I’ve been futzing with this article for a couple of months and it’s not working out. I told myself to finish it and publish it and it accidentally went up last week. I guess that is a sign. I think the problem that I have with the subject is that I don’t have any real concrete opinion here but rather than let it languish, I figured I would post it and then read all the comments. Maybe something will crystalize after reading the opinions of the commenters of Dear Author.
Sarah Wendell and I give presentations on ebook reading devices (Angela James, too, at RT). We try to cover the pros and cons of the devices and we always try to include a section on customer service. Good customer service can make up for a less than perfect device. Barnes and Noble’s in store service is remarkable. Amazon’s online service can’t be beat. Good customer service engenders loyalty. Loyalty, in return, means return sales and good word of mouth. Even if a product is outpaced by another product, the loyal customer defends their allegiance, believing that even if this current product isn’t perfect, the next one will be. It takes a long time of substandard service to break a customer’s loyalty but it can be done.
I’m sure you can all see where I am going with this. John Locke, the seller of over 1,000,000 ebook units in 5 months, has a marketing book out. In the marketing book, he describes the efforts he makes to reach out to his fans, to create a personal connection with them. Authors are in the business of providing customer service as well. Do it well and those fans become loyal followers who spread of the gospel of Author A without any prompting.
When Sarah and I did a reader roundtable at RT this past year, I asked the question “How many books does it take for an author to go on the autobuy list.” Many responded with “just one”. When I asked the converse question “How many books does it take for an author to move off the autobuy list, the response was varied and many agreed that it would take more than one, even several. A reader won is not easily lost.
As we enter this new age of publishing, however, the pressure will increase on authors to provide more customer service, maybe not to the extent that John Locke is promoting, but definitely increased.
In the past, when an author has been confronted by price or availability, scheduling, bad cover blurbs, bad covers, publication of a series, the author has been able to say that those decisions are outside of her control. And it was true. With self publishing, however, the mantra from readers may be that nothing is out of the author’s control no matter who the author’s publisher is, whether it be her or another entity.
And what one author is doing will be held up to other authors. For instance, Courtney Milan and Tessa Dare have had their self published works translated in German. German readers are going to wonder why more authors aren’t offering that service. Anne Stuart self published a sequel to her ICE series and it is price at $6.99 and not available to UK readers. UK readers are asking why. Loretta Chase, one of the grand dames of romance (and I don’t mean by age, but by the way in which her books are revered), is self publishing her backlist titles with covers that make her books look like they were culled from the ranks of public domain books that are over 100 years old. Suzanne Enoch can’t be bothered to update her website. She has a new book out this month called “A Beginner’s Guide to Rakes” (and that is a misleading title if there ever was one) but you wouldn’t know it from the website which has her latest book as ” ” which came out in 2010. Fans of Enoch wouldn’t know that she has another book coming out in the Spring of 2012. Someone may comment that Enoch has more important things than updating her website like personal problems (I’m not saying she does, but that may be an excuse), but to readers who want more information, that is of no matter.
I know this feeds into the argument or belief that authors have about readers and their entitlement attitudes. I’ve heard authors unhappy that readers email them right after a book has been released and want to know what is next. Readers are a lusty, demanding group and that’s actually a good thing. It’s why romance readers buy so many books and in such huge quantities. A reader doesn’t demand what she doesn’t want.
Still, the idea of authors providing customer service for their products might seem a little frightening but maybe there really isn’t a change. Authors have always had a higher profile that publishers and editors. They are the ones that field the complaints about books not being available, about ebooks having DRM, about books priced too high, about books being too short, too long, too much green on the cover.
It’s obvious that the competency in the business of selling books isn’t in the same trade set as writing books. To place the burden of customer service on authors presents an almost unfair expectation. Writers are not necessarily business people or people that understand the fine art of customer service. Writers may not know every available resource out there (german translators?!) or they may be misled by even well intentioned individuals. I read, from time to time, advice thrown out on blogs that makes me cringe.
Obviously, the solution, every time we readers get anxious about customer service, is to picture the person providing the service is that kitten in the picture because that no one can be impatient with that kitten and her little itty bitty phone but barring that, what expectations should readers have? I.e., if it can be done, do we expect every author to adopt it? Do we, as readers, have tolerance for slow moving responses to our demands? Will the move of some authors to self publishing and the freedom gained with self publishing increase the demands of readers? Can an author rely solely on her books to build her base? Or does she have to be John Locke? Or Bella Andre who writes a personalized email to everyone on her email list for the past seven years every time a new release comes out? Or Courtney Milan who is pricing her books at $.99 and getting them translated into German? What is reasonable readers?