Seth Godin’s “Domino Project”: Can It Beat the Big Six?

In English Language by Guest Contributor

With support from Amazon.com and an army of eager interns, Seth Godin’s new company promises to rewrite the tenets of big league publishing.

By Jeff Rivera

Last year marketing guru Seth Godin made a splash when he announced he was abandoning traditional publishing to go the DIY route and work with Amazon. When Godin’s first product of that relationship, Poke the Box, was released on March 1, people were wondering if he would fail in his Jerry McGuire-esque departure from the industry or would he come back in a Julia Roberts, Pretty Woman moment and tell the naysayers, “Big mistake”?

Of course Godin has a great deal of experience in book publishing and was going into the process blind. And Poke the Box “sold more copies in its first month than any book” he’s done. But it’s just the beginning for Godin’s “Domino Project” — a hybrid publishing/marketing company, run by Godin with a skeleton staff and a merry band of interns — and powered by Amazon.com.

How does he manage to succeed while defying convention?  What are his plans? And does he believe he can beat the Big Six at their own game?

Publishing Perspectives: First of all, what makes Poke the Box any different from your previous dozen titles and did publishing through Amazon change the way you work/published?

Seth Godin: It didn’t take very long to write the book. It took a very long time to think about the book. It was partly my doing this project with Amazon that led to it. I realized almost anyone in book publishing could have done it, but no one took the effort to do it. And once again, we see that if you’re willing to step up and do something, the market place is willing to listen to you.

Once you start by saying, “I must get shelf space, I must be in the bookstore, I must sell for $18, I must be a certain length, I must have a book that can hold up long enough that a year from now, when it comes out, everything in it will still be relevant.” Once you make all those decisions, the kind of book you write changes.

And I’ve done more than a hundred books as a book packager, from Almanacs on down. Big, complex Almanacs are dead because the Internet has eliminated them. Books, where the only way to get the idea is buying the book, are dead because the Internet has made it so that ideas are free.

Seth Godin is thinking hard about the future of publishing

So what I’m thinking about when I write a book like Poke the Box is not “How do I write this for the person who will be easy for me to sell it to?” but “How do I write it so once that person reads it, they’re likely to give it to someone else?” And that second order sale, that idea that books are actually manifestos organized to spread, really changes the way you think about writing a book.

PP: Let’s talk about your life after you went rogue, after you quit traditional publishing; because that made a huge splash when you made that announcement. How has your life changed since making that announcement?

SG: I’ve been in the book business for 25 years. I really like the people in the book industry. And I love books. So I’m not walking away from either one. What I see happening is that book publishers are afraid. And like many people who are afraid, they focus on creating scarcity. They clamp down. They look to make things harder.

The Internet is all about abundance. It’s easier to share videos than ever before; easier to share an idea than ever before; easier to share music than ever before. But books are so old and in fewer places than they used to be; cost more than they used to be; and are harder to share than they used to be. And I think that’s a failure on the part of the book industry. So that shift is what led me to do this.

Now, in terms of what’s changed in my life, once you don’t have to please middle men, that freedom also brings with it some danger because you can publish things easily. So you have to figure out how to sensor yourself.

With my blog, which I’ve been writing for more than seven years, I only post once a day. And the reason is because it forces me to pick my best shot for that day. I think if I didn’t do that, I would have more traffic but my average would go down.

And so in writing books that I can bring to the world, I’m trying very hard to understand that they don’t have to come out once a year. They’re going to come out more than that. But they also need to be books that are worthy of being books.

PP: Your company is called Domino Project. How would you describe it, as a publishing company or media outlet?

SG: Well, let’s understand that publishing has nothing to do with chopping down trees, or even printing. Most big publishers don’t own their own printing plant. Publishing has to do with taking financial and intellectual risk to bring ideas to the public, and we’re publishers. That’s what we do. We have some luxuries on our side. We don’t have to worry about returns, nor do we have to worry about long sell-ins, nor do we have to worry about significant financial risk because all our staff fit in one warehouse.

We don’t have to worry about interrupting the whole world, putting on a song and dance show every book because we have subscribers whereas very few book publishers do. So now there’s more than 25,000 people who’ve signed up to hear every time we come out with something new. That’s a huge asset that almost no publisher has, and some of our books will just be on the Kindle. Most of our books will be hard cover as well. Most of our books will be audio. Every one of our products is available in any bookstore that wants to carry it.

So, in many respects we look and act like a real publisher. The difference is we don’t pay advances because we are co-publishing, co-creating with the author, and so we are not in-charge. We are both in-charge and that means we can eliminate lots of the things in the typical relationship that drive authors crazy.

PP: Who approached whom with your partnership with Amazon?

SG: Well, it’s not a partnership. I need to make that clear, but I went to them 15 years ago, and then I went to them 10 years ago, and then I went to them 5 years ago. And each time they said they weren’t ready. Then I posted on my blog that I was done with traditional book publishing. A couple of weeks later, people I know with Amazon showed up and said, “Well, if you started something, we would like to be the backend and help you power it.” And so, that’s how it happened.

PP: What exactly is it that Amazon does for Domino Project?

SG: We haven’t got into too much of the detail in public but basically Amazon has an enormous ability to bring books and book-like things to people. They also have knowledge about who does what. They don’t share that knowledge with me at all but they can point things out.

For example, we discovered that 20% of the sales of Linchpin, which is my bestselling book ever, were made to people who bought five or more copies at a time. Now, no other book publisher or bookseller would ever know that. Only Amazon keeps track of things like that, but once you know that, then you say “Wait, we should make a five-pack and a 52-pack and we ought to treat those people differently because they want something different.”

Amazon helps us reach people who are interested. From Amazon’s point of view, they got a couple of benefits. One benefit is obviously, they make more money because they’re helping us with this. But the other thing is that, as the Kindle rapidly grows in share and in attention, anything that Amazon can do to make the Kindle more attractive is obviously a good strategic move for them.

From my point of view, the way people read on the Kindle is really different than a way people read a regular book, and given how fast people are moving to the Kindle I thought it was incumbent on me to understand how that worked.

PP: Why did you choose the Kindle instead of any of the other devices or platforms?

SG: Well, Amazon hasn’t revealed any numbers to me or to anyone about Kindle sales but it’s really obvious that the Kindle is the dominant platform for reading books. And people with iPads read books but they don’t get an iPad to read books and the impact of the iPad on book reading, I think, is small compared to the Kindle.

When it comes to things like the Vook where you have video, I love that experience but it’s too expensive to create and none of the people are willing to pay for it. So, I’m not sure that I could do a good job making products for that niche. And as far as the Nook, a good friend of mine works on that product but I haven’t, judging from email, found very many of my readers who have chosen that as their platform of choice.

PP: Let’s talk about the infrastructure of Domino Project. Who are the key people who are in your staff and what did they do?

SG: What I did a few months ago was that I put a post on my blog saying that I was going to run sort of a hybrid of one of an MBA program in addition to an internship program. So the idea would be that I would pay people who would come to the office and I would teach them every day as well as giving them projects to work on related to Domino Project.

A thousand people applied and I picked six who work on a Domino Project from publicity to technology, to social media, to a managing editor and their art director. Every day, we sit around with a big table and dream of the next big thing. It turns out that when you don’t need to worry about physical inventory or book stores, you don’t need nearly as many people to make a publishing campaign that has an impact.

PP: You’re doing everything differently with your books, including the page count, the size of the books, the marketing. Why is that?

SG: Yeah, here’s the thing. People come up to me, sort to often and say, “You should congratulate me, I finished your book.” No one goes up to Christopher Nolan and says “Congratulate me. I made it all the way through that Batman movie.” Right? And when you sit down with your kids, and you play them something like the 2,000 year-old vintage piece of entertainment, they can’t believe how slow it is.

Now, I think there is huge opportunity to help people think clearly by going slowly, by having 40-page long chapters, with footnotes. But those ideas aren’t going to spread. And so, I’m happy to leave the Pulitzer Prize-winning to other people. What I’m trying to do is use this medium that I love and that I’m familiar with, to come up with ideas that actually have impact and can be used as reliever. And so, yeah, my chapters are now down to 2-pages long, or 3-pages long, and the reason is that’s the way we have trained people to think. We think clearly at a different rate than we did 80 or 90 years ago.

No one buys a book anymore if they don’t know what the book is about, if they don’t know what the idea in the book is before they even got it. And so what that requires authors to do is figure how to make their ideas spread so that they get a chance to hammer those ideas home in book form.

PP: Recently you blogged about the challenges that publishers face with their special sales departments. Would you like to expand?

SG: Here’s what I know — different industries attract different people. And the people who come to an industry tell themselves a story. So I worked with Kodak years ago. And Kodak is basically a chemical company that happened to sell film. The mindset of someone who wants to work with chemicals in Rochester, NY is fundamentally different than the mind set of someone who goes to Google in 2007.

People are people but you select, self-select whose going to come work there. And so there’s a reason that the culture of Google is different than the culture of Kodak. While the culture of most book traditional publishers is underpaid, over worked Ivy League graduates. These are people who have loved the idea of being around authors. And who very much like the idea of working with ideas in an office building. Those people didn’t sign up to do ground breaking, aggressive, off the chart sales work and they don’t know how to embrace that.

So, we’re able to turn around without an enormous staff and sell, for example, one company, about 15,000 copies of my book in hardcover. And they’re going to be able to use that as a really powerful marketing tool because the book feels like it’s worth more than it costs, right? Different than a — like a Styrofoam cozy or a USB keychain. You give someone a book and they remember the book. And they remember who gave it to them.

Well, 15,000 copies of a hardcover book is more than any book on the New York Times bestseller lists sells in a few days or even a week, right? And that’s just from one special sale. And it also puts the book in hands of people who ordinarily wouldn’t go to a bookstore. Or online and buy it. And if your goal as an author is to reach people, this makes perfect sense.

While I’m ranting, I wanted to add for a moment about the New York Times bestsellers list. The Times gets the reputation, good or bad, for having an agenda. And I happen to think that there are enormous hardworking people who do a great service for our culture.

But one thing is true, which is every single week, they publish several pages that they know are not true. Every single week the Times publishes lists that they call ‘the bestseller list’ and they know those are not the bestsellers; that we have accurate data as to which books actually are the bestsellers and the Times intentionally ignores that data. And they do it because they’re trying to influence what our culture reads. They’re trying to make sure that real books show off on the list not fake books; which is why, for example, they took advice how-to in miscellaneous and made it his own list.

And we [at Domino Project] made a decision early on. Are we going to please our readers and our authors? Or are we going to try to please someone at the Times by gaming their system? Because I know how to game their system, I know people who do game the system, some of them for a living. That is not particularly difficult if you want to spend some money to buy your way on to the list.

If you go to meetings of book publishers, they spend a lot of time talking about — “How do we front load the sales?  How do we organize the pre-orders so they come in on the right reporting day? How do we move bulk sales out of the bulk sales division through a bookstore; so that, even though they cost more, we get credit with the Times?” And we just decided not to do that. We decided it was way easier to be coherent in our goals, as opposed to always wonder what the Times would like us to do.

DISCUSS: Is Amazon Too Powerful?

About the Author

Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.