Thursday, March 5, 2020

The Bakers and the Pot of Gold

Who doesn't love cookies and the bakers who bake them?

And if you're the baker, you probably appreciate your own fresh-baked cookies all the more.

Why am I talking about cookies on a blog for indie authors?

The other day, I received an email from Canadian author Nicky Charles.  She had just read my 2020 Publishing Predictions: House of Indie on Fire post and felt inspired to write an allegory featuring cookie bakers and pots of gold.

I was floored by her story.  It struck me as a must-read for anyone who loves books and the writers who write them. 

There's depth, insight and subtle nuance.  It cuts deep for the perceptive reader, as one would expect from a writer of Nicky's caliber.  I'm humbled that my annual predictions post could inspire this work of genius.

I asked Nicky if I could share her allegory with readers of the Smashwords Blog, and she kindly agreed.

I encourage you to read it and feel it.  If it touches a nerve, as I expect it might, share it with fellow authors, publishers and readers you think should read it too.

To learn more about Nicky Charles, check out her Nicky Charles profile page at Smashwords, visit the official Nicky Charles website, or read this interview we did with her all the way back in 2012.

Nicky asked me to make clear that for this allegory, she employed hyperbole.  She in no way wants to infer that any of the bakers featured in this story make bad cookies.

Without further adieu, I bring you Nicky's story...

The Bakers and the Pot of Gold

Once upon a time there was a land dotted with quaint little cafés.  The cafés were renowned for serving wonderful fresh-baked cookies to the customers who lined up outside in anticipation of the treat.

Photo credit: Evan Amos
The cookies were produced by the bakers of the land who used only the finest and freshest ingredients.  Each batch was tenderly measured and mixed, then sampled with care before being baked to perfection.  It was a long process, but the bakers didn’t mind.  Their goal was to ensure each cookie was a worthy treat for their customers.

Because the bakers worked so hard to produce delicious products, they couldn’t deliver to the cafés every day.  Good cookies took time, after all, and so they rotated who baked each day.  This gave the customers a nice variety of cookies as well as giving the bakers time to clean their kitchens, care for their ovens and shop for ingredients.

The customers at the cafés understood this and saved their money, while waiting excitedly for when their favourite baker would make a new batch of cookies.  On delivery days, the people would rush to the cafés to buy the fresh batch and enjoy the special treat, savouring each mouthful and murmuring about the skill of the baker.

Everyone in the land was happy with the arrangement.  The bakers delivered amazing cookies for the customers. The customers had delicious treats to eat and the cafés made a nice profit, which they shared with the bakers.

One spring day, however, a new café opened. It was big and shiny and sold a vast array of products.  Everyone who visited it stared in wonder.

“Do you sell cookies?”  The people asked hopefully.

“Not yet,” the new café owner said. “But soon we will.”

And sure enough, the very next day the new café owner went in search of bakers.

“I would like to sell your cookies,” the new café owner said to the bakers.  “Lots of people visit my café every day, even people from Far-Away-Places.  I promise you will make lots of gold if you let me sell your cookies.”

The bakers thought about it and began to take some of their cookies to the new café.  Just as promised, many cookies were sold, especially to the people from Far-Away-Places who had never tasted such wonderful baked goods before.  With their pockets filled with gold, the bakers rejoiced that the new café had come to town.

When the people of the land saw this, some began to think they’d like to be bakers as well.

“Baking looks like such fun,” one person said.

“We can sell our cookies to people from Far-Away-Places if we bake for the new café,” another declared.

“We will make lots of money just like the other bakers!”  A third cried in delight.

And so new bakers began to emerge.  Some baked wonderful cookies right away while others learned over time how to mix the ingredients perfectly.  A few decided baking was too hard and quit, but others loved their new occupation and sold so many cookies they even gave up their old jobs to become full time bakers.

The people of the land greatly enjoyed having so many new bakers to choose from and there were now cookies every day at the cafés.

“This is wonderful,” everyone said.

But then, the new café owner made an announcement.  “I have a large pot of gold and I will share it with any baker who sells cookies at my café.”

“A large pot of gold?”  The bakers began to get excited.

“Oh yes,” said the new café owner.  “It is a very large pot of gold. But you can only have the gold if you deliver all your cookies to me.”

“But what about the other cafés?” Some of the bakers frowned in concern.  “And what about the people who eat our cookies there?”

“The people who like your cookies can buy them here,” the new café owner explained.  “I will even serve them on a special plate.”

“That sounds great,” said some of the bakers.

A few bakers, however, thought the pot of gold seemed too good to be true, and some wanted to keep selling their cookies at all the cafés.

Seeing them hesitate, the new café owner agreed they could sell their cookies in the other establishments, but they wouldn’t get actual pieces of gold, just the gold dust from the bottom of the pot.

“All right,” these other bakers agreed, not sure it was completely fair but still wanting people from Far-Away-Places to sample their cookies.  They knew if it didn’t work out, they’d still earn money by selling cookies at the old cafés.

So many of the bakers began to deliver their cookies only to the new café and, just as predicted, the people who favoured their cookies followed.  The bakers liked all the gold they were earning and the customers liked their new shiny plates.  More and more of the bakers began to agree to the new café’s terms, lured by the promise of lots of gold.  Everyone was very happy…almost.

The other café owners watched what was happening.  There were still bakers bringing them cookies to sell and customers lining up to buy them but not as many as before.

“It’s just healthy competition,” one said with a slight frown.

“The new café won’t take away all our customers,” another reassured.

“Maybe we should give out our own special cookie plates,” suggested a third.

And so the other cafes gave out special plates and even ran sales but the new café kept luring more and more bakers away with the promise of gold.

“Sell me all your cookies and I will share my pot of gold with you.”  The new café owner made the announcement in a loud, booming voice.  “Every month the pot of gold will get bigger and bigger!”

“Is it true?” The bakers asked of those who only sold cookies to the new café.

“Oh yes,” they said.  “The new café is wonderful.  You must come and join us.”

Lured by the pot of gold, more bakers stopped bringing cookies to the old cafés and exclusively gave them to the new one.

At the same time, the new café owner began to tell the customers they could have all the cookies they wanted.

“Why are you paying for just one cookie at the old cafés?  If you come here, you only pay one piece of gold at the door and then you can fill your plate with as many cookies as you want,” the new café owner boasted.

With fewer cookies to choose from at the old cafés and the promise of unlimited ones at the new café, the customers stopped visiting their former haunts.

“We’re sorry,” they told the café owners, “but we want lots of cookies and we don’t want to have to pay for each one.”

“But we need to pay the bakers,” the old café owners said.

“Not our problem.” one customer said.

“We want cookies, lots of cookies!” another one added.

“And we want them for a lower price, too.” A third declared leading a march towards the door.

As the customers walked away, the old café owners shook their heads.  “Soon we won’t have any cookies or customers left.”

And sure enough, ‘out of business’ signs began to appear in the café windows forcing the remaining bakers and customers to switch to the new café.

Meanwhile, more and more customers filled the new café, awed by the trays of cookies they saw.  From floor to ceiling and wall to wall, every surface was covered in baked goods.

“Can we really have as many as we want?”  They asked in wonder.

“Oh yes,” said the new café owner, smiling benevolently. “For one piece of gold you may help yourself to whatever you want.  There is no limit.”

And that is what the people did.  They stacked their plates high with cookies, they stuffed their mouths with cookies, and some even filled their pockets.

“I can’t believe we used to pay for just a single cookie,” one said.

“This is truly an amazing café,” another added.

“I just can’t stop eating,” declared a third, wiping crumbs from his fingers before reaching for more.

However, in the corner, one customer was frowning.  “This sounds too good to be true.  How can the new café afford to pay the bakers if we only pay one piece of gold?”

The owner of the new café overheard this and said, “Don’t worry, I have an enormous pot of gold from all the other items I sell.  Besides, the bakers love to make cookies; they don’t care what they get paid.”

“And what about the old cafés?”  The customer persisted.

“This is how business works,” the new café owner brushed the customer’s concerns aside.  “Competition is healthy.”  And with that, the café owner began to lead the others in a chant.  “Cookies, cookies, cookies!  We want more cookies!”

“Yes, yes!” The other customers agreed.  “Cookies, cookies, cookies!  We want more cookies!” The chanting was so loud it drowned out the customer who had been asking questions.

From the rear of the building, the bakers huddled together grinning.

“This is so exciting,” one said.

“The people love our cookies,” another exclaimed.

“Did you see how much gold there is?”  A third pointed at the pot in wonder.

Yes, the pot of gold was very big but, with so many bakers now delivering cookies to the new café, and the customers only paying one piece of gold, the share each received was less than before.

“I hope I have enough to pay for my ingredients,” one said looking at the small pouch of gold he’d been given at the end of the week.

“We just need to sell more cookies,” a second one stated.

“If we bake faster, it will be okay,” a third declared.  “The people will buy as many as we make.  There’s no need to worry.”

“I’m not sure this is a good idea.”  A quiet baker spoke from the corner.  “If we bake faster, will our cookies still be as good?  Maybe we should go back to the old cafés.”

The others didn’t listen though.  They were determined to earn more gold at the new café.

So the bakers started to produce more cookies.  Some still made amazing cookies but others, because they were working faster, began to make mistakes.  Sometimes there was too much salt or not enough sugar.  Some cookies were undercooked and others were burnt.

“My cookies used to taste better,” one baker said with a frown.

“I used to have time to decorate mine,” another murmured.

“They’re fine,” said a third.  “The people are eating the cookies so fast they don’t even notice.”

And indeed, the café was very crowded with people voraciously eating cookies and then clamouring for more.

“Faster,” the café owner prompted the bakers. “We need more cookies!”

So the bakers ran back home to make cookies all day and late into the night.

But when they brought their cookies in the next day, the new café owner had something to tell them.

“I’ve decided you will still get paid from the pot of gold, but now it will be based on each bite of cookie.  People are putting cookies on their plate but only nibbling on them.  If people eat only one bite of your cookie, you will get less than if they eat the whole cookie.”

“Oh,” said the bakers.  At the old cafes, they’d been paid for each cookie.  Being paid for each bite was a very new idea.

“Lots of bites add up,” the café owner assured them.  “Just keep making cookies.”

The bakers went back to their kitchens to continue baking, however a few weren’t happy and began to plot ways to work around the new rule.  Some began buying cookies from the store as it was faster than making fresh cookies.  Others made their cookies smaller so it appeared more were eaten.  A few hired their neighbours to bake for them or even stole cookies from their fellow bakers’ ovens!

The honest bakers watched in dismay as these others began to earn more and more gold while doing less and less work.  But, when they told the owner of the new café what was happening, nothing was done about it.  Instead, the owner posted a new sign on the door.

“Dear Bakers, I’ve made a new rule.  From now on, you will get less gold for the cookies the people eat.”

“That’s not fair,” one baker said in dismay.

“There are lots of customers buying cookies,” another pointed out.

“What about the big pot of gold?” a third asked.

But the owner of the new café wouldn’t talk to them.

Not knowing what else to do, the bakers went back to their kitchens.  All day and all night they baked and baked and baked but, when they went to the café the next day, there was yet another message awaiting them.

“Dear Bakers, I know you are worried about selling your cookies so I will let you place advertisements in the store.  If you advertise enough, people will eat more of your cookies and you will earn more gold.”

“This is a good idea,” the bakers agreed…until they read the rest of the note.

“You must pay lots of gold to advertise in the store and, those that pay the most, can place their cookies at the front.  The rest will be at the back on the hard to reach shelves.”

The bakers checked their pockets to see how much money they had.  It wasn’t a lot as the dishonest bakers had been earning most of the gold.

“If I spend my money on advertising, I won’t be able to buy ingredients,” one said.

“If you don’t advertise, you won’t sell your cookies,” another pointed out.

“I’m going to buy a giant advertisement,” a third declared, “and hope people notice my cookies.  Surely that will work.”

From the back of the room, the quiet baker piped up.  “Shouldn’t people choose their cookies based on how good they taste and the recommendations of other customers, rather than how much advertising the baker can afford?  That’s how it worked at the old cafés.”

Unfortunately, no one listened.  They were too busy trying to please the owner of the new café.

The bakers began to design and buy advertisements so their cookies would be on the best shelves.  This, however, used up what little gold they earned and, when they had no money left to advertise, their cookies were pushed to the back of the store.

“We’re losing money,” most of the bakers moaned.  “When there were lots of little cafés, we earned more.”

“That’s what I was telling you,” the quiet baker reminded them.

A few bakers took off their aprons and threw them on the ground.  “We quit.  We aren’t even making enough to pay for our ingredients.”

Others sighed sadly and walked slowly back to their kitchens to continue baking all day and all night.  They loved their job but didn’t know how much longer they could continue.

Meanwhile, inside the store, the customers were starting to comment.

“This cookie tastes just like all the others,” one said.

“There’s a hair in mine,” another declared.

“This one is good,” said a third. “But it was buried way at the back.  I’m surprised I even found it.”

“What’s wrong with these bakers and this café owner?”  Many grumbled.  “We should go back to buying our cookies at the old cafes!”

“You can if you want to,” said the new café owner.  “I’m not forcing you to buy your cookies here.”

But when the customers went outside, they discovered all the other cafés were closed.  If they wanted cookies, they had to get them from the new café.  Turning to go back inside, they saw a sign had been taped to the door.

“Dear customers, you now have to pay ten pieces of gold for each cookie.”

“Ten?  We used to get as many as we wanted for only one!”

“That’s outrageous.  I won’t do it!”

“But where else can we go? The bakers only sell cookies here.”

The customers looked at each other in shock, realizing they were now trapped.  How could this have happened?  Surely it was someone’s fault, but whose?

As winter fell upon the land, questions continued to abound.  What were the customers going to do?

And what would the bakers do?

Would the dishonest bakers ever be stopped?

And, most importantly, did the owner of the new café even care?

(Not really.  He owned the only café in the land and earned lots of gold every day from people who wanted cookies.  The real question was, what industry would he conquer next?)


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  1. Absolutely brilliant. A must-read for those who read books, and for writers and authors who create what so many love to read.

    My sincere thanks to Nicky Charles for writing this thought-provoking story, and for Mark Coker for sharing it.

  2. I know exactly what this brilliant story means and describes and it's spot-on and very accurate.

    Fellow authors, I started taking Mark Coker's/Smashwords' advice a long time ago because he genuinely tries to help authors to receive what they deserve for their hard work, including respect. I am not exclusive anymore to a different company who doesn't respect authors. For years I had a noose around my neck and sadness in my heart, and I never will be in that situation again, thanks to Mark and his wise advice.

    I'm an independent author and I think Smashwords is fantastic because they distribute your cookies/books for you and they have their own great cafe/store too. They treat authors with respect, and as far as I'm concerned, they are the best cafe in town and always will be!

    Long live Smashwords I say. I believe that they will eventually end up being the number one cafe/book retailer in the world in the future. Especially when lots of bakers/authors wake up worldwide, take the noose from around their necks, get rid of the sadness in their hearts when they all leave a certain other incompetent and uncaring cafe in droves. A company who doesn't care about authors. Smashwords does care and more and more authors are seeing that over time.

    Mark Coker, I hope you read my thoughts here because I totally agree with yours regarding exclusivity elsewhere. You've helped me more than you'll ever know. I'm happy again now. Thank you. You and Smashwords as a company, you all change lives for the better. Be proud of yourself for that.

  3. Thank you, Rosemary, for your kind and generous words. It's our sincere pleasure to serve you and the entire Smashwords community of authors, publishers, readers, and partners. We're all in this together!

  4. Thank you, Mark.

    Yes, it's so lovely that we're all in this together as a community. It's wonderful. You all work very hard, you do a fantastic job, and we all appreciate it very much indeed. Born in Wales, and now living in England in the UK, it's so satisfying to me that my work is distributed to many different countries because of Smashwords. I absolutely love the Sales Map feature that you've created for authors so that we can see which areas in the world that our work has sold in; reaching readers everywhere across the globe. It's not just confined to one country. The new presales feature looks great too.

    If I was exclusive to just one retailer, I wouldn't be able to use any of your brilliant features that Smashwords provides. I'm so glad I got out of exclusivity and took my cookies to the best cafe in town - yours.

    Keep up the good work!

    Take care and have a great day.

    Author Rosemary Ravenblack

  5. If this story could be extended to novel-length, it would deserve consideration for the Man Booker Prize. Or even the Nobel Prize for Literature. Has Jeffrey Bezos read the story yet? I don't have his email address, otherwise I'd have forwarded him a copy.



  6. Solid story!
    I stopped doing Amazon ads a couple of months ago, as it was costing me way more for the ads than I was making, no matter how I 'tweaked' them. I thought I must be the only author on Earth who had stopped! Apparently not :-)
    After some writing burn-out, 3 months off writing to have a break, re-assessing my life and future with writing (I also have a day job like so many of us), I came back determined to do things my way like I used to do. Now I advertise in a couple of advertising newsletters when I'm ready, and I write what I want when I want. I've stopped checking what everyone else is doing and left almost every yahoo group and blog I belonged to. Pretty much going it alone and much happier.
    This story is spot-on! I've forwarded it to some of my author friends.

  7. Wonderful analogy that makes so much sense! Hopefully, others will get it.

  8. There's an error in the story. One of the other cafe's was able to warn the bakers and enough of them actually stayed away from the new cafe owner. The industry is still alive but we also need to spread the word to other bakers to make sure it stays that way. (",)

  9. A wonderful analogy and a terrific warning. So glad I decided to stay away from that one cafe. I'm hanging out with the quiet baker in the back. Thank you to Nicky Charles for writing this story and to Mark for sharing it with all of us.

  10. Thank you for posting this wonderful allegory. It's a timely warning.

    I've listened to some podcasts recently (one that featured an interview with Mark Coker) that described the issues with exclusivity. Tying oneself to the big baker's apron chains doesn't sound like a good strategy to me.

    My first (and only) novel was published by a small publishing company, so I'm in a different category from indie authors. But it's not an even playing field for any of us.

    Thanks again.

  11. That was pretty spot on. This part really hit home. "All day and all night they baked and baked and baked but, when they went to the café the next day, there was yet another message awaiting them."

    I never was exclusive to Amazon, but even I got caught up in frantically trying to write more books in order stay visible on their store since rapid release is everything on that site. In the end, I faced serious burn-out and almost quit. It's not just exclusive authors (or in this case, bakers) who get swept up in the craziness. It's scary watching your income continuously dropping at the main baker in town. :) Like Me!, I'm focusing on doing my own thing. I'm much happier today because of it.

    This year (for the first time since I started in 2009), I'm now making more wide than at Amazon. I'm so glad that wide has been more of a steady source of income over the years. Here's hoping those other cafes in the story never close.

  12. This reminds me of Starbucks. Great take on so-called progress.
    If you ever get to Auburn, California be sure to visit THE BAKER AND THE CAKE MAKER for really good things.

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