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

c) innovative

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. . . .


  1. Yum. But are Jaffa cakes really cakes?

    In Italy there used to be a law about how much bread could be produced per square kilometre, effectively preventing big factories taking over. You can pick’n’mix a selection of bite-sized cakes/biscuits, buying by weight.

    What cake shops offer nowadays are drinks and a chance to experience the goods on the premises, socialising.

    Both this article and your previous one about reviewing make me think about analogous situations in the hope that ideas could be pilfered. How do ArtHouse films get reviews? How are esoteric academic books reviewed? A high proportion of SF readers are writers – do they have reviewing problems? Online poetry workshops often have a rule about posting 3 crits for each posted poem – perhaps poetry mags could do something similar.

    A few academic journals (and Narrative magazine) make the submitter rather than the reader pay. If the cake-makers really want to how know what people think about their products, maybe they (rather than the consumers) should cover the shop’s costs.

  2. Esoteric academic books are peer-reviewed, but the issue is where does the review appear (in an esoteric journal). Generally SF writers don’t write as many novels as poets bake poems.

    Actually the cake analogy breaks down in all sorts of ways. But it does hold up for others. I’m in the middle of a huge Happen[i]Stance[/i] subscriber mailshot and I am consumed (!) with guilt each time I send flyers and golden opportunities to buy more poetry to punters whose own poetry I know I’ve refused to publish. It feels so mean.

    I have had a record number of new subscribers following the recent article in [i]Poetry News[/i]. However, I also l[i]ose[/i] a few subscribers every year: they fall away, either through disinterest or because I have knocked back submissions. I don’t know whether I would continue to follow the fortunes of this press in their situation. I might not.

    So I try to find ways of giving the subscribers something worth having, bearing in mind that it will never be possible for me to publish all the poetry of all the nice people, of all the [i]good [/i]writers, who send me stuff. But mainly all I have to give is poetry, and they’ve got that stuff at home already. Hell — people regularly send [i]me[/i] poetry as gifts and I am often touched by this thought but lacking in the capacity to [i]read[/i] it, given that I have so much poetry to read and so many shelves full of it.

    I have no answers. I love poetry. There is just such a lot of it around.

  3. Have you ever considered therapy Miss Nelson? On reading what your Mr Love said about the poets contributing to their own publication I agree with him. Even if it is a contribution to postage and stationery That’s similar to shops letting out concessions where the store expects the producer to be totally involved with the sales and marketing of the product. You supply all the expertise the game plan and the confidence. They have being selected to rally under your banner so must fight for the cause. Seems to me that people have plenty of other options . Stick it on an e-book and wait. stick it in the back of the drawer and wait or if they really are keen. Get out and do it themselves and wait. Many who can knock up a couple of rhymes think themselves poets. Let them see the cost of their inexpensive hobby.

  4. A wonderful ‘cautionary tale’ – hope it’s printed, recycled, and used elsewhere as the perfect illustration for the dilemmas faced by poetry publishers. Low sales of cake and confectionery aren’t just due to over-production generally, it’s also the individualism – buyers liking a very narrow range of cake or sometimes only their own baking, having failed to find any cake they like in other people’s shops. While the latter would result in developments which bring money in when applied to other industries, in the low-economy world of poetry it just doesn’t work the same way….

  5. Also quite a few people prefer nineteenth century or early twentieth century cake. (The analogy breaks down at this point… but it’s a bit of fun really.)

    Jim, my therapy is baking. Hence the pictures. 😉

  6. You know what is interesting? Here in the US, we assume readers in the UK are much better readers and buyers and poetry than people here. All you have to do is compare the language in, say, British Vogue to American Vogue to know that the editors and publishers over there assume a higher level of reading and book-knowledge.
    But the real problem in both countries – though I agree most poets don’t read or review enough poetry – is that we should be trying to build audiences outside of poets. The question of how to do that remains. I just took on a small-city role of Poet Laureate, and my job is now how to evangelize poetry to the masses of people here – how do I convince people that yes, they can understand and enjoy poetry, and yes, it is for people like them, as opposed to the sole province of school children and the occasional elderly eccentric. I’m very interested in appealing to teenagers especially, because if we can start them reading poetry, perhaps it will cultivate lifelong readers (and writers, of course.)
    I think there is a lot of cake there, and of course not all of it will be everyone’s taste. But the idea of trying to convince the general populace that cake is for them doesn’t seem hard compared to convincing them to try any kind of poetry…

  7. I think it’s much easier convincing them they can bake it themselves . . . Go ahead, switch on the oven and try your hand. Huge numbers of people have teenage phases of writing poetry or songs. And they come back to it at weddings and funerals.

    It has been suggested, of course, that modernist bakeries sent the trade into irreversible decline. . . .

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