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.