tech support

YOUR BUSINESS IS IMPORTANT TO US

It’s an epidemic, a pandemic  — of bad service.

Do you remember when the customer was always right? I do. It wasn’t that long ago.

Customer satisfaction and service was the norm until approximately 2002, at which point everyone — more or less simultaneously — decided to save money by “automating” customer service, eliminating it entirely, or shipping it overseas to be handled by people who speak heavily accented English and don’t know anything about the products they are supposed to be supporting. That was when you and me, the customers, the ones who spend our limited, disposable income on their products or services, became unimportant.

outofserviceThat was the year when we all became not worth the effort of answering a question, or supplying documentation. The gold standard for customer service became … nothing. These days, after slightly more than a decade of working out the details, most organizations do not offer any service to their customers. At all.

The overall attitude is “do the least you can — nothing, if you can get away with it. All customers are liars and thieves. Treat them as such.”

Customer disservice. I think I’m permanently pissed off. Even thinking about calling a customer service department gets my blood boiling. I’m shocked if I’m treated well. Delighted, but shocked.

SO WHAT DO I HATE?

Recorded phone solicitations that interrupt your sleep, meals, conversations, and the show you’re watching. Calls that display on caller ID as familiar phone numbers, but they’ve hacked your data or bought it from someone from whom you bought something.

waiting

Fake charitable organizations, many supposedly in support of breast cancer research or some other form of advocacy. Who take your money and use it to line their own pockets.

“Surveys” that are nothing but scams to collect your private data for sale and misuse.

“Discount cards” for every shop you go to, all of which are a way to collect your personal information so they can sell it. Because you may not be worth much as a customer, but your buying habits sell for big bucks.

Voice-mail systems at doctor’s offices with so many options you can’t recall the first option halfway through the message. The recordings go on and on, until you are ready to scream. Worse, you have to listen to the entire spiel every time you call. The message starts with “Please listen to this entire message before making your selection. Our menu choices have recently changed …” Recently was 10 months ago … or a year or more. You can sing along with the recording because you’ve heard it so many times.

CustServCartoon

Many places no longer offer any option of speaking to a live person. Try to find a live human being at your electric company, cable provider, or credit card company.

Our electric company had customer service. Today, if you can find their phone number, a recorded message will tell you to visit the website. Online. Not quite what you need when the power’s off. Make sure you have their actual phone number on your device. You can’t look it up online when there’s no electricity because if there’s no electricity, there’s also no cable or WiFi.

If your whole life is online, it’s over when the power goes out.

Death cust serv

Assuming you can worm your way through voice mail and finally push the magic number to connect you to a live agent, you hear: “Your business is important to us …” followed by Muzak and a 40-minute wait on hold. Better yet, it’s the long wait, followed by a disconnect and dial tone.

96-Waiting-Worcester

Bad (automated) service is particular noxious when it’s a local company. You know both office workers are probably playing games on Facebook while you listen to their 5-minute voice-mail message. All you wanted to do was ask on which night they are open late. By the end of the message, you no longer care.

THERE ARE STILL SOME GOOD ONES OUT THERE 

Amazon and Audible. Audible is an Amazon company now, but they always had terrific customer service. The more I deal with Amazon, the less I want to deal with anyone else. They are proof getting service does not have to be a nightmare. Trauma need not part of all interactions with vendors, medical facilities, utilities, or other corporations.

AT&T is good. Not as good as Amazon, but you can eventually get a real live person who knows what they are doing. And oddly enough, Medicare and Social Security. Though you may need to wait on hold for a while, you will get a live person in the end — and they will speak your language. They will stay on line with you as long as it takes. Credit where it’s due. These underpaid public servants try hard to help you.

L.L. Bean has wonderful customer service. Land’s End is good too.

To everyone else, I offer a big raspberry and a Bah Humbug in honor of the season.

ASK A SIMPLE QUESTION, GET A SIMPLE — WRONG — ANSWER

I bought a small Dell tablet that I hope will serve a purpose … something compact that I can use to connect to the larger world, but tuck in my bag for quick excursions when I’m not going to be processing photos or writing posts for my blog. It has been ordered, but not yet received. When I ordered it, I was told it accepted a standard SD memory card up to 128 GB in size. Cool. Adorama was advertising a sale on memory today, so I popped over to see what bargains were to be had. I figured I’d get — depending on price — one or two 64 GB cards. And realized that anything larger than 32 GB is XC, not HC.

So I used Dell’s chat to ask a question. I thought it was a simple question. Will the Venue Pro 8 read an SDXC card?

This is how the first call went. After this, I went to working the phone.

This is an automated email sent from Dell Chat. The following information is a log of your session. Please save the log for your records.
Your session ID for this incident is …
Time Details
01/20/2014 11:07:21AM Session Started with Agent (A-D)
01/20/2014 11:07:21AM Marilyn Armstrong: “.”
01/20/2014 11:07:27AM Agent (A-D): “Welcome, my name is A-D. I can be reached at … How may I help you?”
01/20/2014 11:07:45AM Marilyn Armstrong: “I have one question about the Venue Pro 8 which I’ve already ordered”
01/20/2014 11:08:15AM Agent (A-D): “No problem you are free to ask questions Marilyn”
01/20/2014 11:08:19AM Marilyn Armstrong: “I know it takes an SD card, but does it read the newer SDXC cards?”
01/20/2014 11:08:55AM Marilyn Armstrong: “HC is the older format, but all the larger cards – 64GB and up — are SDXC, not SDHC.”
01/20/2014 11:09:42AM Marilyn Armstrong: “Hello??”
01/20/2014 11:10:15AM Agent (A-D): “Yes you can still use other SD card …”
01/20/2014 11:10:24AM Agent (A-D): “I mean other brand”
01/20/2014 11:10:24AM Marilyn Armstrong: “SDXC?”
01/20/2014 11:10:34AM Marilyn Armstrong: “This isn’t a brand. It’s a FORMAT.”
01/20/2014 11:10:46AM Agent (A-D): “Yes it can”
01/20/2014 11:10:53AM Agent (A-D): “It is back ward compatible”
01/20/2014 11:11:21AM Marilyn Armstrong: “Are you sure? Because this is a NEWER NOT AN OLDER FORMAT and I don’t think you understand what I’m talking about”
01/20/2014 11:11:50AM Agent (A-D): “let me double-check for you”
01/20/2014 11:11:53AM Marilyn Armstrong: “Please connect me with someone who understands the technology.”
01/20/2014 11:13:27AM Agent (A-D): “Upon double checking the format can only support SD, SDHC only”
01/20/2014 11:14:08AM Marilyn Armstrong: “So it can’t actually accept a 128GB card because they are ALL in SDXC format. The bigger cards are all SDXC
01/20/2014 11:14:16AM Marilyn Armstrong: “Is there someone I can really talk to?”
01/20/2014 11:14:27AM Agent (A-D): “yes it is …”
01/20/2014 11:14:54AM Agent (A-D): “you can go on this link http://support.dell.com/support/topics/global.aspx/support/en/chat?c=us&cs=19&l=en&s=dhs&~ck=mn for you technical support”
01/20/2014 11:14:56AM Marilyn Armstrong: “Where? Not on dell, not on Amazon, not on Tiger Direct, not anywhere.”
01/20/2014 11:15:01AM Agent (A-D): “You’ll be able to contact our Technical Support Department at 1-800-624-9896, they are open 24/7″
01/20/2014 11:15:39AM Marilyn Armstrong: “This is a simple question. I don’t want to spend hours on the damned phone. Just have someone who actually knows the specs of the item I already ordered.”
01/20/2014 11:16:41AM Agent (A-D): “I already give you the information that you want…”
01/20/2014 11:18:38AM Agent (A-D): “that is the only format that can support the tablet is SD, SDHC only”
If you require further assistance, please visit us at support.dell.com

Two phone calls later:

The Venue Pro 8 only accepts micro SD cards and only SDXC format. Wow. There’s nothing like really terrific customer service to start the day off right, eh?

The previous is an actual transcript of the conversation. Only the name and other identifying information have been changed to protect the guilty.

GEEKOGRAPHY: DOWN IN FLAMES WITH QUICKSAND AND ALLIGATORS

I’m pretty good with computers. I’m not an engineer, but I’m reasonably competent and not easily daunted. But, there comes a day for humility, when one finds oneself in the high-tech equivalent of quicksand. With grinning alligators on all sides.

PhotoshopIt started, as it so often does, with an update. An Adobe update to CS5. I have CS6, but when I installed it, the guy at Adobe suggested I just leave the earlier version on the computer (bad idea and I shouldn’t have listened). This arrangement was dodgy from the start. My system was never sure to which version it should default … and Adobe kept sending updates for both.

The moment this update downloaded, CS5 started throwing error messages about a missing DLL file and CS6 stopped working. I realized it was a bad download. Not the first bad download of my computer-using life. I didn’t panic, even though I wanted to scream. I calmly did what I usually do: I restored the computer to an earlier point, before the download. That pretty much always fixes the problem.

Not this time.

So I took a deep breath and tried reinstalling CS5, hoping that it would restore the missing DLL and all would be right on heaven and earth.

All of this took place while the Red Sox were whipping the Cardinals and winning the World Series at Fenway Park. A good thing because there isn’t anything more boring than uninstalling, installing, reinstalling and rebooting a computer. Repeatedly. For hours.

Photoshop is a big application, so whatever you are doing, it takes a while. When the reinstall failed, I bit the bullet and uninstalled CS5. Unfortunately, CS6 still wouldn’t load. So I uninstalled CS6. Then I rebooted. And rebooted again. Just to make sure.

Grateful for that I actual own the installation discs, I reinstalled CS5. My version of CS6 is an upgrade and won’t install unless it finds an earlier version of Photoshop (it turns out there’s a way around this, but I didn’t know it).  It installed. I took a deep breath, cheered for the Sox and went to bed.

I repeated the operation on my desktop, after which I decided to adjourn to the living room and relax. I took CS6 with me so I could install it on the laptop where I confidently believed I had already fixed the problem.

When I turned on my laptop, the Adobe updater popped up and without thinking, I clicked okay. At that moment, I knew I was doomed.

Down in flames. Not merely back to ground zero. Underground. Deep underground. I tried uninstalling CS5, but it threw errors up the wazoo. I tried (again) restoring to an earlier point. A much earlier point. Last week. When the world was young and innocent.

This brought back a shadow version of CS6. It looked like the application, except nothing worked. CS6 wouldn’t open. CS5 was dead. I could not uninstall either application. It suggested using the Adobe Cleaning Tool (download it from Adobe’s website). I used it. The situation got much worse.

I threw in the towel. I was in over my head. Far, far over my head. I had to do the thing I most dreaded. I had to call Tech Support.

First call. After 9 prompts, I am told it will be a 9 to 10 minute wait. I try to put the phone on speaker and hit END instead. I look at the dead telephone. Take a deep breath and dial again. Go through all of the prompts.

Second call. I’m told it will be a 4 to 6 minute wait. This time, I carefully find the speaker button and put the phone down and start to check my email. A minute later, I hear the sound of a human voice. Male. Actually, I’ve never gotten a woman at Adobe. Do they employ any? Just asking.

The guy isn’t listening. He’s got a script and he is determined to follow it, no matter what. He’s telling me to uninstall and I’m trying to tell him I can’t. Finally, he says I should wait a moment, he’ll be right back. Forty minutes later, annoying music commences and I realize he’s gone for good.

I reboot my computer and patiently, oh so patiently, call Adobe again.

Third call. The Charm! I get someone who listens (yay). “Did the previous technician do anything with your computer?”

“No,” I reply. “He said he’d be back, but when the music came on, I got the feeling he was gone for good.”

Chuckle. “Okay. I need you to … “

He took over the computer. Eventually, we went deep into the soul of my laptop and extracted — one piece at a time — both versions of Photoshop. Nine gigs and more than 40,000 files. That’s right. 40,000. I didn’t know my recycle bin could hold that much. It took me almost 15 minutes to empty it. That’s a lot of files.

We then reinstalled CS6 and I discovered you don’t need the earlier version, just its serial number.

I hope all of you forgive me for not checking out your sites today. I was busy. Do I know how to have a good time or what?

10 LITTLE THINGS TO MAKE YOU CRY UNCLE

Customer Service waiting

Why does the translator always pop up and offer to translate my Spam? Isn’t there some way to make that go away and never come back?

When I get put on hold, they always tell me how important I am to them, often just before they disconnect me or start playing the most annoying music ever to assault the ears of humankind:

  1. If I’m that important, hire a person to answer the phone.
  2. Is there a special place everyone goes to buy really annoying music so you can not only be on hold for hours, but listen to the same orchestral rendition of Something From the 70s over and over and over?

You call customer service. They ask for your account number, phone number, social security number, date of birth, home address. When — if — someone comes on the line, they will ask for the same information again. All of it.

CustServCartoon

You will be required to listen to a menu from which you must select your “problem” because “our menu items have recently changed” even though you’ve been working with this company for years and the menu has never changed. You cannot skip ahead to the menu selection you know you need.

The menu goes on forever. All the choices are apparently irrelevant. By number 7, you have no idea what the first six choices were and anyhow, you need to talk to someone. If — in desperation — you are fool enough to select from the list, you will get a robot that will send you back to the same menu.

If you press none of the selections and just wait, you may get a live person. Or disconnected. It’s a crap shoot.

Whoever you get will tell you it’s not their department. The department to which they direct you will tell you to go to the place that just sent you to them. If you point that out, they will disconnect you by “accident.”

Every company records every conversation “for quality assurance purposes” (and if you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you), but the call during which they promised to fix your problem/refund your money was (oddly enough) not recorded. Nor did the person with whom you spent an hour on the phone add that all important note to your file.

Death cust serv

If you remember to get the name and some kind of ID of the person you are talking to, he or she will not exist when you call back.

No one has a number you can call back. Ever.

Is it just me? Or is there an international conspiracy to make us simply give up and live with whatever crap they throw at us?

Daily Prompt: Are you being served? Chaos and Madness at AT&T

Shortly before Christmas, Garry and I went somewhere and I forgot to bring my cell phone. I asked Garry if I might use Blackberry Torchhis. I was appalled when I could barely hear anything, even with the volume full up and using the speaker. I realized if I could barely hear it, he couldn’t hear it at all. Which brought me to the inevitable conclusion that Garry needed a new cell phone.

Good wife that I am, I figured I’d get him a new phone with better sound so he would not be stuck trying to hear on a phone with such awful audio.

This was early December and Christmas was a couple of weeks off. How long could it possibly take to get a new cell phone, right?

I went online at AT&T, our long-time carrier. I checked to see if he or I was entitled to an upgrade. It turned out both of us were entitled to upgrades, but my phone is just a year old, I don’t use it very much and although I’m entitled to a new phone, I don’t need one. Garry, on the other hand …

This seemed a fairly straightforward process. I checked to see what phones were available on super special, discovered he could get an updated version of the phone he already has for $29.99, with the usual 2 year committment, but we’ve been with AT&T forever anyhow and I don’t see that any of the other carriers are better … so why not? It was the middle of the night, but I called AT&T and was going to order the new version of the Blackberry Curve … but they wanted a credit card and I was already in bed, so I said I’d call tomorrow. I was too tired to get up and deal with it right then.

When I tried to access the website the next day, I couldn’t. Eventually, I called and discovered it wasn’t me, wasn’t a bad password or my computer. AT&T’s servers were being upgraded. I should have guessed. I should have sensed the crackling of crisis in the air. Why they picked early December to do a massive server upgrade is anyone’s guess. It would not have been my first choice.

Mar-iPhone-0nWhen I started to place the order, AT&T assured me that they needed to charge me $36 for the upgrade fee. “What upgrade?” I asked. “We already have all the services we need. The only service you are providing is putting the phone in a box and mailing it. You said it’s free shipping … but $36 is a shockingly high shipping charge. Since you aren’t providing any other services, that’s the only thing it could be.”

The young lady to whom I was talking said she couldn’t do anything about it, she was not responsible and everyone had to pay the fee. I said that I was not going to pay the fee and frankly, we’ve been long-term customers and this was shabby treatment indeed. I next learned that I was going to have to pay sales tax on the full list price of the phone, even though we all know that NO ONE pays full retail on anything, much less a cell phone upgrade. Thus this $29.99 had spiraled into around $100 …. which is more than our ultra tight budget could afford.

I said I wanted to talk to a supervisor. I was transferred and eventually, disconnected. Called back, went through the whole story again, was told — again — she couldn’t help me. Said she was transferring me to a department that could help me. When I got to that department, I was told it was the wrong department and I was going to have to go back and talk to the original people who had now two? three? times told me they couldn’t help me.

I would have been laughing but time was passing. I had started this on Sunday night and it was Tuesday. Christmas was creeping up on me and I had yet to actually place an order.

I don’t remember all the people I talked to, all the supervisors to whom I was transferred, all the deals I made only to find that the next person I spoke to had never heard anything about it. It has mercifully become a blur. My husband was cranky because he felt, since he hadn’t actually asked for a phone, I had no reason to expect a lot of sympathy or support. I pointed out he did need a phone and just being his wife ought to entitle me to sympathy and support.

It had indeed been my idea to get him a new phone based purely the uselessness of his old one. But that’s sentimental twaddle. I should have waited until he actually asked me for a phone, preferably begged me on bended knee. Generosity. That was my first mistake.

As the tale continued, it became the story without end. So many departments, so many disconnects. I ran down the battery on my cell phone and on the handset of my house phone, then switched to the other handset  And still, no order.

Finally, it was Friday, December 21st. AT&T agreed to waive the charge, give me back a few bucks to compensate for the insane sales tax, and include free shipping. By now, I’d changed from the Blackberry Curve to the iPhone 4 which was on clearance for $0.99 and they swore up and down the east coast I’d have the telephone in my hands on Christmas Eve. Shortly after this amazing promise, I got another call from someone who said whoever promised me Christmas Eve delivery should not have made such a rash promise because who knew if I’d really get the phone? It could be weeks away. Maybe never.

We had been planning to be away from the day after Christmas through the following weekend. If they delivered the phone during that period, it would sit outside in the ice, snow and slush until we got home. But not to worry, she said. If that happened, I could “just send it back.”

I could not cope with the idea of returning the phone. This was bad. Doing it twice would be unbearable. I had been on the telephone with AT&T for more hours in one week than I had been on the phone with everyone else I know during the entire previous year. Granted I’m not on the phone much, but this had eaten at least 25 hours of telephone time … and there seemed to be no end in sight. Ever.

Somewhere during this period, our plans for visiting friends post-Christmas were cancelled because my friend was ill. Despite assurances there was no way I’d get the phone by Christmas Eve followed by equally passionate assurances I definitely would get the phone by Christmas Eve, I simply had no idea when or if I was getting a phone. Would you like to take a guess?

I got the phone Christmas Eve. There it was, a little white box in a bigger brown box. Delivered by FedEx. No bubble pack. Just the phone banging around inside the shipping box. So I waited until the day after Christmas and called about the lack of padding in the box because I didn’t want to wind up with a dead iPhone 4 being told it was somehow my fault. I was assured by someone somewhere that this wouldn’t happen, so I went ahead opened the box and tried setting up the phone.

Nothing worked. What is more, due to the endless legal battles between Google and Apple, Garry’s gmail contact list could not be synchronized with the iPhone.

The first tech support individual, from AT&T, told me that Garry would have to enter all the information by hand. I said “up your nose with a rubber hose” or words to that effect. Garry’s address book has at least 300 entries and I think I’m being conservative. I pointed out that the iPhone is supposed to sync with Outlook and by now, a few disconnects later, I was on the phone with Apple tech support and my cell phone was recharging, the battery having run down to zero again and I was on the second of the two “house phone” handsets, having run through the first phone’s battery. We finally doped out, between him and me, that we had to delete the “cloud” function and NOT synchronize the two email addresses linked to Outlook because it created a conflict and would immediately spew error messages.

When I finally got the iPhone to synchronize with Outlook’s address book, it started demanding a password for voicemail. My head began making a funny buzzing sound that kept getting louder. Were those voices talking to me? Possibly … if only the buzzing would stop and let me think …

Neither Garry nor I has ever needed a password for our voice mail. Not his, not mine, not ever. We didn’t have any passwords to give them. When the Apple tech guy said I’d have to call AT&T to get it sorted out, I went into full meltdown. I could not face another long wait, multiple disconnects … and trying to interface with who knew how many morons before maybe … by New Year’s … I could get through to someone who would  know what the problem was and fix it.

Finally, the fellow at Apple who actually seemed to have at least a pretty good knowledge of the product managed to get the address book issue dealt with … said he himself would call AT&T and put us in a conference call and we’d sort the whole thing out. He said he’d call me back and I begged … I think groveling might better describe it … that he really call me back and not leave me hanging.

This was the day after Christmas, the busiest day of the year for tech support what with everyone getting a telephone, tablet, computer, or some other electronic widget under the tree. Likely this didn’t help. But he called back with a man who was obviously not an entry-level tech support guy. He was a Big Gun. You just knew it. He fixed it. He said it was a software artifact from older phones and he was going to delete it from the system and it would never trouble me again.

Then he gave me a $40 credit giving me a small profit on the transaction unless you count my time as being worth money in which case I’m far behind. Far, very far behind.

Garry has a new cell phone. He said “thank you,” and I said “you’re welcome,” but personally, I think I’ve earned a medal at the very least.

Image representing Apple as depicted in CrunchBase

Image via CrunchBase

So for all the people who told me to “Get a Mac” to solve my problems, I will agree the iPhone is a fine, well-made phone. Was it easy to set up? No. Did it have fewer glitches than my other phones? No. If anything, it had more issues. I got it for a great price and it has, as I had hoped, very loud speakers so Garry can hear it. Hopefully, he’ll get used to the virtual keyboard.

I hate it even more than I hated the tiny raised keys on the Blackberry. I never voluntarily write anything on a cell phone and why Garry does is beyond me.

This whole trial by fire has made me aware of how pathetic my older Blackberry Torch (first generation) is and how I need a new phone. When I’ve recovered from this experience, I will think about replacing it. Why do cell phones need replacing so often? They are so expensive, shouldn’t they last more than a year? Just saying.

Meanwhile, I need to rest and recover my perspective. I have to wait until the story gets funnier. At least until I find my misplaced sense of humor. Then I’ll buy another cell phone.

On Being Obsolete

I was declared obsolete about 5 years ago. I had been getting progressively less relevant for a while, but after the dot coms went down in flames, the high-tech world changed dramatically. Venture capital disappeared and with it, the exciting little start-up companies that had been my bread and butter for decades.

Tech writers were replaced by automated systems. No one cared anymore whether or not the material produced was useful. Now that tech support had been exported, the same thinking was applied to documentation. It was declared unnecessary. Need help? Just call tech support on the other side of the world. Let your customers wait on hold, get disconnected multiple times, and finally, let them talk to someone who knows nothing and will provide dangerously incorrect information. Never provide a call back number so if the solution doesn’t work — and mostly, it won’t — make them go through the whole thing again. What could go wrong with this? Who needs writers?

An office.

A lot has gone wrong with this and much to my personal satisfaction, though rather late for my career, companies are discovering that people who buy expensive gear really do want documentation. They get downright irritable when their $5000 camera doesn’t have a  manual.

I never intended to be a technical writer. I was going to be a “real” writer … great novels … literature. No idea what I would write about, but I would write, that was for sure. I did write many books, but just one novel. Everything else would be information and/or instructions and highly technical at that. For a gal who barely scraped through basic algebra and never finished a single physics or chemistry course, I picked up a lot along the way.

I started out with high literary hopes. I was an editor at Doubleday in the mid 1970s. Those were the halcyon days of publishing. We actually read manuscripts and were given TIME to read. People belonged to book clubs. Everyone read. There was TV, but you didn’t have 1000 channels and depending on how good your antenna was, you might not get much of anything except snow.

At the beginning of 1979, I moved to Israel and set up a life in Jerusalem.

It turned out that the only kind of writing done entirely in English rather than Hebrew, was technical writing. I wanted to earn a living, so if technical writing was what was available, I would be one. I moved from typewriters to computers and did so with a song in my heart. From the first time I discovered electronic cut-and-paste, I knew I’d found my milieu. I became part of the development team for DB-1, the first relational database. DB-1 was first developed in Israel at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot. IBM bought the product and proceeded to market it. It revolutionized the information world … and with the slightly later creation of data object linking, the guts of the Internet we all take so much for granted today was created.

I rode the high-tech wave until I became officially obsolete having been informed that “no one reads manuals.” Which is why I can’t figure out how to change the ISO setting on my camera. I can’t find the menu. The manual, probably produced by an automated process, doesn’t explain how to find anything and there are a frightening number of menus and layers of menus within menus, but I hope someday I will find the setting. I wouldn’t mind finding the metering control either. And a few other things.  But I digress …

Thus I designed my downfall because simultaneously with databases, I worked on “artificial intelligence” (aka “bots”) systems. They were rough but the technology evolved very fast.

The office.

AI came of age in the 1990s and replaced people in a lot of areas. The most common example and possibly the most annoying is the “telephone tech support robot” … that stupid automated voice-activated telephone system that sends you into apoplectic fits as you attempt to get past it to talk to a human. Personally, I have found that shouting “Agent, agent, agent” at every prompt and repeatedly hitting zero usually gets me there. But they are getting trickier about that. Eventually, we will never be allowed to speak to a real live human being on the telephone and if we do, he or she will be about as helpful as the robot was.

The switch from human to “bot” has been particularly pernicious in the world of publishing. I enthusiastically helped build this world in which I am now obsolete, so  the irony is not lost on me.

Modern authoring goes kind of like this: You write a book. You figure you’ve completed the hardest part and all you have to do is show it to someone who will read it. He or she will like it or not, and maybe you’ll have to show it to a bunch of people until finally, you get published.

Actually, the hard part is just beginning. You are now in a world controlled by “bots.”  Gone are human acquisitions editors who read manuscripts and might notice that a manuscript, with some effort, could be a great book.  Publishing houses do not accept manuscripts or even proposals directly from authors. You need an agent. Agents also use “bots” to search emails for key words, buzz words. If they do not find the words for which they are programmed to search, your inquiry goes to the cyber version of the circular file. If you don’t grab the interest of a piece of software in 500 words or less, you are not going to find an agent or publisher.

Max Perkins would never find a job In publishing today, Thomas Wolfe wouldn’t get a reading, much less mentoring. Would anyone publish Hemingway? William Faulkner? Or for that matter, J.R.R. Tolkien? There are far fewer publishers than there used to be, probably because there are also fewer readers. Those halcyon days really were “of yore.”

My office by window light

Fewer publishers, fewer books being published  and that means that those wonderful old brick and mortar bookstores have virtually disappeared. Here and there, one survives, but where once there were many, now they are fast becoming extinct. In another generation, I’ll bet there will be none at all. Bookstores? My town doesn’t have one. There’s a Barnes and Noble 20 miles away at a mall, but it’s not a “real” bookstore anymore. In all of New England there are probably fewer than a couple of dozen honest-to-goodness bookstores and that includes Boston.

I wrote a book. It was nothing earth-shattering. Not bad, but unlikely to rock the literary world. The point is I sent (via email) proposals, sample chapters, letters, whatever they specified. I sent these inquiries, proposals, etcetera to countless agents and publishers. It turned out marketing was the critical component to getting published.  The quality of the book never entered the equation. My book was never rejected. No editor so much as glanced at it.

I flunked marketing. When at last I was able to get an introduction to a real live agent, he died a couple of weeks later, before I had the opportunity to meet him. I took that as a Sign and self-published. At least I had the experience — and specialized software — to put together a press-ready book.

I love the Internet, but miss people. We no longer get to look one another in the eye. We can’t read each others’ faces, judge meaning by intonation or body language. We can’t hug. We don’t get to ‘pitch’ ideas. Not every person can fit their ideas into 500 words or less to be read by a robot. It’s an entirely different skill set than authoring. Ironically, I am one of those who has no knack for marketing myself, even though I wrote marketing material for others. I just can’t market my stuff. It’s different when it’s your own.

It’s a strange world. It’s no less strange than the fantasy worlds about which I read in my favorite novels. Exactly where do reality and fantasy separate? At what point do technology and magic separate?

This is the world I helped build so how dare I complain?

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