Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Still hanging onto my hat!

It has been a wild week. So wild that I’m not sure what part to blog about. Can readers stand one more blog about the state of the book business? Is there anything more to say?

Well, yes, as a matter of fact. Still a surprise twist or two.

Six and a half weeks after its release, my new Inspector Green mystery, BEAUTIFUL LIE THE DEAD, had still not found its way into Chapters or Coles bookstores anywhere in the country. Apparently there was a delay at their centralized warehouse, and our patience was requested. Given that almost all the bookstores still left standing in Canada are part of this chain, and it was now barely three weeks till Christmas, patience was not an option.

Pre-holiday sales are crucial to the survival of any business, but most especially for small and medium-sized Canadian publishers. My publisher, Napoleon and Company, publishes “distinctly Canadian mysteries”, meaning that they publish stories about Canada written by Canadians. There is not a huge international demand for these books, and hence they must survive on sales to Canadian readers. Not a big crowd, most of whom shop at Chapters/ Coles stores.

Indigo is a huge company that deals with millions of books, some of them bestselling blockbusters with massive promotional budgets and lots of clout behind them. In addition to processing millions of books, Indigo also sells giftware and other seasonal products. The reality is that small and mid-list publishers are easily lost in the shuffle. We don’t make them much money, so perhaps it’s understandable that they pay attention first to those things that make them the biggest buck. If they don’t, the mega-stores, grocery stores and drugstores, who don’t try to stock a million different titles but just a few dozen of the biggest sellers, will skim off half their profits. That, unfortunately, is the way our competitive, free-market economy works.

Unlike the music, film and TV industry, there are no “Canadian content” laws to protect Canadian authors and publishers, who have to compete with the much larger, richer American and British houses for space on the bookstore shelves and in the review columns of newspapers. Truly a David and Goliath contest (although we’re all still searching for that slingshot). So here we were, three weeks before Christmas and no books even shipped. Faithful readers were asking where they were, bookstore managers were scratching their heads.

Faced with this looming disaster, some of us Napoleon authors decided to go for broke. Saturday morning, I sent an email to all relevant members of Indigo senior management whom I was able to identify, including the CEO, stating the concern and pleading for assistance in rectifying the delay. I wasn’t expecting much. Over the past decade, I think we’ve all experienced the erosion of personal service in big corporations to the point where now, when we have a question or concern, we expect to waste numerous hours on hold before being connected with some call centre in Mumbai. There, some poorly paid drone with no power or authority will parrot canned scripts in an attempt to answer our questions. This is why I went straight to the top.

I expected my emails would land in the inboxes of “personal assistants” to be read on Monday morning and answered with a form letter which would contain expressions of concern and assurances that my business was important to them.

I got nothing of the sort. After sending off the emails Saturday morning, I went about my day and returned home in the late afternoon to find personal email replies from the CEO and the Executive VP. They expressed concern, apologized, and promised to look into things immediately. By the end of the day, they had made a start on fixing the problem. The books are still not in the stores but I have every hope they will be soon. Perhaps I’m being naïve, and perhaps this type of old-fashioned customer service is a rarity even for this company, but I prefer to think not.

What a refreshing surprise.


Hannah Dennison said...

Good for you for going straight to the top! Although I can understand your exasperation and frustration. It's amazing though that just sometimes, SOMETIMES, someone is out there. Fingers crossed that your "realistic optimism" is rewarded!

Barbara Fradkin said...

Thanks, Hannah. As an update, the book is now beginning to show up in Chapters stores. It's not in all yet, but certainly progress!