First true story: About two weeks ago, I decided to try out the Kobo app, not because I'd succumbed to any of the company's bazillion emails for sales--most were books I wouldn't read--but because I wanted to support independent booksellers who partner with the company. Deal is, you go to the store's web page and then click through to the Kobo site to buy the ebook, and your favorite indie gets a split of the profit. (Yes, before you ask: this was the same thing Google Books tried. That tanked. Nuff said.)
Bottom line is the thing only sort of worked. Yes, I could buy a traditionally pubbed book, put out by a standard publisher. But, no, on my iPod Touch and iPad, I couldn't really read the zillions of other ebooks, many self-pubbed, that can only be read if they're paired with Adobe Digital Editions, which the Touch and iPad (not to mention the iPhone) does not support. I have an Android phone, and the app only worked fitfully there as well (and required sign-ins through Kobo and Adobe for me to read anything). And forget previews: I couldn't see a one. Not one. And books I did purchase weren't showing up on my various devices either. Couldn't get the darned things to sync.
So I said a lot of stuff that I really shouldn't (the cats covered their ears, and we were all good) and then I emailed Kobo Customer Service with my questions and problems. At the same time, I went on Facebook and Twitter and ask around to see if there were solutions or work-arounds.
I'll spare you the agony, but let's just say that a NUMBER of emails and almost four days later, nothing good was happening, and Kobo's replies didn't cut it. One even helpfully suggested that for me to read books, gosh, I really needed the app . . . which meant the guy or gal hadn't bothered reading my original email which was all about the app.
Contrary to my normal way of doing things--I tend to suffer in silence--I vented a tad on Facebook and Twitter. People tried to help; they really did. Finally, after something like five days, I did something I've never done: went on Facebook and Twitter--even found the Kobo Twitter handle--and said I was through with Kobo and told them why. Even now, I'm not sure why I did that, but I was just so frustrated with NO ONE bothering to solve the bloody problem for which I'd already spent money I really didn't want to see pissed away. But I don't normally do these things. Except this time, I did--and the results were shocking. Within something like . . . wuh . . . fifteen minutes, the Kobo Help Desk people were talking to me through Twitter, asking for incident numbers and all that (I had, like, three). In thirty minutes, they'd kicked everything up to their "Tier Two" team. In less than two hours, the entire issue was resolved. (Part was my screw-up, and part was theirs. Like . . . ready for this? You can't read previews on any Apple device, period. You can only read them by putting the book on a wish list . . . except not every book can be put on a wish list. So, pretty much, you are NOT free to preview every book on Kobo--and I'm sorry, but I'm not paying for a book I can't at least leaf through a little bit, you know? I suggested that it might be nice if they put that little nugget up someplace where folks with Apple devices might notice.)
Anyway, problem mostly solved, but because of, what is for me, a ridiculous escalation. I hate doing crap like that, I really do.
Second True Story: This morning, I decided I'd like a gander at a discounted book that just happened to be free for Amazon Prime members through the Lending Library. Having used the library only fitfully, I thought, Cool. So I hit the "buy" button.
Bet you know where this is going.
So I get charged. I'm surprised; Amazon always seems to keep track of my Prime-ness . . . so what gives? I immediately dash off an email query. I figured, okay, I'll hear sometime tomorrow.
Eh . . . no. Amazon popped back with a reply in five minutes. They fixed my goof within twenty, and educated me in the bargain. I thanked them--and I got a note back, thanking me for thanking them.
But it was painless. No escalation; no frustration. No public venting. Mostly importantly, no wasted time--and guess where I'll likely go for my next e-book?
* * *
Now, why bother with these examples? Well, it's pretty simple, actually: not only are we talking about customer satisfaction, the Kobo episode, in particular, speaks to public shaming. As a tactic to force another party to respond, shaming is nothing new. All you have to do is look at the latest public protest in whatever city or country you choose--or, say, the brouhaha over James Frey's fabrication of a memoir and Oprah's dressing-down--to understand the tactical power inherent in public shame as a motivator. Standing up and having my one-woman protest march on Twitter and Facebook got Kobo's attention right quick and a resolution where days of (clueless) email replies only left me increasingly frustrated. Put simply, Kobo cares about saving face in a highly public forum. In this, they are no different than any other company--but it took an act of public shame to get their attention and provoke a response.
The same is often asked of us writers because readers broadcast their opinions in highly public forums; they engage in mass praise or public shame and degradation in a big way. Like any company, though, a writer needs to be responsive to her customers. No, no, you don't write to committee; you don't do what fans tell you to, and for heaven's sake, you don't apologize. You wrote the book you wrote, and it won't be everyone's cuppa. But people diss books on a regular basis; sometimes the attacks are personal or can get nasty. Worse, these are carried out in highly public forums like Goodreads and Amazon, venues that, in many ways, certainly provoke responses from other readers--if you think about it, a crummy review might be all the permission that the guy who also hated the book but wasn't going to say anything needs. (That is also a true fact: people frequently engage in behaviors they normally don't if other people do it first.) But because this is all so public, a writer might feel motivated to say something back.
And here's what I say to that. Just two words: Anne. Rice.
For those of you who need a quick refresher or were just too young to remember--and, God, you do not know how it kills me to type that--here's what you need to know: Anne Rice was a mega bestseller (she may still be; I haven't kept tabs). Among other things, she pretty much kick-started the whole vampire craze with things like Interview with a Vampire and The Vampire Lestat. This was back in 1985, okay? Yeah, yeah, a while ago; ancient history. Anyway, her Vampire Chronicles did gangbusters; she went on to do stuff with witches . . . honestly, I lost track after a while. But then she came out with what I guess was a real clunker, Blood Canticle. Haven't read it, so I can't comment. Well, readers were not amused and tore her up with horrid Amazon reviews--and, you know, it happens. It happens to everyone, even my hero, Stephen King. But, you know, you shrug it off, or you try to. Actually, you do yourself a favor and stay away from public forums like Amazon where you might suddenly find yourself with a new orifice you really didn't need.
But Anne Rice . . . well, let's just say she reacted very badly to this public shaming. What she did was post a long--and I mean, long rant on Amazon. Really, I don't think the lady took a breath. If you've never read it, take a couple minutes and check it out here; scroll down until you hit the review "from Anne Rice herself." Go ahead; I'll wait.
So what was Rice reacting to? Duh . . . customer complaints, and there were a ton. Take a couple seconds to read through some of those; you're talking disappointed fans. Was it the right thing for Rice to do? Well, not for my money, although whatever you think of her ego--I mean, the woman was on her 25th book, for heaven's sake, so she must've been doing something right--you have to give her points for chutzpah and offering refunds. But I think my point here is that she reacted to being publicly shamed, and in a very big way.
I think most of us know that it's best not to blast back, right? You probably adopt this policy all the time without realizing it. Case in point: you're on Facebook; you make a comment; someone else chimes in that you're wrong. You then react by reiterating your point or trying to rephrase; the someone else fires back; and before long, you find that you have two choices: continue the argument--or shrug and disengage/walk away. Me, I walk away because I've been a shrink long enough to know that when someone in the room is yelling or firing back or getting all defensive . . . they've ceased to listen. And, really, I got better things to do. Said what I had to say, and I'm outta here.
Same thing goes for public forums, right? We all know this? Don't get into a pissing match with readers? Readers are entitled to their opinions, and no one necessarily asked you to join in the conversation. No one asked you to like what they say either . . . but, then again, you shouldn't necessarily go looking for trouble (or approval). I'm serious. Yes, I know that needy feeling; you work hard for what feels like very little; you send your baby out into the world and watch it get shredded; you and your baby are exposed to public shame. It's like someone stood up in the middle of a very big, very crowded room and shouted, "Ilsa Bick's book sucks!" And then, in an even worst case scenario, everyone applauded and high-fived the guy.
Hard to walk away. I know.
But then there's the other problem, when someone ups the ante and writes to you, personally: pops into your inbox and yells; or pops into your inbox and throws a tantrum; or pops into your inbox or your website's comments screen and wants to know why you did x, y, z or conversely, how dare you not do x, y, z.
Then what do you do? Do you approve the comment and respond? Do you respond to the email? Because this is different: it's someone coming to you only semi-privately. Now, emails are easier, of course; I always take the approach that not everything I do will appeal to everyone, but gee, thanks for giving the book a shot. Mainly, I choose not to argue, and since I know the person's already unhappy . . . well, there's nothing I can say or do that will change that, is there? We just keep the conversation between ourselves.
But . . . if you approve that website comment, you make the exchange public. In a weirdly perverse way, you participate in making that shaming public because the person contacting you did so in the expectation that you two would move to a public forum . . . the reverse of taking your argument to a different room, out of earshot, or having a nice quiet chat where you won't be overhead. So what do you do? Because if you don't approve a comment, how much you want to bet that person will send you another? And a third or fourth? So what do you do?
My fast and simple rule: if the comment's abusive . . . sorry, but you're out of luck, bub. It's my website; you're in my house; these are my rules. Unlike customer service reps for Kobo or Amazon or whomever, I have the luxury of deciding if I want to pick up the phone. Eventually even the abusive bozos get tired and give up.
But if the comment's not a personal attack, I'll post it, even the ones that are less than laudatory--because if you were a guest in my house, you'd be entitled to your opinion. My own experience with this is that someone who's got a beef will frequently want to have a conversation; if you respond in a polite and even-handed way, things calm down pretty quickly. I've even had someone with a beef end up apologizing to and reassuring me that he really did like the book; he just wished I'd done things a tad differently. It was all very civil, and no one screamed or pulled an Anne Rice.
The moral is: you can't solve or resolve disappointment. But it is important that you recognize that this is the emotion your readers are having if they're upset. Conversely, it is just as essential for you to understand that you are important enough for them to invest their energy, time, money and emotion in your work. So take complaints that come to you seriously, and for heaven's sake, answer that email so long as it's within bounds. (Believe it or not, I know writers who won't respond to readers, period. The mind reels. I understand that some writers are just so deluged they'd never get any work done, but then you gotta post that on your site or something.)
Above all, remember this: I know this feels counter-intuitive . . . but disappointment is also a bit of a compliment. Understand that if a reader is disappointed it is because he thought or had heard you were so great, or had a wonderful experience with another book of yours.
Then go write the next book. That reader's waiting for you to, anyway.