Seth Godin: Publishing Is a Relationships Game
Bestselling author, blogger, and marketing guru Seth Godin is known for his practical insights about connecting with readers and building audiences that can be mobilized. In a morning panel at the third day of the Digital Book World Conference + Expo, Godin brought this knowledge to bear for book publishers, explaining how the digital revolution has changed their business proposition, both in what they are selling and how they sell it. After a brief presentation, Godin sat down with founder of Publishers Lunch Michael Cader, to discuss the value of forming relationships with readers, social media, and ebook subscriptions.
"There are two fundamental questions publishers need to answer," said Godin, "And if you are not ready to answer these two questions, I fear for the future of what book publishing is."
The first question, he said, is "Who are your customers?" Traditionally, publishers have focused largely on selling to bookstores. As a result, they have spread themselves horizontally into general trade to better fill those stores. But today, with the closure of many bookstores and the rise of instantaneous ebook purchasing, it has become clear that publishers' ultimate customer is the reader. To reach readers, said Godin, publishers need to develop verticals that target niche readers and build loyal followings.
"Publishers wanted to make Apple and Amazon their customer," said Godin, "This was the worst thing they could do. Until publishers can say that their customer are readers, they are playing a different game than the people who have been winning big online."
The second question Godin posed was "What's an ebook?" If publishers believe that is a Kindle Book or iBook, what an ebook can be is very limited. But if an ebook is a way to get information to those who need it, said Godin, suddenly an ebook can be many things, and allow publishers to explore solutions beyond partnering with Amazon and Apple alone.
What's most important, and is part of the solution to both of these questions, argued Godin, is the relationships publishers build with their readers. He gave the example of the DailyCandy newsletter. The beauty, style, and food-focused newsletters shared daily deals with urban, modern women in their 20s and 30s. The founder, Dany Levy, gradually built her following and eventually sold the newsletter to NBCUniversal for $110 million. "What she had is relationships," said Godin, "And that is the value that publishers need."
On Social Media
Though Godin encouraged publishers to reach out to their readers directly, he was ambivalent about the role social media might play in that endeavor. "Social media is a fabulous way to look busy," he said. Though it can spur sales for publishers, he argued that the amount of time and money devoted to tweeting did not equal the payoff. It's difficult, said Godin, to build up a passionate group of readers on broad social media platforms like Twitter or Facebook. "When was the last time you said to one of your friends, 'Did you see Whoopi Goldberg's last tweet? It was great!'"
But by building a loyal following in a niche group, rather than trying to appeal to everyone, publishers can stoke readers passions. "You need your tribe to read and talk about your books passionately. Then they get other people to read it because they want to know what this enthusiastic group is talking about."
When asked how he felt about the ebook subscription model, Godin admitted there was opportunity here for publishers, but the value proposition publishers are presenting to readers is wrong. "The challenge we have with subscriptions is what is the story we're going to tell someone when they choose to subscribe." It's not that subscribing to an ebook service is a good deal. That won't motivate readers to sign up, sad Godin. What does, he continued, is showing that the smartest readers are using these services.
"If we can get everyone who reads books to subscribe to a service," said Godin, "The publishing industry will be fine."
Ellen Harvey is a freelance writer and editor who covers the latest technologies and strategies reshaping the publishing landscape. She previously served as the Senior Editor at Publishing Executive and Book Business.