Industries that sell products which can be digitized are grappling with everything from revenue to new business models and the book publishing industry is no exception to this rule.
News broke over the weekend that famed Marketing thinker/doer and best-selling business book author, Seth Godin (Linchpin, Tribes, Purple Cow, All Marketers Are Liars, etc…) was going to stop publishing books "traditionally" (you can read the full news item here via The Wall Street Journal: Author to Bypass Publisher for Fans). The news hit Twitter like a brushfire (especially amongst Marketing Nerds like your truly). "The author of about a dozen books including Purple Cow said he now has so many direct customer relationships, largely via his blog, that he no longer needs a traditional publisher. Mr. Godin plans to release subsequent titles himself in electronic books, via print-on-demand or in such formats as audiobooks, apps, small digital files called PDFs and podcasts," stated The Wall Street Journal.
This is a lot bigger than Seth Godin and book publishing.
A couple of years back, a major consumer brand approached my agency, Twist Image, about developing an e-commerce platform so that they could sell directly to consumers. I’ve been in similar scenarios over the years, and I know that the major retailers don’t love it when brands sell directly. When I prodded the brand on this point, their blunt answer was: "the retailers are constantly beating us down on margins and exclusivity. We’re currently in a scenario where we’re at the mercy of less than a handful of retailers and our margins are shrinking. If we don’t start to have a direct relationship with our consumers, we’re sunk."
An e-commerce website is not going to save them.
That brand is making the mistake of confusing "selling directly to customers" with "having a relationship with our consumers". Seth published a Blog post about his shift away from traditional publishing yesterday titled, Moving On, in which he writes: "The thing is – now I know who my readers are. Adding layers or faux scarcity doesn’t help me or you. As the medium changes, publishers are on the defensive… I honestly can’t think of a single traditional book publisher who has led the development of a successful marketplace/marketing innovation in the last decade. The question asked by the corporate suits always seems to be, ‘how is this change in the marketplace going to hurt our core business?’ To be succinct: I’m not sure that I serve my audience (you) by worrying about how a new approach is going to help or hurt Barnes & Noble. My audience does things like buy five or ten copies at a time and distribute them to friends and co-workers. They (you) forward blog posts and PDFs. They join online discussion forums. None of these things are supported by the core of the current corporate publishing model."
This isn’t the future of publishing… this is the future of business.
I asked my literary agent, James Levine, about his thoughts on Seth’s move. This is what he said:
- Fan base. Must be fanatic, very large, and inclined to read the author’s works in digital format. This won’t work right out the gate for authors whose main following is in print.
- Marketing savvy and support. Aside from being very smart about marketing, the author needs to have the staff in place to execute, execute, execute, daily, daily, daily. Many authors will underestimate how expensive and time consuming this is.
- Long term money goals. The author needs to be able/willing to forego the short-term guarantee from a publisher [known as "the advance"] and bet on long term sales direct from consumers (the per unit revenue to the author is much bigger when the author acts as the publisher).
- Platforms. It’s important to realize that this approach will make the most sense for authors who make most of their money by speaking/consulting to business audiences. In this sense, books are a form of advertising for the more lucrative services provided by these authors.
I would add to this list…
- Editing. Seth touched on this in his Blog post. He said he would personally engage a world-class editor to help him sharpen the content and get it ready for "prime time."
- Sales reps. My guess is that Seth will also engage freelance sales representatives (probably one of the folks that the big publishers or book retailers let go as they downsize) to ensure that some of his content does make its way on to retail bookshelves (airport book stores and some of the bigger chains).
So, can every brand be Seth Godin?
The answer is "maybe." We tend to see this one act: "Seth leaves major book publishing behind." What we forget is the track record (twelve best-selling business books, as many speaking events per year as he would like to do, his own seminars, thousands of Blogs posts, free eBooks and more goodwill thank you can shake a stick at). This amounts to decades of doing tons of things (let’s not forget about Squidoo) that all had him in direct connection with the people who will buy his books from him, talk about it to their peers and evangelize his always-brilliant thinking.
Can you really say that you have this kind of relationship with your consumers?
What Seth, The Wall Street Journal, the book publishing industry and the literary agents aren’t telling you is that you can – in fact – be just like Seth Godin. These Digital Marketing channels are here for you (and they’re free – if you don’t count the time you need to put into them). In text, images, audio and video you too can publish how you think to the world… instantly. You too can share with others, build relationships and get your ideas to spread. You do not have to rely solely on mass media to help spread the word. And, you’ll know in short order, if your idea has traction… and you’ll be able to track how that idea spreads and connects.
In the end, you are not Seth Godin, but you can be.
You can also hear my audio conversation with Seth Godin that was recorded prior to the launch of his last book, Linchpin, right here: Seth Godin Podcast (Six Pixels of Separation – The Twist Image Podcast #181).