June 26, 2012

Seth Godin’s self-publishing experiment is over


Seth Godin is returning to Portfolio, his former publisher, two years after jumping ship in favor of self-publishing and selling his books directly to readers.

Godin announced yesterday that his self-publishing experiment was over, and that he would release three new titles through Portfolio starting in January. The move comes after Godin used Kickstarter to gauge interest in his upcoming book projects. By the end of the day on June 18th Godin had signed up pledgers for 10,000 copies of his lead title, The Icarus Deception.

10,000 copies, it appears, is enough for Godin to guarantee sales of the book for Portfolio, which the publisher can then offer up as proof to booksellers that the title has the potential for even greater sales. The Wall Street Journal reports:

Mr. Godin, a marketing iconoclast known for titles like “Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable,” is taking an unorthodox path. A champion of new approaches to business, Mr. Godin decided to test online whether readers would be interested in his new books before the works actually hit the shelves, a decision that he says could make publishing and selling books considerably less risky in the future.

For Mr. Godin, his hybrid approach—which essentially supplements his publisher’s efforts with his own promotional work—could well become an industry template because it eliminates much of the uncertainty for booksellers and publishers deciding which titles to bet on.

“The pressure on the bookstore and the publisher is to pick stuff that will work,” said Mr. Godin. “I’m saying ‘Hey, Mr. Bookstore Owner, the world has spoken. There are lots of people talking about these books.’

Any amount of insight into how a book will be received is good for business, of course, and so Godin’s approach makes perfect sense. He does, however, have the luxury of being a high-profile author with a considerable audience, which makes the experiment less of a working business model for other authors to adopt and more of a marketing exercise that allows him to drum up attention for new work. The exercise also illustrates the benefits authors can gain when working with traditional book publishers, because while Godin is without question his very own best marketing asset, he does seem to realize that one man can only do so much. Again from the Wall Street Journal:

After Mr. Godin left Portfolio in the summer of 2010, he launched a joint venture imprint with Amazon.com Inc. AMZN -0.95% called the Domino Project, which published a dozen titles. Among them was Mr. Godin’s “We Are All Weird,” which generated disappointing sales, results Mr. Godin later attributed to his own failure to aggressively promote the book. Late last year Mr. Godin called it quits, writing on his blog that the effort was “not a lifelong commitment to being a publisher of books.”

As for Portfolio, it believes that the early copies that Mr. Godin sold will generate wider consumer interest when the book is distributed to stores and online.

“Before we published ‘Purple Cow,’ Seth self-published it and sold 10,000 copies,” said Adrian Zackheim, Portfolio’s publisher. “It went on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies. The idea is that the core base will start talking about the book, and that will spread to non-core readers.”

The only question left to ask is why, if interest in his forthcoming books is so strong, did Godin choose to return to Portfolio now, rather than ride this wave of momentum into the self-publishing sunset? One reasonable answer might be that while selling directly to consumers certainly has its advantages, bookstores are still vital to selling books, and publishers have spent years building relationships with as many bookstores and booksellers as possible. In the end, it means selling more books.


Kevin Murphy is the digital media marketing manager of Melville House.