Transforming the Book Industry: How Seth Godin is Poking the Box
I 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.
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?
Seth: 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.
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: 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…[audio:SethGodin-PoketheBox.mp3]
What do you think about Seth’s ideas? How have you poked the box? Leave your comments in the box below.