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So What Do You Do, Seth Godin, Author and Marketing Guru?

After churning out 12 books, the bestselling author details why he's giving up on traditional publishing

By Jeff Rivera - August 25, 2010
When Seth Godin talks, millions listen. With one of the most successful blogs on the Internet, the New York Times bestselling author and marketing guru has guided his readers on topics such as leadership, viral marketing and new media. Corporations like Aol, Microsoft, Procter & Gamble, Sony Music, and Sprint have hung on his every word, hiring him as a speaker for their private functions.

And as a testament to his influence over the media, after Godin broke the news in an excerpt from this interview posted on's blog GalleyCat that he will no longer publish his bestselling books with a traditional publisher, news outlets went berserk. The Los Angeles Times, New York Observer, Fast Company and even The Wall Street Journal took our lead in covering what some say could be a defining moment in the already shaken book publishing industry.

But this is just the beginning for Godin. He has plans to roll out his teachings via eBooks, print-on-demand, audiobooks, podcasts and apps on his terms, no doubt bringing his millions of followers along for the ride.

Name: Seth Godin
Position: Author, entrepreneur and marketing consultant
Resume: Began as a brand manager for Spinnaker Software while pursuing his MBA from Stanford. Created Seth Godin Productions, a book packaging company, selling more than 120 books. He then formed one of the very first online marketing companies, Yoyodyne, and introduced the world to the concept of "permission marketing" -- the basis of his book of the same name. Unleashing the Ideavirus, Purple Cow, All Marketers are Liars, and others followed while he spent a stint as the VP of direct marketing for Yahoo!. Wrote 12 bestsellers on marketing, formed mega-successful online portal Squidoo, and become a vocal advocate of change for media and the book publishing industry.
Birthday: July 10, 1960
Hometown: Buffalo, NY
Education: Tufts University with a degree in computer science and philosophy. MBA in marketing from Stanford Business School.
Marital status: Married
Favorite TV show: Does not watch TV.
Guilty pleasure: "80 percent or higher dark chocolate, the more handcrafted the better."
Last book read: Nothing Sacred, by Douglas Rushkoff
Twitter handle: @thisissethsblog

Starting with ground zero, how did you build your audience?
When I launched Permission Marketing, I had an email newsletter. This was before blogs, and it grew to more than 20,000 people. I would write once or twice a week; anything I felt was relevant to my readers. It wasn't about me selling anything or me pushing things at people. It was about delivering a message I thought people wanted to get. The side effect was that every time I would send out an email, approximately one percent of the people would hit reply and argue with what I said. That meant I was getting 200 or so annoyed or angry emails every time I hit send. I got conditioned into believing that I shouldn't send an email because I knew I would be hit with a torrent of "nasty-grams" in return. So, I just stopped 'cause it wasn't making me happy.

"I've decided not to publish any more books in the traditional way. 12 for 12 and I'm done."

A couple years later I was at a conference which Fortune magazine sponsored. I met the founders of Google and was introduced to TypePad. I started blogging for real and again, only 30 or 40 people were reading it. The secret is 3,700 blog posts later, if you add 10 or 20 or 50 or a 100 people every day, it's going to get to be a big number. That's, I guess, the short version of how the core of the audience came to happen. It's drip, drip, drip every day -- asking people for permission, not violating their trust, giving them what you promised and nothing else. I never try to make a profit from the interactions I have with people in that format. I think I owe them something, not the other way around, and so as long as I can write for them, I figure then they will keep reading.

You made headlines by giving away your book, Unleashing the Ideavirus, for free. Is the free model still effective today with so many choices now for free product?
Permission Marketing had already been a New York Times bestseller when I wrote Unleashing the Ideavirus, and as I was writing it, I was thinking,'Am I going be a hypocrite, or am I going to take my own advice?' The book is about the fact that the ideas that spread win and the best way to get your ideas to spread is to make it easy to spread, and hardcover books are really hard to spread.

So, I decided to take my own advice and publish it for free. It's worth noting that I made more money on that book than the book I sold a year before because after the book spread, we self-published it in hardcover for 40 bucks, which Amazon sold at a discount, and it went on the bestseller list. There is a lot of free stuff out there, but either it's junk or it comes with so many strings attached that people don't wanna touch it. Then, the amount of stuff that is out there that is free and juicy and worth sharing is actually pretty small, and so there is an opportunity. I'm not saying that everyone needs to be in the free content charity business. I think that there are ways that you can leverage the attention that you get for free into a permission asset, build the tribe, and actually make money doing so.

You could be described as a modern day philosopher on marketing with your parables and illustrations. But what specific advice do you have for those who want to create and build their brand?
You can't be a wandering generality. You have to be a meaningful specific. You have to "stand for something," as my friend Zig would say. And that is not so easy because a lot of people I know who write are just plain smart, and they are smart about a lot of things. They don't necessarily want to be disciplined enough to be smart about just one thing. It's also boring to be smart about just one thing, until you break through and your brand gives you the leverage to go really deep.

"There are ways that you can leverage the attention that you get for free into a permission asset, build the tribe, and actually make money doing so."

I have a blog post called "First 10," and what I'm arguing is that everyone has 10 friends or family members or colleagues or people in the street who will read something that they write, who will look at video that they made. Those 10 people, when they are exposed to what you do, if they have no interest whatsoever in spreading the word, then why do you think the next 10 people will? At some point, the work you do has to be magical enough that it spreads without you harassing people, 'cause otherwise it just doesn't go anywhere. There is a number of critical masses, probably more than 10, but it's less than a thousand. If it's not, then you need to work on the work so that once your work is exposed to those kinds of people -- 20 or 30 or 40 or 50 of the right people -- they'll spread it. Then, you're on your way and if not, you have to think hard about who you're exposing it to and what the work is like.

You blog every single day. How do you keep your ideas fresh for your readers?
l don't buy that the people don't have enough ideas. It is hard for me to imagine how someone can go through the whole day and have talker's block, I have never met anyone who woke up in the morning and had so little to say they were mute until they went to bed that night. People don't get talker's block, so why do we get writer's block? We get writer's block 'cause we are afraid, it's easy to talk because you can deny it later and it disappears, but once you write it down, that's when the fear comes from. That's where you say I don't have any good ideas and all I do is write like I talk. If I have something interesting to say, I say it and then I write it down, it's not that hard. I think that the art here is in chopping down the wall, the barrier between what you want to say and what you are afraid of, and letting people hear your best stuff.

"I'm at a loss to think of one thing the book industry does well in 2010 that it wasn't already doing in 1990."

You have been very vocal about what the book publishing industry could do better. What are a few things you see them doing right?
The book industry does a great, fabulous, miraculous job of doing what they needed to do in 1965. Great jobs for good people. Ethics that matter. Good taste. Products to be proud of. In terms of responding to changes in the world, I'm at a loss to think of one thing the book industry does well in 2010 that it wasn't already doing in 1990. Not one new thing done well.

Authors have so many opportunities now to self-publish or publish their own eBooks. Is this something you as a multiple New York Times bestselling author would consider?
I've decided not to publish any more books in the traditional way. 12 for 12 and I'm done. I like the people, but I can't abide the long wait, the filters, the big push at launch, the nudging to get people to go to a store they don't usually visit to buy something they don't usually buy, to get them to pay for an idea in a form that's hard to spread... I really don't think the process is worth the effort that it now takes to make it work. I can reach 10 or 50 times as many people electronically. No, it's not 'better,' but it's different. So, while I'm not sure what format my writing will take, I'm not planning on it being the 1907 version of hardcover publishing any longer.

What are three of the biggest mistakes people make when trying to build their brand?
Impatience. Selfishness. Spending money instead of conquering fear.

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Jeff Rivera is the author of Forever My Lady (Grand Central) and the founder of

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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