You got a receipt for that beanstalk, Jack?

I’ve written about reading to my kids an edition of The Three Little Pigs that completely ditched any concept of personal responsibility, making the two pig casualties simple victims of fate. The latest fairy tale to make me wonder about its lessons is Jack and the Beanstalk.

As with the pigs, Jack comes in many versions. The one we read was a Golden Books edition, which I think are supposed to be the standard for children’s classics. I hope I’m wrong about this, and there is a Jack with better morals out there.

bad boy Jack

Let’s hope there’s a reform school at the top of this thing.

Jack makes bad choices, but benefits from them. He is absolved of his poor bargaining decisions because of a freak bit of luck. There’s no way he should have traded his cow for a few beans. His mother was right to give him hell about it. Out of a thousand kids who traded for magic beans, 999 of them went to bed hungry and rose hungry the next day, and that was the end of it.

It was pure luck that Jack happened upon the only trader offering legitimate magic beans. This happenstance made a stupid decision look good. It made his mother look like an overbearing scold, when she was really the sensible one. We never hear about Jimmy and the Beanstalk, or Stanley and the Beanstalk. You know why? Because their magic beans were hoaxes. They got spanked and sent to bed. In the morning, they ate dirt for breakfast. No happy ending there.

Jack gets lucky. In the morning there is a giant beanstalk outside his window. Jack climbs it up into the clouds – probably not the wisest decision, but I’ll give him a pass on that one. At the top, he finds a castle. He goes inside. I would too.

Inside the castle, Jack discovers a giant. This giant has two noteworthy possessions: a goose capable of laying golden eggs and a magic harp. Without any hemming or hawing, Jack decides to steal these things. Jack spends so little time weighing the morality of this theft that we cannot tell if he would act similarly in a neighbor’s house, or if this is a special case because giants are different and therefore okay to steal from.

Jack hurries down the beanstalk with his booty. Naturally, the giant chases him. In some versions, Jack chops down the beanstalk; in this one the beanstalk falls of its own accord. This is a relief, since it negates the burden of explaining to my children why Jack stole from the giant and then murdered him. The theft issue is quite enough.

But it’s really not so bad. You see, unbeknownst to Jack, the giant stole the goose and harp from Jack’s dear departed father. It was justice in the end, expunging Jack’s crime of stealing. Again, dumb luck bailed out Jack. Though Jack stole from pure greed, the giant’s estate couldn’t press charges because the items were pilfered by their rightful owner. It all makes me wonder from whom Jack’s father stole the stuff in the first place.

Legally, Jack is off the hook. Morally? Well, that’s a discussion you’ll have to have with your child.

Word of Mouth advertising: inexpensive and unmeasurable

Whenever someone takes the time to tell me they enjoyed one of my books, I make sure two things are part of my reply. First, I say, “Thank you,” because it’s the proper response. The second thing I say is, “Tell your friends.”

There are many forms of paid and unpaid advertising the self-published author can use. Compared to the advertising big corporations can afford, all of these forms reach relatively few people. Yet, even for a large publisher, paid advertising would not be enough to carry a book to success. Never can enough people be influenced by paid advertising alone. If people who enjoy a book don’t talk about it, the book will not reach its potential.

Word of mouth is one of the most handy marketing tools available to the micro-publisher. It’s free and nothing carries more influence with readers than the opinions of trusted friends. The problem with word of mouth is it’s difficult to measure.

Easiest to gauge are the people you know, and even this is not so simple. Sometimes people who have enjoyed my books will ask to buy an autographed copy to give to a friend. This is an easy tally for word of mouth. You can mark it down, and it’s already sold you an extra book. Outward from here, things get murky. People may tell you they loved your book, but it’s usually hard to know if they’ve told that to anyone besides you.

Get the word out

“Hey fellas, let me tell you about this great book I just finished! After that, maybe we can go put out a fire.” (Image: Gordon Parks/US Farm Security Administration)

You don’t want to grill them about the number of people with whom they’ve shared their enjoyment of your work, because you don’t want to become that author. They just wanted to be entertained; they didn’t expect there would be homework. So you don’t ask, because you want them to remember their enjoyment, not that you robbed them of it by leaning on them to pimp your book.

It is always gratifying to hear that somebody enjoyed your book, but it can be frustrating not knowing if that enjoyment is being translated into any meaningful word of mouth. Once you come to terms with the fact that there will never be a good way quantify the number of times satisfied readers recommend your book, you can focus on the positive. Your hard work has resulted in a book people are enjoying. That’s a big deal because it’s the first prerequisite for successful word of mouth advertising.

Even though you can’t know the number of personal recommendations of your book, you do have the power to increase that number by continuing to work hard to promote your book. The more people you reach, the more people they, in turn, will reach.

You have to trust your readers. You’ve worked hard to interest them and touch their emotions in some way. If you’ve done it well, they’ll share it. But it’s not a breach of faith to drop in a polite, “Tell your friends,” after showing gratitude for a compliment.