Why The Customer Isn’t Always Right

Reading the open letter posted up on Teleread this week made me realise something. When it comes to new technology, the customer isn’t always right. This open letter, addressed to ‘publishers’, covered ebook issues as varied as sales tax and ebook pricing, formatting of books and ebook reader firmware. Why Joanne, the author, believed she would achieve anything at all with this meaningless plea to the internet is beyond me.


… I know a fair amount about being a customer, and I know it shouldn’t be this hard … Why does it have to be this hard?

It is understandable that consumers are frustrated with the publishing industry’s speed of change. I am too. But the process cannot and will not be hurried along by gnashing of teeth, stamping of feet, and throwing your toys out of the pram. The reason things aren’t all working perfectly at the moment cannot be chalked up to one organisation, person or even one industry. Nobody has the power to enact the changes Joanne wants to bring about, let alone bring them about right now. To expect any different makes you little better than the archetypal ‘consumer’ described below by the brilliant author William Gibson:

Something the size of a baby hippo, the color of a week-old boiled potato, that lives by itself, in the dark, in a double-wide on the outskirts of Topeka. It’s covered with eyes and it sweats constantly. The sweat runs into those eyes and makes them sting. It has no mouth, no genitals, and can only express its mute extremes of murderous rage and infantile desire by changing the channels on a universal remote.

Why is it that arguments like Joanne’s are cropping up more and more in the blogosphere? My theory is that digital books, unlike dead tree books, are unique in that the process of getting recommendations, acquiring books and reading them are all achieved in one place. With a dead tree book, a friend might talk about a book, or perhaps you’ll read about it in a newspaper. Then you go into a bookstore, ask someone where you might find that book and then buy it. Then you take it home and read it. The process of finding out about a book, buying it and reading it – when it comes to ebooks – can all happen from your lap, perhaps even from one device. This is not conducive to a nuanced understanding of the industry.

So what are your other options? Read a lot. Ask a lot of questions. Find out who’s really to blame, and for what exactly. But most of all? Have a little bit of patience. Those of us reading ebooks right now are early adopters. Try to keep in mind that we’re not living in the future.

What are your chief complaints about ebooks – regardless of whether you read them? Ask me a question, and I’ll do my best to answer it in a future post.