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.