How to deal with angry customers when I'm an angry author?
September 16, 2016 8:03 AM   Subscribe

A few months ago, I wrote a novel. I sold a few hundred copies. Now my buyers want to know where their books are and... I don't know.

One of my good friends (Paul) runs a small publishing house, and he offered to publish the book. It went up for pre-order in mid-July, with a release date in mid-August. About 300 copies sold in pre-order. In mid-August, Paul made me aware of some delays in the printing that would push the release back to the beginning of September. He says that all the books shipped out to buyers the first week of September, but no one's received them and no one's tracking numbers work. I am not sure that I believe that they've been shipped. I am getting a lot of frustrated emails from buyers who want to know where their books are. I also have not yet been paid for any of the orders.

My question is two-fold:

1.) How do I respond to those emails from readers/buyers when the answer is that I have no idea where their books are?

2.) How do I maintain a friendship with Paul while making it clear that he needs to fix this situation, and quickly?

(Also, our contract does address publishing deadlines but does not address shipping at all.)
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Have those customers' credit cards been charged? I think that is a crucial question. If he is sitting on people's money, I think you should tell him you are about to instruct people to do chargebacks.
posted by BibiRose at 8:15 AM on September 16, 2016 [10 favorites]

Regarding the second part, does he have proof of shipment? USPS, UPS, FedEx, etc. all provide receipts when items are shipped. If he doesn't, uh, I'm not entirely sure Paul is putting in the work to remain friends with you.
posted by griphus at 8:15 AM on September 16, 2016 [19 favorites]

If it were me, I would show up at Paul's office especially if it is located at or near the printing plant. I would explain about the emails (again) and ask him to explain what is really going on. I think by watching him respond, not necessarily the words, but his demeanor and mannerisms, you will know if he is telling the truth. I would tell him that if the books cannot be delivered he needs to immediately return any deposits or payments. If he says he shipped them, ask if the two of you can get on a conference call right then with the shipper or shipping department and try to trouble shoot the problem. At the end of this awkward difficult conversation I would say something like, "Let's fix this mess so that we can go back to grabbing a beer as friends and not have to worry about this crap."
posted by AugustWest at 8:20 AM on September 16, 2016 [14 favorites]

Have you actually seen any books?

Please find out if the books exist and if the money is unrecoverable before your customers run out of time to initiate chargebacks.
posted by ODiV at 8:21 AM on September 16, 2016 [6 favorites]

I would send a heads up to Paul by email or by phone that this is an issue and that you are going to start directing the queries his way and have him deal with the disappointed buyers himself.

Then I would respond to each email and CC Paul and say "Hi {Customer Friend}, I am so sorry that you haven't gotten the book yet! I am including Paul the publisher on this email so he can follow up with you to confirm shipment."

As the publisher, he is in charge of fulfillment and you should feel fine about pushing these complaints to him. If he did actually ship the books, then this is a big problem he should know about with the shipment company. And if he didn't, then this will hopefully spur him into action.
posted by rmless at 8:38 AM on September 16, 2016 [8 favorites]

2.) How do I maintain a friendship with Paul while making it clear that he needs to fix this situation, and quickly?

You don't. You explain that you're going to need explanations and proof of delivery, or you'll be forced to get a lawyer involved ASAP. Then, if need be, you consult a lawyer.
posted by naju at 8:42 AM on September 16, 2016 [18 favorites]

Seconding rmless. Just send the customers straight to Paul. Fulfillment is not your job.
posted by AmandaA at 8:42 AM on September 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

I say this with all the love in the world for small presses: They can be supremely flaky.

AugustWest is right. If Paul does not literally make physical books himself, the printer or distributor could be the problem here -- especially if Paul seems to be in the dark about what's going on, and especially if large print runs are new to him (300 can be one in that world). If Paul collected emails on the pre-order, he has the ability to contact your customers en masse, apologize, and update them on the resolution -- and that's what he should do. As for you getting paid, it's likely too early in the current course of events for that to have happened yet. Still, though: does your contract outline when that happens, at what intervals, and how?

Point out that it hurts both you AND his business if he doesn't take care of this. Many writers, especially the ones at a level he might like to publish sometime, do find out which small press publishers are Not That Great to Deal With, and make decisions about placing their work accordingly. That due diligence might not happen openly on the Internet, but it definitely happens.

When it comes to maintaining the friendship, I guess I'd just be like "Hey, my inbox is a cesspool of rage right now. You understand why that might be, right? Can we figure out what to do about this?" and go from there.
posted by gnomeloaf at 8:43 AM on September 16, 2016

I would really, really, really advise against sending customers to Paul unless you have no intentions of them being you customer again. Sending your customers to a vendor you contracted with that isn't fulfilling their contract is a seriously dick move, doubly so if he just ignores the emails (which he very well may if he's fucking with you.) They won't care who Paul is, they'll be more pissed off than they were before because you're not taking responsibility for your product, and the chances of you coming out of this looking good after are minimal at best.

So, again: really bad idea to pawn off your customers on your shitty vendor.
posted by griphus at 8:51 AM on September 16, 2016 [15 favorites]

If you're in the US and no-one's tracking numbers work because they've been falsified, and you have out of state buyers, then your mate Paul may have committed mail fraud. This is not a fun thing to happen.
posted by scruss at 8:54 AM on September 16, 2016 [2 favorites]

Also, just to be clear, I have to deal with vendors fucking up in similar ways at work all the time, as well as customers being mad at me because a vendor fucked up. I can't even imagine how pissed off my boss would be if I sent a client to a vendor.
posted by griphus at 8:56 AM on September 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

You should manage your customers yourself, and you should also work behind the scenes with Paul to make this work.

I would suggest:

1) A blog post that explains the situation in more detail and apologizes so people will find it when they google "[author] [preorder]"
2) A proactive email to every single customer. Personalized. Paul needs to provide you with their contact info.

The email should say something like "Hi [customer], I wanted to update you about your pre-order. The publisher [etc etc etc]. There is not much I can do about it, but still, I apologize for the delay and will continue to do what I can to make sure it's resolved and that you get your book. As a token of my thanks, I've included an exclusive [short story? chapter of the book? idk]."

Something like that.

Ultimately, Paul is going to screw these people, and you should be proactive about connecting with them and making it clear that you're aware of the problem and on their side.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 8:58 AM on September 16, 2016 [3 favorites]

In terms of your friendship, Paul seems like he is having a serious liquidity issue. Meaning, he has no cash or access to credit. He doesn't want to refund customers or have them do chargebacks because he literally doesn't have money to give to them. If he gets too many chargebacks, he won't be able to take credit cards anymore. Hence the lies.

If he's been having money problems for a while, his printer might not be willing to print your book before they get paid. All of these financial pressures will make his business a lot harder to run. Liquidity issues (and bad credit) snowball and they often signal the death knell of a business.

Given that you're not someone he needs to pay to keep his business afloat in the immediate short term, you're probably not going to see your money anytime soon. Given that he's at the point of committing fraud instead of, IDK, putting things on his credit card, you probably will never see your money. I would consider it gone at this point. You could sue him for it, but you'll probably be behind a number of other creditors.

I don't know if you will be able to keep him as a friend. If you want to be a good friend, I would see him in person and tell him that it's clear that he's having serious financial issues, and asking what you can do to help. Do not give him money. Do encourage him to make smart choices (if you can).

Sorry this is happening to you.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 9:20 AM on September 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

(If he's not having serious financial issues and he's committing [likely] fraud on his customers just for funsies, then you need to not be friends.)
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 9:25 AM on September 16, 2016

2.) How do I maintain a friendship with Paul while making it clear that he needs to fix this situation, and quickly?

Assuming Paul is being responsive and not ducking you, just be honest about your situation: your readers are getting pissed and taking that out on you. Not only is this situation risking chargebacks (which will cost both you and Paul money), it is damaging your reputation and may wreck your chances at future success as a author.

If Paul cares about your friendship, he will want to help how he can.

Ask Paul for specific details: He says the books were shipped the first week of September. What date(s) exactly? Which shipping company was used? How did the books get to the shipping company? Did Paul physically deliver them? If this being handled off-site and Paul has never seen the books himself, what proof does he have that they've been shipped? Why aren't the tracking numbers working?

Set a deadline based on when credit cards were charged (if they were charged when they ordered, you'll probably need to act fast). The chargeback window is usually 60 days from the date of the statement that showed the charge, so October 1st may be too late for some folks but you can offer them refunds through another channel. Tell Paul that if you don't see evidence that books have started to arrive by October 1, you'll need to advise your customers to initiate chargebacks. This is a harsh penalty, but your customers shouldn't have to take the hit here.

1.) How do I respond to those emails from readers/buyers when the answer is that I have no idea where their books are?

Draft an email to send to all buyers (not just the ones already complaining). Provide the details that you got from Paul. Think about what information you would want in order to feel comfortable that you haven't been ripped off, and make sure it's in there. Apologize, and don't try to shift the blame. Send that email ASAP! (preferably this weekend!)

Then, respond personally to each of the buyers that has contacted you already, refer to the group email, and express again that you are working directly with the publisher to get this resolved ASAP.

Then, next Saturday (October 1), send another email to all buyers. Hopefully it will say "It's my understanding that xx% of books have been delivered. Please contact [shipper??] if you have questions regarding your order." But it might have to say "It is my understanding that none of the books have been delivered to customers yet. I am deeply sorry for this inconvenience and I am working to sort out the mess. As you may know, the books were ordered from [publisher], and I have not received any payment at this time either. Therefore, I cannot provide refunds, and you may wish to contact your bank/cc company to initiate chargebacks..."

In the happy case, also be sure to follow up with any buyers who have already contacted you to make sure that they specifically got their books.
posted by sparklemotion at 9:29 AM on September 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

Maybe expectations are very different in the publishing world, but honestly "books shipped first week of September, nobody has received them yet, nobody's tracking numbers work" doesn't really sound like a pistols at dawn situation. It sounds like there's probably a minor snafu somewhere along the line that can be worked out.

I mean, the first week of September was a week ago, so if books ship in 7 to 10 business days, you are really only now getting to the point where people *should* have started to receive them.

It's the tracking number issue that I would be most concerned about, and honestly I would probably approach this from a troubleshooting frame of mind, not a MY FRIENDSHIP WITH PAUL IS OVER frame of mind. A week or two of delay with tracking numbers issued but not functional, to me, implies that these books are sitting on a pallet somewhere. Possibly awaiting some kind of backlog or delay, possibly lost in the shuffle somehow. My guess is that it's a problem with the printer (especially if there were already other delays in getting the books printed) or possibly a problem with the shipper. But the first thing to do is to stay calm and follow up. Not immediately assume the worst and burn your bridges.

How many of your readers who pre-ordered through Paul are used to pre-ordering huge mega-releases from Amazon, where often you receive the book on or before its publication date? Managing expectations might be the name of the game, here.
posted by Sara C. at 11:59 AM on September 16, 2016 [2 favorites]

Have you verified whether your several & various customers actually received unique tracking numbers?
posted by beerperson at 12:19 PM on September 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

Yeah I've been thinking about those tracking numbers. 300 UPS shipping labels for something book-sized would cost about $2500-$3000 (if not more.) If he's having liquidity problems like Rock 'em Sock 'em suggests, the numbers might be either fake or he just printed out a single shipping label and sent the same number to everyone.

If you haven't already checked up on this, the easiest way would be to contact a random customer, ask them for their tracking number and run it against whichever shipper's database it comes from. If he actually generated the label, it should at least show up as "label created" with UPS and FedEx. There chances of UPS fucking up 300 individual labels so bad that they won't even show up in the database is extremely slim.

For USPS I'm not 100% sure but I believe they do something similar unless he showed up at the post office with 300 packages, but in that case the post office would issue receipts for each one.
posted by griphus at 12:35 PM on September 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

I think you do need to talk to a lawyer. In addition to whatever money those readers may be out, you have your print and digital rights to consider. To my non-lawyer self, it would be tempting to go to him as a friend, give him a chance to level with you and, if things are looking bad, make the customers whole and try to get back your rights at the same time. The problem is that trying to talk someone into something like that can actually backfire if interests diverge and you have offered concessions in hopes of getting x,y, or z. They may not hold up their end of the bargain. So get some advice about this, with all the particulars laid out.

But, you know, get your rights back. If worst comes to worst, your customers can at least get the books another way, possibly as a free digital download.
posted by BibiRose at 1:12 PM on September 16, 2016

If no one's tracking numbers work then I think they were probably made up and Paul is lying to you.
posted by Jacqueline at 8:57 PM on September 17, 2016

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