Seth Godin is my hero. Whenever I need an example of a clean, authentic, punchy writing style, he’s the one I turn to. When I’m talking about interesting new publishing models, he’s my go-to guy.
It took me quite a while to work up the courage to invite him onto the show. While I still hadn’t asked him, he hadn’t said no, right?
Yet when I did finally find the nerve to send the invitation, he replied within seconds. ‘I’d be thrilled… Let’s do it.’
I suspect I was thrilled-er, to be honest, but we did it, and here’s the result. He’s funny, inspiring, honest and just a little bit life-changing. This episode is a bit longer than usual because after I’d wound it up in the usual time and said, off-mic, ‘Man, I really didn’t want to end it there, I would have loved to have kept on talking,’ he simply said, ‘Well, I’m not going anywhere. Let’s keep talking.’
So we did. You’re welcome.
Alison Jones: Hello, and welcome to the Extraordinary Business Book Club. I am beyond excited to be here today with only Seth Godin, author of… I was going to say 17, but it turns out, it’s now 18 books, and counting. Entrepreneur, marketer, speaker, and – what’s particularly relevant for today’s session – blogger. Welcome, Seth.
Seth Godin: Thank you, Alison. It’s a pleasure.
Alison Jones: It’s absolutely delightful to have you here. I particularly wanted to talk to you today about blogging, and books, and business, and how they all three munge together and work together. You blog daily, which boggles me.
Seth Godin: It sounds like we’re in the letter B on Sesame Street. Boggles, blogging …
Alison Jones: Brought to you today by the letter ‘B’…
Seth Godin: I would blog four times a day if I could get away with it. Blogging is a privilege, and even if no one reads your blog, you should have one.
Alison Jones: Tell us why, what it is about blogging that you love so much.
Seth Godin: I’m not sure I’d use the word ‘love’. It’s a discipline, it requires rigour, it’s scary, which are three of the things that are good about it. Mostly, what blogging does is, it requires you to put your name on the thought. It requires you to predict something that’s going to happen, or explain something that has happened. It leaves a trail. Therefore, if you know that every day, day after day, 365 days a year, you are going to be leaving a trail, a trail about ideas, about culture, about the work you think that matters, I can’t help but imagine that you will think about it a little more deeply. You will think about it subconsciously. You will dream about it. It will be on the agenda every single day. That is a wonderful gift to the blogger, regardless of whether anyone reads it or not.
Alison Jones: That’s an amazing way of thinking about it. I hadn’t ever seen it in those terms. It’s basically making visible to yourself, as much as to others, how your thoughts are developing, and the impact that you’re making on the world.
Seth Godin: Most people don’t like being hypocrites, and blogging helps you be better, because to be worse, while blogging, makes you even worse of a hypocrite.
Alison Jones: It’s like, you always behave best when people are watching you. It’s keeping that accountability, isn’t it?
Seth Godin: I think so. Then the other half of it, which is very significant, is we live in an economy that is now based on connection and gifts. Not on scarcity, but abundance. Ideas don’t travel under the same rules as most things in economics. “Economics,” from the Greek, for “scarce.” What we have to realize is that if I have an idea and I share it with you, it’s not worth less. It’s worth more. That act of giving it to the commons over and over again, can’t help but benefit.
If we look at Wikipedia, what’s Wikipedia worth? Billions of dollars. How much did it cost? Nothing. 5,000 people contributed an enormous amount, and another 50,000 people contributed a little. It adds up. When I watch the blogosphere stumble, because people couldn’t figure out how to make a living at it, makes me sad. It’s not about making a living. It’s about making a difference.
Alison Jones: I love that point about ideas operating differently to anything else. I remember talking to Cory Doctorow about this a few years back, as well. He said that thing about the dandelion seed: just let it go, because actually, scarcity isn’t the issue. The attention is the issue. Building that sense of participation and excitement about an idea is the trick. I know with your first book, Unleashing the Ideavirus, back in 2000, you did something revolutionary. I am a publisher, so publishers think in terms of monetizing content. You made that book available to download for free. You kept the print book as a published thing. You reserved the rights to that, but it was completely radical at the time. It still is, really. Tell me a little bit about how that came about, and how you convinced the publisher.
Seth Godin: It was more radical than you think. It was my second real book, not my first. The book before that was Permission Marketing.
Alison Jones: Of course.
Seth Godin: Permission Marketing was a home run out of the gate. Even a blind squirrel finds an acorn, every now and then. It was a New York Times bestseller, and a Fortune Best Business book, and I should have had a career as an author. The thing is that I wasn’t going to write another book after that. I was done. I couldn’t imagine having been in the book industry my whole career, topping what I had done with Permission Marketing. A whole bunch of things in my personal life made it hard for me to find the energy to do a book. Malcolm Gladwell sent me the galleys of The Tipping Point, to blurb. No one had ever heard of him at the time. I love that book, blurbed it, but in the 12 days that followed, wrote every word of Unleashing the Ideavirus.
Alison Jones: In the 12 days that followed?
Seth Godin: Obviously, I had been thinking about it for over a year, but didn’t realize I had been thinking about it. In just a fever, I created it. What I discovered is, in the book, 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, the guy who had published Permission Marketing, who ironically, weirdly, bizarrely, had been Nabokov’s editor before me, which is quite a shift.
Anyway, 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 dollars in the year 2000. It was an art experiment, way more than it was a business project, but ironically, or bizarrely again, it ended up doubling my speaking fees, and transformed my position in the marketplace from one of many, many authors, to one of a few.
Alison Jones: Absolutely, because you had done something nobody else had done. Also, that point about the integrity, you were living what you were preaching.
Seth Godin: There was no grand plan. We see this with a lot of the great stuff that happens in the arts. Bob Dylan did not have a great plan when he started. It’s not a great plan that led to the Dollar Shave Club selling for whatever it was, several billion dollars, to Unilever. You do a project in the moment, because you can, because it’s interesting, and maybe you get the chance to do another project.
Alison Jones: It’s funny. I don’t know if that would have worked 70 years ago. You’ve suddenly… because you can build that platform and reach people direct, it opens up possibilities that just weren’t ever there, before. It’s something that always troubled me as a traditional publisher is, we didn’t exploit the possibilities of that new space.
Seth Godin: Let’s talk about traditional publishers for a minute. You would think that they 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. We know why that is. It’s because most people go into book publishing, because they like that particular bit of status quo. If you think about, what is the mission of Random House or Penguin, it would seem to me that their mission is to spread ideas worth spreading in an organized way. Which means, they should have started Google, because it only took two technical people to start Google. It means that they should have built Wikipedia or Word Press, or Medium.
They don’t think that way, because 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.
Alison Jones: I’m smiling, because I had exactly this conversation with a room of publishers yesterday, just saying, “Do you know what? There are more opportunities than ever before. This world runs on content, and you are content experts.” So many publishers are wedded, as you say, to selling bits of dead tree to people for money, through bookstores. The problem is, when you have that legacy model, throwing over for something as unknown and risky and uncertain as the Wikipedia model, where there isn’t a clear business model, doesn’t make any kind of sense to a managing director.
Seth Godin: There’s lots of things about publishing that don’t make sense.
Alison Jones: That’s true.
Seth Godin: Culturally, though, is where we find resistance to new ideas. The giant cultural problem of western book publishers is, they think their customer is the bookstore. I can prove this by pointing out that no customer, no reader, engages with a book publisher. They don’t send them email. They don’t know their phone number. There’s zero identity back and forth. Every bookseller is known to every publisher, and vice-versa. Since that’s your customer, that’s who you wake up in the morning, seeking to serve.
Alison Jones: The supply chain is utterly different now, isn’t it. I know your new book has no supply chain, really. It’s just direct to people, isn’t it?
Seth Godin: Right. The new book is called, What to Do When It’s Your Turn. Again, I’m on this path of constantly doing experiments, mostly because I can. The idea here is, A, I wanted to make a book in a different format, that was heavily illustrated, that would appeal to people who don’t ordinarily read books, which is most people. Number two, 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.
The number of people who are currently walking into a bookstore and saying, “What’s new?” is very, very small. What I wanted to do was, sell the book in 3-packs, 5-packs, 12-packs, and 99-packs. If I can sell you 5 books for the price of 2, you’ll give them away, and that horizontal distribution turns my readers into my distributors. As a result, in our 5th printing, we sold more than 100,000 copies, and not one has been sold in a bookstore. They’re all just sold on my Shopify site.
Alison Jones: It’s more than just the distribution point, as well. It’s about creating an event, creating something that people talk about, isn’t it?
Seth Godin: Right. In this case, they’re not talking about my publishing of it. They’re talking about the fact that, hey, I have a book in my hand. Would you take a look at it? I was just looking on the site yesterday. One person has bought six 99-packs. Every month or two, he comes back. In a 99-pack, you get 120 copies. He’s bought 120 books, month, after month, after month. Clearly, he’s doing something with them, and I don’t have to treat him like a bookstore. I just treat him like a peer, who has decided that for whatever commercial reason, it’s in his interest to distribute hundreds and hundreds of my book.
Alison Jones: It’s astonishing, isn’t it?
Seth Godin: It’s the future. Books are magic. I’m sitting, talking to you in a room filled with more than a thousand of them. They are at the heart of my professional life, but we are killing them, by sending them to buildings where they die.
Alison Jones: It’s interesting, as well, I passionately believe this, that just because you put content online, does not mean that you cannot then make a book out of it, later. I remember a big discussion about this when we had a contract to publish a print version of something that was already available online. Someone saying, “Why would somebody pay for a book?” Because they want the book. The book is utterly, fundamentally different to the content that’s in it. You know what I’m saying?
Seth Godin: Right. The other thing that’s interesting is, most people in the book business don’t buy books. They love books. They get books for free, but they don’t buy books. They fall into this trap of hypothesizing and seeking to empathize with the people that do buy books, but it’s not them. That clouds their judgment. What they’re actually doing is seeking a book that will make the bookseller happy, or that will be fun to talk about at a cocktail party. What I’ve discovered, the more I engage directly with my readers, is that the books they want, are very different than the books a publisher wants.
Alison Jones: That direct relationship with your reader is the transformational piece. You’re right. Publishers traditionally haven’t had that. They’ve gone through intermediaries. Once you are engaging with your reader, there’s a whole host of different opportunities, and actually, just the whole nature of the relationship, becomes a conversation, more than a broadcast, doesn’t it?
Seth Godin: In some ways. The other thing that authors need to understand is, no one else in the world is you. Everyone sees the world through a completely different lens from everyone else. Everyone is carrying around their own narrative, their own pain, their own joy. If you see a lousy review on Amazon, they’re almost certainly not giving you a lousy review. What they’re doing is narrating a mismatch between their narrative, and what you gave them. That mismatch isn’t your fault. It’s just true.
Alison Jones: That’s a great way of reframing a negative review. I love that.
Seth Godin: I hear from people a lot, and often I will hear from people who are quite frustrated. If I write back, reflecting their frustration, then everything breaks. If I write back, acknowledging their frustration without making up a false apology, they discover that just being seen is really what they wanted all along.
Alison Jones: Can I loop you back a minute to the idea of the blog? This is really interesting, and I know that a lot of people I talk to, who have a platform, who blog, who write books, are exercised about how the blog and the books relate to each other. We’ve touched a little bit on the fact that, just because something is already online, does not mean that you cannot use it in a book, but tell me, how does your blog relate to your books?
Seth Godin: I don’t think it does, so much, in the following sense. I can’t remember the last time I woke up and said, “I need to write a book. It’s time.” Books are too much work, and too much hassle for me to do them, just because I have to, so I don’t. I haven’t written a word of a new book in years, and I have no plans to do so, any time soon. On the other hand, I regularly say, “I really would like to share this idea with people,” and the blog lets me do that.
What we have to figure out is, where does commerce come into play, and is the blog an advertising medium that’s supposed to help you make a living, or is it an idea platform that’s supposed to help you make a difference? What our friend, Cory Doctorow has discovered, is that making a difference, often is a fine career move. You can’t do it, looking over your shoulder for the money. You just have to go all in, and merely make a difference.
Alison Jones: Absolutely. That connection, though, and I feel really mercenary and niggly, coming back to it, but that connection between what you write in that blog, and then the books that you produce … You say you don’t sit down to write a book, but there are an awful lot of them. What’s going on under the hood, with how the books emerge? If you don’t sit and write them as books?
Seth Godin: Okay, there are two questions here. First, let me answer the Harvard Business Review question, which is this: Awareness is precious. Trust is precious. An author who has awareness and trust, has no trouble making a living as a writer. Someone like Brene Brown, beautiful writer, she got very lucky that her TED Talk went viral, because her TED Talk going viral is what enabled her to get awareness and trust, which enabled her to have a bestseller for the last two years. The book, by itself, is beautiful, but it wouldn’t be a bestseller, if she didn’t have awareness and trust.
What we see in a blog, is that the rewards you get as a blogger, if you’re an author, is incremental progress toward awareness and trust. That said, if you’re asking about my creative process, it has shifted over time. It used to be that if I had an idea that I did not believe I could adequately persuade someone of in less than a thousand words, I would try to discard it. If I couldn’t discard it, then I’d realize I had to make it into a book. The book gets enrolment from the reader. The reader doesn’t say, “What do you keep talking for? I’m leaving.” The reader says, “I paid 20 bucks. I’m here to hear what you have to say.”
There are very few places where we have that ability with our ideas, but a book gives us that leverage, to be able to say, “Sit with me for an hour, or two, or three, and I’m going to lay this out for you.” When one of those comes along, and I’m willing … Lynchpin took me a year to research and write. I say to myself, “All right, this is important enough for me to give up a year of my life.” In addition, it’s worth spending another year, to persuade people to do something they don’t want to do, pay money, go to a bookstore, and read a book. None of which are on most people’s agendas.
What’s happened over time, as the multiplier of free readers versus paid readers has shifted is, it’s harder and harder to have that calculus. Now if I have a good idea, I say, “Wait. Do I want to wait a year, and spend time to make it fit the book format, and reach one-tenth the number of people, or should I just make it into an eBook, or blog about it three times in a row, and reach more than a million people in three days, and then be able to move on?” Maybe it’s my ADD, but I get more satisfaction from that on a daily basis. I loved the rhythm of book writing, but over time, I’ve become quite frustrated that in addition to writing the books, I have to do all the selling of the books. I just don’t like that.
Alison Jones: That’s so interesting, though, because that makes complete sense to me. That sense that the two parallel rhythms, if you like: the daily short outputs of the blog (and I know that some of your blogs are actually quite long, so I use that term relatively) and alongside that, the occasional excursion into the deep dive of the book, that sustained document, where as you say, the reader sits with you, because they’ve invested psychologically, something more in this than simply reading on-screen, that’s fascinating. Do you get that response back from people, as well? Do you have a sense of how readers respond differently to blog and book?
Seth Godin: My friend, the late Zig Ziegler, used to say that he almost never got a letter that said one of his speeches changed someone’s life, but he got tons of letters saying that listening to 72 hours of his audio tapes, changed their life. I hear from people who say that Lynchpin, or The Dip, or Purple Cow was the basis for X, Y, or Z. There are many billion-dollar companies that have been based on my books, and I’m very thrilled about that, but if I didn’t have a blog, the number of people who would have ever engaged with me, would be a tiny fraction.
Alison Jones: The blog builds the platform, gets the attention into which you lodge those books. Yeah, makes sense. I see that. That’s fascinating. I have to say, Poke the Box was the one for me. I think I read it, just at the point where I was about to launch my business, and it was transformational. I love that book.
Seth Godin: Thank you.
Alison Jones: Your quote about the book that you write being the one that is going to change a life, again, absolutely on the button. It’s one of those ones I always use with clients. I’ve got a lot of Seth Godin quotes, actually, that I use with clients. I should probably…
Seth Godin: That was one of the best quotes I ever had. After I wrote it down, I thought, “Someone must have said this. I must be just mistakenly quoting somebody else.” It’s really hard not to plagiarize yourself in other people, when you’re so interested in your information. We’re doing this 800-page, 17-pound collection, collector’s edition that’s coming out around Christmas, and there are little quotes throughout. Some of the places I got the quotes, was by googling myself, Seth Godin, because I don’t remember. At the last minute, I checked a couple of them, and it turns out, they are actually fake Dally Lama quotes. I didn’t even say… I had to take those out, but it’s not like I do it on purpose. It’s just, if you keep writing, sooner or later…
Alison Jones: You’re going to be up there with the Bible and Churchill soon, when people have a quote and they can’t remember who said it. You don’t get writer’s block, because you write like you talk, you don’t get speaker’s block. That was brilliant, because actually, I’m an extrovert, I’m an off-the-scale extrovert, and I find writing really hard, because I sit in front of the keyboard, and the energy just leaches away. If I think about it as talking, that changes everything. It’s a different energy.
Seth Godin: Yes, so this is my best advice for someone who needs to write a book, who’s not a professional book writer. Get a recorder, sit down with one or two friends, and explain what it is you need to say. Just make your pitch. Tell them the story. Teach them what they need to learn. Then take the tape and send it to Casting Words, and have it transcribed. Then take the transcription and hand it to an editor, and have them clean it up, and now you get it back, and you fix it. Then you have a book.
Alison Jones: Amazingly, the question I was about to ask you was, what one tip would you give somebody who’s writing their first book, so thank you for being so prescient.
Seth Godin: I don’t say that’s my tip. I wrote two blog posts that you can find by typing Advice for Authors, into your favourite search engine. They were a year apart, and I wrote them so I wouldn’t have to answer this question. They’re each one 15 or 20 bullet points. They’re more about the business of books, than they are about how you write a book. The advice I offer people on how to write a book is, I read more books than most people who are editors, and I can tell a bad book, really fast. The way you know it’s a bad book is if the writer wrote it to be a book, not to be read.
Alison Jones: Just explain that a little.
Seth Godin: They adopt a different tone of voice. We know what it’s supposed to sound like when we write a paper for an English professor. It’s not supposed to sound like we’re talking to her. If you’re going to write a book for the general public, and you have that stiff, I’m-writing-a-book tone, don’t expect anyone …
Alison Jones: That’s self-consciousness, isn’t it?
Seth Godin: Yeah, exactly. If you can’t read the first chapter out loud, then you’re writing the wrong way. The good news is, the solution is super easy. If it was the opposite, this would be really hard. If it was, “This sounds too much like you,” then I don’t know how to teach you to sound like someone else. All I’m trying to argue with people is, if this wouldn’t make an engaging thing to talk about over lunch, it’s probably not worth being a book. If it is worth talking about over lunch, try to adopt the posture that one reader is reading this book right now. That reader is me. If you’re not taking me on a journey, I’m not going to be enrolled. I’m going to close the book, and it’s going to go in the garbage.
Alison Jones: That’s awesome advice. I love that lunch test. I should be applying that, myself. I really like that. I have another question for you, which somebody in Extraordinary Business Book Club would like me to ask on her behalf. I know that you have got the T-shirt here, as has she, I think. When you’re writing a book and you’re being you, and you’re putting forward ideas, is there a self-consciousness that creeps in, that … She called them the haters and the trolls. That sense that there’s going to be people for whom this doesn’t work. I know you talked earlier about the negative reviews. Is that your attitude to this? Did you struggle to get there, or is there a different way of thinking about it?
Seth Godin: My career has been long enough, that I started before the negative reviews. When I started, if you got lucky, you got one review of your book, but that was all. You could write with reckless abandon. About ten years ago, I read a review that was particularly hurtful. I realized, no author, not one, has ever said, “My writing has gotten better, because I read all my one-star reviews on Amazon.” I stopped, and I haven’t read a review of my work, positive or negative, since then.
Can’t have it both ways. You can’t cherry-pick and say, “Yeah, I just want to read the ones that are going to make me feel good.” What you need to say is, “This is my chance to make something, and when I’m done, my reward is, I get to make something else.” Not, “My reward is, I get to hear how good it was.” My reward is, I get to see how everyone changed. No, that’s not your reward. That might be a side-effect, but your reward is that you get to do it again.
Alison Jones: That’s another quote I’m going to be writing up and putting on my wall. Thank you. I love that. I always ask my guests to recommend somebody else that they think would be good to talk to, about writing business, particularly, but not exclusively, or the business of books, generally. Do you have any ideas of who else would make a really great guest on this show?
Seth Godin: If you are asking for a guest, I would love to hear your conversation with my beloved publisher, Adrian Zackheim, who invented the modern business book, who has worked with Jim Collins and Scott Adams, and me, and a lot of other people. Adrian is not shy, and he is insightful, and quite a great guy. If your question is, who should someone who’s thinking about what this new world of writing and publishing is like, seek out based on his past work, it’s got to be our mutual friend, Cory Doctorow,,, because Cory, not just with his abundant posture in science fiction, but his understanding about the difference between dandelions and elephants, in the work he’s done at BoingBoing, etc., if you just look at Cory’s path, it is non-hypocritical. It is relentlessly positive for the community, and he’s right, so often.
Alison Jones: Absolutely outstanding recommendations. Thank you. I shall follow both of those up. I love it. I feel a bit daft saying it, but if people want to know more about you, where should they go?
Seth Godin: That’s very nice of you. If you type Seth into a search engine, you’ll find my blog. If you want to see the new book, it’s at YourTurn.Link.
Alison Jones: I cannot recommend Seth’s book highly enough. It is one of those little drip feeds of sense and inspiration that doesn’t take long, you just, it’s a daily post. Fantastic way of kick-starting your day. Seth, that was amazing. I’m going to have to re-read the transcription several times before I unearth all the treasure in there, but I thoroughly enjoyed talking to you. Thank you so much for coming on the show.
Seth Godin: Thank you, Alison. It’s a gift to me and to the people who are listening, that you show up and do this. I really appreciate it.
And that’s where it was supposed to end. But sometimes you just don’t want a conversation to end, and Seth said he wasn’t going anywhere. So we kept talking…
Alison Jones: One thing that I didn’t know about you before I started researching your background for this interview, Seth, was that you actually started life as a book packager.
Seth Godin: It’s true. I mean I started life as a naked baby wrapped in a diaper…
Alison Jones: No no no, you were born a book packager.
Seth Godin: A mere 22 years later, I was a book packager. Here’s the thing. Most people don’t know this, your listeners do, book packagers don’t make packages. They’re like producers for books the way Steven Spielberg might produce a movie.
My first book, most people don’t know, was a Science Fiction novel that I did with Alan Dean Foster, the guy who serialized, who novelized the Alien and Star Wars movies. I was at a computer game company and I was the Brand Manager, we were doing… you know, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clark, Michael Crichton, taking their books and turning them into computer games. One of the games I was doing didn’t have a book and we wanted symmetry. I was the guy who invented the idea of getting a novel created about a computer game the way you’ve got novels made about movies. Then I brought it to Warner and they published it.
I though, “Wow! That was way easier than making a computer game.” In ’86, I left to get married and moved to New York and I needed a gig where I could be creative with no money. The idea in those days was that book publishers didn’t have enough complicated books that they could publish. It was hard to find someone who could make you an almanac or complicated picture book or even certain kinds of business books. I began that business. The first day I sold the first book also to Warner for $5,000. Chip Conley, who’s also a well-known author, was my co-author. We were 26, we each made $2,500. I thought, “Wow! I could do this if I could sell a book a week.”
In the next year, I sent out 800 or 900 book proposals to 30 publishers and I got every one of them rejected. I learned so much from that experience. After that, I built a team, we did a book a month for 12 years. 120 books on gardening and business and Email Addresses of the Rich and Famous and Best of the Net and the Women’s Almanac and The People Magazine Almanac and Stanley Kaplan, on and on and on.
Alison Jones: Fantastic. It makes so much sense, actually, once I understood that about you and where you started. It made so much sense, that the fact that everything you’ve done since, in a sense, has been playing with publishing. Publishing in the broadest sense, I mean. Publishing an idea.
Seth Godin: Yeah, exactly. I can’t believe how fortunate I was that after I got my act together, the industry accepted me for what I was trying to do and supported me. I never made a profit in those 12 years. I barely paid myself, but every once in a while, you’d have a year with a New York Times bestseller and you could pay off all your bills and a few others. Generally, it was, for me, the practice of how could I keep doing this to get to the point where I had a body of work where I knew, with some confidence, how to make something that I was proud of.
Alison Jones: The writing itself, from the publishing aspect, what does writing do for you? What does it mean in your life?
Seth Godin: I’ve just belied what I’m about to say. People say that I talk in complete sentences and don’t say “um” a lot. Learning to talk in complete sentences is essential if you are going to write like you talk. I find that writing is a way to turn cogent present into more permanent generosity. If I can say something that’s helpful and memorialize it in print or online, it pays many dividends. What I’ve tried to do with my writing, because in so many other areas of my life, I’m subject to flights of fancy and jumping and skipping steps, with my writing, I’m trying to slow down enough that at whatever speed you read what I wrote, it might make sense to you.
Alison Jones: Do you think that that clarity of talking, and I’m going to guess behind it the clarity of thinking, is a byproduct of the writing or is there a different relationship?
Seth Godin: Most of the people I know who are good at writing are good at thinking. I’m going to argue that the writing makes you a better thinker not just that good thinkers become writers.
Alison Jones: I suspect you’re right. I think we probably haven’t quite demonstrated it to the satisfaction of a judge. My experience, too, is that, and this is what I talk about a lot to my authors; writing isn’t just about producing something at the end, it’s a process. It’s sort of like a business discipline that will help every aspect of your thinking in your business and your life.
Seth Godin: Yeah. Look at the email you sent me inviting me to be on the podcast. It had no apologies, it wasn’t filled with dissembling and misdirection. It was clear and cogent and generous and thoughtful and it took me 10 seconds to say, “Sure! I’d be happy to do it.”
Alison Jones: I genuinely don’t think I’ve had a quicker response. I was just delighted when I read, “Sure! Let’s do it!”
Seth Godin: Most people can’t write like that because they’re choosing not to. It’s not that they weren’t born with it. This is true what I’m about to say. My English teacher wrote in my high school yearbook, “You are the bane of my existence and you will never amount to anything.”
Alison Jones: That is brilliant!
Seth Godin: I tell people that because it’s not that she was wrong, in that moment, she was right. It’s that, like most people, I was afraid and I was demonstrating my fear through poor writing. What Steve Pressfield talks about in the brilliant War of Art and the sequel Do the Work, which I was lucky enough to publish back in the day, we expose our fear all the time in almost everything we do. That fear of being called a fraud, that fear of thinking we’re not qualified, that fear of all the other things that might one day come back to haunt us is magnified by the permanence of the keyboard.
Well, we don’t really hesitate about going to the gym because we’re afraid of being tired. That’s why you go to the gym. I think we ought to feel the same way about the keyboard. We ought to not hesitate to use it. We ought to use it because it exposes our fear.
Alison Jones: If you look at it that way, blogging is almost like an inoculation against the fear of writing a book, isn’t it?
Seth Godin: Exactly. People who have blogged a lot … I do a lot of behind-the-scenes help for friends who are working on their first or second book, it’s a privilege. The people who are most stuck are the people who aren’t capable of writing 10 blog posts about their work.
Alison Jones: I guess we can extrapolate from this another piece of advice for somebody who’s stuck, which is just get blogging. Just start by blogging and build up your writing muscle from that.
Seth Godin: Do it under a pseudonym if that helps you.
Alison Jones: That’s an interesting idea. Just to get it out there.
Seth Godin: Well, now you clearly have nothing to be afraid of because you’re not even going to get blamed.
Alison Jones: I love that. We’re back to fake Dalai Lama, aren’t we?
I’m going to drop in another quick question from somebody in the Extraordinary Business Book Club, which I think is a great one and I’m really interested to hear your answer. If you had a spare 30 minutes, what would you do?
Seth Godin: I have way more spare time than most people think. I don’t go to any meetings. That’s 5 hours a day. I don’t have a television, so that’s 5 hours a day. I have 10 spare hours a day. My go-to is to sit mindfully. You can call it meditating if you want, but it’s too sloppy for that. Then the second thing, because I can’t do that for more than a few minutes a day, the second thing is try to find a place where I can make a contribution, because what I’ve discovered is that nothing makes my day feel better than doing that.
Alison Jones: That was something that really struck me, and I’m going to go back to Poke the Box again, but you said that phrase about doing the thing and you said it’s almost painful to write it because it should be so obvious. You see somebody struggling with a tray, you get up and help. There’s a squeaky door hinge, you fix it. It sounds so obvious, but actually, you’re right, most people don’t open their eyes to those opportunities to intervene, to make a difference.
Seth Godin: When they enter an auditorium, they never sit in the front row.
Alison Jones: That’s too scary.
Seth Godin: That’s astonishing to me because you’ve enrolled, you’ve shown up, but you want to sit on the aisle, which makes no sense, because you’re going to be there the whole hour, and you don’t want to sit in the front row because why? What’s going to happen?
Alison Jones: It might be awful. You might make eye contact with the speaker. Imagine.
Seth Godin: Exactly and what we forget is that this is all a duet. That it’s so easy to imagine that people are doing things to us that they are organizing this event to us, they are writing this book to us, they are writing this blog to us, but it’s not true. They’re doing it with us. You have an obligation as an audience member that if you go see Keith Jarrett play the piano, don’t cough. Bring your own cough drops, don’t cough. If you go to the opera, be prepared to engage in the encore when it comes. If you read a book and it works, give the book to someone else. Spread the word. This is the obligation of the audience. If the author can’t count on this, if we count on it, we’re going to be disappointed. What we’re missing is that good audiences make good performances.
Alison Jones: Yeah. It’s a good reminder, as well, if you’re a writer, you’re also a reader, or at least I hope you are. Be an active reader. Engage fully in being a reader.
Seth Godin: One of the things that most people don’t realize is authors, A. put their books next to all their competitors in the store on purpose. Books don’t sell if they’re not next to other books. And 2, they blurb each other’s work. The thing is, you would never find Tim Cook from Apple blurbing a phone from Samsung, “This is the greatest phone ever! You should buy it!” There’s almost no other industry where competitors recommend each other’s products.
Alison Jones: Which… I’ve never thought of it like that. It’s partly because you only need one phone, but you need every single book in an area that you’re interested in. There is that sense, also, that the book is bigger than them.
Seth Godin: We’re on a religious quest.
Alison Jones: The book is bigger. The idea is bigger than the simple entity of the book.
Seth Godin: Exactly.
Alison Jones: I love that. Thank you so much. That was a little extra bit that we recorded because I just couldn’t bear to stop talking when Seth was generous enough to give me a bit more time. Thank you so much for that extra few minutes, Seth.
Seth Godin: Charmed. Thank you! I’ll see you soon, Alison.
Seth’s blog: http://sethgodin.typepad.com/
Free download of Unleashing the Ideavirus: http://www.sethgodin.com/ideavirus/downloads/ideavirusreadandshare.pdf
Casting Words (for transcription): https://castingwords.com/
Seth’s advice for authors 1: http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2005/07/advise_for_auth.html
Seth’s advice for authors 2: http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2006/08/advice_for_auth.html
Seth’s new book, What to do when it’s your turn (and it’s always your turn): http://www.yourturn.link/