On Branding, Tribes, and Seth Godin Goes Wild

Seth Godin Rides A Unicorn by zoomar
Seth Godin Rides A Unicorn by zoomar

“If you can just assemble these 30,000, 50,000, 100,000 people who love literary fiction, then you’ve earned the right to be the ringleader, the leader of that tribe—and you’ll never, ever again have trouble selling literary fiction.”

–Seth Godin, How to Fix the Publishing Industry

Seth Godin arguably did not have the Best Week Ever last week, between his ill-conceived Brands in Public initiative, and his controversial talk at a brown bag lunch put together by the Digital Publishing Group here in New York City. Harsh reactions to both raged on Twitter and in the blogiverse, and he quickly walked back his brandjacking project, a brazenly opportunistic social media scam that effectively sought to leverage the real-time web and SEO tactics to extort $400/month from brands looking to control the presentation of their dirty laundry via his Squidoo site.

Between these two incidents, and his ill-advised comments on non-profit organizations and social media a couple of weeks ago (for which Geoff Livingston and Ike Pigott deftly cut him down), I’m starting to think the old man has lost a step.

Or three.

As an evangelist of Tribes, and a fan of Godin himself, the Brands in Public misstep was a big disappointment, but I actually found his comments on how to fix publishing mostly on point, though lacking in originality, perspective and actionable insights.  Godin openly admits to being an agent provocateur, noting that he’s prone to making “sweeping, provocative statements that don’t always include every nuance,” and while provocation for the sake of provocation can be entertaining at times, it can also get tiresome when you’re not adding anything new to the conversation.

(NOTE: I wasn’t in attendance, so my impressions are based on the various tweets and blogs about his presentation; sort of a Brands in Public object lesson, if you think about it…)

One of the more interesting reactions to his comments came via the Vroman’s Bookstore blog, where Patrick wrote a very thoughtful post entitled Branding: The Future of Publishing?, wherein he notes three critical things publishers still have to offer authors, one of which I’ve written about often as being the key to their long-term survival:

Curatorial. If you write a novel, why should I read it?  If Knopf publishes it, or Two Dollar Radio publishes it, or Melville House publishes it, I will likely give it a shot.  Why?  Because somebody other than you — and somebody who reads a lot of fiction, no less — also says that it’s good.  You cannot now, nor will you ever be able to, do this yourself.  The mechanism for how this happens might change, but credibility is also going to be key.  Oprah has enormous credibility for some people (not so much for me), but she can’t help everyone.  A publishing house is still the safest route to credibility.

The issue of “credibility” is a debatable one, but for all the hype about the “wisdom of the crowds” and social media’s accelerating the disintermediation process, the reality is that there will always be gatekeepers. In our digital age, where information overload is now part of our daily routine and anyone can be a “publisher”, there is a greater need for gatekeepers — credible sources to filter out the noise — than ever before.

Crowds vs. Gatekeepers is not the zero-sum game so many pundits like to make it out to be, and smart publishers will realize that their future depends on reaching readers directly — not just via co-op programs with bookstores, the blockbuster of the month titles, and Oprah’s mercurial blessings, but also by leveraging social media tools to engage their relevant communities and earn attention for the books they publish.

As I wrote back in June, echoing Pablo Defendi’s comments at BEA, publishers need to become “idea advocates”:

Wine-making is an art, and the best, most cherished wines have a unique terroir that trumps both cutesy labels and common grapes. Publishing great content is no different.

I believe the trick, the fabled “magic bullet”, for self-appointed gatekeepers of all kinds, is to be an idea advocate — to represent something specific (terroir), something you have a real passion for; to create and/or curate the best content relevant to that passion; and to offer it in a context that’s most appealing to others who share that passion, empowering them to interact with it, share it with others, and even contribute to it.

The Vroman’s post notes five publishers who fit the role of “idea advocates”, with distinctive brands that represent a specific terroir and appeal to a specific community of readers, and there are many others — including Tor, Harlequin, Marvel and First Second — who are doing it and, to varying degrees, doing it well.  It’s also the model Richard Nash has gone out on a limb to embrace, and, from a non-fiction perspective, how my own employer recently restructured itself to better serve its readers. [ETA: Check out my interview with Nash here.]

Interestingly, what Godin tried to leverage, and exploit (and ultimately fell victim to) with his Brands in Public initiative is the underlying principle of Cluetrain Manifesto, that “markets are conversations” and a brand is what people think (and say) it is, not what the brand itself says it is.

For me, Seth Godin’s brand as an “idea advocate” took a notable hit over the past couple of weeks.

What do you think?

15 thoughts on “On Branding, Tribes, and Seth Godin Goes Wild

  1. >>>You cannot now, nor will you ever be able to, do this yourself.

    Snort. Yeah, except for all those who have already done that for years and years and years.

  2. I don't see this as compelling:

    “If you write a novel, why should I read it? If Knopf publishes it, or Two Dollar Radio publishes it, or Melville House publishes it, I will likely give it a shot. Why? Because somebody other than you — and somebody who reads a lot of fiction, no less — also says that it’s good.”

    To the extent that publishing houses legitimize published authors compared with non-published authors, I grant the point. But this assumes that the word 'published' is not going to morph to involve a new class of writers, when it's quite clear that it's not only going to change it's pretty much going to be obliterated in the process. I'm publishing these comments. Publishing them. Not writing a letter, or an email: I'm publishing them.

    I also think this argument denies the second inevitability that everyone is talking about. (The first is that publishing will be redefined.) It's the idea — which I subscribe to — that social networks will become markets, and that those markets will be as important as any of the broadcast (non-targeted) old-media markets (TV, print and radio).

    In five years (or less, or maybe even now) the validation of a given author is not going to come from associations with a publisher, it's going to come from word of mouth (or text) in your social network. And you'll probably pay more attention to those voices and opinions than you ever did to a publisher's branding. I also think there will be reliable reviewers and critics covering non-publishing-house novels, and that it will be harder and harder to make the case that the better works being published by corporate publishers are inherently superior to the better self-published works.

    Yes, there will always be gatekeepers. But the gatekeepers of old stood watch over a portal leading to a two-lane blacktop. That pipeline only supported a certain amount of content. Today's portal leads to an infinitely-wide road, where any author has a chance of finding their own market, whether that be five readers or five hundred thousand. It is this fundamental change in distribution which is driving everything else, including a decrease in the ability of any person or business to gatekeep.

  3. Three times as many journalists are losing their jobs as anyone else. Nobody who is publishing 'literature' or poetry is making any money. Maybe there will always be gatekeepers but they won't be the same people standing at the same gates as they are now.

  4. There's a big difference between “markets are conversations” and “conversations are markets”, and I don't believe social networks operate the same way “old media” markets do/did. In that context, I agree with Dr. Augustine Fou's take that “there's no such thing as 'social media.'” (http://www.clickz.com/3633341)

    Your point about the “infinitely-wide road” actually supports my assertion that, not only will gatekeepers persist, old and new, but that they'll be looked to more and more to separate the signal from noise, or to go with your analogy, the Yugos from Hyundais and Mercedes.

  5. Publishing has never been a high margin business, and newspapers are in a very different situation than books, but it's not true that no one's making money doing it. What's challenging the major publishers are the horizontal consolidations (and the overleveraging that enabled them) which have effectively made them too big to succeed, especially in a down economy. (Reminds me of Lawrence's The Rocking-Horse Winner.)

    Smaller niche publishers, old and new, have a great opportunity ahead of them, though. While every day isn't rainbows and butterflies, I think it's a pretty exciting time to be working in publishing itself, if not necessarily for specific publishers.

  6. Seth Godin is a marketer, not a saint. One of his books is titled All Marketers Are Liars after all. Just because Seth has lots of good ideas and shares them prolifically doesn't mean we should blindly follow suit.

  7. Agreed, Maria. I'll still recommend Tribes to any and everyone! But I think Godin's credibility took a big hit with the Brands in Public thing; it displayed a level of tone-deafness that was surprising from the originator of Permission Marketing.

  8. I think Seth is isolated. Even the smartest people need someone who would *stress test* their ideas before they hit the reality. Perhaps most people are intimidated to tell Seth what to do and he needs it like the rest of the mortals. Its like you been looking at your own writing for so long you no longer notice your own simple typos.

  9. I agree Guy. I was initially excited about Seth Godin's ideas, but lately I've had reservations about his statements. It's hilarious to think one could ever organize a tribe of 100,000 people around “literary fiction;” the heterophily of an American literary readership is among its topmost virtues. I fear this comes from looking at book as products, in turn be marketed as products, instead of individual loci of ideas.

    In terms of the industry's migration online, I think the models of YouTube and the music industry are good for authors to study: the role of the content producer will be democratized into the noise of the internet, with freak outliers (Keyboard Cat, Lily Allen) and increasingly important curators (Pitchfork).

  10. “I fear this comes from looking at book as products, in turn be marketed as products, instead of individual loci of ideas.”

    Nothing else to add to this statement. There is one thing that I find very contradictory about Seth. On one hand he hates old marketing that abuses the users. On the other had he often slips into talking about the new marketing in similar terms. How do we f. the users with effective new tools.

  11. I wonder if Brands-in-Public came out of his alternative MBA program, and because he's more of a 1.0 pundit who monitors the conversation but doesn't proactively engage, I can see where he might not have seen the downside to the project. Still, as the originator of Permission Marketing, it was incredibly tone-deaf (and hypocritical?) of him.

  12. Like many marketing and publishing pundits, Godin's got a huge blind spot for fiction (especially literary fiction), and as you noted, views them as products instead of looking at the bigger picture. YouTube has proven that curators are invaluable and necessary, while also demonstrating the limitations of online advertising as a revenue source.

  13. I'm not as optimistic about the “wisdom of crowds” because most people are followers. After all, the crowd led us into Iraq and that wasn't very wise.

    In any case, Guy, you lay out a well thought out critique of Godin's work.

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