Friday, July 29, 2005

Seth Godin's Advice to Writers

Anyone who reads Publisher's Lunch likely caught this bit about Seth Godin's advice to non-fiction writers. And for anyone who didn't, here's a brief summary:
1. Please understand that book publishing is an organized hobby, not a business.
2. The timeframe for the launch of books has gone from silly to unrealistic.
3. There is no such thing as effective book promotion by a book publisher.

4. Books cost money and require the user to read them for the idea to spread.
5. Publishing is like venture capital, not like printing.

I highly recommend reading the whole thing, as he provides greater detail for these points, which (more often than not) are spot on.

To begin, Godin points out that the return on equity (and more importantly the return on time) is awful for both writer and publisher. I can personally attest to that fact. Sadly, for a majority of published authors, writing books is not enough to make a living - not on the advances and book sales themselves. Many authors support themselves through other writing, lecturing, teaching, or consulting (and then there are a bunch who don't need a job anyway!). Something many people don't realize is that book publishing is a business run on very small margins. Some authors get huge advances and some executives take home huge paychecks, but the greater majority of writers and publishing employees are grossly under-paid (in comparison) and do what they do out of a passion for books, ideas, and ideals.

Godin's second piece of advice, that the time between the writing of a book and it's publication is painfully long (often a year or more), illustrates what I believe is a significant problem for the publishing industry. In this age of immediate, electronic access to information, the publishing industry still works according the Gutenberg model. The problem is that to change this, publishers will need to re-invent the way they do business and that promises to be quite painful, risky, and unfriendly. A book published today follows roughly the same procedures it would have 50 years ago. An editor buys a book from an agent and has to "sell" its virtues or "pitch it" to the marketing, advertising, and publicity staff at the publisher. The marketing staff then has to "sell" the book to the sales staff, who then has to "sell" the book to book buyers at the physical retail locations (bookstores, etc.). This is all before a single book has been purchased by a consumer. Additional "selling" of the book occurs through the publicity department who "pitches" the book to the media, who then provides coverage so that consumers know to go out and buy the book. It's a lot of convincing and hyping that needs to happen in order to ensure that enough copies of a book appear in bookstores across the country. And that's just to get it into stores - it doesn't even cover the marketing of the book to the consumer, the promotion of it, the advertising, etc. This model has been in place for decades and I don't see anyone (a major publisher) who is ready to change it. What I think publishers must realize though is that someone is going to figure out a feasible way to change the process. Someone is going to use the new technologies available now and develop a strategy for doing it better.

Godin's third point is clearly one with which I take considerable umbrage. To quote:
There is no such thing as effective book promotion by a book publisher. This isn't true, of course. Harry Potter gets promoted. So did Freakonomics. But out of the 75,000 titles published last year in the US alone, I figure 100 were effectively promoted by the publishers. This leaves a pretty big gap.

There are many things wrong with this statement. One, Harry Potter could have no promotion and still sell 10 million copies - it's hardly a fair example, and being a savvy marketer, Godin must know how improbable and unfair a comparison that is. Freakonomics is a better example, but even there you risk making a mistake by assuming that strong sales are necessarily the result of a great promotional campaign. Some books do exceptionally well without a great promotional plans behind them, some book with amazing promotional efforts completely flop. It's an art, not a science.

The larger issue at stake here is one of limited capacity. Godin says, "[O]f the 75,000 titles published last year in the US alone, I figure 100 were effectively promoted by the publishers." Frankly, there is not a market to support the promotion of 75,000 titles. The New York Times has a limited capacity to review books - they can't do all 75,000. The human brain has a limited capacity to process new information - we could possibly handle having 75,000 titles marketed and promoted to us in a year (which is equivalent to learning about 205 new books every day!). Blaming the publisher for a poor promotional plan is wrong, and doesn't go about addressing the problem accurately.

I know that as a publisher, we would love to be able to successfully promote everything we do (and believe me, we try very hard to do that), but it's simply a fact of life that there are limits out there that are imposed upon us (not from within). Every book we publish is sent to The New York Times for review, but as I said, they have a limited capacity to review books, so not every books gets the attention it deserves. And unfortunately, newspapers often review the same books, so one book may get lots of attention while others get none. This is not because the publisher didn't do everything it could to get all of their books reviewed. So what are we to do? Publish fewer books? That would mean you are less likely to have your book published at all. Is that what these kinds of stabs at the publishing industry are trying to achieve?

Godin's fourth point, which is not so much advice as an observation, is that people don't read. That's an over-statement, but it gets back to point 3 in that we have a limited capacity for information and in this day and age the average person seems to be over-whelmed with information to the point that it's hard to finish a book. As a writer, I wouldn't let this get you down. There are plenty of people who will find your book, devour it, and salivate for the next - you may just not hear from them. One also needs to recognized that the most important word in book publishing during the next century is going to be "niche."

The fifth point, that publishing is more venture capital than simply "printing a book," is one I like quite a bit, and I'm glad someone other than a publishing "insider" said it. An advance is an investment, not a gift, and while I'm reluctant to say publishers are looking for a "big" return (see point 1, there are no big returns), the money we put into a project is a joint venture for us, one we would expect you as the author to treat as a partnership with mutual goals and hopefully shared success. Basically, it becomes our baby, too! I recently had an experience with a potential author who wasn't able to accept this idea of partnership, and she eventually dropped out of a verbal agreement we had to publish her book. So working with a publisher is definitely not for everyone.

Seth Godin's final piece of advice is to build an asset (network) and then spread your idea(s) through the best means available (be it blog, pamphlet, street corner soapbox, etc.). He says, "Then, if your idea catches on, you can sell the souvenir edition. The book.... Books are wonderful ... but they're not necessarily the best vessel for spreading your idea." What is wonderful (in a not-at-all-wonderful kind of way) is that he calls the book "a souvenir edition." That, my friends, is exactly what book publishing is at risk of becoming: collectibles.


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3:14 PM  
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11:01 PM  
Anonymous Christine Comaford said...

Every writer should read your blog! As a writer (and former entrepreneur and venture capitalist), I frequently come across writers who don't seem to want to hear that:
1- YOU will have to promote your book. Extensively. Spending your own money.
2- YOU will have to "sell" your talents/ideas in order to get an agent and a publisher.
3- This is simply how it works. No one is going to show up on your doorstep eager to "discover" you.
I like knowing this. It makes me feel like I can make a difference. Being a writer is a lot like being an entrepreneur: one has to promote the heck out of their project and always be selling.

I'll get off my soapbox now...

6:04 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

Good blog but without advertising promotion you have little chance of selling anything.

3:54 AM  

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