New tools like the Kindle have led to an explosion of self-published books, but that has meant more competition for existing authors. How do they make money now? Writer Seth Godin says they first have to give up the idea that they deserve to be paid.


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

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 1000 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.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Joel Bombardier and Mike Licht

  1. Collin Ferry Tuesday, March 6, 2012

    There are a few angles here – but one is this: Become scarce, make money.

  2. Non Spécifié Tuesday, March 6, 2012

    “You get what you pay for.” Sometimes less. If it’s a free service (like Twitter, Facebook or Google search), you get some functionality, and you get your personal privacy compromised. If it’s free content, you get quality and substance commensurate with the price paid. No, creators should not expect to be paid for their work. But neither should consumers expect to get content of any worth if they will not pay for it. Democratization, indeed… pffft. It’s a planet-sized crucible of mediocrity rather. I don’t know why anyone with skill, talent or vision for artistry bothers to lift a finger anymore. I did for many years, but I will not now.

    1. “I don’t know why anyone with skill, talent or vision for artistry bothers to lift a finger anymore.”

      Fortunately there are lots of people with skill, talent and vision for artistry who are doing much more than just lifting a finger. You need to go ask them why they’re doing it, and get out of your bleak view.

      1. Non Spécifié Tuesday, March 6, 2012

        Rich, don’t tell me what I need to do. I hardly know you. :^)

        Fortunately for consumers, there are those creators you mention. But it isn’t fortunate for those creators if the consumers are not paying them.

        Community, enthusiasm, personal fulfillment and such are fine if some artist likes them; but they cannot themselves feed that artist’s children.

  3. rick gregory Tuesday, March 6, 2012

    I’m sorry, but this is the same person who pissed and moaned – LAST WEEK – about how Apple was evil for not letting him embed affiliate links in a free puff piece that he… WROTE. And you, Mathew, bought that hook, line and sinker.

    I’ll pay attention to Godin when he stops promoting the same idea over and over, when he stops puffing himself and when he says something actually meaningful.

    1. Rick, I think regardless of what you think about his complaints in regard to Apple and linking, Seth still makes a good point about how authors need to look at the market today. Thanks for the comment.

  4. I ask this not to be snarky, but with genuine curiosity– is Seth Godin still relevant?

    1. Of course he is – but he would probably tell you that it depends on who you are. To his fans/followers/tribe members he is everyday on his blog. To those who don’t care he’s not. Have you read his new ebook on education? I highly recommend it.

  5. Matthew, I think there’s a huge difference between “you have no right” and “who said you have a right.”

    “No right” means that no one should get paid. As in “you have no right to do that.”

    “a right” means, like free speech or habeas corpus, it’s a given.

    The inflammatory headline aside, I think you got it right. Scarcity is evaporating.

    1. Thanks, Seth — I see your point, although it is hard to sneak that kind of nuance into a headline. I was trying to capture the idea that authors are not guaranteed the ability to make money — i.e., it is no longer a “right” but something much less dependable. I didn’t choose it because it was inflammatory, but because I thought it captured that idea. In any case, thanks for sparking some thoughts on the issue that had been rattling around in my head for awhile now.

      1. I read the headline as “no assumed guarantee” of profit, not inflammatory. I thought it was a perfect headline.

      2. Perhaps a better headline would be “You Have No Right To Expect To Be Paid”?

    2. Stephen Tiano Wednesday, March 7, 2012

      This is a subtle difference, I’m afraid … in a discussion. But in actual concrete terms the diff between you have no right” and “who said you have a right” is a really wide gulf.

      I realize that there will always be those of us who relish the competition and who strike out with confidence that we are one of the ones who will, indeed, find material reward in our creative labors, but I remember what it was like starting out 20 years ago. In fact, one of my first interior book design projects–we spoke online briefly about this a while back, Seth–was a book of yours (God! I wish those floppy disk archives from back then survived so I knew which book; it was even before I knew to ask for copies of each book I worked. So, boys and girls, beware not having redundant archiving methods!)

      Back to my point–ugh … interrupting sleep to read and comment online. … So more than ever I remember an older friend, a teacher when public school teaching wasn’t so looked down upon by tax-paying wage earners and the demagogues who incite them, telling me I ought to get a steady and secure (perhaps civil service) job and do what I love–at the time, attempt to write the great, American novel–in my after-hours. Hence, I’ve always “freelanced with a net.” Not the most adventurous, but it’s served my competing needs for security and to call my own shots side-by-side, as it were. Is this perhaps the new career paradigm for creatives?

  6. I read the headline and was surprised, then read the post and was not. This is 100% consistent with what Seth has been saying for a decade.

  7. yuryprokashev Tuesday, March 6, 2012

    80% of Internet “writing” is a crap, not an art.
    Crap is for free every time, since crap is a product of somebody who is learning.
    Amateur writers can not reach millions, until they write a good stuff on a regular basis.
    And to write a good stuff they have to spend a lot of effort.
    This is my own experience.
    If you don’t invest yourself into “writing” – you produce crap.

    Another thing is that Internet gives an opportunity to any amateur to become a professional writer. This is true. And while amateur writer is amateur, he will do his content for free.
    Internet is a world, where talented writer could be noticed. Nothing more.
    Talent alone does not mean 100% success as beauty alone does not mean 100% “happily ever after”.

    Writing is skill. Profession. Blogger is profession. Good blogs that are read by millions are 80% financed by somebody. And writers are paid for good content they produce.

    I doubt “Art” could ever become free. It has never been and it will never be.
    Art is something Great. And Great requires hundreds and hundreds of invested hours of your life.

    1. I do think you have a quotable at the end there. :)

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  9. Scarcity is evaporating, only journalism remains, as to litterature, always as scarce but enough of it

  10. “Quality” and “service” have replaced “scarcity” as a competitive factor in most modern business models. For writers, the quality of their work is therefore key – the ideas they share, the inspiration they provide. Although I basically agree with Godin on many points, some of his remarks are disturbingly reminiscent of the ideas of Tapscott and Williams in “Wikinomics.” For example, they suggest that Prince can give away his music and still make a fortune selling ringtones. However, this is not a model that works for the Berlin Philharmonic. Then again, the model works for Godin, who makes a good living on the lecture circuit so he can afford to be cavalier about royalties. But not all good authors are good presenters. Although all writers don’t necessarily deserve to be paid, if someone finds what an author writes useful, then why shouldn’t there be remuneration of some kind?


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