marketing Budget = Big Sales, but not always.

And word of mouth really is effective marketing.

So Sue, maybe our books should LOOK like ice-creams too?

Stroppy Author said...

Mary, you should be able to edit without affecting comments at all.

Difference is that YumYum will have to adapt/compromise their production process to produce more ice cream whereas a small publisher can produce more copies of a book (not more different books) without any change to methods. More people are hearing about more books through twitter and blogs - it is all slowly changing. Since the demise of Borders I less often go and browse for novels in a bookshop. Now I order from Amazon things that people I trust recommend. That will help the Yum Yums - I don't even see the BOGOF table!

Katherine Langrish said...

My problem with this metaphor is that I've never liked ice-cream all that much, not even as a child. I prefer sorbets. Otherwise, great post, Mary - and we should all support out local ice-cream parlour and indie bookshop.

Mary Hoffman said...

Not even Italian ice-cream, Kath? How about home-made? I do a pretty mean hazelnut one made with Fra Angelico liqueur.

Well now I can't change the post, Anne, because then my comment wouldn't make sense! I had a sort of sudden word-blindness about Nocciola. You are right about blogs and Twitter. That's the sort of thing that would help Yum Yum. If there were an Amazon for ice-cream.

catdownunder said...

Icecream? Did someone say icecream? It is almost impossible to find here - thankfully we do have an icecream sort of bookshop!

bookwitch said...

There is a bookshop-cum-icecream cafe not too far from me. I still haven't been, but was reminded of it last night, talking to someone who'd been to an event there.
Very grateful to hear about the single versus double cream issue. It explains why i don't like 'fat' ice creams.
Am also reminded of the time my 7-year-old had a six flavour ice cream dessert at Corrieri's in Stirling.
Coffee ice cream for me, please.

Stroppy Author said...

Mary, when I run away, perhaps I should come to Oxford and we can set up an ice-cream bookshop (unless bookwitch is just hallucinating again) and we can take up the challenge to find an ice cream Kath will like. I make a mean gin and orange granita, if that counts!

Mary Hoffman said...

Well that's practically a fruit sorbet, Anne!

Good idea!. We can call it Books on Ice or Books are Cool or something!
Or Scoop!


Mary Hoffman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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