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Seth Godin says authors don’t have a right to be paid for their writing

March 8, 2012

Telling people they don’t have a right to get paid is always a good way to create a short conversation.

After all, even the Bible says that a worker deserves to get paid. Writing well, doing so consistently, is work. There’s no doubt about it. To succeed as a writer, it has to be part of your bloodstream, as much a part of you as your cardiovascular system.

But what if Seth Godin isn’t placing  a value judgement on the work, but commenting on where he thinks the industry is going? Before you dismiss the thought, Seth Godin is a successful author. His work revolves around the concept of tribes, that is, groups of followers with whom you have built a deep, abiding affinity. He’s also a guy who has lived what he says. His blog is free five days a week. He’s given thousands of free speeches. There are seven free “manifestos” on his website.

In short, he’s built a platform, and he’s chosen to exploit it himself, rather than working through a Big Six publisher. He’s gone direct through Amazon. He’s speaking from experience.

Seth Godin

Godin’s hypothesis is that the value of a book is going down because the scarcity driven by the Big Six publishing model is making them less rare. And maybe some of the amateur work out there is good enough for people to enjoy without being a literary masterpiece. (We can use a separate blog post to bemoan the losses that come from good enough, rather than great.)

Let’s assume for a minute that Godin’s right, and use that as starting point, rather than an end. Let’s assume that the future of writing for money consists of building a tribe (a platform), then cashing in on that platform. What opportunities does that bring?

For non-fiction, the opportunities are clear. You build your tribe through a blog, public appearances, and being a visible expert in your field. Use tools like Help A Reporter Out (HARO) to build on your credibility. Write a blog and post to it. Look for public speaking opportunities. And, oh, yeah, if you really like what I’ve had to say, I have this book on Amazon available in e-book form for $5.00.

For fiction writers, the possibilities are there, too. Godin asks “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?” Before you scoff, some radio hosts charge $8.00 a month for Insider access to their show. They do a few extra shows every now and then, throw up a message board, and provide some other extras. That’s about $100 a year.

Notice, this doesn’t mean you don’t have to be good. It means you have to be persistent and good. You may attract throngs of followers with your dynamic speeches and splashy graphics, but if people buy your work and it’s crap, you’ve broken the implied contract with your tribe and they’ll follow someone else.

The possibilities of a new business model, should it come to pass, mean you’d have to work harder and refine your message more. But they also offer possibilities. I’ve been writing this blog for about three years now. Recently, it’s become more visible to some people I work with. They told two friends and they told two friends, and some career possibilities are starting to open as a result. And I work at an accounting firm–not a place known for embracing the unruly creativity of a true artiste such as myself (cough, cough).

The takeaway point is this: the business model is changing. Maybe that’s good or maybe not. But it’s happening. The success of tomorrow will depend on people who can exploit those changes. The path isn’t there to follow any more, which makes success harder. But new paths can be blazed that might provide even more success. Ask Amanda Hocking. Or John Locke. Or Seth Godin.

Or maybe in a few years, we’ll ask you.

One Comment
  1. March 8, 2012 6:52 am

    Talk about a stop-me-in-my-tracks headline! After I quit hyperventilating, I continued to read. What comes through clearly, is the absolute requirement for writing to be professional and polished. This is true whether blogging, e-publishing or riding the traditional agent/publisher train. I’m intrigued by the concept of identifying the ‘value’ of a writer’s work and then allowing the market to determine how or IF payment would be exchanged. In addition to mastering the skill of inviting and utilizing critique, the ultimate feedback is expressed in the readers’ willingness to pay authors.
    While I write for the joy of it and to manage my sanity, I admit I crave both an audience and a royalty check. The uncharted territory that is the changing world of publishing is both exciting, intimidating and revolutionary.
    Thanks for another excellent post.

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