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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