Seth Godin and the Future of Books

The big buzz in book circles this morning is that Seth Godin, author of Linchpin and 11 other books, is retiring. Well, not exactly. He’s retiring from writing books in the format we know — that is, in hardcover, with a price point north of $20, available in bookstores like Borders, showing up there at least 6 months after he completes the manuscript. As he wrote in his “Moving On” post, traditional publishers use an “antique and expensive distribution system,” and wind up “adding layers or faux scarcity.” The majority of Seth’s blog readers have never bought one of his books, and he has tired of pondering how to get people to go to a store they don’t usually visit and buy something they don’t usually purchase, when all he wants to do is spread ideas.

And so, as he wrote, “It’s been years since I woke up in the morning saying, ‘I need to write a book, I wonder what it should be about.'”

I almost choked reading that, because this is exactly what I woke up this morning thinking. 168 Hours (which Seth graciously blurbed) came out in late May, and now it’s time to come up with the next book idea. Not just because I’d like another advance, and not just because I want to say something. I write lots of articles and blog posts, and those are great fun, but I really like writing books.

Seth’s announcement has me trying to put my finger on why. Books are extraordinarily inefficient. I have spent several years working on 168 Hours in some form, and yet fewer people have read that than read my USA Today op-ed on lawns which ran last week (which, incidentally, got mentioned in the print version of Time on the Verbatim page – very exciting). I know many people have heard of 168 Hours — say, the several million who watched my Today Show appearance in June. But looking at my sales numbers, millions of viewers translated into roughly an extra 500 copies beyond the normal burn rate. While people may pay $26 for a sweater without thinking about it, paying $26 for something that then requires you to think and invest several hours in its consumption is a tough sell.

But… Here’s what I love about writing books, at least in theory. I love the length of them. I love delving into a topic deeply, for far more words than someone will tolerate on a machine that also lets them check their email. I like having the time to polish my prose (sometimes; I did once ghost write a book in 6 weeks). There is a certain word-made-flesh satisfaction in having ideas formed into a physical product, a physical product which then goes places that are separate from my desk. I love reading books for many of the same reasons — being able to inhabit another writer’s head for many hours and taking in a long story that goes where a blog post can’t. If a book is important enough to me (ones like Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek — such an example of prose done as craft!) I want to see it, embodied. If you think about it, this is the same reason we give gifts, rather than just telling a host “thank you.” Ideas feel more important when we give them a physical form.

Of course, I know all of this is not entirely rational. I love my Kindle and its ability to get me my books instantly. I also know that the book industry is suffering, perhaps for not setting itself apart enough. I get review copies of at least a dozen books a month, and many don’t contain an idea that’s big enough to justify a magazine story, let alone hundreds of pages, and the writing craft has been shoved to the bottom of the priority list, way below some version of platform. Or the fact that a person who has been on television was involved. The time lag between when a writer finishes a manuscript and the book comes out is crazy in a world where H&M can stock their stores with fashions inside weeks of design. And I’ll just note a rumor that some publishers (not Portfolio) still have authors make changes on their galleys in colored pencils, like we’re hanging out with Gutenberg himself.

Still, I hope books will remain part of the mix in the marketplace of ideas. Seth writes that “my mission is to figure out who the audience is, and take them where they want and need to go, in whatever format works, even if it’s not a traditionally published book.” It may not be. But I think books are still a pretty good way of doing this — or at least are easier to wrap as a Christmas present than a blog post.

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