Of Mice and Eggs: A Publishing Parable

Once, there was a broad river. On one side of the river lived many mice. Those mice would wander about, collecting eggs from the various birds that built nests throughout the area. For some mice, it was arduous work; for others, it was joyous. But it was work nonetheless.

The mice would gather their eggs, and bring them to the river. The river was so wide that none of the mice could see the other side. Swimming across the river was unthinkable. But on the far side of the river were men and women and children who loved their eggs for breakfast and baking. In exchange for the eggs, the humans would give the mice cheese.

Luckily, some enterprising souls had built steamships to cross the river. They steamed from the human side to the mouse side, gathered the eggs from the mice, and brought them to the men and women. Then they would bring back cheese to the mice. It wasn’t a bad life. The mice had to collect a great many eggs to get enough cheese to eat, because most of the cheese the men and women paid for the eggs went into maintaining the steamships. But the mice knew pretty well how much cheese each day’s work would bring.

Not all eggs were alike. Some were rare eggs. Many were bad eggs. The rare eggs would bring a much higher price, and the bad eggs? Well, the steamboat owners would refuse to take them, leaving the mice who had gathered them hungry and wistful. But mice who wanted cheese would learn which eggs were good, and which were not.

So things went for a very long time, until one day, an enterprising man built a bridge across the river. And everything changed.

The bridge owner invited the mice to bring their eggs onto the bridge. And he invited the men and women to come onto the bridge as well, to select the eggs they wanted from the selection.

“It won’t work!” said the angry steamship captains. “People want eggs that we’ve checked for quality.”

“It won’t work!” said many of the old and experienced mice. “We need the steamship captains’ services.”

But in a short while, it was apparent to everyone that things had changed. Soon enough, about a quarter of the egg traffic was happening on that bridge. The steamships still plied the waters, but they could not sell as many eggs as they once did. So they couldn’t pay as much cheese as they once did, either. The reduced cheese payment led many mice who had been using the steamships to sell their eggs to check the bridge out.

“We’ll just try the bridge today. Test it out. See how it goes.”

Some were thrilled by the results. Others were less happy.

The bridge was a raucous place. Thousands of mice sold their eggs on the bridge, and the number of men and women buying eggs there was so great they were difficult to count. But some of the eggs were terrible - old, rotten, stinky eggs. The good eggs, and even the rare and precious eggs, were difficult to spot in the mess. So the bridge owner began to give the mice spots on the bridge based on how well their eggs were selling. The mice whose eggs sold best got the best spots, where lots of men and women would see their wares. The mice who could not sell any eggs were given spots that were much harder to see.

“It won’t work,” the steamship captains muttered. “The men and women can’t tell good eggs from bad. They need us for that.”

But oddly, it seemed to be working. Some men and women complained long and loudly when they bought a bad egg. But that was noted by other people, and the mice selling those bad eggs had trouble selling more. Overall, the people buying eggs were content.

Another thing about the bridge was that the eggs there tended to cost less. Without the cost of the expensive steamships to maintain, and with only a small percentage of the cheese they earned going to the bridge owner, the mice were able to charge less cheese for their eggs, and still be much better fed at the end of the day. Not all mice did well; but those who consistently brought good eggs day after day found they were able to earn more cheese for the same work than they had using the steamships.

The grousing among the steamships began anew.

“They’re ruining the value of eggs!” complained the steamship captains. “They’re pricing too low, and soon men and women will think eggs are worth less than they ought.”

But despite the lower prices, the mice selling on the bridge continued to be better fed.

“They’re hurting my egg sales!” complained some of the older mice. These mice had become adept at finding eggs that people really wanted. And the steamship captains had learned to give their eggs special placement in shops, so they always sold. But on the bridge, these mice were just like anyone else. Without the special placement, their sales would drop. These mice railed long and loudly against the bridge.

But the sales on the bridge continued to climb.

Some cunning steamship captains saw ways to profit from this. They began charging the mice cheese to ferry their eggs across. “Give us some cheese,” said these captains, “and we’ll bring your eggs over. Then we’ll pay you a part of the cheese we get for selling them.”

Smart mice saw this for what it was, and avoided these captains. But some mice brought their eggs to these steamships - usually the most desperate or newest egg-gathering mice. The quality of these eggs was poor, but the steamships didn’t check them for quality. They took cheese from the mice, smiled nicely, brought the eggs over. And when they didn’t sell, and the mice were even hungrier than they had been? The steamship captains smiled toothy smiles, and suggested that for another payment of cheese, they would help the mice market the eggs once they were on the other side.

That didn’t work either, because men and women can tell bad eggs from good ones, and refused to buy the bad eggs. The mice were left poorer and sadder. And those steamships who had concocted the scheme were left with a tarnished reputation, with the other mice worrying what else they might do to try to skim more cheese. Mice began to avoid these ships, in favor of other ships and the bridge.

Other steamship captains saw the changes, and saw the old way of doing business fading. Instead of charging the mice cheese to transport the eggs, they began offering better services to the mice.

“Yes,” they said, “we do keep some of the cheese earned from selling your eggs. But we package those eggs up in beautiful ways. And we have worked hard to earn the trust of many men and women over the river. They buy eggs from us because they know we always, always, bring the sorts of eggs they like.”

Some steamship captains tried to do this, and failed. They were not able to effectively reach enough men and women. Their job had always been transporting the eggs, not dealing with the people who bought the eggs! Those ships grew worn out, carrying less eggs with each year. Eventually, they stopped crossing the river completely.

But other steamships understood that dealing with the people buying the eggs was the most important thing they did, now. The bridge made getting eggs across the river simple and easy. Any mouse could do it. The steamships were no longer necessary. So the steamship captains became experts at reaching the people who bought eggs, instead of just experts at shipping the eggs from one place to another. And they knew they had to treat the mice well, because the mice could leave them at any time, and use the bridge instead. Without the mice, the steamships had nothing to carry, nothing to sell.

The mice who used these ships were very happy with the cheese they earned.

The mice who used the bridge? Some of them were very happy indeed. Others were moderately happy. Some grew discouraged, because they could not sell their bad eggs, and didn’t understand that they had to gather good eggs to sell. Some were OK with just the chance to earn a few scraps of cheese. Others earned a great deal of cheese, enough that the good steamship captains would take notice, and offer to carry their eggs, perhaps even give them special placement in the shops on the far side.

The one thing everyone who survived understood was this: the bridge was not going away. It was too easy to build bridges, once you understood the principles involved. Even if a catastrophe tore down the first bridge, other bridges would be built - and in fact, some competing bridges went up, and much commerce moved to those bridges. The idea of the bridge had changed the way everything worked.

Because mice could sell across the bridges, they no longer needed the steamships.

Because the mice no longer needed them, the steamships had to make the mice want to use their ships instead of the bridge.

What they discovered was that when they did this, everyone was happier - mice, men, and captains alike. The bridges continued to have as much traffic as before. But the steamships and the mice who used them had a good share of the cheese, and were content.