Publishing advice from the Popeyes chicken sandwich
There are certain restaurants where you can't just walk in the night of and expect to be seated in an hour. Places like Alinea in Chicago, Sushi Ginza Onodera in New York City, Yam'Tcha in Paris; these places require weeks (if not months) of planning ahead to secure a reservation. And then, once you're seated at the table, you need to be ready to spend a small fortune.
There's a restaurant in Spain called El Celler de Can Roca that requires 11-month advanced notice. Damon Baehrel's restaurant, which is just one table in his upstate New York home, stopped taking reservations altogether. Reservations to this exclusive spot are apparently "booked solid through 2025."
The prevailing story in each of these cases: If you want to eat the best of the best, you have to fight the crowds. The high demand makes it both hard to get a spot (everyone wants to eat there) and expensive to buy your ticket (supply and demand, the chefs can raise their prices as high as they want and still find people willing to pay).
Top chef. Top restaurant. Really hard to get in. That's the formula for the very best in fine dining.
But every now and then we'll have an event in the world of food that completely breaks the mold. The craze won't come from a James Beard listed restaurant, it'll come from a chain. It's not a private table in upstate New York, it's a place with a drive thru window. The meal doesn't cost $399 or $499, it retails at $3.99 or $4.99. It's rare, but once in awhile a fast food item hits this "Gangnam Style" level of going viral. and suddenly becomes the hottest ticket in town.
We are in the middle of one of these surprising moments. The biggest fast food craze that I can remember. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the Popeyes chicken sandwich.
Everyone is talking about this sandwich. People are waiting over an hour in line. Some customers are going to three locations and finding each spot is sold out. The rapper Quavo is reselling the sandwich for $1,000 a pop and no one's really sure if he's joking or not.
This kid is going through the line at his local chain and registering people to vote. This Popeyes location in Georgia is considering taking the sandwich off the menu "because the long lines are starting to cause accidents." They have a deputy on site to direct the increased traffic. The level of hype is a nationwide reaction that even the CEO didn't see coming.
Whoever or whatever team invented the Popeyes chicken sandwich has created a masterpiece. This sandwich would be a big deal no matter if it were released at Popeyes, or Yam'Tcha in Paris, or a random gas station in Oklahoma. Greatness has a way of spreading.
So, I was thinking about this from a book publishing perspective. If a really good writer gets into a top college, goes into a top writing program, graduates and enrolls in a top MFA program at an even more elite university, they are on an elite fine dining path. They will likely land a top literary agent who opens the doors to a top publisher. And, if their book is great, it will spread and do very well. The title will be on all of the top books of the year lists and have a prominent spot in every bookstore around the country.
But if an unsuspecting writer who didn't go through the same programs also writes a great book, it will end up building momentum. Even if it's self-published. Now, to be fair, the process might take longer (hell, Moby Dick took almost 75 years to pick up steam), but the same holds true, greatness has a way of spreading.
One of the problems I see self-published authors make is they'll spend way too much money on marketing their books. This could be in the form of paying $500 or $1,000 for super targeted Facebook ads or Amazon spots. This could be ordering 100 copies of the book before having 100 reservations in place. Costly newspaper ads. Magazine ads. All of these ways to try and spread the word.
What if you took the money allocated for marketing and went to one of the writing camps at Interlochen instead. Or what would it look like to enroll and go through the writing program at Second City. Think about how much the place who trained Tina Fey and Stephen Colbert could help any of our dialogue sequences or just coming up with a bunch of new scenes, new ideas.
The list goes on and on. Sign up for a class at a university. At the library. Go to events at the local bookstore. Or why not offer $500 to the top English professor/teacher in town to help you with your opening chapter; the most read chapter in any book.
The ability self-publishing or hybrid publishing has to bypass all of these former credentials (I no longer need this degree, this agent, this publisher) is nice, but it doesn't mean that writing a really great book is any easier. Kobe Bryant didn't need to train with an expensive trainer, but he still needed to train. Same with Yo Yo Ma. Same with Adele.
Traditional publishers run their titles through the gauntlet to get them ready for sale. Tons of editing. Tons of revisions. Sometimes a year or two of rewrites. This is the same process a self-published author should follow if they are looking to write the best book of the year (or, like Herman Melville, make the list a century later).
Popeyes doesn't have any Michelin stars. It's not even the highest ranked spot in the fast food fried chicken genre (trailing Chick Fil A and KFC). The credentials don't matter. We love this new sandwich simply because it's a great sandwich and we like to tell our friends about great things.
In contrast, had Popeyes created an average or slightly above average sandwich and dumped a ton of money into the marketing/advertising budget, it would spread--a little bit--but then settle in at average or slightly above average results.
But when you painstakingly go over the smallest details, make sure the brioche bun is just right, the chicken is perfect, the breading on the chicken, the pickles, the sauce, all of that extra time spent on developing the art erases some of the time/money you need to spend later on in marketing. Word of mouth will always be the best way for ideas to spread.
Need further proof? Just drive by a Popeyes today, sometime around noon.
And, if they're not sold out, could you get one for me?