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The Ideavirus: Seth Godin as a Microcosm of Publishing’s Flux

• Following Seth Godin’s decision last week to leave traditional publishing behind, several questions have been raised. Is he really making a radical change? Or is this simply another smart marketing play?

• Godin’s very public defection is just one more example of how publishing is in flux. He may be the exception to the rule, but his example sets a precedent for others to follow. Several industry observers discuss what this means — or doesn’t — for the industry.

By Mike Springer

When New York Times bestselling author Seth Godin announced recently that he was finished with traditional publishing, word spread through the industry like an, well, an Ideavirus. Talk centered on whether other big-name writers would soon follow suit, but by the end of last week many publishing commentators were saying Godin had merely managed to unleash a tempest in a teapot.

“Much ado about one of the least surprising developments in publishing this year,” is how Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, Director of Programming and Development at Digital Book World, put it.

The commotion began on August 20 with a post on GalleyCat. “I’ve decided not to publish any more books in the traditional way,” Godin told Jeff Rivera. “12 for 12 and I’m done. I like the people, 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.”

A few days later, Godin elaborated in an interview with Publishing Perspectives. “I think the book is a valuable artifact,” he said, “and it’s not going away. I don’t think it’s a great way to spread ideas to the masses, though, not any more. The idea of multi-million dollar advances based on high-risk publishing of hot books on paper — I’m pretty sure the golden age of that is behind us. The race is on to build tribes, not to do short-term high-sizzle promo. Yes, there will always be hit songs and hit books. But for the 170,000 books published every year, that’s sort of irrelevant.”

Godin is a longtime critic of traditional publishing, and was an early experimenter in alternative methods of reaching readers. In 2000, he distributed his book Unleashing the Ideavirus on the Internet for free. So, when the news broke of Godin’s defection, many questioned whether it was really news at all. As a headline writer for The New York Observer put it, “Seth Godin Can’t Quit Quitting Publishing.”

Godin needed to make a move simply to remain self-consistent, according to Jason Ashlock, agent with the Movable Type Literary Group. “His main role in culture right now is as an innovator,” Ashlock said. “That’s his voice, that’s his identity. He couldn’t really stick with traditional publishing much longer and still have that sort of innovative cred.”

Godin explained his decision to his readers in a blog post. “Traditional book publishers use techniques perfected a hundred years ago to help authors reach unknown readers, using a stable technology (books) and an antique and expensive distribution system,” Godin wrote. “The thing is, now I know who my readers are. Adding layers of faux scarcity doesn’t help me or you.”

Some doubt whether other authors have a wide-enough range of skills to make it on their own. Godin, after all, is a marketing expert.

“Self-publishing properly,” said Don Linn, Managing Partner of Linn & Co., LLC, “which means more than just getting the book made, is difficult and very time-consuming, with a million details to be attended to. It’s not a skill set most authors can perform themselves or afford to outsource in the absence of an advance — which, by definition, they won’t get.”

Linn predicted that a few more big-name authors will move into self-publishing, with some agents putting together packages for high-profile authors that bypass traditional publishing houses. “But by and large,” he said, “publishers still add considerable value to most authors, and are capable of adjusting their value proposition to remain relevant for some time going forward.”

Richard Curtis, President of Richard Curtis Associates and founder and CEO of E-Reads.com, also doubted whether Godin’s model would have widespread application. “The digital revolution dissolves intermediaries,” Curtis said. “We know that. But if everyone did what Seth Godin did, we’d be flooded with crap.” The reading public needs tastemakers — agents, editors, publishers, reviewers — to help sort things out, Curtis said.

Before jumping ship, Godin had already established himself as a marketable brand. “If Seth Godin was like Seth What’s-His-Name,” said Curtis, “and he took his manuscript of his first novel and self-published it and sent emails to the world announcing that it was available, he might sell five copies, and four of those would be to his friends and family.”

San Francisco-based novelist Seth Harwood disagreed. As an MFA graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop with short stories published in literary magazines, Harwood struggled to break into book publishing through traditional channels. In 2006 he decided to build a readership on his own. He began by offering his first crime novel, Jack Wakes Up, as a free serial audio podcast on his website and on Podiobooks.com.

“Podiobooks,” said Harwood, “is kind of like a tribe, in Godin’s terms. So basically the way that I got known in that world was to be participating in the tribe, and collaborating with the other authors.” Harwood recorded sixty-second promotional spots for other writers to use at the end of their podcasts. Eventually thousands of people had downloaded his novel. He soon had a “tribe” of his own. When a small publisher brought out Jack Wakes Up, Harwood asked his fans to go to Amazon.com and buy the book on a particular day. “It broke the top fifty in books on Amazon and hit number one in the Crime and Mystery category,” said Harwood. “The next day I had New York agents calling me instead of me calling them.”

The book was sold to Random House’s Three Rivers Press. Since then, Harwood has continued to experiment with free podcasts, self-published stories on Kindle, and other media. For his upcoming novel, Young Junius, Harwood arranged for a signed, limited edition to be offered only to his online fans. Pre-sales have already brought in over a third of the cost of the total print-run, he said.

“As writers, we need to look at getting to those readers wherever they want us to be,” said Harwood. “One of the things that Godin is saying that’s really significant is that the reality of what writers need now, and how writers can market themselves to readers, is becoming increasingly different from what publishers need, or what big bookstore chains need.”

Godin made the same point to his blog readers. “The question asked by the corporate suits always seems to be, ‘how is this change in the marketplace going to hurt our core business?” he wrote. “I’m not sure that I serve my audience (you) by worrying about how a new approach is going to help or hurt Barnes & Noble.”

As Godin told us, “I don’t think publishers have done their part in organizing, leading and connecting tribes of their readers.”

Curtis said publishing houses are doing a good job, under rapidly evolving circumstances, of straddling two worlds –- the still large retail book trade and the growing digital business. “There’s no question that the traditional publishing industry has been hammered by blow after blow that has undermined their prestige, their cash-flow,” said Curtis. “But I give credit to publishers for being able to adapt. Publishers are very smart. They learn very fast and are already beginning, like me, to have one foot in the old business and one foot in the new one.”

The threat faced by publishers in the wake of Godin’s defection, according to Hugh McGuire of Canada-based book incubator BookOven.com, is that big publishers rely on the bestsellers to finance the duds. “If all the big writers start to defect once they are successful,” McGuire wrote on his blog, “the whole system collapses.” Future contracts will have to reflect this growing threat to publishers, he wrote.

Will Godin succeed without the industry that supported him in the past? “It’s an experiment that is yet to be proven,” said Curtis. “Will he lay an egg? Will he lay an egg because his book laid an egg or because his publishing model has laid an egg? These are questions that we’re all going to look forward to seeing answered.”

We asked Godin whether he felt any trepidation moving into unknown territory. “Isn’t moving into unknown territory the entire point?” he said.

DISCUSS: Is Seth Godin a Visionary or an Exception?

Photo Credit: Brian Bloom Photography and Bodoni Design

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5 Comments

  1. Posted August 30, 2010 at 4:34 am | Permalink

    Well done – a very clear article full of stimulating questions. We are indeed on the threshold of a new age in publishing, with the word “publishing” rapidly meaning something else, more like “spread the word”. That’s what Godin means when he talks about “viral” marketing.
    The problem though, for a traditional writer (fiction) like myself, is that I have none of Godin’s marketing abilities. And I’m not sure I even have the desire to spend so much time out there pushing my writing. I see literary agents, editors and publishers as the guys best placed to do this work while I’m left free to work on my own stuff. I just hope that these guys are savvy enough to latch onto the digital e-book age and help me reach my (potential) audience…
    In short, I suspect the road chosen by Godin is good gor guys like him who already have a “platform” and moreover can manage it themselves (and I suspect not every writer can…) But how many guys are there like that? I suspect very few.
    So we’re back to the notion so well expressed in French: “plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose” = the more it changes, the more it stays the same. Traditional publishing is not about to go overboard!

  2. Posted August 30, 2010 at 7:40 am | Permalink

    Seth Godin may be a marketing genius, but like so many people lauded as such, he only has to take it so far himself and, it seems, the rest of the web will blindly take him the remainder of the way. OF COURSE this is a non-story. Seth ceased being cutting edge a decade ago. But he’s like Princess Diana. Or Brad Pitt. Bloggers know that writing about Seth will get them hits (hell, I saw Guy’s tweet and came over here!). And Seth knows that. There’s an evolution – in the early days, Seth did underground cool stuff, and was good for his readers. Then he climbed out of the pothole, and what he did was good for Seth. Now, one step further removed, what Seth does is good for those who write about him. It’s a long way from the original beneficiaries, and rather like an old, dying star, the beginning of a new evolutionary cycle is happening elsewhere.

  3. Posted August 30, 2010 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    Agreed: Seth’s signal-to-noise ratio is shifting, and maybe Dan H. is right and what bugs me about him is really just all the chatter that follows him around.

    But I dig this post because of the other Seth, Seth Harwood…a novelist, not a successful B2B author on his forth self-published title. Harwood’s experience is a tutorial for all authors. He’s working harder but I’ll bet he’s having a lot more fun too.

  4. Posted August 31, 2010 at 6:19 am | Permalink

    Opps. Fourth. A four-time self-published author obviously has a lot of energy to go forth, but I should have slowed down a bit…

  5. Posted October 6, 2010 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    Each of the above have made good points. Especially Greg P.including his comment about Seth Harwood’s approach. Editors and agents are the guardians, who specialize in triage and are therefore valuable. From the authors’ perspective, doing what it takes to adapt in a democratic way, to take advantage of new arenas while still benefiting from the strengths of the old would seem advantageous. Here’s an example. Some books that have gone out of print recently have done so because of the current upheavals. If the appropriate of these were to be reissued through an author’s actions, in digital form, they would reach a new audience and reinforce the other traditionally published books by the same author. Another: perhaps the traditional behemoth of publishing could be guided by the lighter-on-our-feet authors by combining strengths. They are not so comfortable in the digital tribal world, so we pick up that slack and everyone benefits, rather than turning our backs on those who have helped with our career building..

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