Friday, September 09, 2005

Sneeking behind the corporate curtain...*

Sara Donati responded to my “Let your fingers do the walking” with a comment that touched on several points that I planned to make in a follow up entry (that I never got around to writing). She said:

Your perspective on this phenomenon (When Drop In Signings Go Wrong) is
interesting, but I have to point out a couple things.First, I didn't get the impression that Tess expected anything but common courtesy. She approached those booksellers the same way Macguire approached you. I imagine she would have been more than satisfied with an exchange like this:--hi, author, maybe you've got, thought I could sign----name?--t.g.--hold on, please... oh yes. could you wait a moment please? At this point Courteous Bookseller goes off to find the books and/or the person who handles author signings. Courteous Bookseller makes no comments like 'huh. we've got a lot of your books' or 'are you sure that's the title?' or 'no such book in print'. (I have had booksellers tell me these things about my books. I've also had a bookseller say, 'I don't find any author by the name of James Joyce in our database' and then when I pointed to the bigger than life-size mural of JJ on the wall, I got a shrug). It's not that every bookseller should be familiar with Tess's work, or mine, or Joyce's, even. It's the dismissive tone. It's the 'oh no not another nut' look. In Tess's case, it's the outrageous comments about returning books. We all know that happens, but you don't have to rub it in on the second day of release.Just my two cents.

First off, I agree that Tess Gerritsen seemed nothing but courteous in the face of (what amounts to) really bad customer service that she received (and definitely did not deserve). The comments made in her presence were uncalled for, unprofessional, and untrue. No one deserves the “Oh, no, not another nut” look, especially not an author who is the epitome of politeness, nor should the bookseller attempt to justify his/her behavior with bad information.

I can return books that have been written in, ripped in half, or bled on, all for credit with the distribution center (which eventually worms its way back to credit with the publishing company). I don’t need to justify the return even when I know the damage is our fault (e.g. a bookseller drops a book while shelving, creasing the cover) as opposed to books that arrive destroyed (like when a forklift runs through the boxes instead of picking up the pallet they’re on—no joke, this is something that happens far too often). As an author you should sign all of your front list, and everything they have on hand from your backlist (which is usually bumped up if your marketing people at your publishing house care about you at all) as well when visiting a store. You are your own best marketing tool, and signed books are an asset. Every bookstore has special stickers to denote signed stock (even if they can’t find them right away), and they will slap them on the cover of the books if they care anything at all about their store.

I would not, as Donati suggests in her blog, just “Don't tell them you're there. Just sign all the damn stock they've got on the shelf,” because it really tends to freak us out, and earn you “The nut” look. I still remember the time that I walked up to the counter only to find a strange man standing behind it, drawing faces in a stack of books. My immediate response (in my head) was to run through every bad scenario that I had ever experienced in my store (customers high on meth, the woman who threw a book at my head, the homeless people who talked to themselves and harass other customers) even as I asked him, “Excuse me, Sir, can I help you?”

I do get a lot of nuts, medicated and otherwise (I’m in the middle of the city and a short bus ride away from the major mental hospital), and a girl’s got to be careful. I know that I would not have been the victor if this person had violent intentions. Luckily it turned out that it was Chuck Palahniuk who considers drawing mustaches on his author photos a requisite part of the signing process (as is blacking out the teeth and adding devil horns), and confines all his violent intentions to his characters. In the end we sold all of his books (signed and unsigned restock copies), but I could have done without the heart attack.

Just give me some warning…and don’t talk to yourself out loud.

The simple fact is that signed books sell. Hell, I would kill for a bookstore full of signed copies. And Donati’s right, no one deserves to be faced with a bookseller operating without their tact filter.

End of story…right?

Not quite.

I could play devil’s advocate for the bookseller, and say s/he might have been having a bad day or been new, but being a good employee means not bringing your problems to work and knowing when to ask for help. I have had problems, though, where although I’m spelling the name right in the computer, the person who entered the data on the other end did not (a larger problem than one might think), or the name that you think has an obvious spelling is not so obvious to me. I’ve had customers take their bad days out on me, and I’ve had to fight not to take my resulting frustration out on other people. Customer service can be awful and thankless, especially when a large percentage of the customers treat you like you’re not a human being.

And then there are the times when your brain disconnects from your mouth, or bypasses the internal tact filter that is supposed to keep you from saying something stupid.
We all have our dumbass moments; times when we look back later and ask ourselves “What the hell was I thinking?” I remember once, someone asked for Ulysses and I had the name Homer so stuck in my head that I didn’t even think to look under Joyce at first. I apologized to the customer when I discovered my mistake (a coworker pointed it out), and we found the book, but I spent the rest of the day feeling like an idiot.

I’m not perfect, none of us are. I do think that Tess Gerritsen’s situation (and the poor reception that Donati received from her local B & N) is undeserved and indicative of a larger problem: the corporatization of the book business.

Wikipedia considers corporatization a “form of economic reform which takes services from the direct control of the government, and places them in the control of government-owned corporations. This is often seen as a step towards full-scale privatization.” I’m twisting the concept a little (hell, a lot), but the idea is similar (or maybe not at all, but work with me here). It used to be that books meant something, editors took time with each story, and that bookstores ordered the books in because they believed in what they were selling. Now the book industry appears to be all about getting as much product out and sold (and this is on both the publishing companies and the bookstores’ parts) as possible.

The bottom line isn’t the book and customer satisfaction, but the dollar for the stockholders.

The books I’m sent are not hand picked by a person, but ordered by a machine with only mathematical equations to quantify my store’s possible need. These books are then only given a six week shelf life to sell before the publishing house and the store begin to talk cost reductions, remainders, and returns. Often I find that I can be selling a book, and selling it well, but it will come up as a return. Why? Because the rest of the company does not show the same results, or at least, not results on a high enough level to rate more shelf time.

So what, you say, just keep the book for your store. A wonderful idea in theory (and one I practice to a great degree), but if an auditor comes through, scans that book, and it comes up as a “Missed Return,” I automatically lose audit points, no matter how I argue. That’s corporate mentality.

Don’t think outside the box.

Don’t point out any possible problems.

You’re just not seeing the big picture.

The top of the company is so far removed from the everyday activity in the store that they don’t understand—cannot understand—what we’re complaining about. They see a bunch of individuals that aren’t thinking into the future, and we see a bunch of people who don’t interact with the constituency. Individuality (by region, district, or store) cannot be factored into the group equations and thought processes, nor can the ideas of the collective be pared down into one universal rule for all; it’s the antithesis of the corporate ideal.

This distance is enacted on a smaller level in most of the big box stores. The people who shelve are often not the people out on the floor offering customer service (the shelvers come in on a 6 am shift, so they can shelve without customers around). The people in charge of events, human resources, and institutional sales, all take turns working on the floor, but (as my boss, who used to work for a big box store, once told me) “they may never, ever touch a book.” Just because they have a name badge doesn’t mean that they have anything to do with the day to day running of the floor.

And yet, they’re still considered a “bookseller.”

I keep waiting for the name to change to something more vague yet PC. I’m thinking “Product introducer,” or “information consultant” (since just because you’ve consulted them doesn’t meant that they have to be right). Given that everyday I get more product that has nothing to do with books (like mints, gum, etc) and less and less title diversity (and god forbid we should buy something from a small press), perhaps they’ll just do away with the word book altogether. Then I’ll just be a “seller” working for a “store.”

Speaking of stores, I must get to mine, so that I can see what books they forgot to send me this week.

I’m just happy I can still order manually through the computer.

For now.

*and yes, I admit it. I originally titled this "Oh my God, I got feedback from a real live author! (as opposed to those real fake authors, I guess)" but I try to contain most of my least to the fine print.

1 comment:

Sara Donati said...

Great post.

Of course you realize that real live authors have Ulysses-ish episodes all the time. Fortunately I'm usually home alone in front of the computer and and I can be mortified in private.

If it's any consolation: I vow not to do any more stealth stock signings. And not to hijack, just two quick notes:

--We lived in Ann Arbor when there was just one Border's, and it was a five minute walk from my office at the university. Back in those days, you had to pass a test to get a job as a bookseller at Border's. I expect they also paid their people better in those days.

--A good bookseller is a blessing, like a good librarian or a good teacher. I know a lot of really great booksellers, and I'm thankful to everyone of them. I get the sense that you belong smack dab in the middle of that group.