Blog Post

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

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. woolfoot

    I have been thinking along these lines for years… Not without some regrets. I regularly read a handful of blogs by excellent writers who are writing/creating for love, not money. No market might really exist for what they do but I can’t help wishing the world would reward their contribution better than it does.

  2. Hmm, so Godin gets $25,000 for a seminar in NYC, and unspecified payments for live “office appearances”. I wonder how long he’d keep at it if all of these were filmed and made effortlessly downloadable. Might be hard to get the seminar sponsors to shell out the next time around.

  3. Hmm, so Seth Godin gets $25,000 for a seminar, and unspecified payments for “office events.” I think each of those should be filmed and made available online for free. The viability of his “embrace-the-new-reality-just-like-I-do” argument might have to be tweaked.

  4. Troy Johnson

    “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”
    No, it is not good enough. People are woefully uninformed now, these trends make things worse.

  5. There is one solution, one form of scarcity left that the people will pay for, and it’s the one that matters: Become personally famous as an author, and you have TRUST in that personal brand. People become addicted to that. Trust as an author brand cannot be faked, counterfeited, stolen, bought, or photocopied.

    I’m working on it :)


    That’s how to make money – it is how Seth makes his.

  6. It’s easy for a man who has already made millions of dollars such as Coppola to remark, “Who says artists have to make money?” He can ‘afford’ to be flippant. He’s already made his cash. But what about all the starving artists who at the beginning of their careers? They can be just as broke as the students who want everything for free. Writers and painters need to survive. Where’s the financial motivation if their effort is not rewarded? I have an even more interesting question to ponder; What would happen if artist went on strike? What would the world be like with not new movies, music or books? Hmmm?

  7. chris s

    Well, why could all strike – seriously. No writing, no public performances, no new music or arrangements, no plays, no poetry, no art, nada. The curators of museums, concert halls etc would have to do it too. I’d like to see what would happen. The surprising outcome may prove John Cage triumphant – human endeavours to create “art” are rather poor approximations to the beauty found in a landscape, the decay of a building, the sound of starlings in a tree in the late afternoon, and the spontaneous narratives which arise from having the time and quiet to talkj to each other. A rather scary proposition for some artists – yet, like John Cage, you’d still be compelled to create and realize artistic creation is simply our commentary on the unfolding present around us.

  8. Arinn Dembo

    Since when has there ever been a scarcity of worthless garbage? It doesn’t matter whether something languishes in your drawer or goes onto Amazon; amateur crap is still amateur crap. I don’t know where people get the dubious notion that amateurs cannot charge for their crap, however. They can and do.

  9. Diana Stevan

    Given the proliferation of writers and self-published e-books on the internet, this post isn’t surprising. It makes total sense, but I also believe that people will pay to read a good book. If they don’t, in time, some of the writers will find they are unable to produce. No matter how driven a writer is to write, he also has to live, and for that, he needs money.

  10. Non specifie has it right–debased writing, throw away writing, cynical writing, and of course all marketing all the time. Tiresome; nobody will remember any of it, and many valuable works of art will go unnoticed/unpublished. And there will be a backlash, when people will rediscover the wonders of classics, wit, good grammar, intelligent discourse, argument, and the value of saying something original, well thought out, or (shudder) moving or profound.

  11. Once again we have returned to the idea that everything in life should be free. This will be the death of art in every form. It is not an entitlement it is a privilege. It needs to be appreciated and understood for it’s entirety from the heart, soul, mind, and body experience of its development. It’s time that our society stops stripping the beauty of everything and demanding “Give Me, Give Me”. I would rather burn my books than give them away freely to unappreciative society.

    • Mad Writer

      I agree. I have written multiple NYT bestselling novels, and worked for years to hone my craft. Fortunately, I’ve been able to put a few dollars away for retirement. Looking at the rampant piracy of my more recent work, and the pervasive feeling that I don’t deserve to be compensated, I’m strongly considering putting my future works in a dresser drawer. I can’t eat fame, and I’m disinclined to share my work with readers who don’t respect me. Maybe my children can market them someday.

  12. I haven’t seen any mention yet in this discussion about copyrights. Should we throw them out as well? The whole issue of copyrights was invented to “optimize” a social process for “some” reason. The reason was to “encourage” artists to “invest time” in their art. To do that, the government would give them a legal “right” so they could obtain a financial reward for investing their time. There was a hidden assumption in this model: that quality would shine through. That is, coming from a small start, quality would return value and allow an artist to develop a market.

    So, the problem with an “EVERYONE can easily publish” culture is it becomes a race to the bottom. Diamonds are buried in so much rubbish, only a very few of them will see the light of day. We need a paradigm shift. So, here’s one idea to show what that might look like:

    The new world needs a new job function called an AGENT / REVIEWER. We need to multiply the number of ARs, to match the explosion of the number of writers. All kinds of websites – articles, blogs etc – need to put an AR between the submitters and the published page. ( Just hang in there! I’m not finished! ) By itself, this would fail just as the role of literary agents is failing as they multiply. The ARs need to get a cut of the action BASED ON how well they do. So, stuff they “allow” has to have “like” and “dislike” buttons. They also have to be compensated. But it should be done based on performance, not seniority.

    There is one more element needed to keep this a truly TRANSPARENT system. That is, each publication should also have a TRASH FOLDER. All the submissions that are “not allowed” go in the trash folder. That way “everyone” still gets their day in court. They just don’t get to trash the whole culture.

  13. Heather Young-Leslie

    I’d love to hear Seth Godin talk about *academic* monographs – the much-required, single-authored book that is the main evidence of merit for people in the intelligensia business. Those books are ‘paid for’ mostly by public research and or university (probably public) institutional dollars. The books should be free – or at least, very cheap. But they aren’t, and getting an academic book published is a huge challenge. But self-published academic books are disregarded when it comes to Faculty evaluations, promotions & merit increases.

  14. Anthony Peterson

    Nice theory, but all the movies you want to steal cost millions of dollars to make. The ones that cost nothing to make, you don’t want to steal. Sometimes people need to be saved from themselves, especially consumers.

  15. Terry Heaton

    Good piece, Mathew. I think of our Declaration of Independence, which notes a right to the pursuit of happiness, not happiness itself. Same thing here.

  16. Claire Dyard

    In fact, do doctors, nurses and all members of the medical world, have the right to make money? Their work is necessary, it should be free. Oh, and the food should be free, too. Why just the authors? I’ll tell you what: everything should be free, not only books or films or music.
    Get real! An honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work or, as we sayin France, “Tout travail mérite salaire.”

  17. J.N. Duncan

    Yes, the economics of all this is driving down value. It sucks for those wanting/hoping to make a living at it. The ability to “rise above” is even more difficult than it used to be. That’s the reality of it. It takes a different mindset and a different skill set to make it happen I think. The world changes and you have to adapt. However, I believe it’s a sad state of affairs that something as culturally significant as art is getting “trivialized” for lack of a better word due to the ease of production and convenience of content. Good art, whether music, writing, painting, or what have you, should have value, and deserves to be paid for.

    It bothers me that content, and I’ll use writing as an example since I’m a writer, only has its value measured within the confines of writing. The mindset that stories are worth less because there’s more of them out there available for less kind of boggles my mind. People go out to one of the bazillions of coffee shops in their city, to sit back and read a story and drink their coffee, complain that the story they want is $4.99, but think nothing of paying the same amount for their drink. Do they not find anything wrong with that picture? Several hours of good storytelling provides less value than the coffee they sip along with it? Really?

    Of course, you can say, that’s just the economics of how it is now, get used to it. Just because the economy wants to devalue something, doesn’t mean it should be. It irks me that so many writers seem to miss this point. And yes, I realize that from a economics standpoint it makes sense to sell more copies a $.99 than less at $4.99. I have heard the mantra. It’s worked for quite a few writers. It will continue to do so, and I imagine that we’re heading toward a point in the future here where dollar books will be the norm, at least in the realm of fiction. It will average out to be the most effective way to maximize income.

    Is this good for the art of writing? No. Call me backward or old school or egotistical or whatever, but good stories are worth more than a fucking dollar. I honestly don’t care if readers out there want to be able buy five books a week, and need them to be a buck apiece so that they can fill their ereader library. Story does not deserve to be relegated to the bargain shelf in the local Dollar Tree.

    Seth, you make good points about the nature of how things are now and where they’re heading. I can’t really argue there. The signs all point in that direction. But I do think you’re wrong in that artists do deserve to make money from their art. We should be paying them because what they do adds value to our lives and culture. Just because the amateurs can proliferate doesn’t mean the professionals can or should see their work devalued. I’m being bitchy and ranty here, I know, but it pisses me off that the consuming public (as a whole) seems to think that they deserve to be given art for nothing. I get doing art for its own sake. I write because I love to do it, but I have to say there’s less incentive or will be as we move forward, if nobody out there thinks it’s really worth the paper it’s written on.

    Ok. Rant off. Back to writing.