First off, I’m nervous as all get-out, as this is the first time I’ve guest-blogged and while I do blog over at Soft Skull News I think folks hold posts on this blog to a rather higher standardâ€”longer and more discursive where appropriate; newsier, where appropriate; less hucksterism and shilling as always appropriate. So, having checked the previous sentence for grammar and stylistic balance, I’m ready to try to rise to the occasion, rather than dragging this blog down to my level.
OK so the title of the post. One the one hand, it’s the title of a book I’m publishing in a couple months, an anthology about working retail. I’m now rather optimistic about its prospects, having spent couple of years nervous about themâ€”I’ve a shitty-assed track record with selling anthologies, unlike the proprietor of this here website. But the editor, Jeff Martin, is doing everything right, and we’re getting far more media and bookseller interest than I’d expected…But!
The purpose of this post is not to pimp out that book, but to beg publishers to stop acting as if the customer is in fact always wrong. (Because, you know, the title, it’s a joke. A bit of comic relief for the frazzled retail worker in a society of instant gratification, low service wages, and an endemic sense of entitlement amongst the affluent.) But there is a real tendency in our business to treat the customer as this perverse, mysterious, gullible, arrogant, narrow-minded, slightly thick, imperceptive lug. We largely talk down to him, dumb down for her, expect the least, fear the worst, and generally leave it up to the retailer to figure out how to reach him or herâ€”we’ll get the book onto their shelves, we’ll pay them some payola, and then it’s their problem.
Of course it’s not, and not just because we’re in the only business where 100% of the product can be returned for full credit. It’s because fundamentally a publisher’s job is to connect the writer to the reader. Not the book to the retailer, but the writer to the reader.
This is not to denigrate the retailer. (I posted recently on my own blog about how one needs to understand the retailers if one is to do business well.) I don’t at all believe inÂ cutting the retailer out, but if we understand our customers better, the retailers will be very happy.
My most recent experience of this had to do with a cover. These past few days I’ve gotten e-mail, tweets and Facebook messages from various folks in response to a request on the blog for feedback on a cover. My dilemmaâ€”I’d an intuition that an unorthodox approach (not using the title or author, just an image) might just appeal to customers.
But a number of colleagues got nervous. Part of it was the fear of bucking convention, sure but part of it also stemmed, I believe, from the tendency to not really think about our readers, who they are, what they look for, what their circumstances are. So, I asked them! A little research, very informal. Not market research, not a focus group, not crowdsourcing (well, maybe a little bit of all the forgoing) just a request for a response.
I was relieved to learn I wasn’t crazy, that the unorthodox cover worked, but once that relief wore off, I started to realize that far more reader interactions like that are necessary, that the conversation about books that goes on in our culture now, gorgeously exemplified by Jeff’s house here, needs also to be going on much, much more in the whole apparatus that surrounds the words, houses the words, frames the words, makes it more or less likely you’ll read the words. I’m sure most folks don’t want to see inside the sausage factory, but I’m betting there are far far more than we’re currently admitting to the sausage factory, and if we expect y’all to eat our damn sausages, we’re going to have to spend more time with you guys figuring out how best to make them.
(I wish I could show you the responses, but my ass can’t figure out how to turn the comments on on my blog, long story…If any of y’all have clicked through to where I ask, feel free to comment here, along with whatever other comments you might have to make.)