Where Seth Godin is Coming From: Re: Free Content and Publishing

There’s been a bit of fuss made over Seth Godin’s interview with HarperStudio about free content and how it can help publishing. ((Hat tip to Andrew Wheeler, since I was only peripherally aware of this.))

Oh, let’s go right ahead and say it: Seth Godin advocates the idea that spreading ideas is more important than money:

[Publishers are] in the business of leveraging the big ideas authors have. There are a hundred ways to do that, yet book publishers obsess about just one or two of them. Here’s the news flash: that’s not what authors care about. Authors don’t care about units sold. They care about ideas spread.

As you can imagine, this led to some hue and cry. ((Why yes, I do tend towards understatement. Why do you ask?)) Many writers write for money. It’s how they make their living (in some cases, how they wish they could make all of their living). And heck. I feel that way too.

But there’s some context missing here that may not be obvious to writers of a more normal bent. And that’s Seth Godin is a blogger. Not just any blogger, for many writers blog these days; he’s a professional blogger, and also a highly successful one. His brand sells, and the way he made his brand was through his blog. And not only does it sell his blog (and its ad space), and his online writing, but also his offline writing, his books.

And he started out with nothing. No one knew who the hell Seth Godin was nor cared, until they discovered that his content was what they wanted and needed.

Now, there’s a conceit among bloggers that through hard work you can achieve anything ((Indeed, like most bloggers who are extremely successful, Seth has been blogging for years)), a sort of American Dream of Blogging. But it’s also a matter of selection of subject, quality of writing and content, and as always, moving with the zeitgeist. Seth Godin hit quadruple aces on all three. Obviously some of this he controls, and some of it he does not.

Nevertheless, his brand was based on free content, freely given (albeit copyright held). What many writers forget is that, at one point, they also started out with free content, freely given (albeit copyright held, most of the time). For instance, your manuscript is submitted to agents and editors without them paying you if they don’t like it or need it—although there is a distinct difference since the audience is restricted to agents and editors. If a writer started as a fan fiction writer, they also gave out content for free. ((Ignoring the really illegal cases where they try to sell work not in the public domain and that they don’t have license to.)) And when we’re still older, we give away stories and books to people so they know who we are.

The point is that we don’t give everything away completely gratis ((Ads. Paid-for but released for free content. Etc.)). And as an addendum to that point, what we do give away, we give away because we’re brand-building (even submitting manuscripts is, in essence, brand-building with a more limited audience).

And that’s what Seth Godin is trying to say. You need to spread your ideas and your brand so that people know who you are, before you can make money. This is, incidentally, why marketing is so important in publishing, and indeed it’s why you go with a publisher in the first place if you’re not as efficient, whether through subject matter or luck or skill, as Seth is at brand-building.

What Seth is also suggesting is that a free content approach is more appropriate these days. When he compares books to music, people are correct in pointing out that this is apples to oranges; what they forget is that apples and oranges are both fruit. Books are information as much as music is; indeed, you could argue that books are more coherent information. People have far less patience and if they can sample a kind of information for free, they’re much more likely to buy future work from said author or musician. The interwebs will not wait for you. You must prove yourself.

At the same time, you need to be wise about balancing truly free content, free but paid-for content, and content that people pay for. Playing these against each other is how bloggers work and make money.

Now is where people will demand, “so when does it actually work?”

It’s worked for Seth Godin, obviously. It’s worked for Cory Doctorow. It’s even worked for John Scalzi. On a much, much smaller scale, it’s even worked for me ((Caveat that I am very much aware of: in no way can I be considered at all either a successful writer or blogger, and if you want to point out that you are much better than me for being published in more real places than just Tor.com, and anyways I shouldn’t be using Tor.com as a resume due to my general lack of worth and weight in the field, I will simply bow my head and say: you are entirely correct, sir or madam; I am not as worthy or as good as you, and I did say “much, much smaller scale”. Yet even peasants can advise kings, if only because they have the time and are close enough to the ground to make some observations, which may or may not hold up, but nevertheless, some which may prove useful to our betters.)), and if I want to and have the time and the desire and the drive, I can actually build from there.

The thing to remember about bloggers who make money is that most of them are insane. That kind of drive, when you’re not getting paid and often for years ((I’ll note that some people will say, “But there are bloggers that make money in months!” To which I note that such bloggers usually have a high level of experience in the area which they blog, which itself takes years to accomplish, so the story is incomplete if you simply look at their history as beginning when they first landed on Blogger or whatever.)) , is the kind of drive you need to maybe make a blog that pays you; otherwise you don’t get anything, even with the zeitgeist.

Mind you, the writers who make money are also insane. I think, actually, you have to be pretty nuts to make money from words, because they take a lot of effort to come up with, especially good ones. ((Cue argument from folks who argue there are people who write bad words and still make money. I count ideas as part of writing, so unless you’re actually prepared to write a celebrity biography—and trust me, it’s sometimes really not worth it—or put your neck out and write anyways even if your words do not float like delicate swans in a lavendar-hued pool while the sun sets over the misty winter snow—I don’t think this is a great argument.))

Anyways: such is where Seth Godin is coming from. Money is nice, but ideas spread is necessary to get money, and ideas spread widely is necessary to make lots of money, and one way to do the latter is to give away content for free in our busy-ADD-internet-super-connected-with-pirates-anyways world.