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

July 1, 2013

Business of Editing: Lower Your Rate?

I recently wrote about raising one’s rates (see Business of Editing: Raising Prices). Although the article focused on raising rates, I did, somewhat off-handedly, mention lowering rates. No one commented on that possibility, and I suspect that very few readers even contemplated the wisdom of lowering one’s rates.

I’m here to tell you that sometimes it is a smarter business move to lower one’s rate than it is to either maintain or raise one’s rate. I’m sure the resistance barriers are already rising.

Let’s begin with the obvious. The decision whether to lower or raise rates rests on many of the same factors regardless of which way you lean. It makes no sense to charge $100 an hour when all your direct competition is charging $25 an hour. Similarly, it makes no sense to do the reverse, at least not with such a great spread; perhaps a smaller spread will work.

But what is not obvious is the reason why lowering one’s rate can be a smart business move. Consider why businesses generally lower prices or charge membership fees or issue loyalty cards with rewards. Now recall that you, too, are a business. You want exactly what your credit card company or your grocery store wants: repeat and loyal business. It costs much less to work with repeat clients than to find new client.

When I think about my rates, I consider the types of clients I deal with and what I want from those clients. I want to “lock them in” to me; I want them to ask me first to undertake an assignment and I want them to be reluctant to hire another editor. When those projects that are worth $20,000 in fees come around, I want the very first reaction to be to call me.

I understand that quality of editing is important. I also understand that many, if not most, editors rely on the quality of their work to bring in repeat business. I know I certainly do not skimp on quality. Yet that is what all of my competition does as well.

As I have written previously, I want to keep myself and those editors who work for me busy all year-round, not just a few weeks or months a year. Thus quantity of work is important to me. The question becomes: How do I get the quantity at the least cost and effort? One important answer is that I offer a discounted price to clients who are willing to offer me assurances that I will be called first.

Does this always work? No, it doesn’t. Some clients have corporate policies that prohibit such negotiations; others take the position that they cannot accurately forecast when and how much manuscript will arrive and thus cannot agree to “guarantee” an amount of work. Some clients have other reasons why such a proposition wouldn’t work with them.

But there are clients for whom this does work and it works to both our benefits: I am assured a steady supply of work and they are assured some money saving, along with a high-quality edit. Not only does it not hurt anything to try to work out some arrangement for repeat business with a client, but even if it doesn’t work out, the client recognizes you for what you are: a businessperson.

Of course, all of the above fits my business model and works with publishers. Such an approach is difficult to take with authors because most authors cannot generate enough work in the course of a year to make such negotiations worthwhile. An editor needs to evaluate his business and his wants and needs before considering fee reduction. But every editor should think about whether this is a concept that can be made to work for you in your business.

In a way, this hearkens back to the concept of effective hourly rate (see Thinking About Money: What Freelancers Need to Understand for a discussion on EHRs). What good does it do you as an editor to have an hourly rate of $50 if your EHR is really $20? High EHRs depend on not only the rate and expenses, but the number of hours you are actually editing. If you charge $50 an hour but only edit 20 hours a week, your EHR is $25, not $50 — and that’s before considering expenses. To my mind, I would rather work 40 hours a week at an hourly rate of $40. (And, no, I’m not advocating hourly rates; it is just that using an hourly rate makes the examples easier, less complex, more pointed, and much shorter.)

Lowering one’s rate can have several advantages. Such a move can increase the quantity of work. It can also “lock-in” a client. And, it can make a wholly new-to-you client willing to talk seriously to you about adding you to their list of editors.

Something else to keep in mind. Lowering your rate for client A does not mean you have to lower your rate for client B. Each client should be considered individually. I think an editor should have standardized base rates for certain types of work but then the rate should be adjusted based on the client and even on experience with a client. Editing services are unique to each client and sometimes to each project and one’s rate should reflect that. However, some clients offer the possibility of a quantity of work over years, which work is of a similar nature and thus requires a set rate.

Also necessary to keep in mind when thinking about rates is whether it is possible to make use of economies of scale, which is something every business has to consider. In manufacturing, the concept is illustrated by the idea that the larger the quantity you buy, the lower the individual piece price. Although editors do not work like a manufacturer, the basic concept can still apply.

I know that I can edit certain types of books more quickly than other types without loss of quality because I know that I have tools available to make the work go faster. (See, e.g., Business of Editing: The Logistics of Large Projects, wherein I discuss using my Journals macro. Also see, e.g., The Commandments: Thou Shall be Efficient.) Knowing that I have certain efficiencies in my business allows me to be flexible with rates for clients whose books are ones to which I can apply those efficiencies. Lacking the ability to apply those efficiencies would prevent me from lowering my rate and would induce me to raise it.

The bottom line is that for the right client and for the right return, editors should consider whether to lower their rate and not reflexively dismiss the possibility. As with raising rates, lowering rates should not be approached willy-nilly. Doing either must be the result of careful evaluation of what benefit (and harm) will accrue to you. What editors must overcome is the reflexive response that one should never consider lowering one’s rate, let alone actually do it.

Whether to lower or raise one’s rate for a client is a business decision and must be approached like one — objectively, not emotionally.

June 5, 2013

Business of Editing: “I Can Get It Cheaper!”

Perhaps the toughest issue to deal with as an editor is the prospective client (or existing client) who contacts you about a project, asks for a quote, and says, “I can get it cheaper!” Dealing with such a statement should bring out the editor’s professionalism (and business savvy). I discussed the matter of cheap pricing previously in The Business of Editing: Killing Me Softly. Now it’s time to discuss pricing in the face of resistance.

The most common responses are to tell the client about your experience. “I’ve been editing this type of manuscript for 30 years. Can the other editor match my experience?” Or to relate how happy your clients have been. Or any number of other general responses that don’t really highlight why you should be hired at any price.

The second most-common response seems to be an attempt to lower one’s price to bring it in line with the lower price the client says another editor quoted.

In both instances, I think the response is the wrong response.

Under no circumstance, once you have quoted a price, should you lower the price (subject to an exception discussed later). If you are not worth the price you quoted, why did you quote it? If you are worth the quoted price, why lower it to less than you are worth? And why would you start a bidding war with yourself — a war that you can only lose and even lose repeatedly, once the client learns that all it has to do is say “lower your price” and you jump to do so. I make it an absolute rule never to lower a price once given, except in the circumstance to be discussed later. You may be a great editor, but I am the greatest of all editors — and I let clients know that in many ways, not least of which is that I do not lower my price.

If the client insists, I suggest that it would be best for them to hire the other editor and call me when the editing needs fixing.

The exception is this: when I also reduce the services to be provided. In other words, I make pricing a companion to services: more service equals higher price; less service equals lower price. But even then, there is a limit to how little I am willing to do and to how low a price I am willing to quote. Which brings me to the nonfinancial response.

Years of experience is a great selling point, but it doesn’t mean anything in the face of a client’s budget. What does matter are the services to be provided. My first response to the client is, “Do you have the quote in writing?” If yes, which is the usual case in these e-mail-negotiation days, I ask for a copy of the quote. (At this juncture, I haven’t said yes or no to whether I will lower my price, so the client still has hope.) I am usually provided with a copy and then I start on my rebuttal. (When asked why I need a copy of the quote, I say I need to verify the terms and conditions of the price I am being asked to match or beat so that any quote I provide matches those terms and conditions. Although not said, I also want to verify that the person who made the quote is capable of delivering the promised quality and work.)

If I’m dealing with a prior client who should be familiar with my work and pricing, I ask why, knowing my pricing and having this quote in hand, did they contact me for a quote. What I want to do is draw the client into admitting that they like my editing and would prefer that I do the work than to hire someone else. This is important because it starts to draw the client toward my way of thinking about fees.

If this is a new or one-shot client, I have to take a different approach, so I ask what is most important to them as regards the project. Is it cost? Quality of the edit? Experience? Something else? If the answer is cost, I stop the discussion and suggest that they try someone else. I tell them that I take too much pride in the quality of my work to denigrate it by lowering my price to where I cannot justify taking on the work or would earn so little that my only concern would be getting the project done. If they ask for names of other editors, I tell them that I do not know any professional editor whose quality of work or pride in that quality is such that they would be willing to match or underbid the quote they already have and that I make it a policy not to provide names of nonprofessional editors whose work I cannot vouch for.

If they give me an answer other than cost, then I ask about what services are included in the other editor’s quote. Rarely are those services spelled out — the client doesn’t know what is included except “copyediting” or “editing,” which can mean anything. Usually the quote reads “copyedit of xyz at/for $abc.” If the quote is based on an hourly rate, I also ask if it includes a limit on the number of hours (usually not), and what happens if the editing is not done when that limit is reached (definitely never spelled out).

Once I have drawn all this information out of a client, I can begin my “defense.” This is where a professional editor can shine. Explaining what is included and what is not included in editing helps the client define precisely what work the client wants. As I go through the various options and the client says yes or no, I begin to build a quote. What I want the client to grasp is that, when the client hires me, she knows exactly what services she will get for the money. There is no gambling on what will be done or not done.

Importantly, it makes the client a part of the quoting process. If the quote is still too high for the client, I can now say, “If we eliminate this service, the price would be $xyz.” It is picking from the buffet and creating one’s own version of editing.

I also only quote a project or per-page fee, never an hourly fee. I explain to the client how this can save them money and is competitive with that lower bid they received. More importantly, I explain that it assures the client that a complete job will be done and that no additional money will be paid by the client to have the job done and done right.

What I am doing is making the client confident that the only smart decision is to hire me as a professional editor. I try to get a client to compare apples to apples, which the client cannot do with a quote that simply says “copyedit of xyz at/for $abc,” especially not if the quote is based on an hourly rate with no limit to the hours and no explanation of what happens should the limit be reached with the editing incomplete.

There are other things I do as well, but the important point is to be professional and make the client see the value of hiring a professional editor.

How do you deal with the client who says, “I can get it cheaper!”?

December 7, 2010

Will You be a Googler?

Yesterday, Google Books opened for U.S. residents. This is the long-awaited bookstore, although after a browse of it, I’m not sure why. The question that remains to be seen is whether this bookstore will be very competitive and whether it will challenge Amazon.

Also in yesterday’s news was the rumor/announcement that Borders, in conjunction with the private equity group that currently is keeping Borders afloat, plan to make a bid for Barnes & Noble. This will be interesting.

But the two bits of news really belong together.

Google Books has one thing going for it: it will be a way for independent bookstores to provide an ebook service to their customers. Powell’s in Portland, OR, has already indicated it will be partnering with Google Books. But a look at the Google bookstore doesn’t leave me chomping at the bit to buy books from it, whether print or ebooks.

Try finding customer service. I had difficulty finding it and, more importantly, had difficulty determining whether Google Books is a cloud-only service or a combined cloud-download service. The former I would never buy from (unless I absolutely had no choice) whereas the latter at least gives you the option of maintaining a copy of your purchase on your desktop. But what happens if I purchase a book only to discover after purchasing it that it is not downloadable, something that appears very easy to do at Google Books? Trying to get your money back and have the book removed from your cloud-based library looks to be a herculean task, in contrast to the ease of access to customer service at Amazon, B&N, Kobo, and Sony, to name a few competitors.

There are lots of problems with Google Books. One would think that a company as resource-rich as Google would hire better specialty designers, but I guess even money doesn’t cure the hit-or-miss school of design.

Yet, I suspect that in the not too distant future most of us will become Googlers, that is, buyers of books via Google Books, unless we become Amazoners. I think that the foretold shakeout of the ebook retail industry has just begun. Here’s why and what I would do —

I’d like to be sitting on the cash — note it is cash — that Google is because I would now take the steps necessary to thwart Amazon and Apple’s ebook business. First thing I’d do is buy B&N. Google can do it for cash; Borders can’t compete, Jobs doesn’t believe in reading and so won’t compete, and Amazon could never buy B&N and get past antitrust concerns. And no matter what Leonard Riggio thinks, a serious bid for B&N by Google would be insurmountable by Riggio. It isn’t exactly like he has been such a great leader in recent years that private equity would simply line up and beg him to lead a takeover.

Second, I would put Borders out of its misery. Buy it and merge it into Google Books. The only real value to Borders is its customer list.

Third, I would approach Sony and offer a deal for its ebookstore. I doubt Sony could resist any reasonable offer, especially if Google made a deal to scrap the nook device and help Sony make its devices more price competitive. The reality is that the Sony devices are probably the best dedicated reader devices available except that they cost so much more than the Kindle, nook, and Kobo (and other third-party devices), they can’t get the kind of traction in market share they deserve. Combine Google financial power with Sony technology and suddenly you would see a truly competitive ebook market.

Finally, comes Kobo. The Kobo device isn’t something I would write home about; it’s OK but not a class leader. But the Kobo ebookstore is a different story. If the ebook race were to be decided simply on the quality of the ebookstore and customer service, the race would be between Amazon and Kobo, none of the other major players would even be a blip on the horizon. Kobo is aggressive and provides customer service at the vaunted Amazon level. So what I would do is see if I couldn’t partner with Kobo, perhaps pay a fee to bury the brand and merge it into the Google Books brand but have the Kobo personnel essentially run Google Books.

Ultimately, I think the only ebook bookstore survivors of the major brands will be Amazon, Google, and Kobo. Sony’s ebookstore isn’t bad, but Sony hasn’t got a clue how to promote either its reading devices or its ebookstore. B&N and Borders are mismanaged; B&N does do some great promoting but drops the ball after the promoting. Borders doesn’t seem to do anything right. Apple is really a nonentity as regards ebooks. It’s hard to become a real competitor when the only person who matters doesn’t believe in reading.

Google Books is the unknown in the lion’s den. Google certainly has the fiscal resources to take on Amazon, which is the key player today, but whether it has the vision and the stamina to do so remains to be seen. If we begin to see improvements in the Google bookstore, especially in customer service options, and see Google make moves to create a true competitor to Amazon, then many of us may well become Googlers. Until then, I think Google Books will be last in the race.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: