Is Seth Godin Right About Book Publishing?
By Jeremy Greenfield, Editorial Director, Digital Book World, @JDGsaid
A year after launch, The Domino Project, Seth Godin’s publishing venture with Amazon, is ending – but not without imparting on the publishing industry lessons gleaned from twelve months in the business.
Chief among those lessons were the necessity for the publishing industry to engage in “permission” marketing and that publishing companies that don’t do this will not be able to “add the value they’re used to adding when it comes to marketing ebooks,” he wrote.
“In five years, every successful publisher is going to be radically transformed from the way they are today,” the marketing guru and best-selling author told Digital Book World in an interview today.
According to Godin, “permission” doesn’t mean “might be interested;” it means that “if you didn’t show up, they would want to know where you were.”
He offered the example of The New Yorker magazine as something that has his “permission.” If it doesn’t show up in his mailbox early in the week, he wonders where it is.
Outside of Oprah, The New Yorker and the Dallas Cowboys, few brands in the marketplace today command such loyalty from their customers – perhaps least of all publishing companies, which have only in the past decade had to turn their businesses to face consumers and have only recently embarked on the type of brand-building projects Godin suggests.
“It’s not the way to market in the future; it’s a way to market in the future,” said Mike Shatzkin, a long-time book-industry expert (and, full disclosure, partner with Digital Book World on the upcoming Digital Book World Conference and Expo in January 2012).
Book publicity and retailer promotions were just two of the many other marketing methods publishing industry experts, some of whom have had decades of experience in the industry, mentioned to us today.
“No single program works for every book or every type of book. No matter what you say, nothing works for all books,” said Thad McIlroy, a Vancouver-based electronic publishing analyst who runs the site TheFutureofPublishing.com.
First-time authors, little-known writers of historical narratives and academic writers are just a few of those who would likely not be served by “permission” marketing. That’s not a problem that publishing companies should worry about, Godin suggested.
“It’s going to be harder than ever for a first-time novelist to break through,” he said. “I didn’t decide that young people who would be this next generation’s readers are spending all their time playing video games and searching Twitter, but they are.”
The New Yorker, Godin argued, does not find readers for its writers; it finds writers for its readers. And if all readers are interested in is Twitter and video games, the publishers will not succeed trying to sell them certain kinds of books.
“For novels and for narrative non-fiction, there is clearly a role for a third party to aggregate readers who are interested in the kinds of books that those authors write,” said Simon Lipskar a partner and chief operating officer of Writers House, a New York-based literary agency and a member of the Digital Book World Conference Council. “There is a substantive and real role for publishers to find readers.”
Most authors don’t have the kind of following that Godin has and likely do not have the wherewithal to develop that kind of following. (A good novelist may not make a good blogger.) Even most commercial brands, with sophisticated marketing machines and public relations handlers, also lack the strength of Godin’s “tribes.”
“Are there any emails that you get from any vendor where if you don’t get it you’re upset and wonder where it is?” said David Nussbaum, CEO of F+W Media, a New York-based book publisher (and, full disclosure, parent to Digital Book World).
“A first-time author is not going to have 50,000 ‘tribe’ members as he [Godin] calls them,” Nussbaum said. “It takes a long time to build that and to build that reliability. First-time authors want to get published and want to get sales.”
Should the publishing industry stop trying to sell content to the next generation of Twitter-only consumers?
Likely, the future of book publishing and book marketing involves hybrid models that make use of a number of marketing methods. Some book publishers are already moving in this direction.
“When we published Grace Bonney’s Design Sponge, Grace’s special relationship with her online audience drove pre-orders, which in turn drove store orders, which in turn were sold through with a 30-city tour, which was in turn promoted with a combination of social networking and national television appearances, etc.,” said Bob Miller, group publisher at New York-based Workman Publishing. “We need to add new techniques but they shouldn’t simply replace the old ones.”
Many of the books published at Workman and other publishing companies would benefit from several types of support, according to Miller.
“If you can’t find 100 readers who want to hear from you, you got nothing. If you can find 100, you can probably get 1,000. You should find writers for your readers. What’s astonishing to me is that it’s the people in the book business who should be leading this charge,” he said.
The book business, for its part, is listening to Godin. The many industry experts we spoke with today read what Godin has written and followed The Domino Project closely in its short life. They praised him for his insights and agreed with many of his ideas – or, at least the general gist. In addition to building their own “tribes” and gathering “permission,” the book business still has other ways of selling books.
“An incredibly smart bookseller I met 32 years ago told me then that ‘if anybody walks up to my cash register with five books, I can sell them a sixth. By seeing what they like and knowing my stock, I can always come up with a suggestion they’ll accept,’” said Shatzkin, who, in addition to organizing the Digital Book World Conference, runs a book-consulting business, The Idea Logical Co. “That’s true in a physical world and a virtual world and it has nothing to do with permissions.”
Write to Jeremy Greenfield