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Godin to Authors: You Have No Right to Make Money Anymore


Thanks to the rise of self-publishing tools, from Amazon’s (AMZN) Kindle platform to Apple’s (AAPL) 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. But this explosion of amateur authors and publishers also means a lot more competition for an audience. So how do writers make money? First, according to author and marketer Seth Godin, they have to give up the idea that they somehow deserve to be paid for their writing.

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. 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.

The rise of the amateur has disrupted all forms of content

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. 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—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 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. 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 1,000 true fans to pay a hundred dollars a year each to get an ongoing serial from you? 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.

Who says that artists have a right to make money?

Film director Francis Ford Coppola said something similar in a recent interview, in which he discussed some of the lessons he had learned over decades of practicing his craft. He also talked about how the Internet—and specifically the widespread downloading of music and movies—has changed the nature of the business. Somewhat surprisingly for someone who has been involved in creating some of Hollywood’s biggest commercial successes, Coppola said that he sympathized more with those doing the downloading than he did with the content creators whose work was being affected:

As we enter into a new age, maybe art will be free. Maybe the students are right. They should be able to download music and movies. I’m going to be shot for saying this. But who said art has to cost money? And therefore, who says artists have to make money?

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

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