How Publishers Can Prosper When Books Go Digital: Seth Godin’s Vision

Seth Godin gave a mind-blowing talk to independent book publishers in May 2010. Following is a summary for you.

Five traditional functions

Traditionally, says Godin, book publishers have done 5 things:

  • Curate by picking books to publish.
  • Produce by editing manuscripts and manufacturing physical books.
  • Take financial risks by acting as venture capitalists for ideas and hoping that the books with those ideas will catch on.
  • Distribute books and compete for scarce shelf space.
  • Promote by publicizing, advertising, blogging, spamming, and otherwise getting the world to notice their books.

How not to respond

The presence of ebooks and digital distribution upends that business model. How can book publishers respond?

For a path to avoid, Godin says, look at the record industry. It is essentially dead.

Record companies used to have a perfect business. Radio stations and MTV promoted their products for free. Record stores existed on only to sell their products. Vinyl albums wore out and needed to be replaced. If I lent you an LP and never got it back, I bought a replacement.

Then CDs and iTunes changed the rules of the game. And how did the record companies respond? By suing their biggest fans.

Right now, the big book publishers are preparing to respond in a similar way.

How the traditional publishing model changes

Consider what happens when book publishing goes digital:

Production and distribution of physical products is no longer needed. Books exist as bits and bytes that you download.

Publishers reduce their financial risk. They don’t have to buy paper, print books, put them in trucks, ship them to stores, and accept returns.

Shelf space is no issue. Amazon has infinite room for ebooks.

Promotion via traditional publicity and advertising fails. There’s already too much competition for consumers’ attention across too many channels.

So, of the 5 traditional functions of book publishers, only 1 remains. That is curation—picking manuscripts to publish.

Lead a tribe

In addition to curating, smart book publishers will also:

  • Create a tribe.
  • Lead that tribe.
  • Connect the members of the tribe.

For example, suppose that your specialty is publishing books about the American Civil War. Think of your readers as a tribe of people who share a passionate interest in that topic.

These people read your blog. They download free content from your website. They come to your conferences to meet each other. They give you their contact information through your website, and they subscribe to your email newsletter. You have permission to market to them.

As the leader of this tribe, you can call up the leading historians of the Civil War and tell them that you want to publish their next books. And they would fools to say no.

In addition, you don’t have to hunt so hard for new authors. They emerge spontaneously from the ranks of your tribe.

The new model in action

The above is a hypothetical example. Yet there are real people putting these ideas into action.

One is Scott Adams, cartoonist and creator of Dilbert. Early on, Adams published his email address on his cartoons. He built a list of readers and started sending them a newsletter.

Now, whenever Adams publishes a new book, he lets his tribe know. And he hits the best-seller lists.

Curvebender Publishing also leads a tribe. It publishes a $100 deluxe edition of Recording the Beatles: The Studio Equipment and Techniques Used to Create Their Classic Albums. The first printing of 3000 copies sold out after one week.

Turning it all around

In summary, as a book publisher you are no longer in the business of finding readers for your writers. Instead, you find writers for your readers.

The bottom line: Treat readers as an asset. Find out who they are. Work for them.

So, what do you think? Is Godin’s vision on target?