Another Brick in the Publishing Wall

Inevitably, whenever I read an article about the publishing business lately, Amazon’s name crops up—often to highlight how they’ve become the big, bad wolf trying to blow down the publishers and booksellers with a huff and a puff of discount prices, a far-reaching distribution channel, and the ability to sell direct to consumers. Much heft, in particular, has been placed on pricing as the lynchpin that could make traditional publishers and bookstores obsolete. No doubt (and for good reason) they fret over this more than the average reader, and time will tell if price and reach are the mortar holding it all together. Meanwhile I’d like to explore another factor influencing why and from where customers buy because I don’t believe it’s all about price, and I don’t believe it’s all about marketing and promotion, either. What about convenience? Selection? Fulfillment? What about how well the seller delivers on the overall customer experience at every touch-point and every interaction?

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Yes, I admit I’m a bit of a harpy about the ‘customer experience’ (call it a hazard of my day job), but it’s the one thing that keeps me coming back again, even if I can get something cheaper elsewhere, and when not done right, it’s the one thing that drives me away faster than I can pluck a hair from my chinny-chin-chin. Why do you think people who buy only from certain bookstores do that? Nostalgia for traditional publishing or because the experience and interactions they have in those places make them feel good? I’m guessing it’s the latter.

And do you think people who buy mainly from Amazon do that solely for the price, or might it have something to do with Amazon’s wide selection, easy to use website, quality packaging, fast (often free) shipping, easy returns, overall solid reputation, and available, empowered customer service? It just might. I’ve been buying everything from books, games, and gifts to guitars, clothing, and Cuisinarts through Amazon since 2004. Every time, they’ve worked hard to build my loyalty by delivering a consistently extraordinary customer experience.

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When I think about my experiences with other sellers, they’ve been average or infrequent. With publishers (traditional and electronic), it’s a mixed bag. As a consumer, I don’t have many. As a writer, I’ve mostly been rejected or ignored. I realize this is par for the course in the publishing industry, and I don’t doubt I deserved the rejection at the time, but being ignored is memorable. I’m expected to provide thoughtful responses to hundreds of emails a day (and, no, email isn’t central to my day job), so it chafes a little when publishers say they don’t have the time to respond at all, ever. These may be ego-bruising realities for a writer, but as consumers who buy a lot of books (and the occasional Cuisinart, for that matter), engaging us only when it’s self-serving isn’t the way to build a positive, lasting relationship.

On the flip side, Amazon isn’t perfect.  I hear some Indie authors say they’re unhappy with Amazon’s KDP Select customer service, and they feel ignored or unappreciated. Amazon may, in fact, be wading into dangerous territory if they don’t figure out how to deliver the same service excellence to indie writers as they do elsewhere. But given the overwhelming number of positive experiences I’ve had with Amazon, I might be willing to forgive the first lapse or two.

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If publishers and booksellers intend to compete profitably in a world where customers are ever-evolving in their expectations and where the likes of Amazon exist, they have their work cut out to deliver the kind of experience that builds loyalty (read: profitable behavior). There is no silver bullet. It takes time to build a reputation. Amazon isn’t the only threat to houses of sticks and straw. There’s a hurricane of savvy customers brewing.

What about you? Have you ever decided to purchase from somewhere (or not) solely based on an excellent or poor experience?

Disclosure: I have two contemporary romances published with Avalon Books, which was recently acquired by Amazon Publishing. I had drafted this blog post before I was aware of the acquisition, and it in no way impacted my depiction of Amazon here.

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19 thoughts on “Another Brick in the Publishing Wall

  1. I make my purchasing decisions very heavily based on my experience as a customer. I’m a very loyal person–that includes being loyal to businesses that offer me a wide selection and easy shopping. The top two places where I buy all the things I need are Amazon and Walmart. Amazon, as you noted, often has free shipping, they are always very fast (though occasionally when I place an order on Amazon but through a different seller, they are slower).

    In fact, I recently had to order a product that wasn’t available on Amazon through a different company’s website, and I was chafing because it took this company twice as long to ship as Amazon would have. Amazon has become the standard by which I measure all my transactions with companies.

    A place like Walmart is good because they may not have free shipping deals, but they DO have site-to-store pickups, which is the next best thing.

    When I need books, I go to Amazon. The only books I DON’T find cheaper at Walmart fall into the category of used/out of print, which I tend to find cheaper on Abebooks.

    Folks can call Amazon and Walmart the big bad wolf all they want to. But in my stressed out life, they make shopping easy. Why would I want to use anyone else?

    • Thanks for your comment, BK. I’m glad I’m not the only one out there that feels that way. (:

  2. I tend to shop by my experience with a company more than anything else. At times, I will pay a little more out of loyalty and experience: I like the way the store took care of me in this past. This applies to both online and brick and mortar stores. Quality of the product and service, pricing, delivery, how they handle problems all play into this. A poor experience will lose me as a customer no matter how low the price.

    • I’ve definitely paid a little more out of loyalty, too. It’s worth a little something to feel like someone really cares. Thanks for your comment, Henry. (:

  3. I buy from amazon for the same reasons you do. If I want a book now, I can get it on my kindle, or If I don’t mind waiting buy a used book at a discounted price. I love the “customers who purchased this also purchased” feature, the reviews (when there are a lot,) the search functions, and the “buy it now” button. Its just so much easier than driving across town with two babies to a book store, and with kindle can have my book at 2 am if I want it.

    • Thanks for commenting, Summer. I just started paying attention to that ‘customers who purchased this…’ section about six months ago, and—especially with books—I’ve found some gems there! (:

  4. I’m a bookaholic, so with the volume of my purchases, price matters. But what makes the bigger difference for me is how fast I can get my hands on my next book fix. I’ll pay a little more if I’m standing in a brick and mortar building and the title is at my fingertips, but if not, Amazon gets products to me fast.

    • I’m a pre-order junkie myself. I love it when I forget I ordered a book and…bam!…there it is in the mail waiting for me. (:

  5. I’ve been a big Amazon buyer for a long time, from books to toys and now some food items. I like the ease of “shopping” in my home and the convenience of receiving on my doorstep … and now in my Kindle. I would love to go to a real store and have human contact on occasion, but frankly they don’t teach customer service in the DC area anymore so sometimes no contact is better. At present, I go out of my way to shop at a particular grocery store because of one lady who works there who I sometimes actually get to check out my stuff. She’s a blessing. She asks about your day and follows up on it the next time she sees you. It makes a big difference!

    • You must be a bit of an extrovert, Connie. (:
      It’s sad when businesses plain don’t seem to care about the customer experience, but when we make our choices to go elsewhere, they’ll eventually figure it out…or be in danger of going out of business. Word of mouth is a powerful element these days.

  6. Customer service is a big thing. There’s a local clothing store I won’t even go into anymore because of three poor customer service experiences in a row.

    The products a store carries counts a lot, too. I was overjoyed when I heard a new independent bookstore was opening in our town last fall – but that joy quickly disappeared on my first visit. The proprietors had filled their beautiful store with books I don’t want to read. They had let their political views do their book buying for them, and ended up with a very narrow selection. I understand the selection they choose is their prerogative – but so is my choice of where to shop. (And I have revisited the store – it hasn’t changed.)

    Price is another biggie. I’ll pay more for good service, but when the service is poor, price rules.

    Availability is probably the biggest concern for me, though. I buy books most people don’t read. I buy the books that aren’t available in the library, or in a specific edition. Books I needed to educate my children when we were homeschooling or the books I need for research now just aren’t carried by local stores or the big chains.

    So I stick with Amazon.

    • I love to hear other people passionate about the service experience. Thanks for your comment, Jan! (:

  7. Amazon gets a lot of my book and gift business, based on their accessibility, prices, and customer service. I love that you can chat with a customer service rep, when you have a problem or a question. Works for me!

    • I LOVE that chat feature. I just used it the other day, all braced for a bit of a struggle—because they’d neglected to give me free shipping on two books when they broke up the order into two shipments—but they solved it for me before I could even give her my order number. Gotta love it. (:

  8. I adore the ease and value of Amazon and am continually amazed by their impact on publishing. The Create Space customer support group actually is incredible and their turnaround time is stellar. I do miss the storefront aspect, though, and sometimes still go spend a few hours at Barnes and Noble, just for overall the customer experience.

    • I hear you, Kimberly. There’s a local B&N I’ll pop in just for the joy of seeing people sitting around reading and…ok, for a Starbucks, too, but mostly for the joy of seeing people read, even though Amazon is my go-to place for buying books. Thanks for the positive comments about the Create Space group—that makes me happy to hear.

  9. Pingback: Another Brick in the Publishing Wall | Vincent A. Alascia

  10. I’ve owned ereaders for a long time. In the old days it could be a complicated and frustrating process to download a book. Now it’s sublime. And as a result can be weighty on the pocketbook. I’m nearing 500 books on my reader that is less than 2 years old. I don’t want to waste my money on formatting issues on top of the problems I might already have with a reading a new author.

    I bought a book over a week ago that wouldn’t open at the beginning of the book. However, I ended up having to eat the loss because I’d waited over 7 days to read the book.

    Now more than likely I won’t buy another of this author’s books because she self-published and didn’t get it right. The story was fine…formatting was horrible. I had to jump through hoops to get the book to open. In fact the story had at one time been published with a brick and motor publisher.

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