Seth Godin shares 24 things you should know if you want to become a bestselling author
An interview with Sara Connell & Bestselling Author Seth Godin
My book didn’t start a movement. Few books do. But my book CONNECTED to a movement. And that’s what so many authors miss.
As part of my series about “How to write a book that sparks a movement” I had the great pleasure of interviewing Seth Godin. SETH GODIN is the author of 19 books that have been bestsellers around the world and have been translated into more than 35 languages. He’s also the founder of the altMBA and The Marketing Seminar, online workshops that have transformed the work of thousands of people.He writes about the post-industrial revolution, the way ideas spread,marketing, quitting, leadership and most of all, changing everything. You might be familiar with his books Linchpin, Tribes, The Dip and Purple Cow. In addition to his writing and speaking, Seth has founded several companies,including Yoyodyne and Squidoo. His blog (which you can find by typing“seth” into Google) is one of the most popular in the world. In 2018, he was inducted into the Marketing Hall of Fame. His latest book, This Is Marketing, was an instant bestseller around the world.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share the “backstory” about how you grew up?
I’m still growing up, I hope.
I was lucky enough to have two great parents and a childhood that challenged me in all the right ways. My first marketing gig as at the age of 14 (!) truly, marketing ski bindings for the company where my dad worked. I was an entrepreneur from then until now…
After business school, I was a Brand Manager at Spinnaker, creating products with Arthur C. Clarke and Michael Crichton, among others. I then became an independent book packager, creating 120 books in ten years. In 1990 or so, I started Yoyodyne, one of the very first internet companies (we invented internet email marketing)… I joined Yahoo as their first VP of direct marketing and have been making a ruckus solo for the last twenty years.
When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life?
So many books have changed my life — that might be what books are for. I remember reading Godel Escher Bach, listening to Zig Ziglar, plowing through The Day of the Jackal, and of course, reading all of the World Book Encyclopedia as a kid. After my experience with Zig, I went further into books that have been unfairly pushed into a corner as ‘self help.’ And then, books from Dawkins and Dennett, Patti Smith and David Deutsch. The list keeps getting longer.
What was the moment or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world?
I grew up, in the best sense, at a special summer camp in Canada, a few hours north of Toronto. That’s where I learned to teach, and where, probably, I learned to be taught.
The experience, at 16 or 17, of changing lives through teaching — that’s what I’ve been doing every since.
What impact did you hope to make when you wrote this book?
THIS IS MARKETING is not about interruption, corruption, manipulation, spam, hustle or hassle. Instead, I’m trying to help people make the change they seek in the world. Because that’s what marketing is.
The book is thirty years of my practice and experience boiled into 200 pages. It’s a practical, hands-on but strategic look at how we spend our time and money to see and to be seen.
Did the actual results align with your expectations?
Before there was a book, there was The Marketing Seminar, which is the biggest, most effective online workshop of its kind. And more than 7,000 people have been through it. Watching the ideas about teaching and leading and storytelling connect with these students have been thrilling. From architects to caregivers, from entrepreneurs to religious leaders, we’re seeing — firsthand — how people can have far more impact than they expected.
And the book simply multiplies that. Part of the reason is that a book is easier to spread. “Here,” is a great way to start a conversation about change.
What moment let you know that your book had started a movement?
My book didn’t start a movement. Few books do.
But my book CONNECTED to a movement. And that’s what so many authors miss.
There was already a nascent groundswell for ethical marketing. A desire to see others with empathy and to solve their problems. A community that was just waiting to speak up and stand up.
I get more email than most people. And the video reviews and the online submissions we’ve been getting say the same thing: This book gave me permission to do what I already wanted to do.
What kinds of things did you hear right away from readers? What are the most frequent things you hear from readers about your book now? Are they the same? Different?
You can see for yourself, right here:
Would love hear what you think stands out…
What is the most moving or fulfilling experience you’ve had as a result of writing this book?
Marketing lives in funny places. Mostly it lives in our heart — the way we market to the most important person, ourselves.
The biggest impact the book is having is helping people overcome the stories they’ve been telling themselves (that others have planted) about insufficiency and selfishness.
Have you experienced anything negative? Do you feel there are drawbacks to writing a book that starts such colossal conversation and change?
The only negative is the temptation to get caught up in the short-term promo mindset that accompanies most book launches. Books work when they become companions and souvenirs. It’s much harder to turn them into a promotional behemoth, and I’m done trying to do that.
Can you articulate why you think books in particular have the power to create movements, revolutions, and true change?
I wrote this 9 years ago. Still true:
Once you’ve written a book, it’s not clear that it’s a useful thing to publish one. After all, it takes a year. It involves a lot of people. You need to print a lot of copies, ship them everywhere, create a lot of hoopla and hope that people actually a) hear about it, b) decide it’s worth the effort to track it down and c) read it and spread it.
Wouldn’t it be easier to just blog it? Or to post a PDF online and watch it spread?
The goal isn’t always to spread an idea. Sometimes the goal is to make change happen. A book is a physical souvenir, a concrete instantiation of your ideas in a physical object, something that gives your ideas substance and allows
them to travel.
Out of context, a 140 character tweet cannot change someone’s life. A blog post might (I can think of a few that changed the way I think about business and even life). A movie can, but most big movies are inane entertainments designed to make a lot of money, not change people. But books?
The reason I wrote Linchpin: If you want to change people, you must create enough leverage to encourage the change to happen.
Books change lives every day. A book takes more than a few minutes to read. A book envelopes us, it is relentless in its voice and in its linearity. You start at the beginning and you either ride with the author to the end or you bail. And unlike just about any form of electronic media, you get to read the book at your own pace, absorbing it as you go.
What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a bestselling writer?
Showing up for the right people.
Showing up for the right people with generosity and intent. To teach.
Do that for twenty years, it might work!
What challenge or failure did you learn the most from in your writing career?
Perhaps the biggest challenge/frustration/worthy task is trying to fix publishing. A five-hundred-year old tradition that’s in trouble.
It’s hard to change.
I’ve pushed hard in many directions.
Glad I did, but it’s definitely a challenge, and I definitely haven’t succeeded.
But I keep trying.
Many aspiring authors would love to make an impact similar to what you have done. What are the 5 things writers needs to know if they want to spark a movement with a book?
This question might be one of the pillars of my life’s work, so I’m not sure I can be as cogent as you want me to.
Feel free to take your favorite riffs from here:
With more than 75,000 books published every year (not counting ebooks or blogs), the odds are actually pretty good that you’ve either written a book, are writing a book or want to write one.
Hence this short list:
- Lower your expectations. The happiest authors are the ones that don’t expect much.
- The best time to start promoting your book is three years before it comes out. Three years to build a reputation, build a permission asset, build a blog, build a following, build credibility and build the connections you’ll need later.
- Pay for an eidtor editor. Not just to fix the typos, but to actually make your ramblings into something that people will choose to read. I found someone I like working with at the EFA. One of the things traditional publishers used to do is provide really insightful, even brilliant editors (people like Fred Hills and Megan Casey), but alas, that doesn’t happen very often. And hiring your own editor means you’ll value the process more.
- Understand that a non-fiction book is a souvenir, just a vessel for the ideas themselves. You don’t want the ideas to get stuck in the book… you want them to spread. Which means that you shouldn’t hoard the idea! The more you give away, the better you will do.
- Don’t try to sell your book to everyone. First, consider this: ” 58% of the US adult population never reads another book after high school.” Then, consider the fact that among people even willing to buy a book, yours is just a tiny little needle in a very big haystack. Far better to obsess about a little subset of the market–that subset that you have permission to talk with, that subset where you have credibility, and most important, that subset where people just can’t live without your book.
- Resist with all your might the temptation to hire a publicist to get you on Oprah. First, you won’t get on Oprah (if you do, drop me a note and I’ll mention you as the exception). Second, it’s expensive. You’re way better off spending the time and money to do #5 instead, going after the little micromarkets. There are some very talented publicists out there (thanks, Allison), but in general, see #1.
- Think really hard before you spend a year trying to please one person in New York to get your book published by a ‘real’ publisher. You give up a lot of time. You give up a lot of the upside. You give up control over what your book reads like and feels like and how it’s promoted. Of course, a contract from Knopf and a seat on Jon Stewart’s couch are great things, but so is being the Queen of England. That doesn’t mean it’s going to happen to you. Far more likely is that you discover how to efficiently publish (either electronically or using POD or a small run press) a brilliant book that spreads like wildfire among a select group of people.
- Your cover matters. Way more than you think. If it didn’t, you wouldn’t need a book… you could just email people the text.
- If you have a ‘real’ publisher (#7), it’s worth investing in a few things to help them do a better job for you. Like pre-editing the book before you submit it. Like putting the right to work on the cover with them in the contract. And most of all, getting the ability to buy hundreds of books at cost that you can use as samples and promotional pieces.
- In case you skipped it, please check #2 again. That’s the most important one, by far.
- Blurbs are overrated, imho.
- Blog mentions, on the other hand, matter a lot.
- If you’ve got the patience, bookstore signings and talking to book clubs by phone are the two lowest-paid but most guaranteed to work methods you have for promoting a really really good book. If you do it 200 times a year, it will pay.
- Consider the free PDF alternative. Some have gotten millions of downloads. No hassles, no time wasted, no trying to make a living on it. All the joy, in other words, without debating whether you should quit your day job (you shouldn’t!)
- If you want to reach people who don’t normally buy books, show up in places where people who don’t usually buy books are. Media places, virtual places and real places too.
- Most books that sell by the truckload sell by the caseload. In other words, sell to organizations that buy on behalf of their members/employees.
- Publishing a book is not the same as printing a book. Publishing is about marketing and sales and distribution and risk. If you don’t want to be in that business, don’t! Printing a book is trivially easy. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not. You’ll find plenty of printers who can match the look and feel of the bestselling book of your choice for just a few dollars a copy. That’s not the hard part.
- Bookstores, in general, are run by absolutely terrific people. Bookstores, in general, are really lousy businesses. They are often where books go to die. While some readers will discover your book in a store, it’s way more likely they will discover the book before they get to the store, and the store is just there hoping to have the right book for the right person at the time she wants it. If the match isn’t made, no sale.
- Writing a book is a tremendous experience. It pays off intellectually. It clarifies your thinking. It builds credibility. It is a living engine of marketing and idea spreading, working every day to deliver your message with authority. You should write one.
- Please understand that book publishing is an organized hobby, not a business.
The return on equity and return on time for authors and for publishers is horrendous. If you’re doing it for the money, you’re going to be disappointed.On the other hand, a book gives you leverage to spread an idea and a brand far and wide. There’s a worldview that’s quite common that says that people who write books know what they are talking about and that a book confers some sort of authority.
- The timeframe for the launch of books has gone from silly to unrealistic.
When the world moved more slowly, waiting more than a year for a book to come out was not great, but tolerable. Today, even though all other media has accelerated rapidly, books still take a year or more. You need to consider what the shelf life of your idea is.
- There is no such thing as effective book promotion by a book publisher.
This isn’t true, of course. Harry Potter gets promoted. So did Freakonomics. But out of the 75,000 titles published last year in the US alone, I figure 100 were effectively promoted by the publishers. This leaves a pretty big gap.This gap is either unfilled, in which case the book fails, or it is filled by the author. Here’s the thing: publishing a book is really nothing but a socially acceptable opportunity to promote yourself and your ideas far and wide and often.If you don’t promote it, no one will. If you don’t have a better strategy than, “Let’s get on Oprah” you should stop now. If you don’t have an asset already–a permission base of thousands or tens of thousands of people, a popular blog, thousands of employees, a personal relationship with Willard Scott… then it’s too late to start building that asset once you start working on a book. By the way, blurbs don’t sell books. Not really. You can get all the blurbs in the world for your book and it won’t help if you haven’t done everything else (quick aside: the guy who invented the word “blurb” also wrote the poem Purple Cow).
- Books cost money and require the user to read them for the idea to spread.
Obvious, sure, but real problems. Real problems because the cost of a book introduces friction to your idea. It makes the idea spread much much more slowly than an online meme because in order for it to spread, someone has to buy it. Add to that the growing (and sad) fact that people hate to read. Too often, people have told me, with pride, that they read three chapters of my book. Just three.
- Publishing is like venture capital, not like printing.
Printing your own book is very very easy and not particularly expensive. You can hire professional copyeditors and designers and end up with a book that looks just like one from Random House. That’s easy stuff. What Random House and others do is invest. They invest cash in an advance. They invest time in creating the book itself and selling it in and they invest more cash in printing books. Like all VCs, they want a big return. If you need the advance to live on, then publishers serve an essential function. If, on the other hand, you’re like most non-fiction authors and spreading the idea is worth more than the advance, you may not.
So, what’s my best advice?
Build an asset. Large numbers of influential people who read your blog or read your emails or watch your TV show or love your restaurant or or or…
Then, put your idea into a format where it will spread fast. That could be an ebook (a free one) or a pamphlet (a cheap one–the Joy of Jello sold millions and millions of copies at a dollar or less).
Then, if your idea catches on, you can sell the souvenir edition. The book. The thing people keep on their shelf or lend out or get from the library. Books are wonderful (I own too many!) but they’re not necessarily the best vessel for spreading your idea.
And the punchline, of course, is that if you do all these things, you won’t need a publisher. And that’s exactly when a publisher will want you! That’s the sort of author publishers do the best with.
The world, of course, needs progress in many areas. What movement do you hope someone (or you!) starts next?
We need someone to effectively narrate the journey we’ll need to follow to save the Earth from human carbon and greed.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
My blog is at seths.blog
And my workshops are at akimbo.com
Thank you so much for these insights. It was a true pleasure to do this with you.
About the author: Sara is an author and writing coach with a private practice in Chicago. She has appeared in Oprah, Good Morning America, NPR, The View and Katie Couric. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Tri-Quarterly, Good Housekeeping, Parenting, IO Literary Journal, and Psychobabble. Her first book Bringing In Finn was nominated for ELLE magazine Book of the Year. www.saraconnell.com