For 33 years, all LRB subscriptions outside North America have been ‘fulfilled’ from our London offices. But from this week that will change. Our fulfilment software has come to the end of its useful life (it happens to us all, sooner or later) and there are no suitable subscription fulfilment products to replace it. So, from now on, subscribers will be cared for by data operators and customer service staff at an excellent company in Northampton, the fairly recently established UK subsidiary of the German firm DSB AG.
The shutting down of our own system feels quietly momentous. The subscription department has been at the centre of our business activities since the moment we launched in October 1979. More than 90 per cent of LRB readers are subscribers – they (you) are at the heart of our business, and we have loved and cherished our London database for decades.
Running an efficient and responsive subscription department may not sound exciting (not, one might think, especially ‘fulfilling’), but, for those of us here who have found it our responsibility over the years, it has proved curiously engrossing. If you didn’t happen to know from experience, you’d never guess how much intelligence and thought goes into the constant refinement of a reader database like this, and when the system runs well, like the gentle throb of a ship’s engine on a lengthy voyage, you scarcely notice it. But the engine has now stopped, and the silence is ever so slightly unnerving and not a little melancholy.
We shall miss the direct contact with our readers; miss their sometimes hilarious and baffling names; miss those sudden small insights into other lives – such as when a woman asked if she could bury a copy of the LRB with her husband (he had loved it so much) or when a political prisoner in Turkey offered to pay in ‘original bead work’. And we will miss the reasons for cancellation: ‘arrival of firstborn child’, ‘articles mean and resentful’, ‘cheap intro rates unfair to faithful’, ‘college finished – needn’t read again’, ‘couldn’t understand a single word’, ‘gone off (that is, LRB has)’, ‘reader too old and tired’, ‘too litary’, ‘gone blind through eclipse’.
The ineluctable forces of technological change have finally prevailed against our desire to remain personally attentive to our readers and their needs. The call centre has called and we have answered. Sad in a way, but surely an advance on the place we started out from – when we kept our subscriber details on index cards and 5000 labels had to be retyped afresh every two weeks by sweated labour in Luton.