I told this story as part of my keynote speech at the UK LGBT Fiction Meet. I’ve been asked for the text, which is far too long to type out. But for those who weren’t there, I give you my favourite publishing story: The Tale of the Worst Phone Call, a.k.a. How KJ Went Off Customer-Facing Roles Forever.
This was back in the day when I worked for a small independent publisher. We had a narrow rickety building, maybe 15 staff, and a very profitable mass market list to prop up the boss’s occasional wild eccentricities.
The mainstay of the mass market publishing was what I’ll call the Mega Books list. These were highly profitable because brutally cost controlled: cheap content; all the same format, paper and cover stock; and always reprinted in multiples of two or four because doing two or four books together made the print runs significantly cheaper for reasons I won’t bore you with.
The Mega Books were collections. There was the Mega Book of Adventure Stories, the Mega Book of Science Fiction, there was Fantasy, Historical, Detectives, accounts of historical events, political speeches, anything as long as you could get 528pp of text for cheap. And there was erotica. The Mega Book of Erotica, of More Erotica, of Historical Erotica, Gay Erotica, Lesbian Erotica, Dark Erotica, et cetera ad nauseam. And I mean ad nauseam, because this was not high-end stuff. It was twenty years ago, issues like ‘consent’ and ‘trigger warnings’ were not on the agenda (at least, not that particular acquiring editor’s agenda), and…let’s just say that erotica comes in every flavour, and this one was frequently ear wax.
Anyway. There I am, junior marketing gonk, busily propping up the British book trade (or playing Minesweeper, one of the two) when the phone rings.
Receptionist: KJ, we have a complaint, can’t make head or tail of it. Here you go. /click/
So I take the call, and it is a quite posh lady who is incoherent, incandescent with rage.
Me: May I ask what the prob–
Customer: I bought The Mega Book of Reportage and I am shocked. This is absolutely disgraceful. Disgraceful!
This book is all eyewitness accounts of important historical events. The worst you could say is it’s got a £6.99 price tag for mostly out-of-copyright material. I am confused.
Me: What’s wrong with it?
Customer: Page 416!
Me: What about page 416?
Customer, spluttering: I’m not repeating it! Look for yourself.
So I grab a copy, turn to page 416, and it’s a report about the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Me: Um, I’m looking at 416, what’s the issue here?
Customer: The issue? Just read it! Do you think that’s acceptable?!
Me: No, madam, I don’t, but you’re going to have to take that up with the Chinese government.
Me: The events of Tiananmen Square are not my responsibility, so I’m afraid–
Customer, full shriek: THIS IS NOT ABOUT TIANANMEN SQUARE!!!
This escalates. She still won’t tell me what the problem is, but now she is also absolutely livid at my obtuseness. She says I am mocking her, that she is going to sue. I am utterly baffled.
Across the room, the production manager starts waving wildly at me. I put the customer on hold, and the production manager says the words I should have thought of.
Here’s the thing: You make a book by printing on a huge sheet of paper, folding it over and over and cutting the edges. This creates a 32-page booklet called a signature. Put the various signatures together in the right order (10 for a 320-page book), sew or glue them at the back, stick on a cover, and Bob’s your uncle. Here’s a book printed without cover on the spine so you can see the signatures.
But, very, very rarely, the signatures can get accidentally swapped over. That is, if you have books A and B on press together, a signature of A might be exchanged with a signature of B. And now you have a copy of book A with 32 pages of book B in the middle of it, and vice versa.
Me: Did we reprint Reportage recently?
Production manager: Yes, we did.
Me: Did it go up with something else?
Production manager: Oh yes.
Me, bracing: Go on.
Production manager: Gay Erotica.
Of course. I reach for the file copy of Gay Erotica, turn to p.416…
…right in the middle of a fisting scene.
Of course, fisting scenes, like any sex scene, can be written with love, care and respect. This one was not. Not even slightly.
Clearly this was a horrendous fail on our part. The only way it could have been worse is if it had been Dark Erotica, for which the first proofreader actually walked off the job. It is not OK to sell erotica to people who didn’t want to buy it, the customer has a faulty product and a legitimate grievance even if she isn’t very nice, and the only professional response is a sincere apology.
Unfortunately, at this point I was laughing so hard I couldn’t breathe. The production manager was sliding off her chair howling, the receptionist who’d come up for a nosey was lying on the floor hammering the carpet with her fist, and it took several minutes for me to get a grip on myself. All the while the customer was still on hold, and not getting any happier.
Me, finally: Shut up, all of you. I have to take the call, she’ll hear you. SHUT UP.
[takes customer off hold]
Me: Madam, we’ve discovered what the problem is, and I can only apologise. This is an incredibly unfortunate printers’ error and I am very, very sorry. I assure you, we are all extremely upset about this—
At which point the publicity manager swings into the room and announces, at full volume and entirely audible to the customer at the other end of the phone, “Oh my God, I just heard, that’s hilarious!”
I will draw a veil over the rest of the call. I can only add that some poor so-and-so must have paid £6.99 for a copy of Gay Erotica and got hit by 32pp of Tiananmen Square at just the wrong moment, but at least they never contacted me about it.
And that’s how I decided my future did not include customer service.
KJ Charles is a writer and editor who still twitches when the phone rings. Her most recent title is A Fashionable Indulgence.
If you get a book with signature swap (repeated pages or randomly wrong text), just call the publisher and they’ll replace it. There’s no need to shout.