Are Readers Satisfiers or Optimizers? Should Writers Be Satisfiers or Optimizers?

Science books in Senate House

By Tom Morris (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

I was talking with a friend the other day about the two loose groupings of consumers: satisfiers and optimizers.  Satisfiers buy the first thing that meets some level of predetermined standards, and then they go on their merry way.  Optimizers need to compare and contrast until they are sure they are getting the best product relative to the rest of the market, and then they purchase.

Me, I’m an optimizer in far more product categories than I’d like to be, and I’m trying to be less of one.  I think I’d save a lot of time and not be any less happy if I made purchases more quickly and with a minimum of research.  But that’s neither here nor there.

Point is, my friend’s and my conversation veered toward advertising for products.  He explained that a lot of times companies will look at (1) whether their consumers are likely to be satisfiers or optimizers, and (2) where they are in the market relative to everyone else.  For instance, far more people are optimizers when it comes to large purchasers like cars.  So car commercials are far more likely to compare themselves to other brands and try to convince you that they are the best model.

On the other hand, for daily sundries that tend toward consumers using a satisfier model, companies are more likely to try to breed brand loyalty and get people to try them, find they’re “good enough,” and stick with them.

I started thinking about all this in reference to book production.

You see, considering I’m an optimizer as a consumer, it just makes sense to me to be an optimizer as a producer.  I can’t imagine putting out a book that was any less than the best I could possibly make it.[1]

This is probably the way I’ll continue writing books, because I’m a Type-A perfectionist and I’ll want to claw out my brain if I publish at a lower quality standard.  But I’m really not sure it’s the optimal way of writing books in general.

Because: let’s say that after the second draft or so my books ended up at, say, 97 percent of what I could make them, and it took months to cover those extra three percentage points.  If I said, “screw it” and released at 97 percent, those months could be spent writing the next book — the next book, which I could then release a lot faster, when it was at 97 percent.

And how would this affect my sales?  I’d probably make more money due to the quicker release schedule and the fact that enough of my readers are satisfiers (with a standards threshold at a level that wouldn’t cut out my 97-percent-of-what-I-could-make-it writing) for my slight quality drop not to matter in whether they buy the book.  (Since most readers aren’t going to buy just one book, it probably makes sense for readers to act as satisfiers when book-buying anyway.)

Personally, I’ve sometimes been annoyed when authors I otherwise enjoy have put out their next book and I read it and I feel that it’s good, but not as good as it could be.  I get ticked off as a reader.  But the thing is, they’re probably doing the smart thing!  They’re probably maximizing their own sales.

And the revelation to me here was that I’m betting those authors are acting as satisfiers with regard to their own work: they wrote a book they consider “good enough” to release, and according to the market, they’re right.  They then went on to write their next book.  It’s smart.  It’s savvy.

Damn, I should consider doing it, too.

Alas, all this is mostly out of interest’s sake, because I’m not sure I’m psychologically capable of doing it with my writing, even though part of me would really like to.  But you know, maybe there are other things I can approach with a satisfier mentality from the producer side — things like book promotion, blog posts, tweets, for instance.  Maybe there are things I can say are “good enough” rather than trying to make them the “best,” and thus free up plenty of revision time for . . . well, writing and editing that next book!  Because will my “best” be able to lead to optimizers choosing me anyway?  Will my production optimization really make such a difference that it would lead to me being the top of the market for consumer optimization to choose?

Probably not.  Probably my “good enough” and my “best” will just meet slightly different thresholds for satisfiers, and optimizers will more likely pass me by anyway, because come on, “best in the market” is a ridiculous goal to have.  So acting as an optimizer as a producer is still only meeting the demand of satisfier consumers, only my approach is as if my audience is optimizers, meaning I waste ridiculous amounts of time trying to at least optimize within my own psyche before putting things out into the world.  Instead, I should be attempting to reach a certain bar and hook everyone who will read according to that standard.  I should approach my work as a satisfier myself and put it out there when it’s “good enough.”

I’m still going to make my books the best I can make them, because, particularly with my self-published work, I’m the author and the publisher and I CAN and I’m stubborn that way.  But I think I’m going to start trying a lot harder to approach other areas of my life with a “good enough” mentality!

We’ll see how that goes.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. I haven’t actually heard anyone talk about being a satisfier/optimizer as a producer before — i.e., releasing a product that reaches some standard of quality versus releasing a product that is the best one can make it.  It’s possible that by using the terms this way I’m being completely confusing to anyone who actually knows anything about marketing!  I also want to note that the way I’m using the words, optimizing as a producer does not mean the product is going to be the optimal product for consumers.  Being an optimizer as a producer does, however, match the psychology of being an optimizer as a consumer — at least, so it seems to me — as, if you’re not willing to buy anything other than the best the market offers, you’re less likely to be willing to release anything that’s not the best you can make it.  tl;dr of this footnote: I’m not in marketing and may not actually know what I’m talking about at all; but I’m musing because I find it interesting!

About the author

SL Huang (aka MathPencil)
SL Huang (aka MathPencil)

SL Huang justifies an MIT degree by using it to write eccentric mathematical superhero books. Debut novel: Zero Sum Game, a speculative fiction thriller.
Twitter: @sl_huang


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  • This concept of satisfiers vs optimizers has been helpful to me lately in fighting the perfectionism monster, which in my case leads to paralysis and indecision. Accepting that many projects require a satisfier approach helps with time management and control of stress levels. I think an optimizer approach is appropriate for an author, as long as it does not trigger procrastination and thus limit productivity. I appreciate a well-researched piece of writing that pays strict attention to detail; on the other hand, authors who act as factories, cranking out a string of satisfier- quality novels are not among my favorites.

    • Ha! I do admit to being a remarkably picky reader as well. There are definitely sequels I’ve waited for for aaaaaaaaaaaages and when they finally came out I unhappily (and perhaps uncharitably) wished the author in question had spent another year or so re-editing. I’m sure these reader-preferences affect the perfectionism I feel towards releasing my writing, as well — it’s hard (but very beneficial) to remind myself that not everybody has the same reader preferences I do!

  • What does it say when my “Optimizer” standard is so low it’s probably what most people think of as a “Satisfier” standard? Bwurrrrrr *hides*

  • This strikes me as (hopefully, potentially, arguably) a pleasant counterbalance to the charge that self-publishing authors are simply tossing out junk as fast as they can write it, flooding the marketplace with blah blah blah, etc. If a writer is aware of where their most effective cut-off point is, then acting on that knowledge makes perfect sense from various perspectives. Experience will provide that*, and there are plenty of less celebrated success stories than the self-pub headline grabbers who churn out work that clearly satisfies an audience, even if it isn’t Nobel Prize-winning material.

    As well as the questionable value of the murderous, sweat-squeezing perfectionalisation demanded in that final 3%, it’s worth pointing out that there’s no guarantee a writer is actually making a story better by striving for THEIR notion of what’s perfect – we are not necessarily better able to see the wood for the trees than anyone else working a job. There’s a line in Six Degree of Separation (the film at least, but I’m guessing it’s in the play that I haven’t seen as well) that describes how a junior school art teacher has a class producing nothing but masterpieces, and her explanation is that “she simply knows when to take their work away from them”.

    How easy is it to take our writing away from ourselves? For me, the answer is “not very”, I’ll carry on tweaking words until the sun burns out if I’m not careful. But I’d rather go through life satisfied than optimised, so maybe I should look at my deadlines that way in future.

    * a strong relationship with beta-readers or an agent would do it too, of course

    • This is so well said, Andrew, and addresses the “BUT…” that popped into my mind as well. What is 100%? Knowing SL as I do, which is to say, a little bit, I’m certain that when she reaches her 100% (which would be my 125%) she feels confident she’s done all she can do, brushes off her hands and strides toward the next challenge. It’s a worthy decisiveness to aspire to, but attaining it feels a bit like climbing K2. Without oxygen.

      Of course, artists have to find their own peace in the work they send into the world, whatever that peace may be.

    • VERY good points!

      I do find that there’s a point beyond which I honestly can’t tell whether I’m making a ms better or worse. That’s where my personal 100 percent lies, btw — in other words, at that point it’s as good as it’s possible for me to get it, because it’s literally impossible for me to improve it and know whether I’m improving it. Not saying whether it’s actually any good on an objective scale, of course. 😉 But yeah, if I kept tweaking beyond that, there is absolutely no guarantee on what the ms would become.

      Now, there’s also the question of whether I currently recognize this point correctly or whether it should come sooner. 😉 Hmm, lots to think about.

  • Interesting question. I tend to be more impulsive in purchases, so I guess I’m a satisfier. My partner is an optimizer. He examines the item in question, studies Consumer Reports, and sometimes I want to shake him and say: JUST BUY IT ALREADY! But regarding work product, specifically stories, novels, novellas, I tend more to the optimizer side, I think. I’d rather spend the time and effort putting out the best product I can–not only from a writing standpoint, but the finished product. I want to give the reader (consumer) something they won’t regret spending their hard-earned money on.

    But, having said that, I think there are categories of books that are more consumables. I know authors who crank out a book every four to six weeks. Their fans expect new releases and consume their books as if they’re going to the movies. So the author and reader have a shared expectation, and that works for them. (Many of these authors are full-time writers, though. I can’t imagine having that kind of output myself.)

    I do think it’s important to know when to let go of a project, to stop working on it and either release it or put it in the trunk. (Hopefully, not the trunk.)

    Having said all of that, I really have to do some serious revisions to a certain work in progress, and I just haven’t been able to get in the mood. 🙂

    • Yeah, I couldn’t imagine producing work that quickly either! *faints* But an interesting point I’ve been considering about the 4-6 week authors is — I’ve seen people say they don’t have respect for their readers because (allegedly) they could have greater quality if they published less often. BUT what that doesn’t take into account is that (1) the readers apparently feel perfectly well respected or they wouldn’t be buying, and (2) if their readers expect a new book every month, delaying for an arguably trivial bump in quality could be construed as disrespecting their waiting readers in a *different* way, and all for the selfishness of an optimizing author. 😉

      I think about this with regard to my own work for sure — I’m admittedly a perfectionist, and if I go to the other extreme and start having years-long delays between books because I can’t get things JUST RIGHT, well….*that’s* disrespectful to my readers, too! So I think there’s definitely room for a happy medium here between getting everything absolutely right and publishing at a reasonable speed. (Gah! The perfectionist in me HATES happy mediums!)

      It’s definitely something to mull over.

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