Godin: Sayonara, publishers

Seth Godin, a bestselling author and marketing guru, has apparently forsaken books.

Not the writing of them, mind you. Rather, the publishing of them — at least through the old-fashioned channels, meaning publishing houses (such as Portfolio in his case or Riverhead in mine).

In this interview, Godin says:

I’ve decided not to publish any more books in the traditional way. 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. I can reach 10 or 50 times as many people electronically. No, it’s not ‘better’, but it’s different. So while I’m not sure what format my writing will take, I’m not planning on it being the 1907 version of hardcover publishing any longer.

On his own blog, he elaborates, somewhat more diplomatically.

I finally figured out that my customer wasn’t the reader or the book buyer, it was the publisher… 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.

Those of you who’ve been following my own progress in (first) writing a book and (now) waiting for Riverhead to publish it will understand why Seth struck a chord with me.

“I can’t abide the long wait,” he says. I would say the same, except I have no choice, because I’m waiting for my first book to be published, whereas Seth is thinking of his 13th.

So I wait, and wait, and wait…

What mysterious processes are unfolding that require me to wait? As I’ve said before, I’ve never had a satisfactory explanation from anybody in the formal ‘book industry’.

In the analytical part of my mind, I know that Seth is right. Book publishers as we know them will die, will become extinct.

Books per se will never disappear, because, as Seth himself once told me for an article in The Economist, certain books (very few, actually) will always be around as “souvenirs for the way we felt” at the time of reading.

But book publishers as they exist today are very near their expiry date. My children will read about them as they read about the history of dodos or the telegraph.

At this point, I just hope the industry dies after its printing presses squeeze out a whole lot of copies of the book I have written.

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19 thoughts on “Godin: Sayonara, publishers

  1. ouch… sacrilege that books should exist for the sake of mere nostalgia!

    here’s hoping the art of book printing does not die, i still enjoy live music and vinyl records with all the imperfections. can not imagine enjoying a digital book as much as i enjoy my mandalay editions of the works of kipling. the beauty is in their imperfections, and how great they feel in the hand.

  2. Hang on, guys: I agree with both of you.

    What I said above is “Books per se will never disappear,…. But book PUBLISHERS as they exist today are very near their expiry date….”

  3. Seth Godin makes perfect sense to me–this is already happening with music. Not only do publishers slow down the process they also become, intentionally or not, gatekeepers for what is available in the market.

    The challenge in the ‘new’ world is to be able to find/filter/qualify the vast mass of stuff that will be available electronically. I think I hear the Google Librarian train leaving the station.

  4. “……book PUBLISHERS as they exist today are very near their expiry date…….”

    An asseveration which, prima facie, borders on the apocalyptic.

    But, secunda facie, it isn’t so apocalyptic because the operative phrase is “as they exist today”.

    You wrote in one of your comments: “……The one non-negligible purpose publishers still fulfill is to bestow credibility on the books they choose in the minds of bookstores, reviewers and the reading public……..”

    How about that going the time-honoured publishing route will continue to be well-nigh de rigueur for unknown writers as long as books are written?

    Only when a writer becomes known will he have sufficient power to cut his own self-publishing deals with the likes of Amazon and other book distributors.

    In this new world, writers – even the unknown – will have greater power vis-a-vis publishers than heretofore. Thus, publishers will act more solicitously towards their new unknown writers.

    One advantage to having an old-fashioned publisher is that if a book causes anyone to sue for libel or for any other reason, it is invariably the publisher who he will sue, not the writer.

  5. We need to make a distinction between the Seth Godins of the world and writers. Seth Godin is a marketer who happens to market books (his own); he’s not a writer per se. If all writing becomes an unmediated compact between author and potential audience (because publishers vanish), then all writing becomes essentially marketing. And how many great writers are suddenly going to become marketers like Godin?

    We need publishers, some form of them, to survive for the sake of writing itself.

  6. I like the way this comment thread is pointing.

    @Thomas is right that what we’re focussing on here are the deficiencies of the publishers, not the functions that they retain.

    @Phil has put his finger on the main function that they DO retain, which is to ‘authenticate’ or ‘endorse’ or ‘seed’ new writers, but with the balance of power shifting from publishers to writers once writers are established. (Analogy: Venture capital leading up to IPO)

    @Solid Gold reminds us that we need publishers, ‘some form of them’, which implicitly supports our contention that publishers IN THEIR CURRENT FORM will not survive because they fail in their emerging roles so badly.

    @Jim M. points us to one of the possible evolutionary directions: places (physical or virtual) that offer an ‘experience’ to genuine book lovers, as most of us here are.

  7. It seems that these days one can easily bypass the whole publishing process entirely. All one has to do is write a book, put it on one’s website, and charge a fee per download. If people want a print version, perhaps someone will invent a printer that spits out the printed matter as a paperback.

  8. it’s my opinion that the topic as written emphasizes godin’s views about the evolutionary direction of printed books as; “souvenirs for the way we felt”, electronic self-publishing reaches 10-50 times more people and the printing process is antique and expensive.

    o.k., it’s a secondary point, electronic trending is part of your topic in addition to the future of “publishers”.

    the distinction i made was between printed books and digital books.

    those in music who self-publish face the same challenges that would arise if “publishers” expire – capital, marketing, distribution, credibility and the obstinate customer who still wants the “hard-copy” (= a printed book).

  9. Dafna’s exactly right … “those in music who self-publish face the same challenges that would arise if “publishers” expire – capital, marketing, distribution, credibility and the obstinate customer who still wants the “hard-copy” (= a printed book).”

    Publishers (for all their faults) don’t just provide printing/distribution. When publishers have gone, a new writer, to succeed, will need to supply all those services herself.

  10. Sgx,

    so happy to get something right! te he he, “herself” 😉

    the other posts also brought up several of the same points.

  11. @dafna & solid gold creativity: I agree with both of you, but part of the problem is with publishers providing marketing and credibility. Yes, they do provide credibility the way a peer review process provides credibility to academic research. Self publishing is the wikipedia of the book world, I guess. But, and this ties in to the marketing issues, publishers being capitalists, publish what they think will sell and that doesn’t necessarily mean quality. Lately the call has gone out for vampire and zombie ouvres and if publishers only publish a certain number of books a year, doesn’t that mean that something dealing with real people might have gotten bumped off the list in the rush to feed the market?

  12. Hi Thomas, to be in violent agreement again …

    “… publishers being capitalists, publish what they think will sell and that doesn’t necessarily mean quality. Lately the call has gone out for vampire and zombie ouvres and if publishers only publish a certain number of books a year, doesn’t that mean that something dealing with real people might have gotten bumped off the list in the rush to feed the market?”

    Yes, exactly! That’s everything that’s gone wrong with publishing. But I don’t see this trend being reduced by having publishers go the way of the dodo, only radically increased. Because then everyone, not just publishers, will be feeding the ravenous beast of the “market”.

    Publishing needs to be very different, just not sure how …

  13. OK, time to clear up a few potential misreadings.

    First, yes dafna, there are two entirely separate issues here:

    1) The fate/evolution of PUBLISHERS, and
    2) printed vs digital books.

    Now, regarding number 2, here is what Seth meant when he called printed books “souvenirs for the way we felt”:

    He meant that some books — for me, the Aeneid, for example, or Catch 22, or Plutarch …. — are not just collections of words but memories. They’re part of us. We might want visitors to see them in our bookshelves. We ourselves might want to be reminded of them as we walk past them every day, even if we only pick them up once a decade. THOSE books will always remain paper-bound.

    But those are a small and shrinking percentage of “books” as we used to understand them. We don’t want our encyclopedias, our high school text books (often out of date by the time they are sold), our reference books, our dated Lonely Planets, our quickie beach reading, etc etc etc in our bookshelves. Those are ideal for digital reading (iPad, Kindle, laptop, iPhone and whatever comes next).

    My favorite analogy is horses circa 1900: Some people predicted they would disappear from America, replaced by the car. Instead, there are now more horses in America than there were in 1900, but they have a different place (polo, Central Park carriage rides, special occasions….). As a percentage of trips taken, trips by horse are minute relative to those by car.

    Now to Number 1), the fate of publishers:

    Clearly, it was not a good idea for me to use hyperbole (ie, the dodos). That confused. But — and Phil caught it — what I thought I was emphasizing was this: “as they exist today”.

    To use another analogy, newspapers. We all now accept what people like me started writing about 5 years ago, perhaps 10 years ago: that newspapers as we knew them would mostly disappear. And this is what they are doing/have done (depending where you live).

    This does not mean that ALL news brands will disappear. But the New York Times, which I today read on my iPhone and Kindle, and am certain to “read” (consume?) some other way in five years, will not be recognizable to somebody who was, as I was, reading it in, say, 1990. Then there are the Huffington Posts, the Facebook-zines that will come about, the aggregation feeds, the RSS readers, etc…

    This is what I meant to foreshadow for book publishers. Individual brands (“Random House” or whatever) may survive and even prosper. Other brands will disappear. New brands will rise. But they will all be radically different than what we think of as book publishers.

    The actual printing is trivial, in fact not even interesting anymore. The venture-capital aspect — talent spotting, talent incubating, bringing to market — is the niche that is of interest.

    Now — and this is what Seth was saying — we can confidently say that book publishers TODAY are, as a group, remarkably BAD at this ‘venture-capital’ aspect of their business. They take for-friggin’-ever, they are re- rather than pro-active, risk averse rather than risk-taking, etc etc.

    So: Somebody ELSE — it could be one among them, or Amazon, or some new and as-yet un-named category of firm — has a chance to “disrupt” this industry. (That’s Clay Christensen’s word.)

    And once it has been disrupted, whenever that is, it will be true that publishers as we know them today, with our extremely limited imaginations of what publishing can be, will be “gone” (as horses are “gone” from our manure-free streets).

  14. Andreas, I get it. Not disputing or misunderstanding what you said, or what Godin said. I’m just making a parallel or further point: that we don’t want to replicate the problems with the current publishing paradigm on a broader scale through wall-to-wall self-publishing.

    Maybe, as you’ve suggested, we can speculate about what might a future “publishing” paradigm might look like.

    For example, would a budding writer hire an agent (diff to today’s agent) or a marketer (like Godin) to get their book an audience? If so, the eventual role may not be so different from today’s publisher. And notice that the cost has moved to the writer.

    Also, what about Thomas’s idea about a Google Librarian (assuming this doesn’t already exist?) … how would this work? A writer pays an amount to Google to have their e-book filed in the library (would they use the Dewey system?) and/or a virtual bookstore, and to have a review written?

  15. What I had in mind with the Google Librarian thing is something like Amazon but with a literary rather than capitalistic motivation. Everything would be available, searchable, heuristic, etc. but there would be some sort of grading system (terrible, I know, it smacks of American Idol) that would indicate, for example, if something had been professionally edited–or that might even be a requirement for entry. Maybe there could be forums for reader feedback or something.

    The biggest problem with this whole alternative to publishing discussion is that we are limited in our thinking by the internet and existing technology. The disruptor will be the person who steps outside of that restriction. Too much technology is like text messaging–using a telephone key pad to type messages is insane–but that’s what technology gave us. It should be the other way around?

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