Is Seth Godin right about the future of publishing?

Seth Godin

With Amazon and ebooks swallowing so much of the book business, Seth Godin has set out a new vision for publishers. I don’t think they can follow his lead. As the book business shrinks, you’ll have to make your own way, through either luck or pay-for-play.

Seth’s post, on the site of his publishing venture The Domino Project, is called “The shift is real and it’s forever (books by the numbers).” As in all his best posts, Seth tells truths that seem obvious once you read them. In this case, it’s about the book business reaching an, erm, tipping point, based on data from Bookstat. Four key data points:

  1. Amazon sells nearly half the books sold in the US now. It’s only going to keep going that way. Barnes and Noble and other outlets are shrinking quickly.
  2. ebooks account for more than half of all books sold, and in some genres, it’s way more than that. Again, it’s only going to keep going in that direction as more genre books shift and outlets disappear. An entire generation of readers is coming along that will encounter books without ever visiting a ‘real’ bookstore.
  3. Self-published and small press books at low prices dominate unit sales. You can sell a lot more ebooks for $3, and if you want to reach a lot of people, that’s what’s happening.
  4. As always, books have always been a long tail business, but now more than ever. The bestselling book of the year will likely be read by fewer than 1% of the people in the US. There’s no other form of media that’s even close to that low. In exchange, though, there are millions (not a typo) of books hanging out at the long tail. Which is fine if you’re a reader, but tough if you’re a writer.

This aligns with my own experience. Of the eight books I worked closely on (four written or cowritten, four edited), six were published with traditional publishers and significant advances, but only two earned out their advances. (One was a bestseller.) Among authors I’m working with now, nearly all are self-publishing in one way or another. There is no difference in quality among these books; authors are just not willing to wait for publishers to get around to publishing their books in a year or two.

Can publishers follow the Seth Godin publishing model?

Seth calls on publishers to work differently:

We need publishers. We need them because most authors need financial and moral and organizational support to do the year or five of work necessary to create an important book. And we need them because most authors aren’t interested in doing all the hard work necessary to build a permission asset and promotion engine necessary to make it as an author. Readers need them too, because many want a curated, thoughtful book when it’s time to buy something.

But publishers can’t persist in their high-volume, low-conviction approach to the market. It used to work–because shelf space was king, and pumping out plenty of books got you more shelf space which gave you more chances to have more hits. So, why not?

Now, of course, shelf space is free. Literally, figuratively and actually free.

Publishers have to shift to the approach that successful VCs follow. Low-volume and high-conviction.

Once they make that commitment, they need to invest the time and money to actually build a permission asset. To connect directly to readers (people like you) instead of merely catering to bookstores. I know I’ve been saying this for twenty (!) years, but I’m still right.

I’m trying to imagine publishers doing this.

What is currently happening in the publishing market is this: Big publishers are continuing to ante up huge advances and major publicity and marketing commitments for the swing-for-the-fences books (think “Fire and Fury“). The advances for the rest of the books are fading. The publicity and marketing work is anemic, because there are just too many books. For business books, Wiley, in particular, now seems to focus on authors who who can sell tens of thousands of their own books without needing much of an advance. This is moderate volume, low-conviction, and as the book business shrivels it becomes less and less viable.

There are also lots of self-publishing options where you do most of the work yourself — or just pay them to do the work. I published The Mobile Mind Shift this way with Greenleaf Book Group; I’m working with Mascot Books on another book in this model. I like working with these publishers, but it’s expensive to do most of the work yourself, and requires a level of expertise that most people don’t have. I’d generally call these publishers low-conviction as well.

The model that Seth is describing requires publishers to invest in authors, nurture them, help them build audiences, and help promote them. (That’s what he means by developing a permission asset.) If you do that in a low-volume way, it is both risky and expensive. Most of these books will fail (just as most books fail now.) Since it’s impossible to know which books will succeed, it means investing a lot in a few risky assets.

Seth’s own Domino Project venture with Amazon published 12 books but is no longer publishing new books. Seth says that it was an experiment that proved what it could do. His promotional genius is legendary, which is why his venture produced successful books. It’s hard for publisher to duplicate; they just don’t have the stamina or brilliance to do it.

What will actually happen in publishing

The trends that Seth describes are real. As an analytical thinker, though, it is my job to describe what is most likely to happen, rather than what I want to happen. So here’s my prediction for the publishing business.

  • Big publishers will continue to publish a few big books from established names and a bunch of little ones (but fewer than before). The big books will still pay off. A few of the little ones will; the rest won’t. The advances for those first-time authors will be paltry. The publishers will do fewer and fewer of the little books because of the cost and risk. In exchange for the paltry advance, you get to wait a year while the publisher romances the increasingly less important bookstore channel. If you are a first-time fiction or non-fiction author, forget it. If you are a first-time business author, traditional publishing may not be your best bet.
  • Lots of hopeful authors will self-publish. Self-publishing an ebook is easy. Self-publishing a print-on-demand paperback is almost as easy. These books won’t appear in bookstores, but it won’t matter. Ninety-nine out of a hundred will have negligible sales. A few will catch on and fuel everyone else’s dreams.
  • People who want their books to succeed will do it themselves. Let’s say you have money and want people to know who you are and what you think. There are plenty of book publicity and PR companies that will work with you to build attention for your book. Editorial and book production resources are easy to come by; publishers like Mascot, Greenleaf, and IdeaPress can help you turn your ideas into books. There are even ghostwriters (like me) who can help you write it if you don’t have time for that. You can go as fast as you want; you can get a book in print and on Amazon in less than six months if you really want to. If your ideas are good enough, a book like this will catch on and make those ideas spread.

I don’t see publishers taking the economic risk to create the low-volume, high-commitment model that Seth describes. I do think some publishing entities will do that, but they will be publishing services, not traditional  publishers. You’ll have to pay them. And it will be worth it.

4 responses to “Is Seth Godin right about the future of publishing?

  1. My favorite self-publishing story is Andy Weir’s production of The Martian. He gained a following by publishing serially on his blog, and when his audience became too big to be ignored, that’s when he got the book deal and a ready-made audience. And a movie deal. Starring Matt Damon (and his stunt double’s bare butt). I have no idea how his (Andy’s not Matt’s butt’s) second book is doing.

  2. Hmm…

    Self-publishing an ebook is easy.

    Yes, but doing it in a quality manner is neither easy nor cheap. Those who think that they can just hit print on their Word docs will most likely publish “books” that are dead on arrival.

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