When Seth Godin talks, it’s a good idea to listen. But it’s also a good idea to question some of his conclusions.
Leo Babuta recently hosted the man American Way Magazine called “America’s Greatest Marketer” on his zenhabits blog for a session titled On the Future of Books: A Discussion with Seth Godin. Godin had just decided to end The Domino Project which he had conducted in partnership with Amazon with the goal of reinventing the way books are created, purchased and read. It was a stimulating and provocative conversation.
Godin began by surveying the dramatic changes shaping the world of books during the last decade. In his view, Publishing was never about printing, it was about scarcity of shelf space in bookstores and media to talk about books. The electronic age has eliminated both forms of scarcity. Anyone can publish a book and anyone can use blogs and other tools of social media to talk about books.
In Godin’s view the new media landscape makes traditional publishers unnecessary. Always first and foremost a marketer, Godin suggests using a tool he popularized, permission based marketing, to “create a tribe of readers.” Through blogs and other social media people opt-in to become “friends” and it is possible to market directly to them. More importantly marketers can use the kind of information Amazon is gathering about the interests and buying preferences of these friends to know exactly what they want. This would turn the traditional model of publishing upside down. Instead of creating books and looking for readers, you would look for readers and create books for them.
Godin advises that instead of waiting for a traditional publisher to choose their books to publish, authors should build their own media companies and go directly to potential readers avoiding the middle man.
It’s an interesting and maybe prescient look into the future of books in the new information economy. In a world where influence is based on “thought leadership” books are a key to establishing one’s credentials. Dorie Clark in the Harvard Business School Review offers a six step process for becoming a thought leader which culminates with the advice that “there is no more definitive proof of thought leadership than authoring a good book on your chosen subject.” In this context of books as an “information exchange” Godin’s view of publishing seems spot on.
But it’s only part of the story. Godin, despite authoring thirteen books, doesn’t seem to have much respect for the book. He told Babuta that, “People hate to read.” He is dismissive of fiction generally and literature in particular. Indeed, he wonders about books themselves observing that you can reach ten to twenty times as many people with a blog.
It is here that I part company with Godin. Shorter isn’t always better. A forum conducted by New York’s New School, Long Form Story Telling in a Short Attention Span World offers an excellent counterpoint demonstrating why we shouldn’t try to fit all stories into a blog post or a sound bite. Indeed, creative non-fiction, the technique of telling true stories using the tools of the fiction writer, has emerged as one of the hottest genres of the last decade
It may be possible, as Godin suggests, to create a marketing niche for certain types of genre fiction. James Patterson has certainly done it with his crime fiction. However, fiction at its best is more than simply giving readers what they think they want. The literary artist creates stories that people didn’t know they wanted to read. As the Pulitzer prize winning historian Daniel Boorstin observed in his book The Creators: A History of Heroes of the Imagination, ‘These creators, makers of the new, can never become obsolete, for in the arts there is no correct answer.” One can’t create the new by adhering to a formula based on market research.
Should we turn Boorstin’s creators into entrepreneurs following Godin’s advice to found their own media companies? I don’t think so. We are better off as a culture if these people can devote their time to creating their unique works.
What we need to do is figure out how to disseminate those works in a new publishing universe. We haven’t done that yet. Neither has Seth Godin.
Thanks to Bill Smith who pointed me to the Godin interview on his blog Dr. Bill's Book Bazaar.