Remember Scotty, the engineer on the the original Star Trek series? Every time there was trouble, he was on the intercom to the bridge, telling Kirk, “There’s no way the engines can take warp seven!”
Kirk would of course shout back, “Do something! We need that power!” And then somehow Scotty would do something, and get the engines up to warp eight, and be a hero.
In his honor, the principle of Underpromise&Overdeliver is nicknamed “The Scotty Principle”. It’s one that I learned and used constantly when I was on the road as locksmith, long before I knew there was a name for it.
It works like this: If I need to order a part and I think it’ll take two days I don’t tell the customer it’ll take two days, I say something like, “Usually they take about a week, but since I know you’re in a hurry, I’ll call my distributor and see if they can put a rush on it.”
If I think something is going to cost about 150$, I’ll tell the customer that it’s probably going to run $200-$250. If I think a job will take me a half hour, I tell the customer that these things usually take about an hour.
See the pattern? Then I get the job done sooner than the customer expects, I give her or him a bill that’s less than expected, and I look like a freakin’ miracle worker.
On the other side of the spectrum are salespeople and dispatchers who live by the principle of “promise them anything to get the sale”. I have worked with a number of them, and I have ended up walking blindly into situations where the customer starts yelling at me the moment I pull up because the dispatcher said I’d be there in ten minutes and that was three hours ago. (Naturally the dispatcher doesn’t bother to tell me that.)
The point is that the perception of quality is based on a customer’s expectations. If you deliver more than the customer expects, you look good. If you build up the customer’s expectations too high, then nothing that you deliver is going to be good enough.
We all have seen blockbuster movies with multi-million dollar marketing campaigns that ending up tanking at the box office. The marketing departments are like the dispatchers who make empty promises in order to get the call up on the board. The raise the expectations of the audience to the point that nothing is going to be good enough. Then the reviews start rolling in that all say, “It didn’t live up to the hype,” and people who had been all pumped up to see it stay home instead, the movie loses money, and everybody blames the filmmaker. How is that fair?
Hype is counterproductive. It will get you some initial sales, but many (maybe most) of those initial sales will be dissatisfied customers, and dissatisfied customers tend to be a lot more vocal about their experience than happy customers are.
Catskinner’s Book has thirty reviews, with an average of about 4.8. Cannibal Hearts has two, both 5 stars. Does this mean that they are the greatest books ever written? No, it means that they exceeded the customer’s expectations. (I happen to believe that they are pretty darned good, granted, but there are a lot of good books out there.)
My overall sales can be charitably described as “dismal”. I kvetch about that a lot, I realize (far more than I should, actually.) Honestly, though, I would rather err on the side of underpromising. Unlike movies or traditionally published books, I don’t have a time limit to make a certain number of sales. I can afford to wait for people to discover my books on their own.
The bottom line is this: I know that there is a lot more that I could be doing to promote my books. I see dozens of opportunities every day, book blogs, advertising options, review sites. It seems as if half of the Internet has a plan to sell my books.
However, I am not at all certain that these are things that I should be doing to promote my books. When time is removed as a factor, the negative consequences of overpromising far outweigh the initial bump in sales that result from a high profile hype campaign. (Even in my own limited experience I have seen that–my big promotional giveaway in the early spring resulted in the lowest average ratings in the reviews of Catskinner’s Book.)
I don’t just want sales, I want customers. I am working to create a reputation as an artist of consistently delivering a product that exceeds expectations. That doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a long term process, and it’s frustrating as hell, particularly when I see the constant stream of BUY MY BOOK IT’S THE GREATEST THING EVER spam that makes up half of FaceBook and three quarters of Twitter. (I don’t even try to read Twitter any more.)
In the long run, however, I think that steak will win out over sizzle.
I hope so, anyway.