An American Editor

March 9, 2016

Barnes & Noble: Years Later & Still No Clue

As long-time readers of An American Editor know, I prefer to purchase my books at Barnes & Noble (B&N), largely so as to keep a competitor to Amazon alive. But I have to admit, even after years of struggling against Amazon, B&N still doesn’t have a clue and seems to not care that it is following a path of self-destruction.

Consider these past essays on AAE about B&N: On Mourning the Passing of Barnes & Noble (2014), B&N in a Fantasy World (2014), Can Barnes & Noble Be Saved? (2013), and And Then There Was One: Barnes & Noble’s Lack of Customer Service (2012). You would think that by now, especially with all the troubles that B&N has had, a light bulb would come on and B&N management would have an epiphany: “We need to greatly improve our customer service, because our poor customer service is what keeps us down!” Alas, dimwittedness continues to prevail.

I preorder a lot of hardcovers. At the beginning of last week I had 17 hardcovers on preorder and another dozen I have been thinking about. Last week I received four of those 17 hardcovers, in addition to two hardcovers in addition to two hardcovers that I read about or saw an ad for that I ordered. Six hardcovers purchased and received last week alone. In addition, I added 11 more hardcovers to my list of books that I want to preorder but have not.

And therein begins my tale, with one of the preorders I received last week: “Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion” by Susan Jacoby.

I preordered the book many months ago. At the time of the preorder, the price was an undiscounted $30.00. Because it was an early preorder, I didn’t worry about the price, because I (wrongly) assumed that if the book was discounted, B&N would bill me the discounted price. I wanted the book and if it wasn’t discounted, well, I’d pay the $30.00.

When the book arrived, I looked at the invoice and saw it was for $30.00. So I decided to check B&N’s website to see if that was the correct price. It wasn’t. B&N was selling the book for $20.63 — a $9.37 discount. Had the difference in price been a few cents, I would have let it go, but the difference was too much to not call B&N customer service.

I called B&N and the representative told me that “as a one-time courtesy” they would refund the difference but that it is B&N’s policy “not to match prices.” Match prices? I was not asking B&N to match a competitor’s price; I was asking it to sell me the book for the price B&N itself was selling the book, not the inflated preorder price. I thought perhaps I was not getting through because the representative was clearly not a native American English speaker, so I asked to speak to a supervisor.

Even the customer service supervisor seemed to have no clue. She began repeating the excuses the original representative gave — none of which were pertinent, such as “the preorder price depends on inventory, depends on number of preorders, and depends on the publisher” — and then repeated the words, “as a one-time courtesy.”

Unbelievable. I stopped the supervisor and asked, “If this is B&N’s policy, why would I ever preorder a book from you? You do know, do you not, that your biggest competitor, Amazon, offers a preorder price guarantee; that is, if I preorder a book I will be charged the lowest price that Amazon advertised the book for between the time of preorder and the time of delivery?” A waste of breath because she started to repeat the excuses, beginning with “Barnes & Noble doesn’t match prices.”

I decided to give it one more try. I said: “Does it make sense that I can return this book to you at your cost and get a full refund and then reorder the book at the discounted price, which you will ship to me at no charge? If I do that, you will have paid the cost of shipping three times rather than once, and thus lose even more money.” The supervisor’s response was that it is B&N’s policy not to match prices.

I gave up.

I know that contrary to what our Supreme Court has declared, corporations are not human; they are inanimate objects that cannot think. Consequently, they rely on human beings to do their thinking. And that appears to be the difference between corporations: some have smart humans doing their thinking and others not-so-smart, bordering on ill-informed, humans doing their thinking. Sadly, B&N continues to flail in the not-so-smart category.

It doesn’t take much of a light bulb to recognize that if you have a successful competitor who does X, you should be looking at X and figuring out how to make X yours. It doesn’t take much of a light bulb to see that good, credible, noteworthy customer-centric service is the one thing Amazon has going for it, the one thing that Amazon is really well-known in the marketplace for, the most important thing Amazon has that B&N does not have — customer-centric service.

It is not that Amazon never fails at customer service. I stopped buying from its subsidiary Woot a couple of years ago because of exceedingly poor customer service. But the Amazon that B&N competes with has a stellar reputation for customer service. Amazon has consistently said that it may not have the lowest price but it has the best customer service, and I know people who will vouch for that and have said they’d rather pay a bit more to Amazon and know they’ll get great customer service than save a few cents and risk poor customer service.

Is this a difficult concept? Not really. I would think any businessperson would know this, but then B&N management is the exception that proves the rule.

B&N is a struggling company that with a little bit of effort wouldn’t need to struggle so much. All it needs to do is change its culture by putting customers first. This was pointed out to B&N years ago, but even with changes in management it refuses to learn the lesson.

I am the customer that B&N needs and wants. I buy a book because I want it, not because of the price, and I buy hardcovers. I also preorder books, which tells B&N that it has a sure sale. B&N knows this (or should); all it has to do is look at my purchases in its databases. It’s computers must recognize me as a desirable customer because my membership has been renewed at no charge to me. The problem is getting B&N’s human staff to recognize what the computers recognize.

But B&N is driving me away. The customer service supervisor didn’t seem to care when I suggested that perhaps I should cancel all my B&N preorders and instead preorder the books at Amazon. I suspect she would have given me Amazon’s URL, thinking she was passing a problem customer to Amazon.

Years ago I said that B&N’s problem was very poor management. Even though there has been some management change, its poor quality seems to continue. If I were a shareholder, I’d be complaining loudly about how poor management is killing my investment by failing to invest in great customer relations. But I’m not a shareholder; I am just a customer who is thinking of jumping ship because I have had enough poor customer service and I am sure I can find some other bookseller who would like a customer who buys dozens of hardcovers every year.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

February 11, 2013

Why Some Indie Authors Fail

Notice

I recently finished reading a series of books by an indie author and I wanted to buy more of the author’s books. Apparently, there aren’t any more of the author’s books available, but the next volume in the series is due … sometime. My questions are: How will I know when the next book become available? Will I care when it is finally available?

There are certain authors who I occasionally check to see if they have published another book. I check at Barnes & Noble and Smashwords; I do not check at Amazon because I can’t use an Amazon-formatted or DRMed ebook on either my Sony or Nook. (Yes, I am aware of Calibre and know that I can format shift DRM-free ebooks using it, and even that there are plug-ins that will remove some DRM — but many, if not most, ebookers won’t go to the trouble or don’t know how to do it, and I do not support authors who go the Amazon-exclusive route.)

So how does the indie author who wrote a decent enough book that I am interested in the author’s next book (a) let me know the book is available and (b) keep my interest? What I have discovered is that many indie authors provide no way for a reader to say “please e-mail me when volume 2 is available.” Too many indie authors think that in 1 month, let alone in 6 months, I will still remember who they are or that I want to buy and read their next book.

The truth, of course, is otherwise. Yes, I will remember the exceptional authors — the ones who I rate 5 or 5+ out of 5 stars, but there are very few of them. I will not remember the author whose book was a good, not great, read — the 4 out of 5 stars (and possibly even the 3 out of 5 stars) ebook.

Every indie author should have a live link in their ebook that lets a reader signup to be notified when the next book by the author becomes available. Not a signup for a newsletter or for anything other than a single e-mail that says “you read my book XYZ and asked to be notified when my next ebook became available. It is now available at these stores/places: (here insert links).” Very few authors are memorable, so readers need an easy way to add their name to a remember-me list.

I should point out that this is a major failing of Smashwords and Barnes & Noble, too — perhaps even Amazon, Apple, Sony, and Kobo, but I am not familiar with their systems as I do not shop at their stores. Smashwords and B&N should allow me to go to my purchases and click a button to ask to be specifically notified when an author (of my choosing, not all authors whose books I have purchased) publishes a new book that is available at their bookstores.  In the case of Smashwords, this option should also be available even if I have not purchased the ebook from it, because Smashwords is both a bookstore and a distributor and I may well have bought the book at a different retailer.

Disrespect

As important as it is for an author to let me know that the author has a new book available, that failure to provide me with a means to learn of the new book is really a secondary reason of failure. The primary reason is a disrespect for words and language, which is really a lack of respect for the reader.

This disrespect takes many forms and ranges from not caring to ignorance. For example, I just read an ebook (no, I didn’t finish it and will not finish it) in which the author repeatedly refers to people/person(s) as that instead of who, uses wonder when wander is meant, and uses common when c’mon is meant. There are also numerous other poor word, punctuation, and grammar choices, which poor choices make me wonder if the author has ever read a book he didn’t write.

Words are an author’s weapon of choice. They must be carefully chosen and used correctly to ensure that the message is sent and understood as intended. I’ve said this before numerous times: writing must communicate the author’s message accurately and understandably.

Consequently, if nothing else, every author should have a good grasp of two fundamental legs of writing: grammar and spelling. If an author wasn’t a brilliant grammarian in school, perhaps the author should invest in a grammar book. Note that I said a grammar and not a style book. It does not matter whether the author writes one hundred or 100 — that is a matter of style but in neither instance will a reader misunderstand. But it does matter if an author uses due to when caused by is meant, or uses that when who is meant, or a sentence is confusing because the first clause is in the present tense and the second clause is in the past tense.

As you know, I think every author needs a good, professional copyeditor, and oftentimes also needs a good, professional developmental editor (for the difference between the two, see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor). A good editor would prevent embarrassments like common for c’mon and give the author some credibility that perhaps the author doesn’t deserve. It is this disrespect for language, whether intentional or unintentional, by some indie authors that causes them to fail.

The Editor

Recently, I had a discussion with an indie author about some editing suggestions I had made. The author was livid, believing that my suggestions — and it is important to note that what an editor proposes are suggestions for the author to accept or reject — distorted her writing. To no avail, I tried to point out that you cannot have the heroine arrowshot in the left shoulder on page 10 and a healer fixing the arrow-made wound in the right shoulder on page 12, unless you indicate between pages 10 and 12 that the heroine was arrowshot a second time in the opposite shoulder.

There were many of these types of mistakes in the text but even more important, I think, the author kept writing sentences like “Justine, that was shot by….” I kept suggesting that “Justine, that” should be “Justine, who” but the author knew better.

Needless to say, we parted ways, but I found the discord instructive. An author should be hiring an editor to fill a gap in the author’s knowledge and skills, not for the sake of being able to claim that the book was edited — especially not if the author intends to discard all of the editor’s suggestions. Yet a number of indie authors are unable to recognize their limits and thus cannot make good use of the professional editor’s skills. Viewing your editor as your enemy rather than your friend is asking to fail.

Some indie authors fail because they do not provide a means to notify readers of future writing; some because they disrespect the language of writing; some because they view their editor as their enemy and not their friend. Each of these failing ways is correctable; it just takes effort and determination.

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