Wikibollocks: Mathew Ingram and Seth Godin on publishing

Here's most of Matthew Ingram's article about a Seth Godin interview with added intemperate and unedited and probably ill-judged commentary from yours truly. The Mathew Ingram article is indented.

Thanks to the rise self-publishing tools, from Amazon’s Kindle platform to Apple’s iAuthor software, anyone who wants to write a book can do so and theoretically reach an audience of millions — as self-publishing superstars such as Amanda Hocking and John Locke have shown.

This is meaningless. In one sense it's been the case for a hundred years that "anyone…can..reach an audience of millions". You didn't even have to go through a publisher (Virginia Woolf). But for most people, going through a publisher is easier than self-promotion, which for most people is very very difficult. So to claim "anyone" can self-publish to millions is just ridiculous. We can write off Salinger, Pynchon, Harper Lee, Samuel Becket, or Cormac McCarthy for a start. Promotion (not to mention editing and more) takes a certain kind of person. Not everyone can do it. I can't. 

But this explosion of amateur authors and publishers also means a lot more competition for an audience.

I'm sorry, "amateur authors"?? Most authors have always been amateur in the sense of not having a regular job as an author. If Amanda Hocking is an amateur (income from her books, millions) and I'm a professional (income from my book, hundreds) then someone is looking at the world upside down. Plus, in the first paragraph MI is implicitly claiming that it's easier than ever to reach an audience, and in this paragraph he's saying it's harder than ever (more competition). Make your mind up Mathew!

So how do writers make money? First of all, according to author and marketer Seth Godin, they have to give up the idea that they somehow deserve to be paid for their writing.

It's straw man time. Who are these authors? I know several authors, and none who feels the sense of entitlement of which Godin accuses them.

In a recent interview with Digital Book World, the writer and creator of the Domino Project — a joint publishing venture with Amazon that he recently wound up — was asked about his advice that authors should give their books away for free and that they should worry more about spreading their message and building a fan base instead of focusing on how to monetize it right away.

This is a model that will work for a very few people, but for most will fail. It's bad advice.

And how would he respond to writers concerned about their ability to make a living from their writing? Godin’s response:

Who said you have a right to cash money from writing? Poets don’t get paid (often), but there’s no poetry shortage. The future is going to be filled with amateurs, and the truly talented and persistent will make a great living. But the days of journeyman writers who make a good living by the word — over.

Anyone who thinks "the truly talented and persistent will make a great living" should have talked to Vincent Van Gogh. Are there still Van Gogh's in today's world? Of course – we just don't know who they are.

Perhaps musicians should look to digital royalties? Sadly no. Making money online is a winner-take-all competition, a few will get very rich (and luck has a big say in that, as the well-known Watts-Salganik experiments proved), but most will get somewhere between little and nothing.

This probably isn’t the kind of message that most authors (or creative professionals of any kind) want to hear, but that doesn’t make it any less true. The rise of the amateur, powered by the democratization of distribution provided by the Web and social media, is something that is disrupting virtually every form of content that can be converted into bits.

This is a mix of two poses. First there's hard-headed realism: the old world is gone, with a sympathetic wave of the hand. Then there's blind faith that everything is for the best in the best of digital worlds and please don't mention that "the rise of the amateur" is also "the rise of the plutocrat" (Bezos, Zuckerberg, Jobs) and "the democratization of distribution" is also "the monopolization of profits" in the hands of the aggregators. If you promote your work through Twitter, it's not "direct", it's mediated by Twitter, and it's as well to remember that. If you self-publish on Amazon then Amazon is your publisher.

To take just two examples, the news industry is struggling to adapt to an era where anyone can commit “random acts of journalism” with a blog or smartphone - 

"Random acts of journalism" sounds cool and fun, but cute phrases don't make reality. Matthew Hindman actually did some hard looking into the democratization of the media and concluded that the spectrum of voices getting heard now is narrower, if anything, than pre-Internet. The rise of the amateur citizen journalist is only half the story. (My comments on Hindman here: self-promotion!) Here is Hindman:

From the beginning, the Internet has been portrayed as a media Robin Hood – robbing audience from the big print and broadcast outlets and giving it to the little guys. But the data in this chapter suggest that audiences are moving in both directions. On the one hand, the news market in cyberspace seems even more concentrated on the top ten or twenty outlets than print media is. On the other, the tiniest outlets have indeed earned a substantial portion of the total eyeballs… It is the middle-class outlets that have seen relative decline in the online world. Moreover, it is overwhelmingly smaller, local media organizations that have lost out to national sources. (p.100)

And back to Mathew Ingram:

 — and where sources of news have the ability to publish their own content instead of having to go through a middleman — and photography has been battling the rise of the amateur for years now.

The "having to go through a middleman" link is to a piece about Rupert Murdoch opening a Twitter account. No longer does Rupert have to go through a middleman! Three cheers for the democratization of distribution! There are many sources of inequality, and attention is one. No one publicizes Jane Minor Author's twitter account, but Rupe – well he's different.

Nice picture.

The crucial principle at work in all of these areas is the idea that your real competition isn’t the book or news outlet that is better than you; it’s the one that is good enough for a majority of your audience.

So maybe the Huffington Post version of that news story isn’t as good as the one in the New York Times, but it is good enough for many readers. And maybe those vampire books by Amanda Hocking or the detective novels from million-selling author John Locke aren’t as good as yours, but for hundreds of thousands of weekend readers they are probably good enough.

So on the one hand we hear that "the truly talented and persistent" can still make money, but now we hear that quality isn't the issue. Well, one way or another I'm sure the new world will be just dandy. And what is that way?

Godin’s point isn’t that you can’t make money; it’s that you have to think differently about how to accomplish that task.

If you’re a mystery writer, can you find 1000 true fans to pay a hundred dollars a year each to get an ongoing serial from you?

The "1000 true fans" reference is to a Kevin Kelly daydream from 2008 (*). Plausible, but if it sounds like a plan to you, first read John Scalzi and then tell me that's the path you're going to take.

 It’s not the market’s job to tell authors how to monetize their work. The market doesn’t care. If there’s no scarcity of what they want, it’s hard to get them to pay for it.

The idea, implicit here, is that the market gives people what they want. Let's just agree to differ on that one.

Who says that artists have a right to make money?

No one I know. I'll skip the next few paragraphs.

As media theorist Clay Shirky has pointed out before, abundance breaks a lot of content-related business models that were built on scarcity, and that includes the ones that have supported the book-publishing industry for so long.

My response to the Clay Shirky piece on content-related business models is here.

That’s why publishers have been scrambling to try to lock down their content — including jacking up the prices that libraries pay for e-books — and it’s why authors who have a built-in audience are using the Web to connect directly with that audience.

You really want to talk about locking down content while pointing to publishing on Amazon and iBooks as a way forward? Come on Mr. Ingram, you know better than that.

Godin’s message may not be a popular one, but it is the way that content works now.

Again with the hard-headed technological inevitability. But politics, law, and culture has a lot to do with the way that content works. I have hopes that there will be room for many publishing models, with a collection of models – digital and physical. But the biggest threat to a diversity of revenue streams is a reliance on a single deterministic future governed by Amazon, Apple and Google. Fortunately, resistance to Silicon Valley's increasingly disconnected rhetoric is growing, and I think there are still more constructive possibilities for would-be authors than Seth Godin's self-help, positive-thinking brand of marketing.

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  1. read this

    Wikibollocks: Mathew Ingram and Seth Godin on publishing

  2. Who said you have a right to cash money from writing? Poets don’t get paid (often), but there’s no poetry shortage.
    Guy Clark had the best rejoinder to this cant in his song Cold Dog Soup, ably covered here by James McMurtry.

  3. You deconstruct many lazy arguments, but lay a whopper of an assertion there at the end: “Fortunately, resistance … is growing”. Oh, really?
    Who will sell books in the future? (those 3 have no competitors, and have a very strong hand in that they own the user-facing platforms)
    And if it’s just this triumvirate selling books, who will regulate them? (The govt doesn’t even have an inkling of a clue on that one.)

  4. Great piece. – Paulina Borsook did indeed have it right, when she wrote more than a decade ago about the libertarian ethos of Silicon Valley (in Cyberselfish). Godin is indulging his own fantasies of rational markets, while anatomizing what he sees as the creative’s fantasy of earning an income as a professional. And note that he lumps all “creative” occupations together–journalism, photography (by which he means…photojournalism?), fiction, poetry… And he has decided – very conveniently, for him – that if the work may be cached/captured in a digital form, it’s now worth that much less, has almost negligible value.
    It’s been said before: this asinine “philosophy” obviously doesn’t hold for any other discipline or profession; but that hasn’t stopped these people from deciding unilaterally that certain professions/skills/crafts have been obviated by the technology used to store/disseminate them. The CEO of LegalZoom couldn’t for instance declare to attorneys that many of them have been outmoded–not without being laughed at. The rigors of professional craft are supposed to mean something important in other sectors, but not in fiction?
    The objective here isn’t I think to hold a commercial monopoly on ebooks–the real objective is vanity publishing, vending the opportunity to make books, to “win” literary fame at a price. The vanity publishing model has insinuated itself into the world of pseudo-peer-reviewed academic journals and textbooks (see this blog, for instance: ). This is as shady a practice as recent “contests” soliciting work from creatives (including HuffPo post-AOL), a corporate nickel-slots kind of approach: the potential to win a great jackpot at little-no-cost.

  5. Wikibollocks (noun): a series of blog posts by Tom Slee published on These posts use the technique of Fisking to downplay published ideas promoting Internet technology as a force for social good. The underlying premise of these posts is that inequality is a symptom of social decline and that Internet technology promotes inequality.
    Sometimes defining things gives clarity. When presented with something new, the labels, categories, and analogues that we use to communicate ideas involving the new thing are often imprecise and open to interpretation. With time, the terminology settles into an equilibrium that we all understand and use.
    The world of Business Strategy has a well established lexicon for describing systems. MI starts off mixing the ideas of Product Creation, Product Packaging, and Product Distribution. You, in turn, attack him based on the idea of Product Promotion. MI uses the labels “amateur author” and “democratization of distribution” and you attack the framing of these labels. Godin uses confusing terminology to describe well established Marketing practices.
    ADVICE #1
    The terminology of Business Strategy does not have to be antithetical to your ideas about inequality. Frame things in terms of Value Created and Value Captured rather than Profits. Value is Captured in different ways throughout the system.
    ADVICE #2
    My general rule of thumb is that I’m always off base when I judge opinions based on my perception of the opinion holder’s mindset. “Hard-headed” is a red flag for me that the mindset rule should apply.
    Just to avoid confusion, I completely disagree with your world view (which you know) but I’m very glad you hold the views that you do. Reading your thoughts helps provide clarity to my own. You are like my Jerry Fodor who Daniel Dennett says “… is a sort of human trampoline; often it is the case that if I can see farther than others, it is because I am jumping on Jerry.”
    You are an Inequality Trampoline and I’m very thankful 🙂

  6. Rurik – Competition is difficult to see, I agree. But compared to two years ago there is a lot of scepticism around technology companies (particularly the big aggregators) and their use of personal data. Hard to know where it will go, but when the law gets going to restrict the use of private information, which I think it will, I believe there will be at least a crimp in their sails (is that a phrase?).
    Tohu – I loved Borsook’s book; she was definitely ahead of the curve. And the conference would be hilarious if it wasn’t true.
    Rad – Thanks. We need to talk more. I will say that there is a tension between getting readers and writing carefully. Your advice would improve quality, but there’s nothing like a provocative title to get a few more page views.

  7. Oh, I have no issue with the title. I like it. I was trying to be cutesy and give a specific Definition to start off my main argument about word definitions and I liked my definition of Wikibollocks.
    The point of the rest of my ramblings is that you guys seem to be talking past each other because the context of digital media is so new that you are using/interpreting the same words differently.
    I was thinking that you could use the language/models of Business Strategy to make your points about inequality much in the way you have used the language/models of Game Theory in the past.

  8. I’m envisioning a big flashing overlay saying “Don’t quit your day job” over all articles of this type. Maybe a browser plugin that detects wikibollocks. Also, a theme song:

  9. You quote: “Poets don’t get paid (often), but there’s no poetry shortage.”
    Sure, that’s a GREAT market model. 1. Academic poets get paid by colleges, for which publication is required, but the publication itself doesn’t bring money. 2. Nobody much reads poetry any more, perhaps in part because of that academic bent to it.

  10. The only people who really benefit from giving away books are authors with mainstream media legends created around them for…giving away books and who can collect big lecture fees.
    The problem with Seth Godin goes much deeper.

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