Why Most Authors Should Not Emulate Seth Godin

Seth Godin is one of my heroes. I have read nearly all his books. I subscribe to his blog. I am a fan. I also consider him a visionary and a friend.

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Yesterday, he wrote a very provocative post on why he is “Moving On” from the traditional world of book publishing in order to connect directly with his readers. This has created a stir on the Internet.

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For example, Mike Shatzkin said, “There’s only one Seth Godin, but there are other authors who might emulate him.” Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Work Week, also commented, as did the Wall Street Journal. Several of my readers have asked for my thoughts about Seth’s decision, so I thought I would respond here.

The short answer is this: While I think this might be the right answer for Seth, I don’t think it is the right answer for most authors. I can think of four reasons why most authors should not follow his lead here:

  1. Most authors can’t get directly to their readers. Sure, Seth can. His blog attracts an estimated 438,000 followers. But he is the exception. Most authors aren’t directly connected to their readers. Without a platform, an author is like John the Baptist: “a voice crying in the wilderness.” With more than one million new book titles published last year, getting your voice heard is a challenge. I am not arguing that traditional publishing is the answer, but I don’t think going-it-alone is either. It might just be tougher than it looks.
  2. Much content doesn’t lend itself to alternative forms of distribution. Some does, to be sure. Seth, for example, writes short, pithy, stand-alone non-fiction. It’s perfect for blog posts. In fact, many of his books feel like collections of blog posts. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. It’s a great way to write. (I know many authors who first posted their book online, one segment at a time, and then published it conventionally.) But it doesn’t work for all genres, particularly fiction and the kind of non-fiction that requires a longer, more sustained argument.
  3. Most authors still have need to monetize their content. Seth might be the most generous person I know. He happily gives his content away because he wants to get his ideas out as broadly as possible. But most authors don’t have this luxury. They have to be compensated for their effort or they can’t afford to invest the time it takes to create truly great work. Sure you can sell Kindle, Nook, or iBooks editions (provided you can figure out the different formats), but despite what you may read in the press, it is still a very small part of the publishing business. Tim Ferriss points out, for example, that digital book sales (all formats) on his last royalty statement were “a mere 1.6% of total units sold.”
  4. Most authors aren’t prepared to setup an alternative publishing infrastructure. Getting into print is the easy part. You can find a hundred companies via Google that will help you do that. Or you can just publish online. But what about getting a cover designed, editing the book, writing the jacket and marketing copy, and getting it designed and typeset? Worse, what about formatting the book for the 20-plus online etailers (many of whom have their own proprietary digital formats), distributing the content via your own Web site and others, collecting the money, and fielding customer complaints? This is what Ingram CEO Skip Prichard calls “the ugly stuff” that still has to be done to get your content in circulation and ultimately get paid.

In the final analysis, why does this have to be an either/or decision? If authors have a timely message that needs to get out fast, they can disseminate it on a blog or create an eBook. If they simply can’t find a publisher with the vision or the willingness to take a risk, then by all means, they should bypass the publishing machine, and do it themselves. But if they have the choice, why not do both?

Question: What do you think? Agree? Disagree?
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  • http://jbrucecarden.com Bruce Carden

    I have written and published a book myself. For me, as hard as it was to go through the process of publishing it, it was well worth it for me. If what I have written gets in the hands of just one reader, and it helps them in some way, then all the work and cost involved with publishing will be well worth it. I don't write with money in mind, I write with what I can do in mind. If that ever changes I will probably quit writing and turn off my website.

  • Bob Mayer

    Ultimately, you'd be out of a job if everyone did what he did. So let's cut to the chase. Especially since you have a vanity arm of your company. You're a dying breed and holding on to what you have tooth and nail. By the way please don't send one of your editors to spam my blog the way you did last time I posted. Pretty tacky and cheap.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Maybe. Regardless, I think we’re doing our best to adapt to a changing environment. I have learned a tremendous amount from Seth and given his books to scores of authors—and will continue to do so.

  • http://twitter.com/TesTeq TesTeq

    If you want to be one of the "most authors" don't follow Seth Godin's advice. If you want to be a successful author in the Internet age build a direct relationship with your readers. Sending your masterpiece to the publisher will not work anymore!

  • Matthew W

    As far as the post-by-post-then-gather type of books not being suitable for some genres: I'm not sure that this is true for fiction. At the very least, it hasn't always been true, and it's possible that no one has actually done it in a widely-read blog at this point. But this is >the< way some books were written, such as the Sherlock Holmes books and Dumas' "The Count of Monte Cristo."

  • http://www.cyndysalzmann.com Cyndy

    Disagree. Strongly. An author with a platform (or decent readership for novelists) can do much better financially with ebooks and POD availability than signing with a traditional publisher. I've done both — and can't see reverting to the "old school" paradigm of traditional publishing. Plus – as a Christian author, this gives me the freedom to follow my heart and write to my audience. Exciting times for authors… : )

    Take a peek at what novelist Joe Konrath has done if you are not convinced. http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      I don’t doubt the financial aspect. It just comes down to what you want to do with your time. I could have been the contractor on my house and saved a lot of money, but it wasn’t a good use of my time. I don’t think it is for most authors either. But, we are living through a time of great experimentation, where you can try these various options and see for yourself. If it works for you, then by all means do it.

      • http://www.cyndysalzmann.com Cyndy

        Actually, by connecting with my audience directly, I make more money — and can spend more time on writing. Granted, this may not be feasible with an author who doesn't have a platform or established fan base. The nitty-gritty of publishing a book (design, editing, etc.) is easy to learn — or authors can hire a "coach" to shepherd them through the process.

  • http://www.studentministry.org Tim Schmoyer

    I have a book coming out with YS/Zondervan this spring (supposed to be working on the edits right now, actually), which is my first experience in being published. However, a couple years ago I released a free ebook through my blog and it’s been viewed 155,000+ times. I’m not sure how much it takes to distribute and sell that many copies of a printed book, but I’m guessing it takes a pretty substantial effort combined with really solid content.

    Personally, I’m attracted to Seth’s thoughts and may experiment with my next book idea the way he suggests since I was already thinking along those lines anyway before he came out and articulated it. I have most of my audience on my site already similarly to Seth, so it might work. The main advantage of publishing for me is the potential to reach a new audience who aren’t online.

  • http://www.studentministry.org Tim Schmoyer

    Hmm, not sure what happened to my last comment. Guess I'll try again, but shorter this time.

    I'm going through my first experience with publishing right now with my book that comes out through YS/Zondervan in the spring. My first ebook experience was a couple years ago and it's been viewed and downloaded over 155,000 times. I'm not sure what it takes to get a printed book to circulate like that, but I'm guessing it's a combination between good marketing and solid content. Hopefully I have good content, but I didn't spend a dime on marketing.

    I think I'm somewhat in the same boat as Seth with most of my audience is on my blog already. In fact, I was thinking some of the exact same things Seth is before he came out and articulated them so well. My next book will probably go back to the ebook format again.

    The main advantage of publishing for me is the potential to reach a new audience that's currently not connected with my site, and it's also provides a mental checkmark of credibility that people now assign to the rest of my content.

  • terripatrick

    I'm fascinated! Seth is certainly in a position to write directly to his readers. He knows who they are and his readership will continue to grow. I also feel your points are all very valid and good sense for the majority of new authors today.

    However, even the new author needs to take a look at their target audience and the potential venue their readers will use, to read books today and in the future. This is something authors need to consider when making publication choices. Who are my readers and what format will they choose?

    What's the demographics of my potential readership? Do they tote ereaders now? Avid readers are and it has created a huge impact on the publishing industry. Bookstores didn't realize how many of their sales were made to avid readers, who now tote some form of an ereader. These avid readers really aren't concerned with being found. They are happily reading in a more convenient manner, with a greater selection than ever before – these are happy readers. They don't follow the trends of the publishing world. Authors and professionals in publishing world – do.

    There is value added in the publishing chain between author and reader, but Seth has clarified the primary goal. Readers. Without them, not even writers have a job. Publishers need to consider that point.

  • terripatrick

    QUESTION for Micheal! So, in what format do you read books?

    You're the twitter and technology advocate and have a platform of leadership.

    You read lots of books. What's your format of choice – hardcover, trade, paperback or E?

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      It’s a toss-up. I am still reading in all formats. However, I have been reading primarily on the iPad recently. I am getting an Amazon Kindle 3 today, so I’m sure I will be using that for a while. (It’s part of my job to be conversant with all these formats.)

  • http://www.almasimanagingstress.blogspot.com/ Miriam Kinai

    It is apt for one to read the signs of the times, understand them and then act on them. The signs for one author may dictate that he act by remaining on his original path. The signs for another author may indicate that it is time to move on. Therefore, let each author read their signs (purpose for writing, platform, problems, portfolios) and act accordingly.

  • maxgrace

    Let me toss a little conflict into the mix (isn't that what makes writing interesting?). Respectfully. Couldn't each of your four arguments apply equally to the other side?

    1. Most authors can't get directly to their readers. True. But does traditional publishing change that? Aren't most mid-level authors lost in the marketing shuffle anyway? They're still not getting directly to their readers even after they've been traditionally published, because marketing resources are deployed to the big name authors.

    2. Much content doesn't lend itself to alternative forms of distribution. Most books are published in multiple formats anyway, so alternative forms of distribution automatically come into play. Besides, hasn't serialization given us great detective novels? What about best selling author Sig Siglar, who gives his stuff away online first?

    3. Most authors still need to monetize their content. Are today's advances for first-time and mid-level authors growing or shrinking? I've heard they're shrinking, and the odds of even getting an advance make it a longshot. For most authors, it will be a monetary toss-up, especially after they've invested their advance in marketing.

    4. Most authors aren't prepared to set up an alternative publishing infrastructure. This is true. But most authors aren't prepared to set up the marketing infrastructure traditional publishers expect of them, either. Going w/a traditional publisher does not exempt an author from scrambling to excel at the part of the business that isn't writing.

    Authors are like salmon swimming upstream. Of the hordes who start, only a handful makes it. This is as a should be, I think; much writing isn't worth reading. Publishers filter out the good from the bad, and make it great. However the industry might look in 10 years, I hope that there will be a vibrant Christian voice speaking into the church and culture at large through the well-considered words of Christ-centered people.

    Bill Giovannetti
    How to Keep Your Inner Mess from Trashing Your Outer World (Monarch/Kregel 2009). http://www.InnerMess.com

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Bill,

      Great questions.

      1. No, traditional publishing does not enable authors to get directly to their readers. However, it does allow them to get to them indirectly (via distributors, retailers, etc.) So if they give up that and can’t get to them on their own, they lose any ability to reach them. (Understand that my argument is not either/or, it’s both/and.) I think smart publishers and authors should both be engaging readers directly.

      2. Yes, serialization can work. Again, I am arguing both/and. Why limit yourself to one format. Publish via blog first, if that works, then collect it all and publish as a traditional book.

      3. I can’t speak for the industry. I would say advances for the mid-list authors have remained about the same. The real issue, however, is not that advance but the ongoing royalties. I would counsel authors to monetize their content the way that yields them the most money in the end.

      4. It’s one thing to set up a marketing infrastructure, and every author needs to do that, regardless of the path they take. It’s quite another thing to set up all the OTHER infrastructure you must set up to self-publish or just distribute your content via the Web.

      Thanks for your great comments.

    • http://www.cyndysalzmann.com Cyndy

      Exactly. Excellent points, Bill.

  • jeffemmersonmyautobiography

    I DISagree totally!

    KEEP creative rights
    NEVER go out of print
    KEEP more of the profits!

    We can do BETTER on our own!!

    Cheers to INDIE PUBLISHING!

    - Jeff Emmerson http://jeffemmersonmymemoir.wordpress.com/

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      “We can do better on our own.” I think it is difficult to find one solution that fits everyone. But again, I ask, “Why not both?”

  • Duke Dillard

    Given your position, Michael, it would be strange if you thought Seth's step was a good one for all writers. You would be out of a job.
    Regardless, books like The Shack show that if one has a message that touches people, our current connected world will get that message out. He had to start his own company. But it all started online. He sent some e-mails which were forwarded and so forth.
    You say 1 million books were published last year. How many of those were worth reading? My guess is that the vast majority of those will end up in someone's garage sale having been barely read.
    Yes, there are probably a few contexts that are helped by publishers, but it is very few and this will be proved in a few years when most publishers are out of business or have radically changed how they do business.
    Good on you that Seth pointed to you as being ahead of your publishing fellows. May God give you wisdom and insight to help continue to get His message out to as many as possible.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      No question that I have a biased view.

      I think it is difficult to make any argument based on The Shack. It is truly a one-in-a-million example. But even there, the big growth in sales didn’t happen until Hachette picked it up and exposed it to a bigger audience.

      I definitely think publishers will have to change to stay in business. There will be winners and losers, no doubt. I can’t speak for other publishers, but we are changing as fast as we can. We think this all presents enormous opportunities to those who do.

      Thanks for your comment.

  • http://lovedoesntletgo.blogspot.com Israel Sánchez

    As many have commented already, those two things shouldn't be mutually exclusive. Although I'm young, I love the idea of seeing my work published in a book format. Now, I write a blog, which thanks to God has gained some modest but loyal popularity. But one day soon, I pray and believe I shall see those posts in a book format. The best of both worlds.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/fglaysher Frederick Glaysher

    An interesting post. It seems to me many conventional publishers are desperately attempting to move their monopolies to the Internet. But it's too late. Here's what any author on the planet can now do, whether ebooks or printed books:

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    Cut the publishers… Time for publishing to change. Here's how… Tell your friends…

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  • http://bozo.typepad.com/munro_gentleman_adventure/ Michael Clark

    'heroes' is spelt with the extra e….
    I wonder what would happen to an aspirinh author who had a spelling mistake in his first line when he submitted a ms to Thomas nNelson

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Thanks for catching that. I have made the change.

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  • http://bozo.typepad.com/munro_gentleman_adventure/ Michael Clark

    glad you changed the spelling of heroes… no need to thank me

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  • http://www.bloggingbistro.com Laura Christianson

    I'm a Seth Godin groupie, too. I recall reading in one of his books that he hasn't always marketed his books directly to his readers, and he hasn't always had the massive audience he now enjoys. He started out as a "nobody," too, and worked very hard to build his fan base.

    Seth's writing has encouraged me to set my fears aside and try new things and new ways of doing old things.

  • Omar Elbaga

    I’m sort of with Michael on this one to a degree.

    I’m a huge advocate of independent media distribution but I cannot deny that many people who also claim that traditional publishing is a dying breed are also in their own cloud so to speak.

    Lets be HONEST here, go ask your friends and parents what they watched last night; it was most likely a TV show off of traditional tv programming not a web original. i.e. Real housewives, Jersey Shore, whatever.

    One of the biggest dilemmas many have failed to address is DISCOVERY. You can distribute but can you get discovered by the right audience and how long will it take you to do so.

    Traditional outlets still have the spending money to reach audiences and impose discovery.

    New media has a long battle years to come.

  • http://www.wilsonwritings.com Alex Wilson

    You hit it with your last line, 'why not do both?' That epublishing is coming on like a freight train is indisputable but there are still 'dead tree' books being printed and likely always will be. With the contraction of the retail outlets and the disadvantageous economics of print books vs ebooks, there will be diminishing opportunities for print publishing. It makes sense to have your feet in both bodies of water.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1196633451 John Michael Hileman

    As one who has spent far too long screaming in the desert like John the Baptist, I have to wholeheartedly agree. As a writer, it is an imperative to do both. Publishers are not the end all, but they certainly help to break down many of the most intimidating barriers authors will face.

    John Hileman
    christian-fiction-book-reviews.com

  • http://www.gospelhall.org Youth Group Leader

    If the message is so good that it can be given away, then success should come automatically. I quit putting ads on my church / sunday school teacher's website. Why make an extra $6 per month while polluting the look of the page?

  • http://www.revtrev.com revtrev

    I'm not saying anyone can be Seth Godin, but I'm so glad we live in a world where some guy with a song and a video camera can get 700,000 views on YouTube.

    Publishing is going the same way. It's not for everyone. Not everyone has all the expertise you need. But I know how to outsource it all and get it in print and well circulated online. It's the marketing where most will fall short.

    Should most authors emulate Seth Godin? I suggest the majority will…and be more successful than publishing traditionally.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      With regard to YouTube, yep, I think it’s a great thing. But for every video that goes viral, there are thousands that languish in obscurity. I agree that the marketing is the primary challenge.

      Will most authors follow Seth’s lead? Time will tell.

  • http://www.ipadebookstore.com.au ipadebookstore

    Hey I just launched a new website – be kind and check it out! http://www.ipadebookstore.com.au/

    ps this site is great I've saved as a favourite for future reference. – Great job!

  • Terrific Tom

    I’m surprised you haven’t heard of smashwords.com. It is an indie e-publisher that will publish your ebook for free and has one of the smallest commission rates I’ve seen anywhere. Like 15%!

    But the big news is they have a program called “meatgrinder” that will format your book for just about every major ebook portal, again, for FREE. And that includes iBook, amazon, B&N, Sony and Kobo. Quite a number of their fiction author are now making OVER $100,000 a year selling just ebooks and some of those are selling for less $4.00 a download.

    And it’s ALL DRM-free.

    Check it out.

  • Anonymous

    Of course, one should do BOTH! Trouble is, agents and publishers don’t always take note and you’re forced to self-publish…Here’s to hoping that the daring self-pubbed authors will survive the onrush of ONE MILLION books published/year!

  • http://www.forward-living.com W. Mark Thompson

    It appears to be 2 years out from this post. I am curious about your opinion now on these points. I can see for the most part 2-4 still being true. But what about #1. Now more than ever it seems that someone building a platform would have a direct route to their readers. What’s your take (even on the other points)?

    Note: I understand that’s a “whole post” answer. So I understand any brevity.  :)

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Yes, I agree. Author who are building a platform do have access to their readers. But the reality is that a small percentage of authors are building a platform. Most of those who have still have small platforms and need the leverage a publisher offers. Thanks.

  • Anonymous

    Seth is a master of marketing, this is most likely why others would fail trying to follow his lead.
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