Posted on 2014-Sep-09
The Problem with Being Everything to Everybody
When you first start out as an author, you will most likely receive a periodic email from a fan or well-wisher. No doubt you will be ecstatic that someone has taken the time to write to you. Eventually, as you get more and more well-known these types of emails will become more demanding and burdensome on your time. Some of the questions will be downright silly and responding will be frustrating.
As the manager of small business with a very niche product, it is not too difficult to deal with all customer inquiries in a prompt and professional manner. We can even do things like take them out to dinner if they are passing through town or have a one-on-one Skype session to hash out some issues. In this way, we’re sort of like a law firm or some other organization that provides a specialized service for a limited number of clients. We are spoiled though and authors do not have this luxury since most are writing for a mass market. There could be thousands, if not tens of thousands, customers… and only one of you. If they all sent you an email or Facebook message in one day your head would explode. Some strategy in coping with this problem is needed.
I am biased since our primary focus is helping authors/publishers (not readers), but I think it is unfair that some readers have the condescending mentality of “I pay your rent”, so they feel they are entitled to take up large portions of an author’s time. Please note to readers who think like this: a $3 eBook purchase would not cover the cost of rent in any country on the planet. However, flattery is everything in this business and readers must be satisfied.
Recently, an author had a Class Alpha meltdown and made the cardinal sin of insulting one of her readers on social media. The internet (and email) is written in stone, not pencil, so once your harsh words are out there… they are really out there for the world to analyze. Customer service can be challenging if you’re a famous indie author, and being mean to your readers, except in very limited situations where you are trying to build an avant-garde image, can be disastrous for your reputation. Although, good customer service can really improve your brand and is essential to building strong word-of-mouth. It can really help rather than being a perpetual time suck. Let’s talk about some customer service solutions.
Have Information Readily Available
People will often only email if they cannot find out an answer that is readily available somewhere on the internet. Most people are familiar with how to perform a Google search, so you want to have some part of your website that provides detailed information on questions you often get asked. The traditional way to do this has been with a FAQ, but I personally find FAQ sections to be a bit too unorganized and people often don’t read them. If you’re getting a lot of questions about your series order (this is a common one from readers), you may want to have a separate part of your website that just talks about your which books to follow to read the entire series. You do not need this to be on the landing page (which should be uncluttered and not too wordy for author websites), but rather a separate dedicated page. Even if it’s not incredibly easy to navigate to from the front page, Google will index the page and it will show up in search results. Take note of the questions you are getting asked most frequently and consider developing a content strategy on your site that will prevent too many emails.
Another technique to answer email, but makes writing email a lot quicker, is to develop some canned responses. These are boilerplate responses to common emails you encounter in day-to-day operations. Small businesses use these all the time (including BB eBooks). For instance, if someone inquires on when you’re next book is coming out, you can have something ready on your computer for cutting and pasting about how you’re writing really hard and expect the book to come out in early 2015. It doesn’t matter how often you repeat the same email because it is going to different people, so they’ll be none the wiser and think you provided them a personal response. Please be careful about using a template made in Word or other word processing program. The reason is when you copy it into an email client often the font formatting will show up, and you’ll end up with a bunch of weird looking fonts in the same email. This will be a clue to the reader that you used a canned response. You can use a text editor like Notepad, and when you copy and paste the text the formatting will be nice and uniform.
Enlisting Assistance and Crisis Management
Hiring a competent and capable assistant is a great way to help answer your fans’ questions. They can free up a tremendous amount of your time after you provide clear and specific instructions on what you would like your author brand to achieve. Although, a PA may be out of your budget. One advantage of being an author is that you can get your fans to help out too. Many businesses would not be successful at “crowd sourcing” customer service functions simply because it would come off as tacky and opportunistic. However, a huge advantage of being an indie author is that you are a real person, not some faceless corporation. Therefore, acting human and admitting that you are having some trouble trying to keep up with all your wonderful fans may have some benefits. Many of your fans will “step up” and start answering other fans questions. It’s genius! I have seen many successful authors do this in times of crises. This works particularly well on large social networks like Facebook.
Occasionally, shit happens. You may have promised a book release on a certain date, but realized that Amazon didn’t approve it in time. You are unfortunately going to have a bunch of angry readers on your hands. The best thing to do is shift the blame from yourself to some external, faceless entity, particular a large company like Amazon. I would not recommend blaming a contractor or subordinate (especially not BB eBooks!) because that looks like you are a bully. Rather, no one minds when you blame a large corporation—readers can sympathize since it’s more of a Davey-and-Goliath situation. It’s important not to get into a “Me vs. All of You” mentality with your readers. Explain that you are equally upset that vendor xyz is taking forever to review your book and not release it for sale. Your fans will be guaranteed to sympathize and direct their anger elsewhere.
Dealing with Bozo Readers
Once you become well known you will unfortunately have some weird people contacting you, often real creeps. This is especially true for female romance authors. It is absolutely mortifying the amount of sexually monstrous and unsolicited pics that many female authors get. It is disgusting, but can be unfortunately difficult for large social media networks and law enforcement to prevent. I’m not sure a good strategy to prevent this, but I would recommend ignoring it the same way you would with spam, since giving attention to the offender will only feed their trolling and malicious behavior. There’s an interesting study on trolling behavior written about in The Guardian.
On the less disgusting side, you may get strange emails from fans who ask you millions of questions want to know a lot (a lot!) of personal information about you and share with you their own problems. I don’t think these people are malicious like the aforementioned perverts, but they are dangerous because they will take up an inordinate amount of your time. It is also not fair to your other fans to spend an huge amount of your time and resources dealing with one person. For these people you can 1) ignore them or 2) greatly delay your email response time and only send a very terse response.
Another type of problem reader is the one who wants a bunch of free stuff from you. Free shirts, free eBooks, free lunch, the whole shebang. If they are being mean and nasty then hopefully they do so on Facebook so your fans can come to the rescue and make them go away. However, if you are getting emails from this person, you should immediately turn the discussion into about how much it will cost. A discussion of money usually scares off the freeloaders.
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