Come February 15 it will be the first anniversary of the annual membership fee and bizarre ‘caste system’ that PBS so ham-handedly introduced last year. To say the change from free to paid membership was handled poorly is not giving the still seething outrage among many members its full due. There must be a thousand faceless voodoo dolls with ‘PBS Librarian’ getting pins stuck in it every day. Others have composed dance routines to celebrate its almost inevitable demise. How can a simple book swapping site elicit such strong and long lasting emotion? Let me explain.
Once upon a time, there was an idea to start book swapping site where people could join for free and list books available for trade so they could then get books in return. The initial programming and server maintenance and updating were handled well and the forums where members could chat about books, current affairs, make offers on large lots of books like a flea market booth, sell their excess credits ……. it was all there. The Founders were proud of their creation and called their members a ‘Community’. Much of the data input and maintenance was done by volunteers who keep everything from pictures of book covers to ISBN’s updated. The funding came to PBS by members buying postage and credits that had small fees attached, members donating credits and money, or buying special ‘elite’ level programs that gave them larger wish lists, or even buying books through PBS or PBS links to Amazon, which returned promotional fees to PBS.
As ebooks gradually began eating into the print book business, the volume of books traded per year began dropping. Naturally, the fees that PBS had been collecting on postage and other sales dropped as well. On Super Bowl Sunday 2015 PBS members got a nasty shock. If they actually planned to USE all those credits they had accumulated in good faith, they had to buy a membership. Now the annual fee was not high, but along with the fee came a weird caste system that allowed only PAID members to use forums and the private messaging system and trade books freely as before. Now the middle-class member paid less per yer, got a finite number of ‘free trades’ after which PBS assessed their standard $0.50/trade fee. Unless you bought PBS postage, then you earned another ‘free’ trade – except you paid the $0.50 fee when you bought the postage. Now the lowest caste could not communicate with members unless they were actively involved in a trade with that member. AND every trade they made to get a book with all those credits now had a FEE assessed/trade and the ‘fee’ had to be paid in PBS money. To get PBS money you ……. well had to pay ANOTHER FEE. So credits were essentially devalued like Frequent Flyer points where that first class seat to Hawaii suddenly went from 120,000 miles to 180,000 just as you hit 110,000 and would get them in 2 months.
For those who recall their Greek mythology, this might be likened to the ‘Sisyphus effect’ – standing in water with constant thirst yet never reaching it, and having food to feed your starving body just out of reach. It’s hardly unique to PBS, but given the tight-knit community they fostered – and even bragged about – it was seen not just as a badly managed business decision, but as a personal betrayal. Here, the very sense of community they built ended up turning on them because they committed the one unforgivable sin – betrayal. And what was worse – they effectively retroactively DEVALUED the credits of members.
Unlike airlines and hotels, PBS does not provide a necessary function in life. They don’t take from the east coast to the west in hours. They don’t give you a room with clean sheets and a nice bath and room service. You don’t even have much in the way of competition other than Bookmooch. The other sites are the equivalent of mom-and-pop motels. PBS is the ‘big dog, but they are middlemen, facilitators. Had they taken a more businesslike approach and treated members as customers, not a community of co-equals, the relationship would have withstood the change far better. Certainly, the ebook effect would still be eroding member numbers and books traded as more and more go digital, but their demise and the lingering hard feelings would not have spun so totally out of control.
When a frequent flyer.stayer plan gets changed, we get annoyed and members do take to social media to strike back at loyalty programs that suddenly change terms because thousands and thousands of frequent flyer/stayer plans get disrupted, miles get lost, points are dropped and the ‘cost’ of those rewards get higher and harder to obtain. But the nice things about airlines and hotels is the fact we have CHOICES. And while we are ‘loyal customers’ giving them nice profits, we don’t actually feel like we are partners in the business who had their senior partners stab them in the back. There never was that sense of ‘community’, just rewards for being loyal. And if we get annoyed enough, we change to a different provider.
Airlines and hotels usually handle the backlash – something they KNOW they will get – like a business. That is, professionally. They realize there will be outrage at the changes and a small number of customers will be lost, but their most important customers, the business ‘road warriors, are the ones they want to keep. Not the occasional flyer/stayer. The hotels and airlines even had ‘elite’ levels that automatic perks that the occasional traveler envied, but didn’t begrudge. They always had the ‘status’ based on usage, or because the paid all that extra money for First Class. (You could buy membership lounge privileges for a fee.)
PBS had some ‘road warriors’, people who shipped hundreds of books a year and sat with high credit balances. PBS assumed, wrongly, they would just suck up the fees to keep the service – except they forgot something. Their choices were divisive and members saw clearly that what had been equals were no longer. That ‘community’ was betrayed and divided into classes. It certainly did not help their case to publish a newsletter that had a cover story that sounded like it was written by some high school drama student who thought all those ‘mean members’ has no idea how much they HURT with their complaints and acrimonious emails. If ever a company needed to hire someone to show them how to manage a customer crisis, this was it, but no, they carried on like a ‘Dear Diary’ entry – missing only the little heart shaped dots above the ‘i’ – but including of ‘!!!!!!!!!!!’ so we couldn’t miss their terrible suffering. I had to just stop taking the whole thing seriously as a business and just say, ‘Fine, I’ll deal with the games because I enjoy them and to hell with the rest of the teen angst revisited.’ (I was afraid of getting pimples!!!!!!! <——– See, lots of ‘!!!!!!’ so you know it’s IMPORTANT!)
Well, Armageddon nears. Since mid-Summer, the rate of books shipped per week has slowly but surely dropped as people like me who were rolled from Gold Key to automatic Standard membership decided not to renew, or members grew weary of the lack of offers and stopped even going to the website. It’s called abandoned accounts. But the big hit will happen those first two weeks in February. That’s when the bulk of paid members first joined. It sits there like a big, black cloud on the horizon. PBS tried getting members to lure friends into joining by offering ‘PBS money’ or some equivalent of pocket change in cash that would cover the cost of a coffee a Starbucks. The offer was loudly and humorously mocked off the PBS forums.
I have already been told several game moderators will not be renewing their membership using the ‘ebook excuse’, which may, or may not, be true. We’ve lost a number of game hostesses that way too. I also know publishers are reducing the number and depth of discounts on mass market books, and I see that every month as the number of books I pre-order drops, so the number of print books is dropping too.
Another hit is the lack of discounts for online shoppers for mass market books. Now Amazon does offer ‘best price’ guarantee, so should you pre-order a book and the price drops between the pre-order and the release date, you get the lowest price. Books-a-million does NOT. Also, their discount offers are less frequent, aimed more at in-store shoppers (which means selling existing stock on hand) rather than online shoppers (many using pre-order). Plus they avoid all the cost associated with shipping. Not ONCE this holiday season did I get a ‘big deal’ offer of 30% off as I have in the past. 20% was the highest any offer went. Hardcover and trade size paperbacks still have good deals associated with them Amazon, better than BAM even with their discounts. Hardcovers are often being sold for less than the ebook price. All of this means there are simply now fewer books to trade on sites like PBS.
Now let’s look at one last nail in the coffin that is online book swapping – the cost of an ereader. Amazon Fire has a $50 ereader with very limited storage capacity (so if you buy that extra storage disk, you find YOU CAN’T STORE BOOKS THERE) which means using the Cloud to read your books, but it’s cheap and even has a web browser built-in. Mine is getting returned, it just wasn’t right for me, but they do offer good value if you get free – RELIABLE – wi-fi. SO now you have a $20 fee to exchange used books with HOPE of maybe getting a book you want back, the cost of wrapping and mailing that book, and the time all this takes running headlong into a $50 ereader with a colored hi-def screen and web browsing capability. hummmmmmmmmmmmmmm
The final sad sign of the death of PBS is the School Donations program. Since 2012 PBS has run an annual drive to get new children’s books into the hands of schools with a large portion of under-privileged students and tiny book budgets. They are located everywhere from Indian reservations to the inner city. I’d donate a hundred or more credits every year, plus additional cash to defray costs, none of which was tax deductible. I never cared as getting books to kids is important to me. PBS supplied anywhere from 16 to 24 schools a year. Ths year they managed to complete 6 and they have 5 more active in need of cash. Those 5 extra all have the credits, because people don’t care about them if they plan to leave. Cash? That’s different and even though the total cash needed is small, just a few hundred per school, they can’t seem to get it. Over 100,000 members and not ever 1,000 are giving a dollar each. In 2014 they completed 18 schools. The signs are clear. The good will toward PBS has scraped rock bottom. The resentment lingers and even programs like this suffer. There is no ebook phenomenon here, just members saying a very loud, “SCREW YOU!” to PBS. I’m pretty sure the PBS powers that be are doing a sad little ‘Dear Diary’ entry about this too, complete with a frowny face and tear splatters.
It is sad. Sad that a company was managed so badly that its own generous customer base turned Scrooge to others. Unfortunately, that includes me. The credits and money I normally donate – nope. Nothing. I do NOT trust PBS. And there is the bottom line. It’s the one that is rearing its ugly head as renewal dates approach. Members no longer trust PBS to be honest about ANYTHING. Not providing those books they promised the schools, or even being in business 6 months from now. They broke that fragile bond last year and have done nothing to repair it. There is no evidence of ‘We hear you’, just childish nonsense or self-righteous condescension. They have wrapped themselves in the cloak of martyrdom – of the classic teen response of ‘You just don’t understand!’ – followed by sullen sulking and misplaced anger. Not the way to win trust and loyalty. And certainly NOT how you run a business that understands its customer base. The utter lack of professionalism is just mind-boggeling.
So, is THE END nigh? Personally, I think in 6 months, maybe sooner, maybe later, PBS will be no more. If you’re thinking of joining or renewing, do so with the understanding that one day that ‘page inaccessible’ message will be permanent. The membership price isn’t high, but don’t go spending a lot in mailing out books that you’ll likely get empty credits for – credits that will be lost when the site folds, because the permanent ‘page inaccessible’ day is not far off. RIP