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Godin to authors: You have no right to make money any more

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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

64 Responses to “Godin to authors: You have no right to make money any more”

  1. Rebecca

    The fact that anyone can now create something, whether it’s with words or some sort of visual medium, and broadcast it to the masses makes it more difficult to find those who are truly gifted at what they do. That said, the truly gifted will find their audience, give their content away for free and build that audience if they want to make money. The audience is what is valuable, and has morphed in the way it’s monetized. No longer does the audience pay, but those who would want to reach them must now pay. Advertising dollars will support the creatives, tho that may mean they’ll need a business/sales degree now too in addition to their fine arts degree. Two cents, for what they’re worth.

  2. Confused

    Note this article has little to do with the actual content, or the idea of excellence in craftsmanship.

    Translation: Good enough -> Easy enough to appeal to those who are too lazy to think -> mediocre

  3. Eric Reiss

    Let me see if I’ve got this straight: an actor standing on a stage doesn’t necessarily deserve to get paid for the performance, but an author standing on that same stage should? Here’s some interesting background from

    “Here’s how I see the availability and value curve of my work:

    FREE…My lenses, my ebooks, my blog, some YouTube stuff.

    $15…each of my ten books, give or take.

    $25,000… a seminar in NYC (including $1k for travel).

    $$$… a live event at your office. But I’m hardly doing any outside of NY.

    You know what? Most of my readers take the free option, which is just fine with me. It doesn’t cost me anything on the increment, and it’s my pleasure.

    Others benefit from the printed or audio books. I think they deliver a more concentrated message than the free stuff.

    Organizations tend to get a lot out of my live events, mostly, I think, because local energy can cause better discussions and more change.”

  4. sensorrhea

    This is the acceleration to mediocrity (and worse) predicted by Alexis de Tocqueville in “Democracy in America”. Democratic systems favor the taste and education level of the masses.

    It’s also what briefly produced “Michelle Bachmann, front runner”.

  5. Claude Nougat

    This is a cyber mass market, therefore a free-for-all? Can it get better? No! Thanks Seth for spelling it out so clearly. Let me run for my glass of Chianti!

  6. Esther Dyson made the same argument more than 15 years ago.
    Events have proven her right.
    No amount of gnashing of teeth, or stamping of feet, or angrily shaking a fist to the heavens will alter the unpleasant reality that the creative community finds itself living in a cusp of historic change, a time in which the culture holds it in economic contempt.

  7. Olaf Grewe

    Reblogged this on OlafGrewe und kommentierte:
    I can agree to some extend with Seth Godin. However, some things in this article are difficult. But hey, readers have now to rate the quality of the written stuff. And that is a great opportunity but may also end in a great disastrous waste of life time reading rubbish.

  8. Natalie Jacobs

    Can we start talking about what to do about this? I think we know that the digital age has changed the way consumers value original content. And, we’re all broke now anyway, so why not get some free distractions? But, do we stop writing and making art? Musicians didn’t stop making music, and I think they are starting to figure out how to make a moderate living off of their art. Perhaps writing will get there too, but maybe we should start looking at positive options rather than throwing our hands up and saying “who do we think we are, anyway? Trying to make money by being original and interesting. Poppycock.”

    • Non Spécifié

      “But, do we stop writing and making art? Musicians didn’t stop making music, and I think they are starting to figure out how to make a moderate living off of their art.”

      Hello. I was a musician. During the bulk of the 20th century what you describe was called being a “working musician”. (Within that period, the ‘record sales for profit’ model was a relatively late arrival, and few musicians benefitted from it directly. Mainly it was big stars and songwriters; the touring bands and even the session musicians were mere working musicians, however highly paid.) Another commenter here alluded to it, citing the current model of publishing music for free then touring on the back of that. It’s almost the same as it was in the previous era, but minus the chance for musicians to make real money from the published music itself (through either advances and/or royalties or mechanicals.)

      Though I know few musicians these days, I sense that those who ply the craft now do so either because it’s all they know or because of artistic compulsion. Others, under the guise of musicianship, are just fame seekers. But the sincere ones are doomed by their chosen path to “make a moderate living off of their art”, which in this economic climate is no living at all.

      People will do what they feel they must, but I maintain that it isn’t worth it for almost all creators these days, both in terms of return on investment and of consumers’ worthiness.

      • And I maintain that a world without creators is a world that sucks a lot. Don’t make art, become a consultant.

        There isn’t money in art, and it’s a hard life, right now, but that doesn’t mean that’s how it always needs to be. Creators should have a way to be paid for their creations. I fear we won’t be able to understand why until we live in a world resembling that of Fahrenheit 451 but we are all too distracted to notice.

  9. So is Amazon also “thinking differently” about how it’s making money? Authors who aren’t concerned about compensation certainly keep profit margins flexible for the content distributor… :0)

  10. tl;dr: the age of court patronage is coming back.

    This reminds me of Neal Stephenson’s “Beowulfs and Dantes” argument from 2004. Stephenson’s argument is that there has always been a set of artists who make their living by creating popular mass entertainment (the Beowulfs, among whom he counts himself), and another set who works on less popular topics and needs patronage or some other form of employment to pay the bills (Dantes, and every Creative Writing professor in America). They’re both important to culture, and there are a lot of rich people and institutions out there who like to endorse “new voices”.

    The thing is, all the data says that people are buying _more_ music, seeing _more_ movies, buying _more_ books. There’s plenty of profit motive left in the system. But for people who don’t want to learn to do that kind of marketing (and given that your odds of getting through the publisher’s slush pile are getting worse and worse), maybe there’s a need for more patronage in the world. Think of all those “Brought to you by” messages on PBS, and consider them on the back of a book cover.

  11. But who said food has to cost money? And therefore, who says people have to make money?

    But who said widgets has to cost money? And therefore, who says workers have to make money?

  12. I am not an author. I wish I was. But working to pay the bills wipes out any creative time I might have. SO, I appreciate the people who take the time to produce something with quality which I choose to reward with money. I have approximately 200 “free” titles on my kindle. They are neglected for the books recommended by reliable sources I rely on to help me choose how to spend my book money. Not that anyone will care what an average Joe cares to say when the all brilliant Seth speaks. But I certainly hope too many writers don’t go the way of Non Spécifié because then I won’t have any choice left but to read the mediocre, the average or the junk produced by people who have all the free time in the world to *practice* writing.

  13. You write: he 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”

    Than cite as a follow-up the success of Huffington Post. But Huffington isn’t built on that model at all – it’s built on the model of taking someone else’s journalism and re-writing it. Indeed, the news business isn’t hurting because self-starting journalists are popping up everywhere with great scoops. It’s hurting because other institutions without the resources and werewithal to do that level of reporting are re-writing their news and siphoning off the profits.

  14. Alex van Galen

    Maybe business writers like Seth Godin can make more money with seminars than with books, but it doesn’t really work that way for novelists. They just want to write. And they’re committed to creating something that’s a bit more lasting than the ‘content’ you usually find on the internet. Same thing with journalism. You can copypaste any newsarticle you like, but someone has to do some actual journalism to find some real news.

  15. Here is my take: authors in ftuure and even today, look around, will write books, paper books and ebooks, and they will NOT make much money from these books. But THEY WILL use the books as PR tools to tour behind, and these books will lead to paid speaking engagements and paid lecture tours and paid book and idea festival appearances, and in fact, most writers today are already following this model, including me. Just like the music biz, one makes a CD, er book, commerical house or indie or selfpub, and you tour behind the book and reap profits that way. This has been the case for over 20 years already. Seth just said it out loud. BRAVO!

    • But this is valid in the sense “book around ideas” kind of stuff, plenty of content could exist, about knowledge, culture, dictionnaries, etc. Clearly the content on the web is — very far — from what it could potentially be, and the “everything free or ad base, or everything crowdsourced” dogma has a lot to do with it. Will wikipedia become the only “static” content oriented web site ? Personnaly if I could just buy “english oxford dictionnary 2012” edition for $10 or $20 without having to deal with specific login/passwrds, licence numbers or whatever, I would for sure do it, same for plenty of other things.
      Somehow, the current “push on ebooks” and going back to the notion of “files and copies” for them, is a regression compared to the web (and for something that technically is less and less different).

  16. Stewart Kelly

    Interesting…and how did Godin and Cappola make all their money? Oh, selling books and movies. It is not about the vehicle but rather the value you create for another person that people are willing to pay for.

  17. What is lacking today, more than a “business model”, or to be more precise, what forbid anything to get truly set up, is the lack of a new role and role separation : it cannot be the same organisations taking care of ones “licence or IP rights shelf”, and the ones creating/editing/selling/hosting the associated work. One should for instance be able to “buy a web site” (access to) for life, having this written on some –truly private– account, and that’s it. And exactly the same for any content “ebooks, music, movie, whatever”, or any subscription or contract in general.
    Today it is like if for buying a share you would have to open an account in every “share emiting” organisation or something.
    But people are totally entranched in stupid technical buzzwords like “cloud” and other stuff, or “social networks” hysteria, so that not even able to talk about it, more or less …

  18. Eric Reiss

    “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?

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

    • 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.

    • Stephen Tiano

      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?

    • Brent Sears

      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.

  21. rick gregory

    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.

    • 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.

  22. Non Spécifié

    “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.

    • “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.

      • Non Spécifié

        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.