That Customer Service Thing

October 11th, 2011 · 19 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

So what with this, that, and the other, Booksquare has been a bit quiet lately. The world of digital publishing has been amazingly active, and — oh! — filled with more rumors, speculation, and nonsense than even I can stomach*. Which means the important news gets buried as the digerati chase the next bright and shiny thing.

I have been very much focused on Moving Forward. Which means thinking about how publishing can position itself for the next year, the next five years, the next ten years, heck, the next century. One thing I know for sure is that nobody knows for sure how things will look at any one of those points in time. The best publishers can do is to figure out what they do (not as easy as you’d imagine!), and, more importantly, how they can best position themselves to take advantage of the inevitable shifts in the business.

So, today, a small discussion about a small aspect of this change. I say small because I am addressing an isolated incident. I think it’s worthy of attention because it covers so many of the big issues facing publishing right now.

Neal Stephenson, a favorite author of mine (gotta love a guy who can make every single page of a 900-page book compelling), recently released Reamde in hardcover and ebook. This was an anticipated book from a highly-regarded author. Which means, you know, there was a devoted audience ready to buy the book — in the appropriate format — on day one. Also, the audience has a geeky element, which may play into this story.

The husband reads a bit slower than I do, so I gave him a head start on the book. One night, he said to me (and I paraphrase), “Have you noticed anything weird about the Kindle edition?” I had not because I hadn’t started the book (I did not want to mention the head start thing to protect his ego and all that).

So I started the book. And I noticed. Oh, I noticed. Conversion errors galore! Okay, maybe five conversion errors in my first half-hour of reading. Anything that jerks me out of the flow of a story — and, boy, do conversion errors do that! — is a Bad Thing.

We weren’t alone. Lots of people noticed the problems. Amazon pulled the book from the Kindle store. HarperCollins staff did amazing work to fix the errors. The turnaround in getting a new version was a few days. Amazon politely communicated that the new version was available rather than switching it out willy nilly (I am not sure that means what I think it means, but there you have it.).

However, the reason given by Amazon for the new edition was “missing content”. Which bothered more than a few readers. What, they asked, was missing? It made readers wonder if they had to reread the book. Yeah, those who’d finished the book, errors and all, were not happy campers.

A reader had to create a Diff File — a file that details the differences between the original file and the new file. In the end, there wasn’t much missing content, and nothing major was omitted (trust me when I say omission of major content happens more often than it should).

Lesson: The publisher should have been all over this. As soon as possible. If only because it is great customer service to let readers know if that 900-page book they just read was missing major elements.

But wait, there’s more!

There is much talk in the industry about making direct connection with readers. Opening the lines of communication is, from what I understand, a major goal. Granted, HarperCollins had to communicate with readers via Amazon (since they don’t, sigh, have that direct relationship with readers; see: where I’ve talked about this before). But every opportunity to make a connection is important.

Good will is important. Critical. Essential.

HarperCollins did amazing work in fixing the problem. As someone who paid $16.99 for the book, I am happy they did this. However (you knew there was a however, right?), what happened next just killed my feelings of goodwill.

Within days of notifying me there was a fixed edition of Reamde available, HarperCollins lowered the price of the ebook to $14.99. Yeah, the book I bought, couldn’t read due to annoying problems, had to redownload, wondered if the missing content impacted what I’d read…was now cheaper for everyone who hadn’t already gone through that rigamarole.

I waited for a notice telling me I’d been credited two dollars — not, I admit, a lot of money, but it’s the principle, not the amount. I waited in vain. I feel this is a serious missed opportunity. Why do this to your best readers? The people who worked hardest to buy and read a book you produced?

So, yeah, it’s a really good book. Really good. But today, as I learn that Stephenson and Greg Bear are publishing The Mongoliad: Book One with 47North, Amazon’s new sci fi/fantasy/horror imprint, I have questions.

Lesson Two? Respect your readers. Please.

* – It turns out I have less tolerance for headlines that read “Will The Kindle Fire be An Eternal Flame?” than I thought. If you have to ask a silly question in your headline, you are doing it wrong. So says the ghost of Mary Beth Lucas, journalism teacher, Cabrillo Senior High School.

File Under: The Future of Publishing

19 responses so far ↓

  • Alan // Oct 12, 2011 at 10:21 am

    So does the explosion in digital mean that we first-time writers have a better chance of getting published by someone other than ourselves? Are any publishers creating departments devoted to digital so that if a publisher wants to try a book out before committing to print, they could first put it in an e-book? Thanks

  • Carole McKee // Oct 12, 2011 at 10:30 am

    I have a Kindle and I love it, mainly because it’s easier on the eyes than some book prints. I have noticed conversion errors in several of the books I downloaded, but that really hasn’t bothered me. Maybe it’s because I’m older and can remember the first conversions of hard copy text to a computer. Yikes!

  • Carole McKee // Oct 12, 2011 at 10:37 am

    Alan…..I have 4 books published (self-published). They are available in paperback and as eBooks. My highest royalty checks are coming from the eBooks. I recently saw a publisher’s contract that included e-publishing, so I think publishers are offering it. Also, there are some e-publishers who offer the book in print if someone wants a hard copy. :)

  • nicola // Oct 12, 2011 at 11:07 am

    The way I see it, customer service is not part of publishing’s traditional skill set. What Big Six publishers are good at, historically (i.e. with print) are a) scale and b) beautiful product.

    Digital is screwing with both. The first is easy to understand: you don’t need scale for ebooks. The second not so much. Which is why this kind of incident with REAMDE errors really puzzles me.

    Process, workflow, quality control–publishers should be good at that. Why do they screw up so often with digital compared to print? Why do so many horrible conversion errors creep in? Actually, why is prep for digital publishing even considered ‘conversion’? If I were Empress of the publishing universe, digital would be the primary format. Print would be the ‘conversion’.

    Customer service problems, sadly, are easy to understand. I don’t think publishers consider readers their customers. Their customers are the distributors and wholesalers. Publishers don’t have relationships with readers; they don’t know how it works. I think they’re trying to learn. I hope so. I’m just not seeing anything right now that looks like a mechanism to facilitate that. Unless you count communities such as Book Country. But I’m not sure I do. You?

  • david henry sterry // Oct 12, 2011 at 11:32 am

    i wanna talk about customer service from the POV of bookstores. St. Marks Books in NYC is suffering terribly. but when u walk into that place, they have the rudest, snarkiest, hipper-than-thou-est staff imaginable. like they’re doing u a big favor just talking to u. i’ve been to over 300 independent bookstores all over america, & this off-putting rudeness is rampant. i happen to love St. Marks Books, and I hope they change the way they do business, so they can stay afloat. because when an independent bookstore closes, an angel loses its wings, & we become a stupider nation.

  • Theresa M. Moore // Oct 12, 2011 at 1:29 pm

    As a self-published author and I can and do pay attention to such features as conversion errors. Most of my novels are rendered in the simplest format possible short of a text file, and I take care to save each in the format according to the service’s instructions. So far I have never had such a problem, but Amazon has driven down the price of ebooks to levels which apparently don’t apply to ebooks published by the major houses. The plethora of content available, including Amazon’s vast wealth of public domain titles, which undercut anyone’s prices because they are free, threatens to bury anyone’s titles in relative obscurity. Also, Amazon’s ventures into “traditional” publishing has ghettoized most independent authors.

    Having said that, I don’t approach bookstores precisely because of that snarky attitude, which extends to authors who choose to self-publish. I confine my marketing to my site, which in this growing ebook market is really all I need.

  • Christine Leov Lealand // Oct 12, 2011 at 6:11 pm

    As a published author I can say that I have noticed that publishers care less about the readers of their books. I have a huge following for my books – in print over 10yrs. But do the publishers want more of my books? No. Do I trust them to market and convert my books to digital? No – when I asked them they didn’t even HAVE a digital edition marketing plan. Shrugs. So that’s where ebook readers are to one large publisher – nowhere.
    The only organisation which I know cares about book conversion is Smashwords.com and a few etailers like mebooks.co.nz.
    I suspect big publishers are hiring geeks who seem like likely people to know about book conversion – and throwing the person at the problem. Converting the print copy into some kind of digital attempt – instead of formatting the book from scratch. As I have done with the digital versions of my novels.
    Digital version first – print on demand second.
    The new publishing paradigm in my opinion.

  • Kassia Krozser // Oct 12, 2011 at 9:23 pm

    @ Christine — a lot to digest here. So, to start. I agree that Smashwords offers a great service, but they call their conversion engine the “meat grinder” for a reason. This is not to disparage Smashwords — I think they do amazing, innovative work — but it is to indicate that there is a lot to conversion that isn’t easy. If I could give one piece of advice to authors, it would be to stop thinking you (not you personally) are capable of of this kind of work. Hire a professional. The money spent is worth the money spent.

    I also disagree that publishers don’t have a digital marketing plan. However, the economics of book publishing are more complex than it appears on the surface (the vast majority of their sales are still print, and the vast majority of their customers still find books the old fashioned way). I strongly advocate that authors make their own, very informed, choices about how their careers proceed. If you do not think your publisher works for you, move on.

    I do believe the way most publishers create their digital books is a bassakward procees, but, as noted above, it’s more complex than it looks. Do I think the workflow has to shift rapidly? Absolutely. I think it should have been done five years ago. But I think it’s really important to understand the business and economics of different publishing models.

  • Kassia Krozser // Oct 12, 2011 at 9:29 pm

    @ Theresa — I am going to play devil’s advocate here: has Amazon *really* driven down the price of books, or have authors and some bad actors helped along the way? Yes, Amazon is (now) a publisher, but those low-priced books you reference ar the result of publishers — and I use the term loosely as there are many opportunists in the mix — gaming the system. I do believe big publishing has not helped itself when it comes to creating valuable content (the gist of my post), but it’s pretty clear that consumers are making choices based on their own criteria.

    Am I more likely to take a chance on a low-priced indie author? Of course. Am I going to spend $9.99 on that same author? Probably not. But I feel the same way about traditionally published authors. I’m not cheap, and I certainly buy an amazing number of books. But I am wary.

    Value, to me, comes from the reader. But authors, unfortunately, cannot know that value beforehand.

  • Kassia Krozser // Oct 12, 2011 at 9:33 pm

    @ David — I am big believer in great customer service (have the scar on my arm to prove it). A bookstore — digital or physical — is only as good as the experience it offers. That is a complex concept; what customers want from their bookstore varies from person to person, situation to situation, location to location. Luckily, consumers can vote with their feet (or fingers). Personally, I feel a store that doesn’t honor all customers is doomed to failure, but I don’t know the actual dynamics here.

  • Kassia Krozser // Oct 12, 2011 at 9:46 pm

    @ Nicola — Feeling like a warped Sally Field here! Workflow is going to be *the* issue of the next few years. It’s going to be ugly, and it’s going to be expensive. Ain’t no way around that. The digital problem comes from what we call the duck beaver process (I have been told duck beaver is what some Canadians call the platypus). A platypus is an ungainly, weird animal that looks like it has been cobbled together. It shouldn’t work. It does. Digital publishing is the same way. It has been grafted onto the traditional process. This, I will note, is understandable. It’s really, really hard to justify undergoing a massive culture and process change when you do not know how the business will shake out.

    Which, I will say, is not excuse for not doing the basic job of publishing books, but it does help explain why this hasn’t happened yet. It makes me sad, but the current process is more expensive. You are right that it shouldn’t be conversion. We should be talking about one master file that is in a format capable of being output to all other formats (including print). Alas, this dream has snags galore! (hint: so much easier with narrative fiction, non-fiction than highly formatted text).

    Customer service. Oy. Readers have not traditionally been the end customer of publishers. They (publisher) are learning how to communicate in an effective manner, and it’s not always as easy as it looks. For example, HC does not necessarily have a direct relationship with all the people who bought Reamde from the Kindle store. The tweets relating this post were interesting: some called it Amazon’s problem, some called it HC’s mistake. Depends on your perspective. I think this is going to improve. It has to. But talk about culture change!

    I thought this was a great opportunity for HarperCollins. I clearly think it was a missed opportunity. And I am — obviously — angered by the price drop.

    I don’t count BookCountry, which I think is absolutely freaking amazing. But it’s not a publisher project, at least not in the way we think of it. It’s a Pearson thing, which allows the entire BC team to experiment and play without worrying about what “Penguin” needs. I think this is critical. Which, yeah, means we should talk about this more detail.

  • Kassia Krozser // Oct 12, 2011 at 9:48 pm

    @ Alan — I believe this is the time for authors to make the best possible decisions for themselves. Each author must decide this based on career goals. And, yes, there are publishers who are trying digital first/print maybe options. Slow going, I think, but it’s happening.

  • Claude Nougat // Oct 13, 2011 at 1:02 am

    Great post thanks, and yes, publishers are showing themselves to be pretty poor at both author and readers relationships!

    The only Big Six publisher I know who’s trying to go digital straight on (without first printing the book) is HarpersCollins with the new twist they’ve just put on their Authonomy site. Go check it, it’s quite interesting.

    They say that the ms that gets the most votes in a month will get published as an ebook, an if it sells well, then it will be published as a printed book!

    They’ve reversed the traditional process! That’s quite revolutionary really.

    I hope they’re also better than most at avoiding conversion errors. They probably are since they’re already running this virtual community, Authonomy, with very few glitches (I participated for a while and found it rather well run).

    Speaking for myself, I self-published some of my back titles (originally published in Italian, I translated the books myself, a lot of work!) using BookBaby and I must say they are very professional. As far as I know (and can see) they haven’t done any conversion errors at all…

  • Customer // Oct 13, 2011 at 2:28 am

    agree with Claude in this “publishers are showing themselves to be pretty poor at both author and readers relationships!” .. it is now they must check as to where and what changes could amount to a large difference..both to themselves and the readers..

  • nicola // Oct 13, 2011 at 11:51 am

    @Kassia — I hear you on all counts!

  • Mark Barrett // Oct 14, 2011 at 1:06 pm

    Neal Stephenson blah blah blah.

    If the world was a better place we’d all be celebrating YOUR return to writing.

    You’ve been missed. :-)

  • Helen W. Mallon // Oct 15, 2011 at 9:03 am

    Kassia,
    I signed up for email notifications several months ago hoping you’d be back, and here you are! I’m already learning.

    Is anyone familiar with Seth Godin and his Domino Project? He’s a very smart, forward thinking guy, and while his books are all non-fiction, here’s hoping there are other hip geeks who are committed to making the most of digital publishing.

  • Writing on the Ether | Jane Friedman // Nov 10, 2011 at 2:02 am

    […] felt like to read HarperCollins’ initial ebook edition of Neal Stephenson’s Reamde in That Customer Service Thing? So I started the book. And I noticed. Oh, I noticed. Conversion errors galore! Okay, maybe five […]

  • Jeremy // Dec 12, 2011 at 2:38 pm

    All this change in the digital world makes we really wonder what the future holds for books and publishing… at least it’ll be a fun ride! I agree though – conversion errors in ebooks drive me crazy!