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There’s a long-running argument about whether publishers consider readers to be their true “customers”. It’s probably rooted in the way that, before e-books came along and changed the market, middle-man distributors were how publishers sold the vast majority of their books.

With the exception of things like order forms in the back of paperbacks, publishers didn’t need to worry about how to sell books to readers—the stores those middle-men turned around and sold books to handled that. They could concentrate on selling books to the middle-men instead and not think about the reader except in terms of making their products as attractive as they could so people would want to buy them in general.

Enter the e-book, the Kindle, market shifts, and agency pricing. Consumers see publishers hiking their prices in order to protect their bottom line, and decide that the publishers don’t care about them; they’re just concerned about the people who supply them and the businesses they sell to directly. It didn’t help matters that immediately after the agency pricing squabble with Amazon began, Macmillan chief John Sargent wrote an announcement to “Macmillan Authors and Illustrators,” calling Amazon “a valuable customer for a long time,” with not a word to concerned consumers for almost a whole month afterward.

Consumers who saw themselves being ignored complained in ways that were perhaps not as temperate as they could have been. And they’ve been continuing pretty much to this day. Some e-book conspiracy theorists see the high price of agency-priced e-books as proof that publishers aren’t really interested in selling them, but prefer to protect their lucrative print market (and the middle-men who pay them directly for it) for as long as possible instead of selling directly to the consumer.

This point of view often plays out in the complaints people post to blogs. Recently, John Scalzi announced he would no longer be approving any of that sort of comment on his “Big Idea” blog posts. Scalzi has made another post since then addressing the question of whether publishers consider readers their customers. He recaps a blog and twitter discussion he had with Robin L. of Dear Author, and points out that publishers have to be aware of readers as customers—they know full well they’re the ones who eventually buy the books and they know need to make books people will want to buy or they won’t be able to move them to the middle-men.

But even if it were true, it only points out a flawed assumption, which is that a direct sales relationship is the only “customer relationship” that counts, which is on its face a really interesting assertion. A similar argument could be made about any company whose products are primarily sold through a retail middle man, from soda to jeans, and in each case it would be equally untrue. I wouldn’t argue that Coca-Cola doesn’t see retailers as important customers, in a manner very much like publishers see bookstores as important customers (and in much the same way, as both Coca-Cola and publishers use their own versions of “co-op” for product placement and the like), but anyone who suggests Coca-Cola isn’t intensely aware of their ultimate consumers is being a bit foolish. In the same manner, publishers have their own marketing and publicity branches, whose entire purpose for existence is to address their customers: Retail, for one; libraries and schools, for another; and readers, for a third. In point of fact, publishers — even the big New York kinds (indeed, especially the big New York kinds) — spend a lot of time cultivating their relationships with readers to generate interest and enthusiasm for their products.

He also offers up comments from Tor husband and wife editors Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden on the matter. Patrick’s seems to be in essence that publishers are trying to do a better job of reaching out to readers, but it’s a little tricky since they hadn’t needed to think about that kind of thing before about ten years ago. This seems reasonable. However, Teresa suggests that the people complaining about the publishers are mostly frustrated would-be authors whose books have been rejected, and that “clever workaround publishing schemes” are the ones that really don’t pay attention to the reader.

I personally don’t really believe that publishers don’t see readers as their customers. They clearly are thinking about it—we see stories here and there about publishing-industry executives who are coming to that very realization. For instance, Brett Sandusky said of publishing last year:

[The] reality is this: we can no longer afford to act as a [business-to-business] business. The future, if we have one, depends on our ability to reconfigure as a [business-to-consumer] business and start interacting with readers directly free of buffers and intermediaries. From product development, to consumer feedback, to buyer-less sell-in for digital products, to direct to consumer sales, to verticality, to providing readers with what they want, a new wave of customer interaction needs to guide us along our paths to the future.

As Patrick said, I think they’re trying to do that, but are handicapped by never having had to do that sort of thing before.

And one of those areas of handicap is in their communications to consumers. A lot of publishing execs seem to have this kind of blind spot in how they deal with consumers, simply because they’ve never had to do it before. Sargent’s aforementioned utter failure to address consumers at the time when they were the most worried and uncertain about the future of e-books is symptomatic of that blind spot.

I think the e-book conspiracy theorists are also wrong, in much the same way any conspiracy theorist can tend to be. It’s as xkcd says—conspiracy theories “represent a known glitch in human reasoning”. They’re the result of our deeply-rooted pattern-matching abilities going haywire and finding patterns where none really exist. The theorists are also missing Hanlon’s Razor, and attributing to malice what could more simply be explained by incompetence (or, more charitably, ignorance).

But on the whole, I still find Scalzi’s post a bit annoying, as he seems to brush off any possibility that consumers might have a valid cause for concern whether or not they’re mistaken that publishers don’t care about them. He’s done this before, responding with sarcasm even to people who politely express those concerns, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. As someone with a vested interest in having his books professionally published, he will naturally see things differently from those whose interest is in seeing e-books available at a price they are willing to pay, and he hasn’t really shown that much willingness to bother with putting himself in their shoes.

So yes, I’ll accept that publishers are trying to change their stripes and treat consumers as customers. (The ones apart from Baen who has been doing it all along, at least.) They haven’t always done the best job of it so far, but hopefully they can do better in the future.

 
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