Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Raging against the machine

I repeatedly say that I'm not a nice person, but, nasty as I am about feedback whiners, I have to say that I am a LOT nicer than the sellers who withhold customer feedback in order to do their own feedback-hostage-taking. Some do, and won't leave it for a buyer unless the buyer's praise is safely posted.

And while it's not right, I understand it because sellers have almost no power anymore. We can't give the nastiest buyer a low rating. If sellers use that weak leverage to get their rating a smidgen higher, it's little enough.

The fact that we get to deposit the buyer's money before we send him anything is not as great a power as you might think. Buyers can still ream us.

A favorite thing is to pay for the paperback, receive it, claim that it never arrived, and demand a refund.

It's a tactic for small items only. The seller --- OK, we make very little money on a 1.98 paperback, so giving 75 cents for delivery confirmation isn't worthwhile, and increasing the shipping cost to cover tracking bumps our item way down the list for a potential buyer. Buyers appreciate us for our real-cost shipping, and pass over some flat-rate-$3.50 shippers to buy from us instead.

We can clearly state that we take no responsibility for packages lost by the PO and that the buyer should arrange for tracking or insurance.

That's pointless. eBay eliminated our ability to put confirmation or insurance on the invoice, even as options. Some sellers were abusing it, taking the money and running, and maybe there was no other way to stop that, I don't know. But the level at which buyers can rip off sellers is centered on small sales for these reasons.

Here's the thing that I'm having trouble doing the Serenity Prayer about:

Our gold medallion as a "Top-Rated Seller" is gone again. Last year I wrote about how we lost it for awhile, over an anonymous buyer complaint, and regained it fairly quickly, but now it's gone, probably forever.

Only this time, it isn't because our ratings have fallen. They've gone higher. They're the highest we've ever had.

Turns out that "Top-Rated" isn't just about ratings. You have to make enough money to attain Power Seller status. That unrelated factor -- income level -- makes you ineligible to be ...um .... to be top rated. Even if your buyers adore you and your ratings are through the roof.

It's wrong. It deceives the buyer. You search for, say, copies of Jane Eyre or something. The list appears. Gold medal sellers' copies come up first.

You notice that some gold medal sellers have scores of 98 or 99. But a seller with no award, and low on the list, has a score of 100%. To a buyer, the fact that the 100% seller has no medal means something. Logic indicates that there must be some factor on which that seller, despite the 100% score, is displeasing buyers.

You think. But you're wrong. That's a small seller, who's making lower profit for eBay. eBay can deny the seller the reward associated with the medallion, and take a higher percentage of that seller's profit. The small seller is pleasing customers but eBay really doesn't care. It cares about the money that comes in, and only that.

They could at least rename their medallion something honest, like simply "Top Seller." To claim it's awarded for ratings is a lie.

This is why feedback means a lot to us.

In a way, it seems like it should mean less. The greatest ratings in the world won't get us "top rated," and it's, of course, self-perpetuating. We sell less because we're lower on the search results, or because we appear to, in some mysterious way, give at best unexceptional customer service.

I expect it's gone forever, and I also expect that we should hang it up. We've been there 13 years, we've outperformed most sellers, and yet we're considered, in some way, a drag on their enterprise.

But we own a lot of inventory, so winding down the business would still involve selling off stuff. Going back to working for others..... well, getting hired at over age 55 is near impossible, and we have an established business and an established, long-term, and fabulous, reputation.

Quitting is always an option but until we commit to going or staying at eBay, I want that high rating because it now is the only thing that makes us stand out. And I skirt the edge of debasing myself to get it, and I blow off steam here where I can.

I won't feel too terrible about throwing my fits here. This is only part, but still, an important part of my life, a frustrating experience of watching a business that for awhile earned us a nice living go downhill and not only affect our income but threaten to deprive me of doing the one thing I'm best at, which is matching books with readers. The blog might as well show it, warts and all, but other topics are on their way. Really.

Dear feedback whiners. SHUT it.

Honest, eBay customers who gasp their outrage that we have not left adoring feedback for them, within some timetable they have in their little heads, get a nice, friendly response. Really they do.

Some seem not so much outraged as truly worried if they gave us a good rating and we didn't reciprocate IMMEDIATELY, and I alleviate their worry with kindness and a casual mention that many big sellers have automated feedback service that spits out a return compliment the instant the received feedback posts. Those automatons make life a lot harder for the manual operators like us.

But, while I am not a nice person, I am not self-destructive, so I'm also pleasant and courteous to the obnoxious ones. I can't actually answer feedback whiner emails with anything like what I really want to say, so I get it off my chest here.

Man, we really need a vacation.


Dear moron.

We are in receipt of your demand that we leave feedback about what a swell buyer you are, and that we do it right now.

The answer is that we DO leave feedback for buyers, ALWAYS.

And we do it whether you leave feedback for us or not. It is not contingent...

...wait. That may be too big a word for you. Let me dumb that down some: It is not dependent on your leaving it for us.

Well, we leave it for every buyer, except under the following circumstances:

We do not leave it when buyers insult us. And;
We do not leave it when they threaten us.

Here is...

FEEDBACK 101. You're welcome:

1. Feedback is voluntary. You don't have to give it and we don't have to give it.

2. It exists only to help other buyers.

It does make us feel good. We actually care whether our customers are happy.
But the feedback system exists not to warm anybody's hearts, but to guide your fellow buyers as to which sellers are good.

3. It's only a guide to identifying good sellers, not to rate buyers.
You seem to have missed the highly publicized free pass that eBay gave you buyers a couple years ago, so let me enlighten you - there is no such thing as bad feedback for buyers anymore. No matter how you cheat or abuse us, we can't leave you anything but good feedback.

This makes our leaving you feedback at all mostly meaningless.

The one time it matters is when the buyer is very new to eBay and has practically no feedback points. New buyers do need to accumulate a few, so that sellers know you understand the buying process.

But, Holy Guano, people! Years later, when a buyer has, like a hundred or more, it makes no sense for him/her to give a crap about getting his/her little petting session for every transaction.

Here's the End of Chapter Summary:

You are rating the seller as to whether you got good dollar value and reasonably-priced prompt delivery.

You are not rating the seller as to whether he/she stroked your fur and said Good Fluffy.

You are rating the seller to help other buyers.

We leave buyer feedback as a thank-you to customers, and in that sense it does matter, because we really do appreciate them, and if you had not whined "Where's my feedback?!" it would have appeared from us anyway in a few days, with the appreciative tone that we sincerely feel.

So your shrill email telling us that you left it for US three whole MINUTES ago, WHY haven't we reciprocated??!? is a waste of your time, as well as obnoxious.

We will leave it. We do it in batches, so try not to freak out for the next few days and yours will be in the next lot we do. That your self-esteem is jonesing for us to drop everything and do it is bizarre. Maybe you should talk to somebody.

But we will not do it at all, if you hold yours hostage. Emails saying "I will not leave it for you until you leave it for me!" will get us to shrug and say, Be our guest.

Because, see, we care about doing a good job, but we really don't give a hang that we'll have 4801 feedbacks instead of 4802! Our world will shatter. Not. You can keep waiting and the transaction will time out and we're peachy with that. Capiche?

Your withholding feedback only hurts other buyers, if it hurts anybody.

So hold it hostage. We'd care but we're a little busy over here being vigilant about the condition of our merchandise, about accurate description, about getting you the best shipping deal (which sometimes takes research), and packaging your stuff securely, and addressing it legibly, and hoping you effing enjoy it.


There. I feel better now.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

My post-apocalyptic cheese sandwich

Because, really, when the appointed moment for the Rapture has passed, and you look around and find that you're still here, and must face the fact that you are not among The Elect, what else can you do but make a cheese sandwich?

Friday, May 20, 2011

Your halo is in the mail.

I can tell we're among the ones who will be Raptured tomorrow, because our halos have been delivered. If yours has not, then .... well, I'm sure it's .... it's in the mail.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Detective work on a family mystery

My grandmother wrote a unpublished novel, and a bunch of short stories that did get published. Holland's: The Magazine of the South, Farm & Fireside, and probably others paid her nicely for her work.

I say "probably" others because she had an almost pathologically self-deprecating tendency to throw away her courtesy copies.

Bless him forever and ever, my grandfather often rescued the magazines from the garbage and hid them away. In 1984, when Gran had passed, my mom and I found them secreted among stuff on high shelves in odd rooms of their house. That's what's left of her body of story work, in the top photo.

The confession stories were the ones my grandmother was the most ashamed of. She said they were trash, and while she wrote them strictly for money, it appeared that she even felt bad about taking the money.

I well knew she was always hard on herself, but this seemed oddly extreme to me.

I tried to figure it out. Even confession stories presented positive enough values and uncompromising consequences for wrongdoing. Hers would be classy, I was certain. Maybe she felt bad about encouraging readers to even buy these magazines and be exposed to the lurid parts. Maybe the whole idea of fiction being sold as fact bothered her. I could kinda see that, and I understood the low status of trashy fiction for the time, but 30, 40 years later she still wanted to erase that part of her history, and seemed unhappy that my mother had even told me about it. What the...?

Anyway, I thought they were lost forever. But my grandfather must have stashed away one of those, too. There are multiple copies of the 2 mainstream magazines that mom uncovered in the old farmhouse, but I had never seen that True Story issue -- the one on top of the stack -- until a frikkin WEEK ago, when I found it in a drawer with the others.

Unlike the others, it's a wreck, tattered and flaking, and it's almost impossible to turn the pages.

But within an hour of finding the one in Mom's drawer, I was back here at my computer, and had bought and paid for a relatively nice copy from an eBay seller! God, the internet is so full of crap and misinformation and identity-thieving and data-mining and utter obnoxiousness..... ARGH, but sometimes it's the best thing that ever was :

True Story - November, 1930!

Now the hard part.

Confession stories, at least back then (maybe now?), carried no author names at all, even pen names. They were usually written in the first person which created an illusion of personal info-sharing. Because they were complete fiction.

While my dear grandfather had enough thought for her legacy to preserve the tattered copy above, he apparently did not go so far as to realize that family 80+ years later would need to know which was hers. Or maybe he marked it on the Contents page, but that page is now missing.

ARGH to the 2nd frikkin power!

Looking through the stories, it's a process of elimination. The $2000 and the $1000 prize stories?

Highly unlikely. If she'd won such a gargantuan fortune, that would have become family legend no matter what she wanted. So I eliminated those two.

Eliminate settings involving cattle ranching or olive growing in Spain. She could certainly research anything but I'm 99 % sure she didn't bother when she could write what she knew, and that was country people and country problems.

Eliminate anything about lust or mobsters, because she would never be un-classy, plus mobsters, and urban settings, weren't what she knew. Everything of hers that we do have was rural. Southern rural, but for confession stories, I won't completely discount a midwest farm story, when the plot concerns the people and not the particulars of plains farming.

The tragic honeymoon story is kind of amateurishly written, plus it's sort of pointlessly dead-honeymooner depressing and that's not her style. Anyway, it's about Rocky Mountains camping.

So I winnowed it down to these two. The Prodigal Son story ....

And the... other one.

And I'm pretty sure it's the other one. The prodigal son story is the midwest farmer one. It's countrified enough and carries her values, AND involves tuberculosis. She'd had one TB scare in real life by then and was always watched for signs of it, so it would be much on her mind. But it's drearily repetitive, and has a long story-within-the-story that's too detailed and mawkish. It isn't well-constructed enough for a novelist whose novel was very seriously considered by a major publisher and was nixed only for being too sad in 1931. She, as should be obvious by now, would never brag on herself, and she's the one who told me that the publisher's letter praised the novel.

Still, maybe lousy writing was the reason she loathed her short story so....

But! this one said "Bingo!" to me as I read it.

Despite its melodrama, it's well-written enough to be kind of touching. The girl who erred is relentlessly Noble, but it's a pretty realistic story about what happens to a woman in the early 1900's who has a baby out of wedlock, and the lifetime of self-abasement she, not so much undergoes (passively), but puts herself through if she's a good woman. And it's about her being a good woman.

Spoilers (because it's a lo-o-ong story in tiny print and hard to scan): Our heroine, 17-year-old Margaret, tells the story of Anna, who comes to keep house for Margaret's family after Anna's baby dies at birth. Margaret is in love with Christopher and comes to realize that Christopher fathered Anna's child.

It takes a few years for Margaret and Christopher to marry, and first they have a very open conversation about it, more honest about life's messiness than stories you'd get in Redbook at the time. The writing is good until the silly ending in which Margaret and Christopher find out that the child did not die, but inherited her long-suffering mother's beautiful voice and became a light opera star. Confession magazines required such Stella Dallas-y stuff and I expect Gran hated writing the big tearful Reveal to give the story commercial edge in a highly competitive market.

Clues that this is her story:

The heroine is the oldest of a brood of kids in a happy family. My grandmother was too. And Gran's youngest sister, about (?) 14- 15 at the time this was written, was surely known by the family to be just such a talented singer as the girl in the story. My great aunt did have minor success regionally before quitting to do the marriage thing.

A minor character has a name that's connected with our family, an unimportant clue except as part of the whole pile of clues. The heroine has to say goodbye to the man she loves for awhile, as he goes off to make a career for himself. My grandmother did this every week while my grandfather was on the road as a traveling salesman. The couple in the story love each other deeply and reconcile themselves to reality. Yep.

Adding up: the realistic yet very compassionately handled subject; the probability that Gran mined some sad local out-of-wedlock situation for her plot; and the melodramatic exposure-of-secrets tie-up at the end, required by the confession genre .....

I think this is her story, and that these are the reasons she wanted to disown it, even though the check it brought in probably meant they could now buy a mule for the farm. In her mind, she'd not only added bad melodrama to sell it, but, much more importantly, she'd used someone's tragedy to make money. I knew her and that would explain it.

And it's still a guess! A good guess, but a guess.

I feel like I spent the day having a long heart-to-heart talk with my grandmother. If this is her writing, both the story and her feelings about it tell me a lot about her. She wasn't proud of herself for this, and I understand, and yet I'm proud of her. And proud of my grandfather too, for being one of those people who preserve history when others think it's trash!

Friday, May 06, 2011

What matters

You'd think Mother's Day would be hard for me this year, but actually, these manufactured holidays never meant much in our family, and that's a real blessing now. Either you appreciate your loved ones on an everyday basis, or you don't, and all the flowery "get sentimental when the Holiday Industry rings the bell" celebrations were, not ignored, but always pretty secondary in our house.

I posted this photo awhile ago, but here it is again because it's so incredibly rich with what mattered in the home my parents made.

As a family we kind of fit in with the local suburban culture, and kind of didn't. My dad was an orthopedic surgeon, and we lived in the part of town and went to the schools that other upper-middle-class professional families lived in and went to. But somehow, we were a little outside it all and I, at the time, never really noticed how. I felt like my family just had a different style. We got a lot of our casual clothes at Kmart, our cars were old models that looked odd to me. I asked once why our cars were shaped funny and that became a source of hilarity for Mom all her life. But they ran. Usually. One time, the steering wheel came off in her hands when she was doing carpool, causing her to lay her head on the empty steering column in despair for a moment before she knocked on a door and borrowed another mom's car.

We had no stereo. Behind the lounge chair, on the floor, you see our record player. It was a big cowhide-suitcase style portable that they had back in med school days when they lived in one room. We. Ran. That. Machine. To. Death. Mom raised me on American musical comedy with it. She often had light opera, Gilbert and Sullivan, or Jeanette McDonald and Nelson Eddy going on it. When my baby brother was big enough to occasionally be fun -- by about 1963 or so -- we'd play something lively and dance around to it in the den. Christmas music whispered on it for hours as Mom wrote her gazillion Christmas cards every year, and we'd crank up the volume for family evenings during the season and on Christmas day.

A lot of what this photo evokes for me is actually outside its borders, because my memory fills in the rest of the scene. Out of the photo, but probably right next to me as I was taking this shot, was our little black and white TV.

Our kitchen was big, sunny, that "heart of the home" they talk about, but had those old metal-rimmed countertops, not high tech formica but covered with figured contact paper laid down by Mom, which would wrinkle and crud up and eventually get pulled off and replaced.

But we did have this awesome refrigerator * with the carousel shelves.
I loved this thing:

I vaguely knew, but never really appreciated all my father and uncle and grandfather did with their lives. Dad and his brother were in orthopedic practice with their father, who started a service in which they took turns serving two clinics up in the mountains treating poor patients. They made money, but not the kind that a lot of other surgeons made.

So my parents put money into what mattered. In the photo, a random stack of books is there within reach, and that's our home in a nutshell. Books about everything. Loads of history, lots of art books, Peanuts, Charles Addams and Helen Hokinson cartoons, science from astronomy to zoology, and a literary smorgasbord that could be mined not just for entertainment but to grow a mind.

At about age 14 or so, triggered by something I can't remember, I got worried about humanity and technology. About how we'd gained abilities that we maybe shouldn't have. I have no idea what it was about, except that I developed a fear that truth could be overcome by falsehood, Wrong could win out over Right because humankind could fake things so diabolically well. To help me work through that, Mom gave me this murder mystery (this very copy, now quite tattered) :

You'll have to read it to find out why!

Also outside the photo's frame, on the upper shelves next to Mom, are the umpteen sets of encyclopedias they bought, all at once, probably making some lucky guy Salesman of the Year in the process. In one swell foop they got us The Book of Popular Science, Lands and Peoples, World Book, and a short-entry general set called Grolier Encyclopedia. Dad had a globe and an unabridged dictionary on a stand in his den. I could write a report on pretty much anything without leaving home.

The holidays with real family-bonding meaning are going to be hard for awhile, but Mom always found such things as Mother's Day sort of nice but silly, and it mostly evokes a feeling in me that I've got things that can never be taken away, that make me the slightly off-center person that I am. All I can do is be so incredulously grateful, and wish everybody could have it.


* The refrigerator illustration comes from Atomic Kitchen -- lots of fun, especially for people my age!