“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.
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?