Selling Books Direct and Customer Service

I used to think that direct sales were the plum of any publishing business. When I stopped buying 10 packs of shipping envelopes at Staples and started ordering boxes of 100 from Viking, I really thought we'd arrived as a publisher. A year later, I eliminated the discounts we'd given to single book customers to encourage them to buy direct from us, and redesigned our order pages to encourage customers to go to Amazon or special order through their local bookstore. The main reason is the other side of yesterday's rant about customer service at big corporations. I don't like being on the giving end any more than the receiving end, and direct sales put you squarely in the customer service business.

We still sell direct to commercial accounts at about the same rate as we used to, some drop shipping for larger orders, and out of our small stock for onsey-twosey orders to library distributors and independent book stores. Our terms aren't flexible for these sales, it's a 35% discount plus shipping, prepaid. No prepayment, no sale. When a distributor sends us their paperwork to set up an account, we throw it out. Otherwise, you aren't just in the customer service business, you're in the collections business, and book distributors are notorious for slow-pay and no-pay. On the other hand, the commercial accounts have never required any customer service after the sale, they know books can be a while in transit.

Retail customers are pretty good on the whole, but as your sales volume picks up, you'll find that if 5% of your buyers are anxious types, you'll have your hands full. Part of the problem is the Post Office; Media Mail can take three or four weeks to cross the country, and Delivery Confirmation doesn't tell you where it is, just when it gets there. The other, probably larger problem, is the nature of Internet based retailing and e-mail correspondence. Relatively few people will go to the trouble of writing a letter and paying for a stamp just to ask where a product is after a couple days, they know it's likely to show up before their complaint even arrives. Likewise, even for businesses with a 1-800 number, many people are shy on the phone, afraid of getting shuttled through layers of voice mail, so they don't rush into calling until they know there's a problem. E-mail doesn't cost anything, allows the most timid person to talk tough, and offers instant gratification to the individual doing the sending. I've received some "Where's my book you crooks" e-mails from customers who hadn't waited four days, despite the 4 to 14 business days we used to warn about for Media Mail. Selling books direct just wasn't any fun as the volume increased.

When we did away with the direct sales discount, we started shipping all books by first class mail, though it's actually first class parcel post at that weight. Costs us an extra dollar and change, so we actually lose a little on our $2.25 shipping and handling charge. Looking back on it, I wish I'd read The Home-based Bookstore by Steve Weber before I started selling books direct, but it hadn't been published yet. While his book is about running an online bookstore rather than publishing, the shipping and customer service issues are identical. What Steve recommends (and I can't believe I didn't think of it myself) is preparing some standard responses to customer complaints that you can quickly and easily customize for the customer, fire and forget. I used to agonize over every complaint, compose a reply, make myself nuts. The bottom line is, before you settle on direct selling as the core of publishing model, understand that it's a customer service business.

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