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THE PROBLEM OF SELLING POETRY TO POETS
Let's say you're running a cake shop.
It’s a really lovely shop: everything is baked on the premises. To begin with there are just rock cakes and scones, but they're good.
Then one of your customers brings in a box with some home-made mille feuilles. Amazing cakes: light as a feather and filled with a whisked cream and custard mixture. You take these on as part of your regular stock – what could be nicer? – and soon there’s a lively demand. The mille feuilles are your best sellers.
Two more good customers arrive the following month with samples of their own home-baking. One has a brilliant carrot cake; another some banana bread from her grandmother’s secret recipe. You agree to sell those too.
The shop range is extending but maybe it is a little bit traditional.
New ways, new trays
Soon two more locals, having looked in your window but not actually bought anything, bring in samples of their own confectionery. One has fabulous biscotti. The other shows you a whole range of Danish Pastries. You willingly agree to sell these too, though you make a few suggestions about the presentation and the finish.
Now the word is really getting round. People flock to your shop for cake. However, they only buy in small quantities because there’s a limit to how much cake anybody wants to eat. The mille feuilles remains the best seller: nobody else has managed to make anything at home that can rival it. The Danish Pastries are also going pretty well.
The Real McCoy
One of your very best customers comes in with Danish Pastries. He says his are true Danish Pastries and yours are not – he should know: he’s Danish.
You taste them. They are fabulous. However, humankind cannot bear very much pastry, and also you don’t want to offend the friend who is currently so excited about her Danish Pastries in your window. So with regret, you decline his offer. He does not come back.
The following week, 16 customers approach you with tray bakes of various kinds they want you to sell. One of them has even won a national competition for her frangipani slice. You try to look delighted.
The penny drops
You realize something both interesting and alarming. ALL your customers bake their own cake. They buy yours to try it out, but secretly when they eat it, they’re comparing it with theirs. They think when you taste their cake, it will be a revelation.
Actually there is one customer who is not a baker. He comes in every few months or so in his search for the perfect doughnut. However, he goes to other shops too. . . .
Reversals & rejections
One day you agree, on a whim, to start selling cheese straws (the old lady who makes them is charming and it was a novelty to taste something cheesy).
However, the cheese straws don’t shift, the Danish pastries are mainly unsold because the Danish man has started his own business up the road doing it better, the carrot cake only keeps twenty-four hours and the person who made the mille feuilles has a stroke and ceases production.
You spend more and more time advertising. You need to get new customers into the shop somehow. It’s hard work though, and several things happen.
1. You turn down nearly all the offers of new products. You really do have enough cake to be going on with. The wouldbe bakers are hurt. They take the rejection personally. They stop buying things in your shop.
2. You hardly ever bake yourself: you haven’t the energy. Besides, you’re surrounded by cake. Why bake more?
3. You notice you’re eating nothing but cake (sometimes you think you can’t even taste the difference between an Eccles Cake and a Chorley Cake).
4. People keep asking for the cakes you used to make. You can’t decide whether this is because they want to flatter you so you will try their cakes or. . .
Applying for assistance
The rates have gone up and the profits have gone down. So you apply to the local Council for a Tarts Grant because you've heard the Danish Pastry man has just got one. The Council says they will give you some money, provided you can show what you’re doing is
a) filling a genuine need for more cake
b) nutritionally sound
d) reaching the population of the whole village.
The cake is nutritionally sound, insofar as cake ever is, but only in small quantities.
There is a genuine need, but it’s tiny (most of the customers prefer their own cake or vintage cake they bought elsewhere).
Some of the confectionery seems innovative at first, but after six months, it looks remarkably traditional.
Reaching the parts other cakes do not reach?
How can you, in all honesty, claim to be reaching the population of the whole village?
You are selling something, even if just the occasional muffin, to 75% of the active and inactive baking inhabitants of the village. But this doesn't even represent 5% of the population at large. Most locals don’t even like cake (school cookery put them off), and when they do eat it (at weddings and funerals), they prefer a supermarket brand.
Say It With Flours Scheme
Meanwhile, the Council announces an innovative programme called Say It With Flours for people who want to learn to bake better cakes.
Successful applicants go (all expenses paid) to Greece for a month, ingredients and equipment supplied. Six places on this scheme are reserved for young bakers (they must be under 30). For those who are unable to travel, a UK scheme offers mentors at home. Emerging bakers can apply for tutorials, via Skype, in traditional, contemporary and innovative techniques. A third scheme will be launched in the winter, helping people to pack and sell their cakes via Ebay Shops.
You continue to sell cake. Of course you do: you’ve invested so much in the ingredients. You believe in cake. At night you dream of those madeleines you once tasted. . . .