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.

Snip:

… 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.

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Joel Naoum

Joel Naoum is a Sydney-based book editor, publisher, blogger and writer. He is passionate about the possibilities of social media and digital publishing opens up for authors, publishers, booksellers and the whole book industry.

2 thoughts on “Why The Customer Isn’t Always Right”

  1. I tried to read the open letter but got lost halfway through with the jargon. I’m sure it might be frustrating for the early adopters, but this isn’t unique to e-books. I’ve always had a tendency to sit back and wait until the problems are ironed out. I don’t imagine the manufacturers are wanting their products to become a disincentive to buying new devices, as Joanna puts it. That would be madness. In the end, the market will sort it out. And I can wait for that, because ‘dead tree’ books will never become obsolete, like video and audio cassettes and the like.

  2. People are always going to get angry with new technologies. As it sails down the rapids of life, all glittery and sparkly, made of chrome and wires- people see themselves on the bank of the river, covered in wrinkles and sagging in their tracksuits, desperately running to keep up.

    That said, while I appreciate E-books in the abstract, I still don’t plan on making an investment yet.

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