Seth Godin’s three charges against publishers

seth godin

“As repressed sadists are supposed to become policemen or butchers, so those with an irrational fear of life become publishers.” – Cyril Connolly

Publisher-bashing is a popular sport, particularly for authors. Always has been. We shouldn’t feel too special: we’re in good company along with lawyers, journalists, traffic wardens, estate agents and used-car salesmen as the punch-bag of the dispossessed and disenchanted.

Much of the bile against publishers comes from authors who feel themselves poorly served – either because they didn’t get a deal in the first place or because they found the terms or the treatment less than they’d hoped for.

But just occasionally you get a really interesting, constructive anti-publisher rant that serves the book industry and society well by asking good questions and offering good ideas.

George Monbiot attacked big scholarly publishers – aka ‘parasitic overlords’ – in an influential Guardian article in 2011.

Hugh Howey put the boot into big trade publishers with his Don’t Anyone Put Me In Charge post in 2014.

And Seth Godin did it this week on The Extraordinary Business Book Club podcast. He’s an author, of course, but he spent his early career as a book packager, so he has more industry insight than most.

Here are three of the charges he levels at publishers:

1) They don’t have the imagination to take risks

‘In [Unleashing the Ideavirus], I gave the advice that ideas that spread, win, and that an idea that’s not bounded by paper, is going to spread faster. How could I publish this as a traditional book?

I went to my book publisher, I said, “Here’s the deal. I’d like to publish this book, but a) I need you to bring it out in 90 days, and b) I want to give it away for free, online.”

They said, “We’d love to publish your next book, but we’re not going to do it in 90 days, and you can’t give it away for free, online.”

I made the bold decision to take my own advice, and I refused to take this book and do anything commercial with it. Instead, I just put the entire book for free, online. 3,000 people downloaded it the first day, 4,000 people the second day. By the end of a couple months, it was in the millions.

Then I started getting email from people that said, “We hate reading this in a PDF. Where’s the book?”

Because I had a background as a book packager, I know how to make a book. In three weeks, we turned it into a hard-cover, sold it only on Amazon, and it went to number 5 on the Amazon bestseller list, a book that we gave away, and that cost $40 in the year 2000.’

2) They’re locked in an outdated model

‘You would think that [publishers] are in the tree business or the paper business, the way they behave. They value paper books more than they value the spread of ideas… they think of the world in the scarcity model of paper. Once you get rid of that model, the opportunity for a book publisher is huge, because now, it’s true, anyone can publish their ideas, but very few people can curate them, and very few people have the wherewithal to promote them. The idea that an institution of people with good taste and resources, could find ideas on Monday, edit them on Wednesday, and promote them on Friday, is astonishing, but they’re just walking away from that and leaving it on the table.’

3) They serve the bookseller, not the reader

‘The giant cultural problem of western book publishers is, they think their customer is the bookstore… Since that’s your customer, that’s who you wake up in the morning, seeking to serve… I have discovered over time that the single best way for a book to spread, is for one reader to hand it to another reader.’

You might feel some of this is unfair, but you have to admit much of it hits home.

Publishers themselves would probably be the first to admit that as an industry, we’re not known for our responsive, risk-taking, entrepreneurial hustle. And to be fair, I see more and more publishers engaging directly with their readers – I’d like to think we’re making progress in this area at least.

But there’s much thoughtful criticism here that should challenge us. Do a quick audit: what risk-taking are you currently engaged in, and how are you learning from it? What opportunities are others seizing in your field from under your nose? What are you doing to connect directly with your readers and inspire them to share their love of your authors’ books?

And if you’re lucky enough to have one of those imaginative, challenging, high-maintenance authors on your list, make the most of them. Listen to what they’ve got to say and think about how you can support their ideas.

You might hit a home run, it might not work. But if you never try you’ll never know, until your author gets tired of not being heard and goes and gets the home run off their own bat, proving one again that if you want to innovate, you have to part company with your publisher.

future of the bookAlison Jones (@bookstothesky) is a publishing partner for businesses and organizations writing world-changing books. She also provides executive coaching, consultancy and training services to publishers.

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  1. In my experience all three of these criticisms ring true at the senior executive level. On the positive side, this generation of decision-making gatekeepers is either on the verge of retirement or on the slippery slope to oblivion.

    1. I think you’re right Christopher – it does feel as though attitudes have shifted in recent years, and I see a lot of innovation and experimentation which gives me hope for the future.

  2. This barely scratches the surface though. I’ve been writing for more than 25 years, publishing at Crossroad Press for 7 or 8 now… the old model has always been built on a “publisher knows best” foundation that is (frankly) ridiculous. The world gets the image that publishers and editors discover raw talents, build them into these gems of literary greatness, etc.. If that was ever true, it has not been so in my lifetime.

    What actually happens is a huge pool of talent is hunt-and-pecked, as often because of good connections or luck as by being the best a few are the “chosen” – thousands of other books are largely ignored, forgotten, lost, and spend years in limbo until their freshness date is long past trying to catch the eye of an editor, or an agent with enough clout to push it past a slush pile – and into print. For that “win” an author (if they are lucky) was able to make a good career on their advances and questionable royalties… while even the lower levels of the chosen (and this is more the case every day) find that the prize is a few weeks on bookshelves, no royalties – and struggling to get the next book over the transom.

    The idea that the author only has traditionally gotten 5-10% of the royalties on their work, royalties paid and recorded on largely indecipherable spreadsheets that never seem to earn out, that their rights should be grabbed for as much of eternity as the publisher can manage, even if there is no intention of doing anything with them, that publishing houses, agents, etc. should work in New York City in one of the most expensive environments the world has to offer, travel, hit convention after convention with expense accounts… and pretend they are not stealing all of that from the authors who earned it, is the backbone of that industry.

    Couple that with more desire for a new book from Snookie, or the next Internet “thing” – a ghost-written children’s book with a celebrity name on it, or a tell-all biography than any new literary sensation, and you have NYC publishing in a nutshell. With the model slowly crumbling, agents have scrambled, some of them (particularly in genres) creating eBook industries and companies of their own with even worse conditions for authors than they faced in NYC, shunting people to distributors with the word publisher stamped over their actual purpose, who also don’t pay a fair royalty, and care only about numbers, not authors. Publishers have begun picking people off the successful independent lists and luring them into contracts no better than the ones in the old days, a thing they can do because of their immense capital, buying relevance from those who earned it.

    You may guess I’m no fan of traditional publishing, and wonder what amazing books we missed out on over the years when only the select few had a chance… I’ve worked hard to create a hybrid publishing company that is author-centric, pays fairly and on time, and has no delusions of grandeur. Most of what I’ve done, I’ve modeled on an “opposite of how it used to be” framework that has worked pretty well.

    Thanks for this reposting of Seth’s three charges… and sorry to let it send me off on a mini-rant of my own.


  3. In the end, it probably matters not if the decision makers at the major publishers are adverse to risk and change. Change is coming anyway. There’s perhaps never been a business in human history where the barriers to entry are lower than book publishing has become in recent years. I know. I’ve been in publishing since 1999 and seen those changes.

    Take my latest, the almost complete, Embarrass Less: A Practical Guide for Doctors, Nurses, Students and Hospitals. From one perspective, it is risky. As best I can tell no one has ever published a book with advice to healthcare staff on making hospital stays less embarrasing. There’s also virtually no research on the topic in an otherwise search-crazed profession like medicine. If I took the book to Random House, they’d probably say, “Where’s the market?” My response is “Here’s the cover. It’s not your decision anymore.”

    For $50, Lightning Source will feed the book into Ingram, the largest book wholesaler on the planet. They, in turn, will see that it prints POD on three continents and can reach almost any bookstore, online or physical in the world. And if sales were to explode, Lightning Source can also handle the shift from POD to web printing. The book will also also go to CreativeSpace, which charges nothing and ensures that Amazon treats the print version nicely.

    From my print file, InDesign will also generate high-quality fixed and reflowable ePubs. Those go to Apple for the iBookstore, and to Smashwords, the easy way to reach almost every ebook distributor but Amazon. Amazon will also get that epub for conversion to its proprietary format for Kindles.

    All that means that, within a week of release, that book, in print and digital, will be available around the world with none of the storage and shipping hassles that traditional publishers face. What other product, other that digital music, offers that large a potential market in so little time with so little effort and expense. I can’t think of one.

    Back in the the 1980s I worked for Boeing Computer Services. One colleague posted a cartoon that had been tweaked. It originally featured a dinosaur on a podium talking about the threat posed by mammals. It’d been edited to show Boeing threatened by Airbus. In the years since, Boeing has changed to keep up with the competition that Airbus offers. The major publishers need to respond similarly or suffer a dinosaur-like fate. Publishing will go on, with or without them.

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