social media interviewsI recently interviewed Seth Godin, author of the new book Poke the Box. Seth has written more than a dozen other books, many of them focused on marketing. Some of his notable books include Permission Marketing, Linchpin and Tribes.

During this interview, you’ll learn about his latest book, his views on the state of the publishing industry and about his new venture The Domino Project.

Mike: Let’s start with Poke the Box. What exactly does “poke the box” mean?

Seth: If you’re a computer programmer and you want to figure out how something works, the way you do it is not by reading a manual or following a map. You do it by trying something, seeing what happens, learning from it and then trying something else. That’s how we figured out how the world worked when we were 5 years old, and it’s the way we figure out how to do something new in a changing world.

The reason that I wrote the book is that somehow we’ve lulled ourselves into this feeling that we need to wait for someone else to tell us what to do and give us permission to do it, as opposed to taking action and doing it ourselves.

Mike: You mentioned in the book it was your uncle who designed the “box” and put it in the crib of one of your cousins?

Seth: My uncle has a PhD from MIT. We call him “the admiral” because he was in the Navy ROTC program. He worked with lasers and all sorts of technology.

I have this vivid memory of when I was just 10 or 12 years old. My cousin was born and my uncle built a box—it must have weighed three pounds—in gray steel with one of those big, thick, black electrical cords. It had on it three or four switches and dials, and when you flipped a switch, something happened. A buzzer would go off or a light would flash. You’d turn a dial and something else would change. He plugged this thing in and threw it in the crib.

His thinking was that it’s natural for a kid to play with things, to figure out how they work. In a stable world, we don’t necessarily want people to do that because we want them to work on the assembly line and do what they’re told. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but this isn’t a stable world anymore.

Mike: Let’s talk about your new book and how it’s different from all the other books you’ve written.

Seth: Well, it’s like The Dip, in that it’s very short. I’ve started a new publishing company called The Domino Project and the book was written with that in mind.

The Domino Project is trying to make ideas easier to spread. I think books are important and book publishers are basically trying to kill books. They’re making them too expensive, too long, too slow, too hard to spread and too hard to find. So the public is just ignoring them and moving on to the next thing.

I wanted to make it easy for someone, if they’re moved by the idea in a book, to hand it to someone else or to hand it to five other people or 50 other people, and say, “This is the way we’re going to do things around here from now on.” That’s what books are great at, and I want to optimize for that kind of conversation.

Mike: I also notice the book doesn’t actually have a cover title on it. It’s just this cool icon of a guy leaping forward. There were no chapters in the book either, so I guess it’s designed to be just one continuous read?

sethSeth: Sure. Because our publishing company is powered by Amazon, our main source of interaction is going to be online. If a book is shown online, it doesn’t need to have words on the cover because right next to the cover are all the things you need to know if you want to buy it. That wasn’t true in the bookstore, but it’s certainly true online.

Once you get it, if it’s sitting on your desk and it has words on the cover, then everyone knows what it is. But if it doesn’t and someone sees it, they’re going to say, “What’s that?”

Mike: That’s exactly what happened, Seth. Someone was in my office and they picked it up and started reading it because it just grabbed them.

Seth: We looked at every convention of publishing that’s out there and asked, “Why does this convention exist? Should we throw it out? Should we start over or should we do it differently?”

Last week we did a promotion to ask people to sign up for our newsletter.  As a result of the promotion, we ended up lowering the preorder price of this book to $1 on the Kindle. Why would we do that? Well, anyone who preorders it is already a fan because why would anyone spend $1 for something if they don’t know what it is? If you preorder it, and I can sell you the electronic version for $1, I’m not losing any money doing that, certainly. Now what I’ve done is seeded the book to my best customers—to the people most likely to talk about it.

Sure, I’ve lost the opportunity to charge those people a lot because they would have paid a lot, but on the other hand, what I’ve done is used that as my marketing effort. My marketing effort is if I can get 10,000 people in the world excited about the book and talking about it, then in March, I’ll sell another 50,000 or 100,000 copies because those 10,000 people spread the word.

Mike: In your book, you say, “When the cost of poking the box is less than the cost of doing nothing, then you should poke.” What does that mean?

Seth: When I started out in business on my own, I had to walk down the block to buy laser printing output because I couldn’t afford a laser printer. The world wasn’t filled with Kinko’s and it wasn’t filled with WordPress, and it didn’t have Google driving traffic to somebody who didn’t have a storefront. It wasn’t organized around individuals finding out how things worked.

That has shifted. If you want to do recombinant DNA research now, for $500 you can buy a kit and do it in your kitchen. You don’t need a whole lab. If you want to design a car, you can design a car using all sorts of off-the-shelf components. You don’t need a factory in Detroit. For that reason, the cost of finding out is much, much lower.

On the other hand, the cost of doing nothing is going through the roof because people who do nothing end up with “cog jobs.” They end up being told what to do and getting paid less and less.

We’re seeing this in our economy. If a job can be done cheaper somewhere else, it will be. As a result, you have to be the only person who can do it, and the asset that’s almost impossible to take from you is initiation—the idea that “I’m the guy who pokes and comes up with the next thing.”

Watch this video from Seth.

Mike: You talk about Google in your book. What can Google teach businesses about innovation?

Seth: Google is such a special case, like Apple in so many ways. Google has a fountain of money. Since we started having this conversation, Google made more than $1 million in profit, and they do that over and over and over again.

Most public companies just take the money and the problem is that three years from now, the money stops coming in. So Google takes a significant portion of the money and they do things they think will fail.

That’s the secret to initiation. Even if you’re not making $1 million every 10 minutes, the secret of initiation is simple. If you’re only willing to do things that will succeed, then you will fail. But if you’re willing to do things that might fail, you have a shot at succeeding. That’s the magic of Google.

Mike: Where do you think ideas come from and how should we act on them?

Seth: Everybody has ideas all the time. That’s part of being human. But the real question is where do they go? My answer is we have conditioned people to hide them or discard them or ignore them, and winning is in acting on them.

Steve Jobs didn’t really invent any of the products that Apple sells. Other people had all of those ideas first. It’s that Apple acts on stuff.

Mike: What do you mean when you say, “The person who fails the most wins”?

Seth: The statement doesn’t mean that you fail so badly you’re out of the game. What’s implied is you have to keep playing the game. The person who gets to keep playing the game and has the most failures has the better life, and likely has created the most value.

Take the guy who invented the intermittent windshield wiper. Who knows how many times he failed? He hit a jackpot in the end. Congratulations. But in general, what we see is that if you have this mantra, “I’m going to keep failing my way up,” it’s what we were born to do, and we’re great at it.

Mike: You talk about success being tied to defeating the fear that holds us back. How do we defeat the fear that holds us back?

Seth: By not being held back, everybody has a different way to defeat his resistance. Steve Pressfield’s brilliant book, The War of Art, talks about this in detail. I can’t tell you how to do it. Everyone does it differently. Picasso did it differently than Dali who did it differently than Jackson Pollock.

I don’t know anyone’s answer. I just know it’s the problem. Once you acknowledge that it’s the problem, it’s much more likely that you’ll seek out and find the answer.

Mike: What’s wrong with traditional book publishing? Can you elaborate a little bit more?

Seth: It’s filled with really smart people whom I like, who don’t get paid enough and do good work. The problem is that they think their customer is the bookstore.

The other problem is that bookstores demand a very slow cycle of a year to bring a book out, demand books that meet a certain expectation and demand full return privileges on those books. At the same time, that industry is stuck paying big advances to big-name authors, most of which lose money.

When you add all these together, you end up with an industry that has a lot less flexibility and doesn’t realize that its real job is bringing ideas that spread to people who want to hear them. If they embraced that as their job, I think the industry would do far better and the readers would benefit as well.

I’m not going to be able to change the industry all by myself and I have no illusions that we’re going to dominate anything. But I think that a lot of people are going to copy some of the notions that we’re trying to lay out here, and if they do that, I’ll be really pleased.

seth domino project

Mike: Let’s talk about The Domino Project. It’s a publishing company, correct? How do you describe what it is exactly?

Seth: Yes it is. The goal is to reinvent the way publishers think about authors and readers and distribution and pricing and packaging, and the very notion of the relationship between the author and the reader.

We have a really wide mission. We’re starting with Amazon as our backend, which gives us an enormous amount of leverage (Amazon hasn’t done this arrangement with anyone else) that lets us understand who’s buying what and how they’re buying it, and play with different formats.

We’re starting with a series of short books we call manifestos, which are about 100 pages long. There are five or six in the pipeline already. This is an experiment and I have no idea exactly what’s going to come next.

Mike: When you say Amazon is your backend, do you mean as far as distribution and that’s where people buy the book?

Seth: Yes, and they can buy it at a bookstore. Amazon owns a company called Brilliance that makes audio books, and they have a salesforce that regularly sells to bookstores.

We’re also going to sell our books around the world because what we’re discovering is bookselling isn’t local. It’s worldwide and it’s not right to tell someone in Hong Kong they have to pay $85 to get a copy of something.

Mike: So you simultaneously release a print book, an ebook and an audio book every time you do one of these, or at least that’s what you’re doing with Poke the Box, right?

seth collectible copperSeth: Right, and a collectible. The collectible is because sometimes you want to treasure the book and touch the book and know that you have a special one. The collectible for Poke the Box costs $75 and is hand-signed with a bookplate. The cover is hand-printed on a letterpress and it comes with a hand-printed letterpress poster as well. We only made 400 of them and they’re on their way to selling out.

Mike: If people want to learn more about your book and The Domino Project, where do they go?

Seth: Just Google “The Domino Project” and there we are.

Mike: Seth, I really appreciate you taking some time out of your busy day to talk to me, and I wish you the absolute best with your new book and your project.

Seth: It’s absolutely a pleasure to talk to you, Michael. Keep up the great work.

Listen to the complete interview below…


Click here to download MP3.

What do you think about Seth’s ideas? How have you poked the box? Leave your comments in the box below.

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  • This is good stuff. I wish this was the attitude that the music industry and the newspaper industry had about the digital changes we all are dealing with. Instead of rethinking elements of each industry, customer relationships, value propositions, and revenue streams we get people and entities scarred to change and placing themselves into boxes. I’m not saying it’s easy it’s just glad to see people probing at new models.

  • I’m also happy about and following the Domino Project. As a supporter and coach within the independent publishing world, I think that whatever can be done to change the attitude that one must be “allowed” to publish, as well as the typical distribution models is welcome in my opinion. One thing I’m interested to see is how this process will translate to the first time author who doesn’t have a tribe yet, or how a book done this way could be used to build a following.

    Also, as a tidbit of info that might be helpful in some way, though I have no plans to buy a Kindle right now, I downloaded Kindle for PC just to be able to get my $1 copy. Haven’t read it yet, but I will soon.

  • It’s amazing what happens when you bring two great thinkers together. Mike, this was an awesome interview and Seth’s ideas are brilliant. I especially like his point about failing. This is a lesson I’ve tried to teach my children as they were growing up. We had this poster of Michael Jordan on their wall and it listed all the times he missed free throws, all the times he missed the last shot to win a game, all the times he failed that contributed to his success.

    Failure is a big part of success in business, but it’s also a big part of success in life. It’s so counterintuitive to what we’ve been taught and to our nature. But I’m in agreement with Seth that it is a critical behavior/lesson to learn to truly be successful.

  • Cheryl, you raise a very good question about first time authors. If they don’t have a tribe yet, this type of marketing will be a bigger challenge. Here’s where learning to use friends lists on FB and creating targeted messaging to lists would be helpful.

  • Thanks Scott! Since Seth is behind this change I think it will likely catch fire in the book space. We’ll see if other industries try to get ahead of these changes

  • Thanks Cheryl – With Amazon you can publish your book directly to them. So the little guys really do have an option to be on the world’s largest bookshelf.

  • Thanks so much! I fully agree. Those who fail, learn, adjust and try again are the ones most likely to be successful.

  • This was an incredible interview.

    I was thoroughly engaged with the content and the ideas about innovation that Seth proposed. The concept of the Domino Project is brilliant and is a much needed concept especially in book publishing because there is so much competition for consumers’ time. Books are now having to compete with movie stars, amusement parks, and social networking and are often the last resort for today’s consumer. I also appreciate his perspective on connecting creativity and marketing and will continue to follow his work.

    Thanks for the post,


  • Thanks Sebastian!

  • Michael and Seth, thank you for taking the time to conduct this interview.

    Now I’m off to reread it… two observations…

    1. The art of failure does not connect with me, and I suspect it doesn’t connect with a very large number of people who were raised (as I was) to regard “something worth starting is worth finishing.” The trick, of course, is knowing what’s worth starting, and that’s *never* dealt with. So, I understand this “fail fast” notion intellectually, but putting into practice is pushing against a very large number of emotional triggers wired in at a very deep level. The emotional trigger level. Which is deep. In more concrete terms, how to separate failures from dips? Or is the difference between a failure and a dip more a point of view and reflection of persistence (or lack of) than an objective, measurable reality?

    2. Paraphrasing (from a different article, but same implied claim here): “If you can write it down, someone else can do it cheaper.”

    Then, one should be the best in the world at something, which implies doing *something*, presumably something which can be written down.

    I’m having a bit of cognitive dissonance here, which means I’m not getting the bigger picture, the context.

    As a huge believer in DIY and bootstrapping, I’d like to get this sorted out as well.

  • Thanks Dave, glad you like it 🙂

  • I also think books are important and I personally hope that books never die. I too am an advocate for passing them on to the next person when you’re done to share the knowledge.

  • I don’t always get Seth, and I’m not sure I completely get what’s he promoting here. I do get that outrageous success is not repeatable; everyone comes to it their own way.

  • Dave – Finishing and failing are NOT the same things. You can finish something and it can flop.

    Also doing is not the same as documenting. You can document your talent but it doesn’t mean someone else can do it better.

  • This is tremendous. Seth is such a great man, continually leaping forward! I’ve always felt that book publishers take too long to bring a book to fruition. By the time a book is published the information is old. That particularly holds true when it comes to anything “Internet.” Awesome stuff, Seth!

  • Laura Weed

    I’ve been following the Domino Project since the beginning and applaud Seth’s efforts to change the publishing industry. I think authors are going to have to search for new revenue streams. They will have to write, disseminate their art freely, then rely on public appearances and speaking engagements for their real revenue. While this model will work beautifully for marketing and trade type texts, I’m really wondering if this model will work at all for fiction. Too much mainstream fiction isn’t really spreading an idea, and many of the current mainstream authors I’ve read I would neither care to meet or listen to in a public venue. The future, as always, remains interesting when you’re following Seth. I HIGHLY recommend his blog to anyone who does not currently subscribe. I swear that man has a window in my office, his observations are always immediately applicable to our business.

  • Thanks Laura – As you might imagine the public speaking world is also changing. Authors can no longer rely on lucrative speaking gigs to make up for the effort put into a book.

  • Steven

    Michael, great interview with Seth. I’ve been reading his blog for about a year now and constantly come away with inspirational ideas. On a side note just came across this post about the book industry.

  • Thanks Steven! What they don’t tell you about ebooks is the big publishers are giving authors lower % of royalties on ebooks than print books. This will need to come to a head soon.

  • Earl Gile

    Michael I was encouraged by what Seth said about poking the box, I got from this article we need to step out of the box and challenge ourselves. To quit being mindless drones lead around by the hands. And I also think it is better to have tried and failed then never to have tried at all. The story of my life sometimes but the point being I still try. Earl

  • Success and failure are in the eye of the beholder as we decide which filters to apply according to our values and objectives. If we constantly make our goal to learn and build upon our foundations then we never fail.
    I quite enjoy Seth Godin’s information and new projects. Thanks for the post 🙂

  • I agree that independent publishers can easily get onto the bookshelf, what I am curious about will be the sales/marketing aspect mostly. Seth can say I have a new book and his tribe will come running for it. Most people, no matter the niche, don’t have as big or strong a following, especially if just starting out. Would they be able to say I’ll make the book $1 if I get 10k new sign ups, could they sell a $75 souvenir addition? Probably not, so that’s more what I meant by waiting to see how this all translates to others.

  • The interview was lengthy. How about a video interview next time?

  • I’m always impressed with how Seth Godin celebrates ideas and initiative. His speed to print is equally impressive. How The Domino Effect is going to work is less clear, however, and I have now read everything on that site about it. Thanks to you, Michael, we can however feel like we’re in the know and at the bleeding edge of something potentially exciting. I just hope it’s more lucrative for its participants than Seth’s other Big Idea sites, like Squidoo. (and to a very much lesser extent, TRiiibes)

  • Did you notice we had an audio option for the interview?

  • Antony Whitaker

    “If you’re only willing to do things that will succeed, then you will fail. But if you’re willing to do things that might fail, you have a shot at succeeding.” Seth Godin has a brilliant way with words. Fantastic interview.

  • Mike, Thanks for the interview. I find it interesting that the top Social Media Influencers all have books on the market at the same time. Guy Kawasaki -Enchantment, Gary Vaynerchuk-The Thank You Economy,Seth Godin – Poke the Box. Late last year, Tony Hsieh-Delivering Happiness. I see a common theme among these titles. Emotional connection to your target audience.

    I have taken note of the promotional strategy as well. Even though these names are well known and guaranteed best sellers, their books are being heavily promoted in Social Media.

  • I love the idea of changing the publishing industry. It is very geared towards big time authors and shoveling their books down our throats. I have read some horrible well promoted books by famous people and some amazing books by some very unknown, unpromoted people. When I published my book
    I had a publisher who hardly covered costs, when I took the book over myself and sold it at the back of the room I sold lots of books.
    If a book is short, to the point and interesting people will read it. Many people buy books and don’t even read them

  • Wes

    Michael…indeed, meaningful interview…thank you! As one who is fast approaching 70yo, and as one who still loves the olde fashioned ink/book smell in book stores…I also applaud what is taking place in this changing creative matrix of publishing. My generation needs to get with the times…for as Tevye said to Golda in Fiddler On The Roof, “Times are changing, Golda!” One of the remarkable young business leaders I mentor put me on to your website…one more avid reader/learner here. And…may I say, one is never too olde to poke the box. So…Seth…expect some ebooks from the likes of me in coming months. Extra encouraged and excited about the possibilities.

  • I thought that the interview was great! The “lengthy” part didn’t bother me – it was filled with some great concepts and knowledge. Love Seth! Regard him highly! Didn’t see the audio option until the end, though. Maybe put in in the beginning for people who don’t want to read through it? Thanks for the content.

  • I thought that the interview was great! The “lengthy” part didn’t bother me – it was filled with some great concepts and knowledge. Love Seth! Regard him highly! Didn’t see the audio option until the end, though. Maybe put in in the beginning for people who don’t want to read through it? Thanks for the content.

  • Thanks Wes!

  • WOW! Thank you Mike for such an amazing interview, Seth is truly remarkable, practicly every answer of his is a worth while inspiring quote.

    Thank you for adding value, I got some great ideas for how to go about the book project I’m working on 🙂

    I strongly agree with Seth’s points on the publishing industry and I believe that Google’s brilliance is in the failures that others are stigmatizing, even me at times 😉

    Keep up the great work Mike.

  • Ow, that is a great tip Cheryl. I wasn’t aware tht I could download Kindle for PC or Mac to read the book. I thought no Kindle = no book. 🙂

  • Katy

    Fab article – interesting on a number of different levels. It first caught my eye as my mother is a first time author looking to get published at age 70. My husband and I are a “first time internet start-up” and much of the sentiment rings very true for us. Very engaging writing. Katy,

  • Seth is always an inspiration! I can’t believe that he can say so much with just a couple of words! I always listen out for what Seth has to say, love the way he thinks! Good move on your part to talk to him, can you do it more often please? Thanks, your posts are always good and I look forward to them. Peter

  • I love this because I am just becoming inspired to write my first book. After turning my back on the world of words (or at least a PhD) many years ago, I now want to get the ideas down on paper. Question is which idea to go with first? I love the idea of short and accessible ‘treaties’. It’s why Seth is so popular I think.


  • Thegimleteye

    Seth Grodin is a genius—at promoting Seth Grodin. I’m going to naysay here. While I think the interview was interesting, it was hardly brilliant, but Grodin has a way of saying something that sounds original and unique, but it’s really repackaged ideas from other people.

    Seth Grodin did not invent the phrase “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” Yet commenters here (and maybe him) seem to think he did. All he did was take a short, pithy phrase with a granule of truth and repackage it as “the person who fails the most wins.” It’s the same thing, people.

    He’s also not “reinventing” publishing–or doing anything unique (see Smashwords, Kindle and every other ebook independent publisher and author selling through Amazon). No title on the cover? Um, that’s a book publishing gimmick as old as publishing and comes and goes. Why does it go? Because it’s a marketing gimmick. Once everyone does it, the curiosity factor goes down. Publishers stop doing it for awhile. It comes back.

    Children are curious and we lose that curiosity as we grown? Anyone who ever took Psychology 101 in the last fifty years rolled their eyes at that and they didn’t need an MIT Admiral Uncle to make it Very True.

    It’s almost laughable–okay, it is laughable–that he cites Google and Apple as examples of innovators and, oh, you can too! They have gobs of money (that he mentions this is gobsmackingly disingenuous of his own premise). You can design a car? Okay, go ahead. Now build it without Google’s money.

    “What I’ve done is seeded the book with my best customers” In other words, he reads Malclom Gladwell.

    I love his escape hatch: “I can’t tell you how to do it.” This is a nice way of reinforcing the concept by hiding the fact that its not feasible or scalable for 90% of the population. Of course there are people who succeed against great odds. That’s nothing new. But as much as Grodin would like his readers (i.e., customers who pay him money) to believe the odds are equal, they’re not. Money talks, bs walks.

    But he sure gives his reader ready excuses for failure. It’s not him. It’s you.

    Here’s the secret to success in any field: work hard and try to get around obstacles. Now send me a dollar.

  • Thanks for adding your thoughts here. I think you make some good ones.

  • Thegimleteye

    Given my level of irritation, thanks for the polite response! To temper my comments (somewhat), what I find baffling is this concept that paper book publishers are evil gatekeepers bent on preventing quality books from getting published. Are they struggling to come to terms with innovations in their field? Sure. But they haven’t spent the last 500 years preventing ebook publishing. They have been running a business which has to take into account cost/risk/profit. They have finite resources to do what they do–even with deep pockets. They are under no obligation to publish anyone anymore than General Mills is obligated to produce and sell that nifty breakfast cereal someone invented.

    Ebook publishing is to be celebrated for what it does too. But I don’t know where this concept came from that publishing format is a zero-sum game. Ebooks do not have to destroy paper books in order to succeed. Will gold sparkle from the bottom of the electronic pan? Sure. But just as much mud will wash out as it always has in publishing and–given the ease of access to epublishing–the mud will be a lot deeper no matter how much someone crows about a failing publisher.

    If ebooks succeed, from an industry perspective, it is absolutely irrelevant what happens to paper publishers. If the only point of ebooks is to destroy paper publishers, then, really, what’s the point? Epublishing should be looked at as a new, additional market bringing works to the public in a new and different way. It doesn’t mean the old way is obsolete any more than cars make bicycles obsolete. It’s called market niche.

    I supposed if one can’t get a book published through established means and then succeeds elsewhere, it’s schadenfreude to watch publishers struggle (too). But, ultimately, I think it’s stupid and naive and beside the point.

  • that is just exactly what i wanted to say!! you are so right! and to the author – thanks a lot)


    Love this guy! Hes innovative and so smart. How do I submit a query and which types of genres will they consider? FABULOUS!

  • I’m just reading Seth’s book at the moment and it’s great, an eye opener. Thank you for this brilliant interview and article !

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  • sethgodin

    #2 first: People who are seen as the ‘best’, people like Fred Wilson or Sarah Jones or Shepard Fairey–what they do in fact can’t be written down. That’s what makes them different from, say, the worker who is at the six sigma level following the manual to use a certain machine. He’s important, but not irreplaceable. The challenge is to do a job where there is no map.

    As for #1, this is precisely the counter-intuitive act that artists perform that generates scarcity in their work. In other words, if it was easy, everyone would do it. Fast failing, eager failing–do you think Julie Taymor had fun being vilified by the Times and others for making Spiderman? Do you think she’d hesitate to do it all over again?

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