INTERVIEW: Seth Godin on Libraries, Literary Agents and the Future of Book Publishing as We Know It

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He is arguably one of the most successful bloggers and thought-leaders of our time. When Seth Godin speaks, people sit up and listen, even if they’re the CEO of one of the Big 6 publishers. He raised eyebrows with his decision to leave the traditional book publishing industry in order to form his own entity called The Domino Project. But when he made the decision to move on after 12 bestsellers, tongues wagged. Had his precious experiment failed or knowing Godin, was something greater in store? To find out, I asked Godin about this as well as his thoughts on not only the future of the book publishing industry as we know it but also why he calls some book publishers’ decision to pull the plug on libraries’ access to eBooks “silly”.

 

Rivera: Your latest book, Stop Stealing Dreams deals with the educational system in America. If you were to have a sit down with the Secretary of Education, what would you say?

What’s school for?

Instead of overhauling our tactics to get better at delivering what school used to deliver, can we have an honest discussion about what we’re trying to create?

And if you don’t believe the entire system can be rebuilt to deliver on these goals, how can we blow it up into little bits in a way that causes the quickest reinvention?

 

Rivera: You recently closed The Domino Project. If you could do it all over again, what would you have done differently?

You never close a book project, in that the books remain on sale, hopefully forever. We did 12 books, had 12 bestsellers, brought a dozen big ideas to more than a million people–I’m not sure I’d change any of that.

The book industry is going through a massive change, and the reason I called it a project, not ‘the answer’, is because this is a step along the way in a pretty long journey.

 

Rivera: If The Domino Project wasn’t a “failure”, what were your main reasons for “transitioning” it and refocusing on other things?

Godin: Of course it was a project, not a forever gig. Deep down, I’m a writer, not a publisher, and as I saw the shifts in the way people are consuming media, I came to the conclusion that my authors would be better off being even more directly engaged with their readers than I could deliver for them. We were 12 for 12, but that’s a big promise to make to the next round of authors and I just didn’t want to jump through those hoops to deliver on it.

 

Rivera: Forrester recently reported that they foresee a drastic drop in book print sales by 2013. What do you envision the book publishing industry looking like in 3-5 years?

Well, in general, I disagree with Forrester just about always. In this case, though, even Gutenberg can see what’s happening (and he’s dead). The thing to understand about trade publishing is that the vast percentage of profits come from backlist sales of print books. When those disappear (or diminish), the entire industry teeters.

I think we’re going to see consolidation, fire sales, layoffs and a lot of uncomfortableness … Not happy, but true.

 

Rivera: When do you see the book publishing industry being completely unrecognizable as we have come to know it? What will it look like instead?

Godin: Big advances for midlist authors are the first to go. Second: all the hard-working people in the book production chain, because the lack of scarcity makes it hard to pay them to do the work they do. Mostly, though, I think it’s a fading of the power of a published book to influence the conversation. When anyone can publish an ebook, anyone will.

 

Rivera: The role of literary agents has changed in the last few years and it’s changing even more. What can literary agents do right now so that they remain apart of the equation instead of lost in the digital eBook dust?

I’d start by redefining what you do. I don’t think the goal of the agent is to maximize the size of the advance (which is what it was, as evidenced by what agents talked about and how they got paid). I think the goal going forward is to represent every element of an author’s impact on the world, including their permission asset, the way they build a following, the approach to building a tribe.

 

Rivera: People look at what you have accomplished but they do not realize you didn’t appear overnight. What are 3 things authors, especially independently published authors, can do to go from zero to hero?

 

I got nine-hundred rejection letters my first year as a book packager … It took me awhile to see that the shortest path involved no shortcuts and a fairly large amount of the long way around.

In the connection economy, what’s really clear to me is that there are more opportunities to be generous and to lead and to curate than ever before. If you spend a year or two or five doing that, in your spare time, with no real focus on getting repaid, sooner or later people are going to want more of you … and then you can’t help but get paid.

An author starting out today needs to pick herself, establish a niche, become truly the best at it and relentlessly and generously give it all away as a way of leading and making a ruckus.

It takes a long time, but it’s still faster than waiting for Binky Urban and Knopf to find you.

 

Rivera: If you were running one of the Big 6 companies today, what would be three of the first changes you would make to maximize their impact and sales?

I’m not sure there’s an obvious short-term approach that would please shareholders. I think the perverse truth is that the best route is going to involve the most pain in the beginning (and the biggest win at the end).

For me, that means a never-ending effort to build a permission relationship with readers (see Tim O’Reilly for a lesson on how to do this.) And an understanding that events and other non-book transactions can make a huge impact (see Thomas Nelson as well as the TED conference for an example of this).

 

Rivera: Many authors hear your message about being willing to give away their books for free, or to focus on spreading their message but their question is: “I’ve got rent to pay so how do I turn that into cash money?”

Who said you have a right to cash money from writing? I gave hundreds of speeches before I got paid to write one. I’ve written more than 4000 blog posts for free.

Poets don’t get paid (often), but there’s no poetry shortage. The future is going to be filled with amateurs, and the truly talented and persistent will make a great living. But the days of journeyman writers who make a good living by the word–over.

 

Rivera: If writers shouldn’t presume they will make money directly from book sales, what other opportunities exist for them indirectly so they don’t have to flip burgers?

Godin: Depends on what you write! The Grateful Dead certainly didn’t depend on CD sales.

Are you a chef? A public speaker? If you’re a mystery writer, can you find 1000 true fans to pay a hundred dollars a year each to get an ongoing serial from you?

It’s not the market’s job to tell authors how to monetize their work. The market doesn’t care. If there’s no scarcity of what they want, it’s hard to get them to pay for it.

 

Rivera: A number of publishers have pulled the plug on library editions of eBooks. Do you think that is a wise business decision and if not, how do you see it being a win-win scenario?

How incredibly silly. Libraries are like the radio for books. Not a money-maker for all, but a great way to spread an idea. I don’t think you can find a single author who suffered any damage at all because too many people took his book out of the library.

Ebooks for libraries need to be tweaked, not killed.

Jeff Rivera

About Jeff Rivera

Jeff Rivera is a published author and journalist who writes about books and entertainment for Mediabistro, GalleyCat, Publishing Perspectives, School Library Journal, Huffington Post, Entertainment Weekly, Examiner and various other outlets. JeffRivera.com

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23 thoughts on “INTERVIEW: Seth Godin on Libraries, Literary Agents and the Future of Book Publishing as We Know It

  1. I found your thoughts interesting. I’ve recently-one year- started self publishing. I had a free read during the holidays and have had my sales double since then.

  2. Great questions for Mr. Godin. Some takeaways — the role of the classic intermediary (agent, ten percenter, broker, juror of art gallery shows) has long been eroding. The death of the music industry as we used to know it has nothing to do with the death of music and fans for instance. In fact, the new iteration of the industry – with label collapses, no more long term development of artists over decades, the A&R role – has actually brought on the most vibrant fan base globally for music I’ve ever seen. Same for movies, although now we tend to call everything “content” – there’s more of it, some of it is better, some is worse, but there sure isn’t a death to report. What HAS died, and Lawrence Lessig would agree in his adovcacy of Creative Commons is the intermediary – the Ivory Tower/Ten Percenter who controls what is even available to the consumer. That has been completely and utterly turned inside out. Is that bad? Only if you are of the “inflexible” mindset and as an executive in the publishing business aren’t willing to take a risk and create new roles. Acquisition editor? To me that sounds like TYPEFACE ALIGNER. It’s like the appendix. Ya don’t need it. Smart folks who also need to keep economies scaling for a wide range of stakeholders need to be brave enough to become a new tpe of advisor – perhaps its audience identification, maybe it’s a little bit of branding, sprinkled with one on one consulting. Whatever it is, and I do not claim to have any answer – what is required is creative and new thinking. I love Seth’s boldness – no one is entitled to get rich from writing. Or anything else for that matter! Risk aversion is taught, reinforced and formulated in almost every business curricula in this country. It needs to go. We live in chaotic times that require comfort with risk, willingness to test and fail at new models and truly GET OVER the past. My 2 cents. Wonderful interview. Kudos!

  3. Great interview Jeff AND Seth. I am a follower of you both and value both your opinion, albeit I do not always agree with those opinions. I’m certainly no expert and can only speak on my experiences in this industry. I’ve been in it nearly 20 years and BECAUSE I’ve given things away, I haven’t gotten very far. People that I’ve given to or have helped freely, have surpassed me in the industry and have even gone on to be best selling authors.

    I honestly feel with the influx of ebooks and the over saturation of the self-publishing market, along with giants like Amazon, print publishing will definitely decrease drastically and suffer to an extent. As a matter of fact it already is.

    And it’s funny because a few of my author colleagues and friends with contracts with the big houses, tell me that advances, let alone large ones have already started to disappear.

    I think its going to take a lot for publishing to get back to business as usual, but I have to say, I’m excited even with the uncertainty of its direction. I will continue to work my derriere off and pray that I get where it is I want to and think I deserve to be.

    Thank you Jeff for your expertise and all that you do, and thanks Seth for the Domino Project.

  4. Pretty good. He is part of the real danger to commercial mills: the people who don’t feel bitter from previous dealings with New York. When more people start hitting this note, that’s when the change will really go quick. He also sort of demonstrates that the longer you can or are willing to give freely, the better it is for you when you’re no longer so willing.

    The role of the agent–indeed eroding. If anything, not fast enough. There are some agents who now even rep homeless writers–so people can now readily see how at least a few are not adding a lot of value. This role will be more analogous to “consultant” soon.

  5. I disagree with Godin about the lack of need for writers to be paid. That’s easy to say when you’ve sold hundreds of thousands of books, but if you are researching a topic for a narrative work and also feeding a family, you need income! The business model of publishing is broken and sky-high advances should be a thing of the past; however, publishers still seem to want to place bets on A-List celebrity names who don’t, in fact, have much to say and it’s a pity that those seven-figure sums aren’t divvied out to more worthy projects. So be it. Agents’ roles are changing, too: Gone are the days when an agent could negotiate a contract, cash the advance check, and move on. We have become the stable force in our writers’ lives, often stepping in to edit and certainly to weigh in on marketing and positioning. Godin is right about permissions and the long-tail of book segments.

    -W.

    • Read again what Godin said. He didn’t say that writers don’t need an income because they clearly do. What he said is that just because you’re writing something you should not automatically expect to get paid for it. In other words, no scarcity = no $$$. It’s as simple as that.

  6. “An author starting out today needs to pick herself, establish a niche, become truly the best at it and relentlessly and generously give it all away as a way of leading and making a ruckus.”
    …I needed to hear this! Some agents/publishers have us thinking that we are not unique…that our art & talent can be done by the next person and that is absolutely not true!

  7. While Godin claims he never meant the Domino Project to be “the answer,” he *did* say it was the answer when it started: In his own words, he said he would “define a new publishing model” with the Domino Project. That sounds like an “answer” to me. After releasing 12 books in a year, he stopped the project after redefining…nothing. He introduced “52-packs” of books? What else did he do of value? The realities of the Domino Project did not live up to the hyperbole that preceded it.

    • Agreed. The praised heaped upon the man for simply starting a publishing company was unreal. He ABSOLUTELY hyped it as the NEXT BIG THING for publishing. Now he’s clearly backtracking. What a fake!

      Seth Godin turned his back on people who trusted him. Of course he can’t cut it as a publisher! Frankly, I’d be quite annoyed if I was one of his authors and was thrown away so quickly. I can almost guarantee every single author would have been better off (as far as treatment and monetary return) had they gone the ‘traditional’ publishing route.

      • Next big thing for publishing? I don’t get it. I perused the Domino Project web site and I have no clue what was supposed to be different about it. Can anyone explain?

        Unless publishing only males is revolutionary. But I think that’s pretty much how they did things in the old days.

  8. I read the interview with interest not least because Seth is, if nothing else, sincere and intelligent. The discussion over school seemed out of place here, except when one considers that the aspirational aspect of school has begun to disappear (much as traditional publishing is in the process of doing). One industry can learn from the mistakes of others. The book business seems to have learned (some) of the lessons of the music industry. Maybe the educational industry has to look at the model of the publishing industry to determine a better, more productive, future. And I am not talking about the delivery, I am talking about the basic tenet: why do we educate? If it is to raise a commercial consumer, we are doing a good job. If it is to raise a commercial provider, we are doing an appalling job.
    Domino Project? Why did he quit? Best to quit when one is ahead. And anyway, no one really had the knives out to stop him… yet.
    I am old enough to remember the panic in New York when I was a kid and cheap paperbacks came out. “The end of publishing!” was the herald cry. Result? More people read. However, I cannot say the same will be true here (after all, TV became the most influential medium in the latter half of the century, and all eReaders are, basically, television sets). What will happen, for a while, is that the big 6 will get richer for a while. Why? Because they have the backlists and the muscle (if not right) to release the “must have’s” of literature in eBook format. On the other hand, as Brian Doyle said two Frankfurts ago, “they may buy more eBooks, but will they read them?” Nope, and who cares will be the call from the CFOs. Like all those iPods full of years of listening (music), as long as the buyers buy, we are happy. And we will screw the rights’ holder on profits in the bargain. What, you thought the Hollywood accounting system was not adopted by the big 6 recently? Get real.
    As a literary agent of some 35+ years, I can see the changes beginning, the change that will cause great distress to many authors. Authors have been nurtured on the dreams of success, the wish of a career (paying bills in the process), fed by media reports of huge payments, encouraged by agents seeking to make their Xmas bonus by garnering advances. For the past 15 years I have been begging the big 6 to trade the advance for a solid promotional contractual clause. Not once have I been successful. That commitment, to actually DO SOMETHING with the author’s work is always left to a 25-second presentation by the contracting editor to the sales’ team, and then, perhaps, a dedicated secretary somewhere who sends out advance copies in time to good reviewers and or book club. Okay once in a while you get lucky and a great PR person gets the okay from el supremo to do what is best for the book, gets the budget, and gets the approval to break the mold. And you have Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Why don’t they do that for every book? They say they try, they don’t. It takes talent, time and – here’s a secret – using up a publisher’s slot with the media. What, you thought every book gets pitched to GMA and Today or Terry Gross? The author and agent have nothing whatsoever to say here, they may pretend they do, they may try to (I was successful once, 25 years ago), but if the publisher decides to favor a personal friend’s project over another, the other is doomed to the slush pile in the media world.
    Now in comes the Internet and the possibilities for the author to make it all happen – at his or her expense. Does the publisher help? Get real. And if the author fails? The book is no good is the publisher’s response. Author’s career in the crapper.
    Now, on libraries, Seth, please be careful what you say. You may be 100% right on the benefit of word-of-mouth promo via libraries, but please do not encourage the publishers to dust off their DRM programs (Bertelsmann owns the largest) and stick them on books. Lending from libraries for eBooks is simple. If Barnes & Noble would WAKE UP (think Apple circa 1995 and students forced adoption of their computer systems), they would offer each library a handful of cheap basic Nooks that could have hundreds, thousands of books available on them. No DRM necessary for a 3rd party reader or personal computer. Loan a book for 2 weeks? Sure, no problem. Overdue charges? Check the Nook timeline (and of course, Kindle could get in there….).
    Lending is a physical thing, make the device the object of loan, not how many books or which ones. Where is the revenue for the publisher? Not having pirated copies, cheap PR, word-of-mouth.

  9. I knew I was in a dying industry when I went to NYC and found publishers with floor after floor of vacant desks. “We have downsized our editors” I was told. “That is why we depend so much on agents to give us camera ready marketable projects.” No wonder so many agents are cab drivers, security guards, high school teachers…. all are editors between jobs delivering their list of clients while they drop off a resume. …. A few years later I asked a top publisher what they were going to do if ebooks ever took off. “Live off our backlist.” ……Now I know the big sisters are all crazy as they have cut out ebooks from libraries. Independents will be happy to give a copy to every library in the country — it is free advertising after all. Besides writers write to share ideas, somehow paper got in the way. Now that publishing will be free, people will soon be begging and paying libraries to hold their books so the public will know a title has readable intellectual value. To not allow a library to have your ebook is insanity and greed gone wild.

  10. It’s nice to see that Seth and I agree on where publishing is going. I do think it’s too late for publishers to build the \never-ending\ relationship with readers because to do that they have to re-establish their brands. For centuries their skillset has been to create authors as global brand with little to no track-back to the entity who made that author famous -unlike the music business as an example. Readers know writers but couldn’t pick a publisher out of a line-up if you put a gun to their heads. To read my predictions, check out this article: http://www.pantheoncollective.com/its-the-end-of-publishing-as-we-know-it-and-we-feel-fine

  11. This was a provocative dialogue, but its projections are limited by a common tendency to allow technology to overshadow the fundamental product, which is information and entertainment. All stakeholders need to keep themselves from being distracted from generating the products that people will buy. It’s a given that the print format is stable, whether it be produced on paper or screen. Digital technology is bloating the supply and eliminating primary capitalization requirements, like paper and shipping. Of course, prices and margins are struggling. Disruption is a wonderful opportunity for organic purges and opens the door for innovations. But whatever makes money in our business in the years to come will have little relevance to technology, which is simply a delivery system. The more things change, the more humans remain the same. People who had money and who could read 1000 years ago would have paid a lot for information about how to survive the Plague. There’s no market for that at present, but if there ever is many people will make money writing it, agenting it, publishing it and selling it. Tastes, furniture,clothing, technology are always in flux and survivors will flow with the process. But does the point of it all ever really change, has it ever? Jeff Herman

  12. I hope I’m not alone in thinking that the e-book is revitalizing the publishing industry in many ways, and creating new kinds of excitement about the way we are transmitting the written word to readers who are still hungry for great books. I don’t see technology as heralding the death of books or conversation about books–I see technology as a way of bringing in new readers and making it easier and easier to access all different and new kinds of writing. Great interview, guys.

  13. Great interview, Jeff. I particularly appreciate Seth’s comments on the role of literary agents. Our job is to manage an author’s entire career, not just to get advances.

  14. You know what, Jeff? As much as I admire Seth Godin and think he is a forward-thinking visionary voice of change for how content is read, accessed and disseminated in the new digital economy, I think he is a bit cavalier and dismissive about the important and necessary role for agents and publishers. Disintermediation is the buzzword of the moment, but in a world where anyone and everyone can publish himself, there has never been a more vital need for curation, for that first and second level of filtering that separates wheat from chaff, and for the ability to bring content to the attention of readers. Despite how much easier it is for an enterprising author to do it all himself, it is a massively time-consuming, labor intensive endeavor to be your own editor, marketer and publisher. And judging by the number of queries in my inbox in a week, there are more people writing books than reading them. Every one of them can put their books up on Amazon, B&N and Apple, but who will tell people to read them? How will buyers know about them, and whether it’s worth their time and money? There is a good reason to pay someone else to perform these functions. Of course there are exceptions, but that’s just what they are: exceptions. For every Hocking or Konrath, there are five –or maybe fifty–thousand writers who sell 100 copies or fewer of their self-published books, mostly to their nearest and dearest. Amazon is happy to sell them; they make money on every download.

    I don’t think big publishers are going away, but they are revising the way they do business. It’s like turning an ocean liner: you don’t see the turn while you’re in the middle of it, but they are changing their direction and focus. We may be in the twilight of the print publishing era, but we’re not in the twilight of publishing itself. It’s time for publishers to leave behind old methods of marketing and publishing, but it’s not time for them to leave publishing to the authors. It’s not just agents who are vital to authors, it’s the massive might of publishers, too.

    As an agent, I’ve always felt that it was my job to manage an author’s career, not just get an advance. When Godin says the days of the journeyman writer are over, I think he’s wrong: they never existed. Being a writer is a hell of a way to make a living, and very few ever do. I have never in my career told an author to quit his day job. My job description is changing as the marketplace changes, but there’s more to be done for authors and books than ever before; I’ve never been busier.

    But I agree completely with Godin about libraries. We need them as much, or more, than ever.

  15. Authors may not have the “right” to make money, but at least now they have the opportunity. It’s easy to pass off the new breed of authors as amateurs, and yes, those in it for the quick buck will eventually fail. At the end of the day, writing a good book is still hard, and marketing it is even harder.

  16. Today’s writers must do more than write to stay competitive. Self-education is the number one practice all writers should follow – and that includes keeping up with the latest changes in the ongoing publishing revolution.

    Blogs like Seth Godin’s provide a valuable barometer to those of us trying to weather this storm. As a new writer just entering the business, I rely on those who’ve been in the biz awhile to interpret the daily shifts in the publishing climate. Seth’s analyses, along with those of several other well-known bloggers, gave me the courage to venture into self-publishing last year, and I’ve had no regrets. Though my sales are not where I’d like them to be just yet, these bloggers also preach patience, which I’m slowly learning while I continue to hone my craft.

    As long as the publishing industry is in turmoil, I’d rather take charge of my own writing career than leave it in the hands of companies who may not be in existence tomorrow.

  17. Having just read the interview and the barrage of comments that followed, I realized that not far from Seth Godin’s visions and dominos; Lantz Powell’s vacancies; Jeff Hermans bloating; Jenny Bent’s diplomacy; Deborah Schneider’s ocean liner and  Jim Kukral’s opportunities, (I know I’ve missed a few) there is a common thread or common denominator that runs through or touches all — and that is change! As I write this,  the headline —’ Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc. announced it will stop publishing print editions of its flagship encyclopedia for the first time in more than 200 years’ — appears on my computer screen. Although this was not unexpected, it is in a way symbolic of the kind of change that we are in the midst of. Who knows, perhaps this is just the beginning? Thanks to all for the spirited commentaries ! And thank you Jeff for your persistence,

    Regards,
    Charles

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