eReaders: Missed Opportunities for Barnes & Noble

I think of myself as something of a late-comer to the e-reading community, although I'm well aware that I'm certainly not the last adopter out there. Although I've been a "loyal" Amazon customer for years (as long as the concept of loyalty roughly translates to buying everything from there because the prices are lower and I like having heavy stuff delivered to my door so that my friends can help me lug it inside), I just couldn't get into the Amazon Kindle because of my fierce hatred of proprietary formats, single-source sellers, and inability to easily store and backup e-books locally. As long as a seller had the ability to "turn off" my books, I wasn't going to buy an e-reader, and I certainly wasn't going to get locked into one brand forever.

When the B&N Nook was first announced, I almost immediately started hankering after the shiny new e-reader, despite being relatively nonplussed with previous e-reader offerings on the market. I really liked that B&N had announced a devotion to industry-standard formats (meaning that I could switch e-readers any time down the road and not lose my books), and that any e-book you bought from B&N could be easily downloaded to a local computer any time you wanted (meaning that I could backup my books to preemptively hedge against any "turning off" from my B&N account down the line, and I could easily side-load to other devices as necessary). Most important to me was the public library loan support - I wouldn't have to buy all my e-books when I could just as easily borrow them from my awesome public library. In relatively quick succession, I bought a Nook Classic, a Nook Color for myself (which I have since rooted due to B&N pretty much abandoning the concept of "updates" for going on 6 months now), a Nook Color for my husband (who liked mine so much he wouldn't let go until I brought him a new one), and indirectly was the cause of my step-daughter asking for a Nook Color for her Christmas present.

Now, I absolutely love my Nooks - I am a fanatical Nook user. I think both the Nook Classic and the Nook Color are the best e-readers on the market (depending on your needs), and I'll hype the B&N hardware to anyone who will listen to me. However, what was interesting about my hardware buying frenzy at B&N was that it was accompanied by a later wave of a software buying frenzy at B&N, by which I mean: I started to buy a lot of e-books from B&N!

Of course, the point of buying an e-reader that could read industry standard formats like .epub and .pdf was that we could buy our e-books pretty much anywhere, but the B&N buying interface was easy enough to learn and use, and having a single-source supplier of our choice was relatively easy and convenient for awhile. The system wasn't perfect of course, but my shiny new B&N Mastercard gave an instant 3% rebate on all B&N e-book purchases, and the online "My Nook Library" was easy to use and master, with only a single click needed to download books to a local backup directory. And, of course, the fact that our Nooks could easily access our B&N libraries without any extra side-loading or downloading shenanigans was initially a huge draw.

What is frustrating to me, though, in the last year or so of developing a relationship with B&N, is that things keep getting in my way whenever I try to use their system - it's like they have this company of incredibly intelligent designers and engineers, but they're blocked off by a mountain of middle managers permanently stuck in the 1990s. I've had more and more cause recently to use the B&N site less rather than more, and it's a missed opportunity for B&N because every moment I'm on their site is a moment I could be buying things or reviewing things for other people to buy - but fundamentally, B&N just won't let me in!

I ultimately find myself blocked by a terrible reviewing format, non-existent quality control on e-books, horrible company communication, completely ineffective marketing, and overall poor website design.

Terrible Reviewing Format. 

Online suppliers ignore the power of a good review system at their peril. I'm firmly convinced that one of the reasons became such a powerhouse is because of their heavy emphasis on customer reviews - buyers frequently go to Amazon to check the reviews and while they're there, they click the "Buy Now!" button. Why not? If the reviews convinced you to make the buy, then you're probably not going to bother navigating to a new site to find and purchase what is already right in front of you.

Amazon has intelligently built their reviewing system around the human desire for competition and positive feedback by utilizing a "reviewer ranking system" where serious reviewers are motivated to write as many perfectly "helpful" reviews as possible in order to move up in the system. The ranking system is far from perfect, though, so I don't blame B&N for choosing not to implement a competitive system. What I do blame them for, however, is their complete failure to understand how "good" reviewing works, nor how to make the system useful for customers rather than publishers.

First and foremost, the B&N reviewing system is incredibly crippled by a failure for the system to recognize or honor line breaks. Considering that the majority of my book reviews are over 3500 characters long (a limit that B&N enforces on all their product reviews), every single one of my book reviews is rendered into an unreadable Wall-o'-Text when the line breaks are removed. What's most frustrating about this issue is that the system saves the reviewer's line breaks - you can view properly formatted reviews in your reviewer profile - but the line breaks are removed on the product page where most customers would actually want to read the review. B&N is surely aware of this bug and of how detrimental it is to serious reviews - I myself have written them on this issue multiple times - but they choose not to fix the system. Add to the mixture almost non-existent search / filter / sort functions on the review pages, and it's no wonder that customers would rather go to Amazon to read the reviews.

I had eventually decided to stop doing "content reviews" on B&N and limit myself to "format reviews", since all my purchases at B&N were e-book purchases only, and it seemed to me that the format of the e-book was more pressing than the content of the e-book (since the content stays roughly the same across all publications of the book). This would allow me to still be helpful for other customers on B&N while working around the onerous character limit and line break removals. But around the time I had made my peace with my decision, I noted that one of my oldest reviews on my account was marked with this announcement:

...not that we sent an email when your review was taken down, or anything.

Huh. I didn't realize that B&N could and would "turn off" my reviews if they were flagged as spoiler-y. Let's look at the review, shall we:

I love good short stories, but not bad short stories that skip important character development.

Well, isn't that interesting. I panned a free short story and in the process summarized what I saw as an extremely silly plot, and someone marked it as a spoiler. Since that particular book currently has an average rating of 2-stars across 510 customer ratings, with the majority of the actual reviews being 1-star reviews, I rather cynically suspect that it wasn't a customer who complained about my review, if you catch my drift. Whatever, it's fine. I'll edit my review like the notice requests and then the B&N moderators can approve my updated content. I'll just hit the Edit button and... what's this?

...and have a nice day.

Oh, well played. So all an author had to do to get my negative review removed was to wait until it was 30-days-old to mark it as a spoiler. It's now too old to edit so that it would be put back on the product page, and there isn't even the option to delete it without having to wrangle with B&N customer support. Awesome.

You can see I won't be making the move from "predominantly Amazon reviewer" to "predominantly B&N reviewer" any time soon.

What's especially frustrating about this is the implementation of a ridiculously arbitrary "no edits after 30 days" rule. What makes Amazon such a powerhouse in the review-supply-business is that people can see the evolution of reviews over time. It's not uncommon at all to see a review on Amazon that starts out praising the product only to contain a later update explaining that the reviewer's opinion has somewhat changed slightly since the product burned the house down, possessed the family dog, and ran off with the reviewer's inheritance money.

The alternative to not being able to update reviews is to not write reviews at all. B&N seems to be encouraging this, and it baffles me because an un-reviewed product isn't likely to sell very well. Of course, B&N's "star ratings" are based on customer ratings only, not customer reviews, which I suppose means that every publishing company can easily pad the ratings out without having to go to the trouble of generating plausible "fake" reviews. The problem is that customers aren't stupid - they buy based on reviews, not ratings, since we all know that even a YouTube video of a dog farting at a camera can get a good half million thumbs up if it's picked up on the right RSS feed.

Non-Existent Quality Control on e-Books. 

 To B&N's credit, all the e-books with the "B&N Classics" stamp seem very well formatted indeed. On the flip side, however, too many big name publishers are running their books through crappy epub converter programs and slapping the result up on B&N without anyone checking whether or not everything was formatted properly. You simply can't do this - customers expect and demand properly formatted table-of-contents, proper white space throughout the text (insteadofhavingwordsruntogetherlikethis), proper programming so that the book doesn't crash your e-reader entirely, and god help you if your book contains pictures but they were stripped out for the e-book version.

Every time a customer buys an e-book only to find that it is a poorly formatted, buggy, cheap knock-off of a "real" paper book, it reinforces the general suspicion against e-books that still prevents a lot of market acceptance. And it's important for B&N to understand that these incidents don't diminish customer confidence in the publisher; they diminish customer confidence in B&N. It may not be fair, but as a major e-book supplier, you must be willing to put the time and effort into quickly proof-reading newly submitted books (at least the ones listed for over five dollars!) in order to prevent customer ire down the line.

To B&N's credit, when I have noticed errors in e-books and informed them of the problem, they've promptly informed the publisher and worked with them to fix the problem. However, the customer - me - is not informed when the new, corrected version of the e-book is ready for download, so you get to just wait and recheck daily until the problem is mysteriously resolved. This is terrible customer service, and it means that the customer confidence that was lost when the book was found to be inadequate is never gained back with the eventual fix.

Horrible Company Communication. 

B&N's failure to communicate with customers isn't limited to an inability to follow-up on "broken format" submissions to their customer service. It is almost impossible to get a meaningful response from the online customer service - almost all their responses to my emails have been form letters that pretend to have read my email without actually having done so.

I actually received one once that had glitched so that the "search-and-replace" text hadn't actually been replaced, so the response was something like, "Thank you, <ACCOUNT NAME> for contacting us about <ISSUE HERE>. We are currently working to improve customer satisfaction by addressing <ISSUE HERE>. Please have a wonderful day." After falling out of my chair laughing (and forwarding the email to all my friends), I responded by saying "I don't feel like you addressed <ISSUE HERE> to my satisfaction - can you call me for further help?" but oddly, I never received a response.

When an improperly formatted e-book started crashing my e-reader and my computer reader program, and I just wanted my money back on the e-book and/or a reassurance that the e-book would be fixed in a timely fashion, it took me five emails to customer support and three hours on hold waiting for a tech support person to handle my issue. The reason for this ridiculous delay between "problem" and "fix" was because they were swamped under thousands of calls and e-mails from the "Christmas Rush". The only problem with this? It was February. You don't get to use the "Christmas Rush" excuse all year long, B&N.

The problem with a company that doesn't answer customer support calls or emails is that the company can never improve to serve customer needs. Good customer support is a great way to identify areas for improvement in usability, outreach, and marketing - properly done, you're getting valuable customer feedback for free. By completely ignoring this opportunity for growth and improvement, you will stagnate as a company and you will lose customers as they get more annoyed with the niggling little problems involved in dealing with you.

And it's worth mentioning, again, that there's always another company out there somewhere who is going to be willing to listen to your customers and give them what they want.

Completely Ineffective Marketing. 

B&N is great at marketing their e-readers, but the consistently fall down when it comes to marketing their e-books. They're missing the forest for the trees - people buy e-readers to buy e-books, and not because the e-readers make great coasters (because they don't).

Let's say you've gone to the B&N website searching to see if a certain book you want is available in NookBook form. A good percentage of the time, unless it's a book (or a special new edition of that book) that was released after the Nook was released, it often won't be. But that's okay - that's the fun of being an early adopter. Fortunately, B&N has this nifty little "poke the publisher" button that you can hit to say, "hey, you have a potential market here!"

Thank you for participating in this social experiment.

Did you push the button? Great! Now check back later. When? I dunno. Next week or next month or next year - it'll be available when it's available, yanno? What's that? You wanted your name added to a list associated with that book? And when that book becomes available as a NookBook, you wanted an email sent to you to let you know, so that you could buy it? You wanted to sign-up to be notified when a specific product comes available, so that you could give us your money for it? Why would we do that?

Oh, hai thar, Amazon!

Look, just because Amazon offers a feature doesn't mean we do.

I really don't understand this. I don't. I can get why B&N constantly sends me coupons that give 50% for everything in the store except the one thing I buy - e-books - and I can get why they send me newsletters reminding me to buy a Nook today! despite the fact that I have two registered with them already. The coupon lists and the newsletter lists are one big bucket-o-users, and they don't want to invest the money to send out custom ones - I get it.

But, seriously, how 'innovative' is it in 2011 to implement a system where people can sign up to be notified that it's time for them to spend money at your business? This is not a new idea or a new technology - Amazon has been doing this for years. What's more, it's crucial to your business. I faithfully searched for "Alias Grace" as a NookBook on B&N once a week for months before finally giving up forever. For all I know, it could have come out in NookBook form yesterday, but I'll never know about it and that means that there's $10 in my pocket that could have gone to B&N yesterday... but didn't. Maybe they'll get lucky and I'll try again someday, but it's just as possible that I won't, and as a business you simply cannot afford to gamble like that.

And, for the record, I've asked B&N for this feature multiple times. Each time they politely said, 'No'.

Overall Poor Website Design. 

I'm not a website snob, I swear, but I've been using the B&N site for a year now and it's like swimming through a river of soggy bread. The pages load incredibly slowly, and all the script-y pop-ups ("You're about to buy this e-book - confirm your password.") - that were presumably implemented because having actual confirmation pages is "un-cool" - are slow to load and buggy as all get out. Firefox, Internet Explorer, Opera, Safari, Chrome - it doesn't matter what browser I use, the site is sluggish and temperamental compared to every other site I frequent on a regular basis.

The B&N site search function - the key to connecting customers to products - only really works when it's in a good mood, and it's terribly difficult to sort or filter results. A search for "millennium trilogy audio" will net you an assortment of audio-books-on-CD and audio-books-on-MP3 but if you prefer MP3 direct downloads to CDs sent in the mail, and thus instead search for "millennium trilogy mp3", you'll get nothing at all - not even nearest results or did you mean... responses to try to connect you to the closest possible match.

It's usually not a good business model to only cater to sufficiently stubborn people, but that seems to be the B&N pattern so far.

And don't even get me started on gift cards. We bought a truckload of gift cards back during the Nook buying frenzy, largely due to a gift card promotion at the time ("Buy $100 worth of gift cards, get $10 free!"), only to find that the gift card system is needlessly complicated and unintuitive. Rather than have the option to apply the gift card balance at checkout, like every other gift card system ever made ever, you have to preemptively go into your B&N account page, dig down a bit until you find the link to manage your gift cards, and then apply the entire gift card balance to your online account. So, in essence, if you get a $100 gift card and want to spend half of it in the store and half on e-books, apparently you have to buy the store stuff first, because once the balance is applied to your online account, it doesn't seem like you can get it back out.

This doesn't even get into the incredible snarl that occurred when I tried to buy a $10 e-book with $8 in my gift card account. Rather than using the $8 gift credit on my book and charging the excess to my registered B&N Mastercard, the system completely seized up: the e-book was added to my library as a "contested" item that I couldn't access or download for over a week. When I finally called customer service, the guy I spoke to was flummoxed that I would try to buy something that cost more than my current gift balance. His proposed solution? They would "refund" the e-book by sending me an $8 gift card in the mail, and charge me the full $10 for the e-book on my credit card if I still wanted it. To my shame, I'm not a patient person at the best of time - one throwing-of-a-fit later, the situation had been resolved in the sane way ($8 from gift balance, $2 from credit card), and I vowed never to buy another B&N gift card again.

Is it "fair" to B&N that because of one bad experience, I'm strongly disinclined to buy their gift cards? Maybe not, but to me - and, more importantly, to most customers - it's not about "fair" and "unfair". The longer you let your systems be unwieldy and unusable, the more customers you are going to lose because your customers don't owe you a second or third or fourth or fifth chance to dazzle them.


So what's the bottom line to all this? I really want to like B&N, which just goes to show how much I like their Nook readers and how much I appreciate their commitment to open development and industry communication, because I certainly never thought twice about the company prior to buying one of their e-readers. And I continue to be convinced that the core of the company is staffed with incredibly clever and insightful developers who know what customers want and know how to provide it.

However, on the flip side I also hold as an article of truth that a thousand out-of-touch middle managers from the 1990s are fervently preventing any real innovation throughout the company in terms of quality control, website interfacing, and customer service response. I have no doubt that digging in the heels and preventing innovation in these areas certainly saves money, but I can guarantee that it loses customers by the bucket-load.

Will I keep supporting B&N in the future? Probably. I don't mind buying my e-books from them, when they're available and when I can remember to search for them. But I definitely won't keep reviewing there until they fix their reviewing system to be something actually useful to customers, and I can't help but believe that they'll continue to hemorrhage money, business, and customers to the competition until they can learn to stop doing things "the way they've always been done" and start doing them the way their customers actually want.


Redwood Rhiadra said...

I myself own one of the new Kindles, which I bought because it had finally come down to a price point I thought was reasonable for a specialized e-reader. Before that, I read e-books on my Palm Pilot, but I had lots of problems with the glare, which isn't a problem on the Kindle.

Amazon's "proprietary" format never bothered me, because I know it's actually just the industry-standard Mobipocket with some extra bytes (readily convertible if I ever got the urge to), and because most of my e-books are material published freely (by the authors) on the web and converted by me. So I have backups of everything on my computer anyway.

And on Amazon's website I never had the sorts of problems you've reported that B&N have.

The only disadvantage of the Kindle (compared to the Nook) as far as I'm concerned is the lack of color, and that affects so few books that it doesn't bother me at all. (Only one of the 800 or so books on my Kindle, "Lies My Teacher Told Me", has color illustrations)

Eilonwy said...

Amen. I mean, I love my Nook. I do no regret asking for it for Christmas instead of any other e-reader (it was pretty clear at the asking time that I could have gotten whichever one I wanted.) I purposely wanted the classic one, to avoid glare, I like the interface better than on the Kindle, I wanted the proprietary-free format-- everything you talked about. And yeah, buying books from B&N is terrifyingly easy. I never thought I'd be an e-reader convert, but I use it daily and, I'm *shocked* to say, prefer it over reading traditional books.

But everything you write is dead on-- from the small annoyances like conversion difficulties (how many ebooks have I read where there are question marks instead of dashes or apostrophes? Arg.) to the clunkiness of the site by comparison to Amazon. I hope B&N pays attention to concerns like yours because otherwise they're not going to keep abreast of the competition.

Ana Mardoll said...

I should clarify that while I *am* "hatin' on B&N" here, as it were, I am an absolutely fanatical Nook user, and genuinely believe that it is the best e-reader on the market, and that the Kindle is one of the worst. I say that not for fan-boi troll reasons, but because the public library loan support is just THAT important to me - I'm a member of three different e-book libraries and those memberships save me literally hundreds of dollars a year.

I actually think - ironically - that the B&N Nook LIbrary online is the best way to manage an online library, which is one more reason why I say they've got great engineers over at B&N. Give them something new to design from scratch and they do a great job - but the middle managers won't let them revamp the main site.

The Nook library management online can be navigated to with a single button from the B&N homepage and lets you download, rate, review, archive, and delete all your stuff easily with the single push of a button. Compare that to the Amazon Kindle library management online which is buried in your account page, won't let me manually download to the directory of my choice for backup purposes (major, major, major grr!), and is completely covered in javascript shenanigans that drive me nuts.

I ambitiously "bought" (for free) all the ABNA 2010 excerpts last year, but since Amazon pulled the product pages, all the names and authors on the excerpts have been wiped, making it impossible to use them in my Kindle library. Deleting 500 Kindle books one at a time takes FOREVER because of the aforementioned "your library is at the bottom of a page covered in javascript and it has to reload every time you delete a title" problem. I called customer support to try to persuade them to delete the excerpts for me ("I just want you to remove everything in my library that was bought on May 24, 2010, okay???") only to have the staff tell me that (a) it wasn't possible for them to do that and (b) how did I get 500 copies of the same book anyway??

I tried to tell them what ABNA was and finally gave up. So, yeah, B&N sucks at a lot of stuff, but Amazon has their own major blind-spots - which is another post entirely and almost certainly flame-bait, haha.

The difference is that I can use my Nook with pretty much any online bookstore or library, but no so much with a Kindle. :)

J.D.M. said...

It seems that both B&N and Amazon need to discover the goodness that is AJAX.

I think half the things you mention in your post is the reason why I never truly got hooked on the B&N website. I used to shop in their brick & mortar stories, pretty much every day when I was in college (I used to joke that I helped found them with the amount of money I spent there), but as I got older and less inclined to carry large heavy bags of books and pay extra to do it, I migrated online.

Amazon is definitely a few light years and a couple parsecs ahead of B& when it comes to user experience, even with Amazon's flaws. B&N looks pretty, but Ammy actually *works* (barring the ebook library management, of course).

I may be missing something here, but why (and how did you manage to) buy all 500 ABNA excerpts?

On another note, wouldn't it be awesome if Amazon started selling DRM-free .mobi (or even EPUB) ebooks? I mean, it could do for books what their DRM-free MP3s do for music. Granted, I know they want to push the Kindle, but imagine if they opened up their ebook sales to other eReader owners. People would *still* probably by the Kindle for whatever reasons they buy them now, plus they'd still get money from the loyal Amazon customers who decided on a different eReader, but would prefer to just stay on Amazon to get their ebooks.

Your Name said...

"The B&N site search function - the key to connecting customers to products - only really works when it's in a good mood, and it's terribly difficult to sort or filter results."

Even more amusing: Type an ISBN into the search box and hit "Search" and you get redirected to the homepage.

I love being ignored when I put in the one piece of information that is absolutely guaranteed to identify the product I want.

Ana Mardoll said...

Even more amusing: Type an ISBN into the search box and hit "Search" and you get redirected to the homepage.

Yes! This! I ran into this the other day and was gobsmacked. How can your search engine not manage ISBNs??

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