What Godin gets wrong

Seth Godin
American entrepreneur, author and public speaker Seth Godin (photo by Joi Ito, Wikimedia Commons)
Seth Godin’s announcement about abandoning traditional publishing ruffled a lot of plumage this week, for good reason. Publishing is navigating through disruptions and difficulties that make industry players fearful about the future. Amid all the news about layoffs and reorganizations, stores up for sale, declining sales, etc., Godin’s savvy and insightful business advice has pointed the way to safety and success for many. Now this.

But Godin has misapprehended a few things. The interview in Media Bistro, which got this whole ball rolling when GalleyCat teased the final paragraph last week, contains the most helpful statement for understanding why:

I like the people [in publishing], but I can’t abide the long wait, the filters, the big push at launch, the nudging to get people to go to a store they don’t usually visit to buy something they don’t usually buy, to get them to pay for an idea in a form that’s hard to spread. . . . I really don’t think the process is worth the effort that it now takes to make it work.

My jaw dropped. Godin may not like the wait, filters, and push, but those things have served many an author. The process has its challenges, as all do, but it also has its payoffs. A well coordinated launch with a major push has helped more authors succeed than I can count. But the real shocker was this: “nudging to get people to go to a store they don’t usually visit to buy something they don’t usually buy, to get them to pay for an idea in a form that’s hard to spread.”

If I’m Dante, I just landed in the wrong poem. Godin’s describing Inferno. Trying to sell books to people who don’t like them is hopeless—it’s like hawking lentils the day after Easter. But that’s not what traditional publishing is about. We sell books to people who love them, to people who crave them, who love bookstores, who love reading. Sounds like Paradise.

Reality is of course somewhere in between. There are a lot of uncertainties and inefficiencies in the system, and we’re constantly trying to work through and around them, but Godin’s basic misapprehension is that people don’t like books. There are billions of dollars exchanged every year that say differently. If you’re a reader, your own habits probably say differently. Mine do.

The second misapprehension is that books are a clunky way to deliver and spread ideas. Yes, the white pages are an inelegant way to spread phone numbers. A multivolume set on a bowed shelf is an inefficient way to access encyclopedia entries. But imagine reading Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian one blog post at a time, or accessing Eric Metaxas’ successful biography Bonhoeffer through podcasts. Unthinkable. For people who love them, there are few things more elegant or efficient than books.

Literature is like running. It’s not for everyone, but for people who love it stopping after four blocks fails to satisfy. There are miles to go. It’s immersive. It’s also time consuming, but real readers are like real runners; you settle into a good pace and time evaporates. People whose primary reading is Facebook and street signs might not get that. Fine. Selling books to them is a waste of time and effort. Thank God that’s not the task before publishers.

A third misapprehension is not Godin’s fault. It’s our own. Godin’s personal business model is perhaps set up for him to succeed with this independent adventure. Good for him. Most authors, however, are not set up to go it alone. Likewise, most publishers are not set up to translate many of Godin’s ideas into their models. As authors and publishers, we should spend more time trying to please our customers than trying to justify ourselves to, or square our practices with, Seth Godin.

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  • Seth is primarily a marketer, with marketing background, looking to ‘sell ideas.’

    An author is usually looking for something completely different.

    I think this has been a big cause for the debate. I realize Seth writes books. I realize Tom Peters and Tony Robbins write books as well. But all three have primary objectives of using their books….to sell something else. (Speaking, consulting, coaching, etc.)

    The type of authors (and readers) you’re talking about are a different market.

    Plus, it will work for him. He has the platform and the following to strike out on his own. Most people, even those selling ideas in book form, don’t.

    • Deb, I think you’re correct, particularly about the other services that are for sale here. Looking at Godin’s BookScan numbers is instructive; books are clearly just a small piece of what he does.

  • Great response, Joel. You’re so right. 🙂 I love my iKindle, but I love the feel, smell and site of a hard back or paper back. I love book stores. I love browsing old and used books to see what treasures I might have missed.

    Yeah, you can’t make people go to the book store. Neither can you make them join Twitter, buy a Kindle and down load ebooks.

    Literature needs the publisher and bookseller gatekeepers or we’ll be flooded with all kinds of bad and weak stories that bog down the industry. And the consumer.

    Adaptation will happen as the industry changes, but proven methods are proven for a reason. Authors cannot make it without publishers. We cannot make it alone.

    Thanks for this. Well said!


    • Rachel, thanks for your note. We do need each other.

      I would stress one thing: I think that ebooks and ereaders are very natural extensions of traditional reading and may supplant a big amount of the traditional book market. I’m all for it. I think the real issue is that sustained reading experiences happen in books (print or e); they don’t happen in blogs, podcasts, lectures, or articles.

  • stu

    Thanks Joel –

    Very helpful corrective to the way a lot of people are interpreting Godin’s ideas. I enjoy Seth Godin’s blog and have bought a few of his books, but I think on this issue he is speaking from his own unique position. For many others the, (unfairly maligned) traditional method of publishing is still the best option. Not just for publishers and authors, but for book lovers!

    • Totally agree. His solution will likely work for him and some others (I can think of several authors who could go it alone just fine — they already have the machines set up to do it), but it won’t work for most.

  • Highly intelligent response Joel, thank you. I like some of Seth’s books. A book such as The Dip can help you feel your way through some obstacles. However If he is not available book stores, then it is probable in the short term (2 – 3 years) I will not be buying one of his books. I use some ebooks but never complete the whole book and end up heading to the store to get a copy. So I am very selective about ebooks.

    I think your priority is absolutely spot-on “As authors and publishers, we should spend more time trying to please our customers than trying to justify ourselves to, or square our practices with, Seth Godin.” Keep up the great work focused on your customers. Thanks for an insightful post.

  • Annie

    One of the other things that Godin misses is that all that waiting and filtering has the power to build confidence in a reader. Life is short. There’s no time to waste reading bad books, and I depend on everyone in the process, from editors to publishers to local booksellers, to make sure I’m not wasting my time.

    • This is an important point. With many top-tier authors the buildup and the waiting is what makes the release so explosive and exciting. You’re also right in noting the work that happens in that waiting: compositionally, editorially, etc. It’s not usually wasted time.

  • What I got out of Godin’s announcement wasn’t so much a blast against traditional publishing as a shift to align his efforts with his desired customer base. I think he was accurate in saying that the customer for a book is first and foremost the publisher/editor and secondary the actual reader. Godin is more focused on the reader customer than the publisher customer. After wrestling with Michael Hyatt’s “Writing A Winning Non-fiction Book Proposal” for a couple of days my passion and enthusiasm for writing was pretty much at an all time low. After reading Godin’s announcement I wanted to write again. No, I’m not a published author and may never be one but I am an avid reader. I have all of Godin’s books and really wonder what the ones said that publishers turned down.

    I love my ereader and carry it with me at all times. The electronic versions are much more accessible for me and with over 3,000 volumes on my bookshelf the reality is adding more paper is just not prudent.

    Godin has proved his insights and business acumen in the past. I don’t think this is a decision he made flippantly or just to get the publishing industry riled up. I also don’t think the departure from tradition by one best selling author will topple the publishing houses. They are in much shakier condition if one loss marks the end.

    • Please know that I’m not opposed to ebooks. I’ve stated publicly many times that I’m excited about ebooks and the potential there. Books are not the paper. I’m in fact eagerly awaiting my Kindle 3.

      I don’t think that Godin’s departure will be felt at all. It’s the conversation that’s interesting.

  • Seth has spent the last couple decades building a tribe of loyal follower and permission with that tribe. He can sell 50,000 books to the 438,000 members of his tribe. He’s absolutely right in his move, because his tribe will purchase his goods regardless of the venue. For others to think they can follow Seth’s example is plain foolishness. There are very few with Seth’s tribe and power to lead their tribe. My audience is about 1,000. I may get 50 to actually open their wallets for me. There’s no profit in 50 or even 100. I need a publisher’s tribe to scale a book to a decent profit. I suspect this is true for almost all writers.

    I agree w/ Michael Hyatt on the need for a multi-pronged approach. The Writer’s tribe (facebook/twitter/blog). the publisher’s network/marketing/distribution, and together the willingness to partner and maximize exposure. Without a true partnership, laser focus and push, the barriers to entry are huge for a writer to get started. Seth needed a publisher AND 15ish years before he got to this point. No short cuts, no lucky breaks, just believing in himself, hard work and time.
    Cheers – Steve

    • You are exactly right. The multi-pronged approach leverages the best from all the available models.

  • j

    what Godin is saying is that unfortunately publishers aren’t reaching the non-readers. publishing has to do something drastic, as it cedes ground to other media all the time. cultivating the niche over and over again will get money in the short-run but will ultimately be like running a horse-carriage mechanic shop.

    new platforms will help get new readers (hopefully!) but the form also has to change, emerge & change again.

    • I think that’s overstating the issue. It’s certainly overstating the response. “Something drastic” is fine to contemplate, but there are rents to make right now. It also assumes that we’re doing nothing. The reality is that any publisher with resources is experimenting and working toward new solutions already. There’s a reason why, for instance, there were so many books available for the iPad at it’s release. Publishers moved fast to get their books into the format — and it was tough work, I can attest. The trick is to keep investors and banks happy while finding our way into the future one decision at a time. There’s nothing drastic about that — just good business.

  • Kelly

    I’m struggling with Godin’s statements. I’m having difficulty wrapping my mind around this entire concept of abandoning traditional publishing because I just don’t see it as a realistic outcome.
    My perspective may be somewhat different from most, because I’m an author of university textbooks and course software for mediated learning.

    Since 1999, I’ve been actively engaged with the National Center for Academic Transformation, an organization that exists to transform and transition much of college/university learning experiences to mediated platforms, such as ebooks. I’m also a professor.

    Taken together–a writer of college textbooks; a professor who has book reps come to her to present their newest trends; a writer of courseware actively involved with mediated education; a national speaker who participates in a number of student-led focus groups –I don’t anticipate a change in the delivery of content for college students. Despite price tags of $120.00+ for one textbook, there is simply too much resistance on the part of faculty and students–the consumers.

    For example, value-packaged (for free) with all of my titles are access codes for ebook versions of the textbooks. Rarely do students use these access codes, rarely do they utilize the ebook; they will occasionally use podcast lectures. My publisher has also researched and funded projects that essentially create the digital version of a work first, then follow with a print version; these have not been successful because faculty and students want the book in their hands.

    Again, I realize my perspective is somewhat different because of my genre. But I certainly didn’t achieve my success on my own! I have the advantage of a strong marketing arm who does a phenomenal job of promoting and marketing my books. I also have peer reviewers, developmental editors, packagers, and copyeditors who have shaped me into the writer that I am. Even with all of this backing and support, even with all of this feedback and direction, it was tough as a first-time writer to break in to established markets.

    For me, the traditional process is crucial to the creation of quality books and quality authors. I don’t see how this can be abandoned.

    • Terry Wilhite

      Honey, you’d better wrap your head around it because we in education are closer than we’ve ever been before in dumping textbooks. Even in K-12 education, “smart boards” have replaced chalk and now the iPad can either function as a remote control to the smart board or an extension. It’s multimedia. Remember those Encyclopedias on the shelf? What a joke now. We can show now, not just tell. It will matter not what the professors think.(Heaven forbid THEY lead the way.) The students, all technology-savvy, will find a place where they aren’t locked into a traditional textbook and if a college/university wants to continue the revenue stream they will change or die – and they will change before they die because it all follows the money trail. In summary, again, the children will lead us – not exactly what I think education is all about – but we’re to blame, not the students.

      • Kelly

        What I wouldn’t give to bend your ear about this in a phone conversation. 🙂

        I agree 100% with your statements about revenue streams, putting technology into the hands of technology-savvy students, and the rapidly growing trends in mediated courses and textbooks. I was one of the first to jump on this wave in 1999, and all of this is central to the Center’s mission, a mission to which I’ve devoted a significant amount of time, attention, and research. You see it. I see it. But that doesn’t mean that academia is not resisting–and pushing back.

        So–how do we change academia’s resistance to elearning, mediated platforms, etools, and ebooks? Or should we??

        (And I’m trying not to take offense at your statements about professors leading the way. Some of us really do care about our students and what’s best for them).

  • Joel,

    Great insights. Like you, I love books, and I’ll be sad if the bookstores disappear (although I must confess I’ve ordered many a book from Amazon’s iPhone app while browsing my local Borders).

    I think that Seth did exactly what he intended to do…provoke a larger conversation.

    Ironically, when I want to introduce someone to Seth, I almost always give them one of his books.

    If I’m a publisher, the question I’m asking myself is, “What can I do to add value.” Seth looked at his publisher and decided the value wasn’t there any more. That’s a challenge to the industry to take a hard look at what they do.

    Great post. Thanks.

    • John, you’re right that all of this comes down to creating value.

      Brick-and-mortar bookstores are facing serious threats and heavy closures are very possible because they are having difficulty providing enough value when competing with Amazon.

      Likewise we publishers have to continually look for ways of creating distinction and value for our customers (whether they are authors, bookstores, or readers more directly). I think at Thomas Nelson there is a constant conversation about how to do this better, whether it’s our ebook and social media initiatives, our custom product and self-publishing service, etc.

      The narrative floating around is, however, very simplistic and naive, basically that publishing is a dinosaur industry up against fast and furry warm-blooded digital competitors. The truth is that Thomas Nelson and other publishers are experimenting and expanding possibilities in the digital space as part of daily business while also taking care of the traditional aspects of our trade that keep the lights on.

      The future is uncertain but pleasing customers is the closest thing to ensuring longevity. I think that the mandate to relentlessly innovate actually takes us off that focus and is ultimately harmful.

  • Godin’s always been in the business of self-promotion, and this is simply another step.

    When your job is to market yourself fulltime – which after reading his books is what they’re about – then the marketing and distribution apparatus of a publisher probably would become irrelevant.

    Given the size of his online following, why wouldn’t Godin self-publish? To sink to crass commercial concerns for a second, he gets the full vigorish on each sale instead of a fractional royalty.

    Frankly, I believe this model scales better to smaller niche markets, where someone who isn’t a fulltime self-marketer can still reach a sizable portion of the readership. Capturing more of the sale revenue for the writer makes it possible for the writer to do the project without living on a steady diet of lentils.

    Good for Seth and all, but let’s recognize him for what he is and what he’s doing.

  • Terry Wilhite

    Your post is reminiscent of one I read a few years ago by a music industry professional – before Steve Jobs turned the music industry on its head. Funny part is, I can’t remember the writer of that piece. I do, however, remember Steve Jobs’ name quite well.

    • I think if you look closer you’ll find that the comparisons between the music business and publishing are not quite so neat.

  • Joel – Excellent points. And, these kind of posts are taking Seth to even higher levels. I am not sure who is smarter in this case: Seth or the publishers giving him all the press with their good thinking?

  • R J Stove

    A very interesting article by Mr. Miller, which has the virtue of valuing books qua books, and not just as a cumbersome retro substitute for really cool stuff such as blogs, tweets, Kindle downloads etc.

  • Chelsea

    Love the post Joel! I particularly appreciate that you compared reading to running. As a runner and a reader, I thought it was a creative illustration that described the reason we read, and run, beautifully.

    Thank you,

    P.S. The new blog design looks great!

  • Lynn

    I believe Seth is first, a self promoter. You can tell by his blogs—always a chatchy word or phrase that this is who he is. Great posts all!

  • I wish I’d said that! Excellent, Joel!

  • Amy

    Thank you Joel for providing clarity! Aaaahhhhh the smell of books, the feel of books, the beauty and artistic ability that’s revealed on their covers……books are NOT dead. Thank you for respectfully challenging Godin’s point of view.

  • Well put.

    It seems this move is ignoring a whole segment of audience who still like reading a book.

    I’m curious how much this stunt (or move) increased the overall size & intensity of his “tribe”