The (Book) State We’re In: Why Customer Service Is the Greatest Challenge Faced by Today’s Publishers

“I hate them,” said children’s author Maurice Sendak when asked about e-books in an interview. “It’s like making believe there’s another kind of sex. There isn’t another kind of sex. There isn’t another kind of book. A book is a book is a book.”

For Kevin Smokler, author and speaker recently invited to Montreal by the Association of English Language Publishers of Quebec to talk about the state of publishing, e-books are not to blame for the difficulties faced by today’s book publishers. Nor is the much-villainized Amazon.

The crux of many book publishers’ current problems is bad customer service. Publishers don’t understand or don’t accept that they have a responsibility to their customer, the reader, and that that responsibility doesn’t end with a book sale. And if publishers don’t start treating their customers/readers better, they will simply lose them. Smokler urges publishers to use every creative marketing strategy and technological development available to find out who their readers are and to keep them coming back for more from their favourite authors, series, and genres.

The first step is knowing your reader – finding out who reads the books you publish. Concrete ways for publishers to get to know their readers and build a better relationship with them include ensuring that their website is easy to navigate, using basic software to find out more about customers/readers, and taking note of who attends their events.

With the old model of publishing, based on the industrial age, publishers made books – or things – and other people sold and bought them. The model has changed, Smokler argues. Publishers still create and curate culture and conversation as they always have, but now they also need to be directly involved with their readers.

If publishers feel that books and technology are at odds, they’re wrong. “Look at history,” says Smokler, “the book was the iPhone of its day.” The book was a convenient and durable way to share culture. And although the way we share culture and ideas may be changing, Smokler insists that we are nonetheless still sharing.

Smokler warns publishers against taking on authors that will be a hindrance to their own books. In today’s market, authors must be able to and desire to promote their own books. (There are of course exceptions, Smokler concedes. If a publisher is going to take on a difficult or introverted author, Smokler says that the publisher needs to be creative and promote that author’s book – with or without help from the author.)

Smokler is just one such competent and self-promoting author. This talk was part of a tour for his own recently published book Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School. The crowd oohed in appreciation when informed that Smokler has more than sixty-four thousand followers on Twitter.

Moments of change reveal character. Smokler reminds us that history has not been kind to those who deny and resist change. The message is clear: publishers appreciate your readers – or else.

Vanessa Bonneau is associate editor of the mRb.