The Godin Situation: Content, Context, Community

“The first publisher willing to stand up and bid on a new publishing model will set the standard for the future. But don’t wait too long; the perfect model is out there and someone is going to beat you to the punch.”

—Andrew Davis, Seth Godin and the Flower Clock

Seth Godin’s decision to not publish his theoretical next book(s) via traditional channels has caused a predictable stir amongst the pundit class, with proclamations about “The Death of Publishing” coming from many of the usual suspects looking to scare up page views. Predictably, few have acknowledged the unusually nuanced statement Godin actually made about his situation:

“The thing is–now I know who my readers are. Adding layers or faux scarcity doesn’t help me or you.”

It’s similar to J.A. Konrath’s stated rationale for signing on with AmazonEncore a few months back, though at a graduate level:

“I signed a print deal with a company that can email every single person who has every [sic] bought one of my books through their website, plus millions of potential new customers.”

While Konrath simply chose a different intermediary to publish his books, Godin has reached a point where his platform is diverse enough, and his connection to his readers is so firmly established, that both the traditional book deal and format have faded in importance for him. It’s a pretty good example of what a non-fiction transmedia creator’s platform might look like.

Is his move a bellwhether for the industry? Yes, but not for the pessimistic reasons most are noting.

As Shiv Singh pointed out, “Godin believes in the power of his brand and is betting everything on it.” It’s a pretty safe bet, though, a natural next step in the direction he’s been paving the way for for years. It’s a step the vast majority of authors aren’t in a position to take yet, even many of the biggest names, because their platforms are still pretty much limited to books.

But publishers have the same opportunities to transition from a business-to-business approach to a business-to-consumer approach, and engage directly with their readers via what Singh presented as the “Community Manager Driven” model.

In his presentation at the Digital Book World Conference in January, Singh framed his community-driven approach like this:

  1. Consumers act not as individuals but as communities too
  2. You need to find the communities online and market to them
  3. You must know the lifetime value of a customer and a community
  4. And provide discounts based on that lifetime value too

Just because the customer has already bought the book, it doesn’t mean you should forget about him or her.

Godin found his community long ago—online and offline—and has built a platform beyond his books that few authors (or publishers) can match. He blogs daily, speaks widely, and educates, inspires and empowers his community to achieve their own goals. He uses a variety of digital tools to connect and engage with his community, and most importantly, he enables them to connect, engage with and empower each other.

The main difference between Godin and most publishers (and authors) is that he knows who his readers are and what they want, as opposed to what intermediaries tell them they want, and he’s reconfiguring his platform accordingly, focusing on “audiobooks, apps, small digital files called PDFs and podcasts.” I have no doubt that if the demand from his readers is there, and there will surely be some, he will also publish more print books—perhaps not through Portfolio but via POD.

While he’s not short on ego, his platform isn’t all about him; his focus is on serving his community.

“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

Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s aptly named “Work In Progress” is an intriguing step in that particular direction, and there are numerous other examples of publishers making bids on new publishing models, not necessarily to set the standard for the future—in the digital age, there is no “standard” and nothing’s “perfect”—but rather to better serve their unique community of readers, existing and potential.

Godin’s move isn’t a threat to the future of publishing; it’s yet another sign that those who are most connected to their communities will be the ones best-suited to manage the risks of the “digital transition” and seize the myriad opportunities that are there for the taking.

That’s a good thing.

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4 thoughts on “The Godin Situation: Content, Context, Community

  1. Guy,
    Thanks so much for including my quote in your post. You’ve done a great job of showcasing some of the ways the industry is evolving.
    Also, this is my first exposure to the Digital Book World community, although I’ve been involved in trying to help publishers embrace the changing landscape for a few years now.
    There’s no doubt it’s an uphill battle.

    I’m not sure that publishers need to start evolving into an entirely new b2c approach to marketing and managing their communities… I think there are much bigger opportunities in working with authors to proactivley and formulaicly build an author’s platform to match the author’s desires. There’s revenue here in the form of branded media and an opportunity to help the author retain more revenue and build their platform.

    Let’s face it, a book is only as good as the author. This is about author platform development and not about publishing. I think we need to look at how publisher’s can focus on the author and not on the book.

    What do you think?
    Thanks again Guy!
    – Drew

    1. Welcome to DBW, Andrew! Hope we become a regular station in your online travels.

      I don’t think it’s an either/or situation for publishers. Ideally, they should be doing everything they can to nurture and grow an author’s brand — both the already established authors as well as seeking out and developing new blood — while also establishing their own brands as trusted providers of content and other services related to their respective communities’ needs.

      Plenty of non-fiction publishers do this already, including O’Reilly, Chelsea Green, Hay House, and many of F+W’s communities (Writer’s Digest, HOW, etc), but I purposefully used FSG’s Work In Progress as an example because fiction is almost always seen as an exception to these discussions. and Dark Horse Comics are two more of my favorite examples of fiction publishers smartly focused on serving their communities.

      A publisher that’s fully embedded within its community is much better positioned to help with author platform development.

  2. “The main difference between Godin and most publishers (and authors) is that he knows who his readers are and what they want…”

    Isn’t it also worth noting that a significant difference between Godin’s followers/readers and a fiction author’s readers is the WHY?, the function each serves for the reader? We read Godin for advice & to further our own agenda and so we are self-motivated to keep following and keep buying his product.

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