Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Readers are customers, not the enemy

From Pat Holt, on Holt Uncensored, comes a blog post which begins with the tale of a rather boorish couple who act like entitled three year-olds in a Barnes & Noble. I didn't pay much attention at first--after all, there are a lot of boorish people in the world--but then this caught my attention:

What I can’t figure out are bookstore customers who blatantly use cell phones to compare prices with Amazon’s while they walk around the New Release table, or worse, take cell phone photos of books they might want to read so they can buy them on Amazon later.

I won’t go into Kindle owners who actually bring … well, you get the point.

This is not just rude behavior; it’s profane. A bookstore offers browsing opportunities and instant camaraderie with staff and authors that we never find on the Internet. There’s something sacred about a place where censorship is fought routinely, unknown authors are welcomed and introduced and young adults who’ve inexplicitly stopped reading are lured back to books they’ll treasure forever. For a customer to interrupt this kind of sacred exchange because they’re so entirely self-involved seems tragic.

This seems like an odd attitude from a bookseller: reader as enemy (or at least unpleasant inconvenience: rude, profane, tragic, and self-involved). It strikes me as counter productive.

The reader is not the enemy. The reader is the customer. Our business depends upon them.

It seems to me that these customers with their smart phones and Kindles are looking for something they're not getting. I think people in the book business--writers, publishers, retailers, all of us--would gain more from figuring out how to better serve such customers than from pouring scorn upon them from a great height.

These readers are shopping. They are in the bookstore. They're a walking opportunity. But we have to work for it. We have to give them what they want. Their custom is not our god-given right.

Every single person who makes a living from books does so only when we give our customer what they want. We must never forget that the reader is a shopper. We are in the second decade of the 21st century. Why should these shoppers not take advantage of technology that gives them a better deal? If I see paper towels in QFC and realise I could get them delivered to my doorstep for half the price, why on earth would I buy them from QFC? (But perhaps that would make me "stupid or cheap"--another of Holt's descriptioins.)

Customers of all kinds live in an information and experience-rich world. Booksellers and publishers should be figuring out how to enhance a reader's shopping experience, creating a relationship with them rather than making demands. It's difficult to form a relationship with a potential customer if you view them with contempt (rude, profane, tragic, and self-involved...).

What I'd take from the description of these readers and shoppers is that the urge to shop in person, even among those who read on Kindle, is something online retailers don't yet quite have a handle on. It's a magnificent opportunity. Why don't independents install WiFi and partner with publishers so that readers with Kindles can download DRM-free books in .prc format from them? Why don't publishers club together to build experience kiosks in public spaces where people can fondle the merchandise, get ideas for books, then download them? Why not hire booksellers to talk up their product to these shoppers? Why doesn't Amazon sponsor book parties to tempt non-Kindle users into giving it a go? Why don't writers band together and hire customer reps to staff kiosks in bars or cafes selling their books (digitally or paper) at the best price?

No one owes booksellers (or writers, or publishers) a living. We have to earn it. We have to give the customer what s/he wants. We have to start adapting and stop complaining. The world has changed. Bookworld has to change with it.

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