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

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.”


What Should Publishers Do?

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.

Godin’s advice?

“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

7 thoughts on “Is Seth Godin Right About Book Publishing?

  1. Seth Godin

    Bob Miller and Workman are both legends, and they understand what it means to actually sell books. I want to be them when I grow up.

    In the meantime, the rest of us have to acknowledge that hype is harder than ever, book reviews are disappearing, there are fewer and fewer of the handselling booksellers that Mike admires, and most of all, attention is scarce.

    Simon agrees with me, which makes me happy. The entire point of The Domino Project wasn’t that each author had to earn permission, it was that the imprint did. This notion that every author in the world needs to run around and earn a following is attractive but impractical. Instead, the power will go to publishers who earn that following, but it takes guts and discipline, something that some skeptics seems loathe to invest in.

    David missed most of the point (or at least the way he was quoted). In fact, just about every valued brand, every brand that is more than just a cheap alternative, is gaining real permission, not just cluttering people’s inboxes. And yes, Zappos and Apple and LL Bean and William Morris all have a tribe…

    I think that once publishers acknowledge that: retail shelf space, professional book reviews, and the logistics of printing and shipping books will soon become meaningless, they’ll see that they have lots of time to get to work on the essential work of connecting directly with their customers.

    Which the record industry forgot to do.

    1. Jeremy Greenfield Post author

      Thanks for the response, Seth.

      It’s a complicated issue and one that will be sorted out for years to come.

      To add my two cents, I think you’re overestimating the market-position that some brands have and I would tend to agree with David that, for the most part, most brands have “permission” from few people.

      Another point: Whenever somebody says “this old model is dead, here’s the new model to replace it” when it comes to content and media, it reminds me of radio.

      Radio? Yes, radio. That medium that was “dead” when television came around. Television was supposedly dead when cable made the scene. And so on.

      That’s not to say that you’re not right.

      Either way, you raise a lot of very interesting points and the publishing industry is certainly listening. Whether it acts on your advice remains to be seen.

  2. David Nussbaum

    Thanks Seth for your comments and i don’t really think I missed the point at all. As I told J, I agree that community as we call it (or tribe as you call it) is absolutely critical in the marketing of goods and services, and particular in the content sales business. I also think \permission\ is important but you and I might be defining it a bit differently.

    To us, \permission\ is building a strong relationship with the community (tribe) through quality content, education, services, products. To you, I guess, it is more literal.

    My comment to J was — there is no brand that I get emailed from on a regular basis that I would miss to the degree that I would be searching for that email. Jeremy disagreed with me as he says he does that with Media Bistro.

    Hope that clarifies for you Seth. Maybe you and I should do a panel together at Digital Book World on Communities and Tribes?

  3. Christina Katz

    I adore you, Seth, and love all of your work. Big fangirl, here. Quoted you big time in my last book and featured your advice and books in my latest book for writers.

    So, forgive me when I say that I think you are wrong about this part: “This notion that every author in the world needs to run around and earn a following is attractive but impractical.”

    Any writer who is waiting for a publisher to discover them and “make” their career skyrocket, is making a mistake. Far better to be a proactive writer who balances the five career keys: craft, pitching, specializing, ongoing ed, and platform development in the long run, than to be the writer scribbling in an ivory towering waiting for the inevitable spotlight…that is never going to come.

    I feel like Seth is right that permission marketing doesn’t just mean people are tolerating you. It means that your fans would feel something if you were to suddenly disappear from their horizon, whether real or virtual. I wish more writers understood this from the outset.

    I believe that publishers and authors can share power and eyeballs and readers, thereby making the publishing world a more partnership-oriented place. I hope we will see more varieties of partnerships emerging in 2012. Jane Friedman wrote an excellent e-book (which is also funny a humorous take) on the topic called, The Future of Publishing, Enigma Variations, which is available here:

    My personal vision of the future is one in which every writer is also a publisher, preferably writing short before writing long, and thereby growing a following alongside a body of work, which leads to a future in which the author retains an appealing amount of control and flexibility over the course, of what I hope will be, at least for this writer, a very long life.


  4. Scott Spiewak

    This entire thread has been refreshing and frustrating at the same time. I have hard a hard time getting publishers to break away from traditional means of promotion. Having a Twitter account is not going to save sales on a book. Twitter and other means absolutely help as a tool but not for every book either. A wholistic approach is definitely needed. Thanks for banging the drumb loud and clear! Greatly appreciated.

  5. Scott Nicholson

    Thoughtful. I am less interested in what publishers have to do to survive and far more interested in what authors have to do to survive, because the interests are no longer fully aligned. A personal storefront or publishing brand is not going to work for most authors, although you can build an audience slowly over time. But having gone from small press to traditional to indie and now with Amazon’s imprint, I don’t expect the future evolution to proceed in any sensible linear fashion-it’s going to fragment into lots of odd shapes.

  6. Erik Christopher

    Enjoyed reading this and it reminded of what I heard when I started in book retail some years ago. Selling books is about two important things, having passion for what you do and connecting the buyer/reader with the content. That’s still true today, no matter how you look at it. The whole point of publishing, no matter your role, no matter the $$ or ROI, it’s about connecting the readers with the writers, the content. If you don’t do that you, fail… you lose readers, you lose what readers are looking for, something more then just a publisher or writer to spend money on, but they want and in many cases need a connection.

    The one problem that comes with \permission\ as an approach is that too often, those that do have our permission, send junk. Or, they fail to actually make a connection, instead tweeting or posting about the latest title for sale but missing the point of providing something of value to the experience that I want.

    This, \walks up to my cash register with five books, I can sell them a sixth.\ is dead on, that’s called truly understanding your environment and in a way having permission simply by means of that person being there shopping. Now you still need to know what the hell you are doing, your stock, comparable authors and not run back and forth to a computer all the time, but truly understand something. We called it hand-selling, I hardly see it now if at all, it’s a lost craft that was replaced by publishers losing that connection.

    You cannot be relevant by simply having the pieces of the puzzle if all you do is throw them in the box and do nothing with it.



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