Dear Readers: Publishers Think of You as Customers I SWEAR

A few days ago, Robin L., one of the bloggers of the Dear Author site, took exception, via Twitter, to my announcement that I would be deleting kvetching about eBook pricing on my Big Idea posts, that I consider such persistent ebook price kvetching as a symptom of a particular sort of entitlement, and that doing it at the author, who generally speaking has no control of the pricing and who is probably neurotic enough, is pretty mean. Robin L. believes differently, which is of course her right, just not here on my site, in a Big Idea comment thread. She does have further thoughts on the matter at Dear Author, here.

However — and here we leave this issue of reader entitlement behind entirely — during our Twitter conversation on the matter, Robin L. made an assertion (also present in the entry linked above) which I found frankly a bit silly, namely that publishers don’t consider readers to be customers. I consider this a bit silly because, having worked with a number of publishers in a professional capacity for a dozen years now, in both non-fiction and fiction, at no time was it suggested to me, either by words or by how my books were sold, that my publishers don’t consider readers to be their customers. To be certain, they are not the only customers; publishers work directly with retailers, who are often but not always the middlemen in the relationship with publishers and readers, and they also work with libraries and schools. But only a foolish publisher is not aware of and solicitous toward its relationship with the reader, who is, after all the ultimate consumer of the product. Indeed, many publishers, including ones I work with, like Subterranean Press, primarily sell via a direct relationship with readers, with mailing lists and other sales tools.

When I pointed this out, there was some backtracking, with the assertion that the publishers we’re really talking about here were “the Big Six” — i.e., the major publishers in New York. Well, okay, but the assertion that these publishers don’t have a direct relationship with readers isn’t true either, since at least some of these publishers do have direct sales — here, for example, is the direct sales link on the Penguin web site for The Dispatcher, today’s featured Big Idea book. For that matter, here’s a direct sales link on the Macmillan site for Fuzzy Nation, my latest (need to contact Macmillan, as a reader, about an issue? Here’s how to do that. Or if you want to contact Tor/Forge directly, here’s the page for that).

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.

I said so; Robin L. responded with links to articles she felt bolstered her point (here’s one), to which I pointed out that I wasn’t entirely sure why she seemed to believe that article cites would be persuasive to me over my own personal experience. But, fair enough: Perhaps publishing seventeen books in a dozen years with six different US publishers ranging from Macmillan to NESFA Press and working intimately with each on matters of marketing and publicity — and, for that matter, dealing directly with editors, publishers and publicists for other authors on a nearly daily basis for four years now regarding the Big Idea feature — isn’t, in fact, as persuasive as something you read somewhere on the Internet that you feel confirms every bad thing you think about publishers.

So I decided to ask someone who I figure is in a position to know better than I; namely, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who in addition to being my editor at Tor, is also that publisher’s Manager of Science Fiction, which means he spends a lot of time talking to other people in Macmillan about various publishing issues, including reader relations. The question I asked him specifically was: “Based on your own personal experience as an editor and in your involvement with major league publishing over the years, do major publishers see readers as customers? Or is major publishing customer focus solely on retailers?”

His response:

I think the observation that New York City trade publishers need to cultivate more and better relationships with their readers, as opposed to merely their retailers, has a lot of truth to it. So much truth, in fact, that for the past ten years or so pretty much everyone in New York City trade publishing has been repeating it, elaborating on it, and being inspired by it to engage in all kinds of initiatives. Whether it’s major editors and publishers getting out into the net on blogs or Twitter or whatever, or Macmillan pouring immense amounts of staff time and money into stuff like and Heroes & Heartbreakers, or similar projects like Del Rey’s Suvudu, a lot of the reason is that everybody knows perfectly well that the world is changing, and nobody has any intention of just sitting around and becoming superannuated.

Of course, there are thousands of people in New York trade publishing, and while some of them are brilliant, others are timeservers, and some of the brilliant people are brilliant-but-wrong, so lots of effort is wasted and we frequently manage to tie our own shoelaces together. This is how human enterprises work — lots of error. But you know something, the so-called Big Six didn’t get to be the Big Six because they’re run by nincompoops who pay no attention to the world.

Meanwhile, lots of self-publishers, small publishers, e-publishers, and so forth also repeat the observation to one another. For some (far from all!) of them, it seems to be something they tell each other to reinforce their shared belief that big publishers are Doomed Baby Doomed, that the dinosaurs will inevitably become extinct and leave the field to the small mammals, and therefore EVERYBODY WILL FINALLY WANT TO READ MY SELF-PUBLISHED BOOK.  Good luck with that.

Another truism you hear all the time in trade publishing is that the genre publishers and imprints are way ahead of the pack when it comes to engaging directly with their readers; that’s because so many of them have been going to SF cons and romance gatherings and Comic Con and so forth for years, decades. Some of us even came into trade publishing from SF fandom or the other-genre equivalents of SF fandom. We’ve been hanging out online, talking with and listening to our readers, since there was an “online,” and we have the old Compuserve and Fidonet addresses to prove it. The predecessor of the original Tor Books web page was the Tor Books gopher server. So this is another of those truisms that’s a truism because it’s, hey, true.

Basically, from where I sit, it looks like trade publishing contains a heck of a lot of smart, savvy people working very hard to roll with a changing world, while in a few corners of the online world there’s an odd subfandom of people devoted to the idea that we’re all complete morons who will be dying out shortly and good riddance because we have NO CLUE ABOUT THE INTERWEBS FWOAR LOL. Okay then.  Maybe it’s true. We’ll see.

(My prediction? Trade publishers will make some stoopid errors. Trade publishers will have some fabulous successes. A few small scrappy e-publishers and self-publishers will be wildly successful. Lots will sink without a trace. People will be loudly wrong at one another on the internet. Readers will lay out money for stuff that gets their attention and seems likely to be worth their time.)

Now, bear in mind I don’t expect either my points or Patrick’s observations to be at all persuasive to Robin L., roughly for the same reasons that someone who believes in astrology is going to be unconvinced by a planetary astronomer; i.e., what one believes one knows is often more persuasive than what those with direct knowledge  and experience might say — because, of course, why wouldn’t we say that. Our experience is a primary argument against believing what we say. If this is her worldview, then she’s welcome to it, although I would recommend against others signing onto it without a little more digging. There’s enough nonsense going around online about publishing these days.

Note well that this isn’t to excuse publishers from falling down on customer relations or to avoid listening to readers with an open mind. That’s something I highly encourage them to do, since it’s readers who buy the books, read them and (hopefully) love them. Please, publishers, give the readers your ear and make it easy for them to find that ear, since among other things, it’ll keep authors from having to deal with kvetches they can do nothing about.

But my own personal experience with publishers is that they are in fact rather very interested in what readers think, and think of them as their customers. I could be wrong. My experience says I’m not.

Update, 5:16pm: Teresa Nielsen Hayden has additional thoughts on the topic in the comments.

The Big Idea: Ryan David Jahn

This is another one for the “where do you get your ideas?” file: Ryan David Jahn was on the trail of a day job and found a novel instead. How did that happen? And what tweaks did he need to make to have his real life job hunt take the shape of The Dispatcher, the crime thriller the novel turned out to be? Jahn’s here now to share the details.


Ian Hunt is less than an hour from the end of his shift when he gets the call from his dead daughter.

In that first line is the idea that propels The Dispatcher from beginning to end.

It was May 2009 and I hadn’t worked (except for the occasional day-labor gig) for the better part of a year. Cash was tight and my unemployment insurance was about to run out.

I’d sold my first novel in January, but there was no money in it.

I needed a job.

I was filling out applications, but they were coming to nothing, and after months of this I was running out of places to send them.

Then I found out the LAPD needed police dispatchers. I thought it would be perfect. I could get a job with the city, benefits and all, and material for my writing as well. There were bound to be stories in some of those emergency calls.

I sent in an application. About two weeks later I received a postcard telling me I had to take an aptitude test. The testing would take place at a high school on Washington Boulevard the following Saturday at eight o’clock in the morning, but I was advised to arrive at seven thirty.

I got there at seven fifteen instead, and found myself at the wrong end of a line that wrapped around the block.

Over five hundred people showed up. There were six positions available.

The testing took three hours. It involved remembering combinations of numbers and letters (4G5T HY5), strings of details (six foot tall white male with blond hair in a white t-shirt and blue jeans carrying a green backpack last seen heading west on De Longpre), and listening to multiple voices simultaneously while pulling salient details. I actually enjoyed it, and walked away feeling that I’d done well.

I also starting thinking about the day-to-day job of being a police dispatcher. I’d be on the phone with people during what might well be the worst moment of their lives. I imagined myself working the graveyard shift in Los Angeles’s downtown dispatch office, taking one call after another while throwing down mugs of coffee.

Then, for no reason, this scene played out in my mind:

I’m sitting at my desk with my headset on. The CAD system is up and running. I take a sip from a steaming cup. A call comes in.

“Nine-one-one. What is your emergency?”

The call is from my wife. Our apartment is being burglarized, there’s a man with a gun in our living room going through our things, and I’m not there to help. I’m sitting at a desk fifteen miles away, only able to listen to what’s happening.

I was terrified by the thought, so I knew there was a story there.

In The Dispatcher, the call doesn’t come from anybody’s wife. It comes from the protagonist’s daughter, who, after having gone missing seven years ago, has recently been declared dead in absentia, whose headstone is now planted in the local cemetery.

But it was that first idle fantasy that got my imagination going.

I spent the next several months trying to set the story in Los Angeles. I must have written four or five different openings, each one fifty to a hundred pages long. None of them worked. LA is a big, sprawling city with two dispatch offices (one downtown, one in the San Fernando Valley) and several dispatchers working in each at any given moment. I didn’t believe the phone call, it seemed too coincidental that this girl’s father should be the one to pick up, and if I couldn’t make myself believe the call, I wouldn’t believe what followed from it.

I finally realized Los Angeles was simply too big. The story, for that reason and others, needed to begin in a more contained environment. It needed to open on the narrative equivalent of a desert island before expanding to the larger world. I threw away the pages I’d written and again started over, this time in a small Texas town of my own creation (though based, in part, on a place I lived while growing up).

And this time I believed it. This time it worked.

After that, the story came together quickly, in a matter of weeks. Because once I understood the world of the story, I also understood the people who inhabited that world. Only these folks could live in such a place; only these folks could do what they do.

I had the right beginning, finally, and everything else followed logically from there.

A month after the first test, I learned that I’d done well enough to move on to the next step in the application process. Out of over five hundred original applicants, there were two hundred and fifty of us left. They tested our typing speed, and I moved forward again, along with a hundred and ninety-nine other people. I was interviewed by a three-person panel that consisted of two city-council members and a senior dispatcher, after which I was one of a hundred and twenty-five people eligible for and on the list to be placed in one of the six positions available.

They’d be hiring alphabetically.

So I didn’t end up with a job as a police dispatcher. I did, however, end up with a book about one — the better deal if you ask me.


The Dispatcher: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s

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