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.

Tomorrow is Another Day (for Publishing)

Cover illustration, Harper's Weekly September 7, 1861

The one constant in the print and digital publishing business these days is change, and change isn’t easy. Isn’t that the crux of most novels—thrusting your protagonist into unprecedented circumstances to change their world forever? I relate to strong heroines in those novels—Scarlett O’Hara being a favorite. While I don’t think the publishing landscape is doomed to resemble post-war Atlanta anytime soon, I can imagine when all is said and done, there will be those sitting around shell-shocked, sipping mint tea among burning embers, and those who will thrive with the flurry of a lumber mill during reconstruction.

One thing I’ve learned for seizing opportunity amidst upheaval is to apply basic principles of change management. 

“I can’t think of it now…I’ll think of it later.”1

As much as I enjoy Scarlett’s character, indulging in such thinking could be dangerous. The publishing business is changing, whether you take notice or not. If you don’t want the road to Tara to be riddled with potholes, it’s important to arm yourself with information. Fortunately, lots of people are talking about what publishing changes are in store, and you can follow any number of blogs for an understanding of the essentials or simply pose a question to a trusted writer’s loop and see what personal experiences you stir up. Do anything but ignore change. It’s not going away. 

“It’s better to know the worst, than to wonder.” 1

Expect to grieve a little. Change has a life cycle that passes through phases, including ‘loss’. Think about why you want to be published. This doesn’t have to be the answer you’d give anyone else, but be honest. Is it for the recognition? Because you have a compelling message to tell? Whatever the reason, with that need for being published in mind, ask yourself what you would lose if your choices no longer made sense.

Through the traditional print publishing route…would you lose time waiting for publication? Could your genre be overdone by the time you hit the shelves? Could the physical shelves be long gone by then? Could you lose out on the higher author cuts from e-publishing? And what about the e-publishing route…would you lose big name industry reviews? The satisfaction of seeing your book in print? Store placement to drive sales? Ask yourself if your expectations around what you have to gain or lose are realistic to begin with. What good is a higher e-publishing royalty if you can’t figure out how to move the books? Do you need ‘big name’ reviews if hundreds of GoodReads fans are singing your praises?

When you figure out what you really stand to lose, start brainstorming replacements. Can you hire PR to promote your book or join a group where authors help each other market? Can you fill down time waiting on publication by working on a new novel or building a platform? There is no easy answer here. Loss is painful, but coming to grips with it sooner than later frees you to move through the cycle and gets you thinking about moving forward.

“Now you are beginning to think for yourself instead of letting others think for you. That’s the beginning of wisdom.” 1

Success still resides at the crossroads of opportunity and preparedness. Recognize you have choices. You can go down the traditional publishing route today and find success, and you can go down an e-publishing route and find success. Or both. The choices mean you have some control over your fate. Treat your career decisions with as much careful planning as your circumstances will allow. Once you know where you want to go in the changing landscape, set milestones to mark your progress to keep alert to progress and risks along the way.

“In the end what will happen will be what has happened whenever a civilization breaks up. The people who have brains and courage come through and the ones who haven’t are winnowed out.” 1 

Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind

What about you? How are you coping with the changing publishing landscape?