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.


Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/FabioFilzi

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.

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?