I used to think Seth Godin was pretty smart—and that hasn’t changed—but I’m not sure I like him anymore. He writes a great blog. (Honestly, when I was learning to blog, his was one I looked to for inspiration.) He has interesting ideas; he presents them clearly and succinctly. He comes across as a humble guy. He is actively (albeit publicly) philanthropic. What’s not to like about that?
Nothing. A lot of folks think Seth’s a smart guy. The numbers aren’t available for his blog subscribers, but he has 95,641 followers on Google+, which is pretty significant. The point is: when Seth Godin talks, people listen. (With apologies to E. F. Hutton.)
But I began to feel a little uneasy when I read this interview a while back. “Who said you have a right to [make] money from writing?” he said. “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.” I wrote a blog post and included that quote. (I think he was referring to journalists, mainly, although I can’t be sure. But that’s another rabbit trail.)
Also in this interview, Godin brought up the idea of the One Thousand True Fans; this is the way he thinks writers and other “truly talented” folks will support themselves in the future. The idea is that a writer or artist will gather together a thousand True Fans who will pay him $100 per year for … something. “An ongoing serial,” Seth throws out, which just shows how little he knows about fiction and writing it. How little he knows, really, about art.
It bugs me that he makes these pronouncements about writing and art and throws around phrases like “truly talented.” But it bugs me even more when I start doing the math on that $100,000 the True Fans are gonna send over on January first every year. If you’re self-employed like I am, you know a third of that will go to taxes before the first word is written. Then you’ve got to have shelter and food. And a creative’s got to live life in order to have the reservoir from which to create. All that before you get into production costs of the thing itself. And what happens when the writer/artist misses his deadline? What if the artist takes the money and spends it on drink or drugs? God knows there’s a long history of folks who produced great art but who were not particularly responsible human beings. *
But let’s set all that aside for the moment. Coincidentally, I got an e-mail from Twitter that led me to a Kickstarter campaign page. You may have seen this in your “news stream”: Seth Godin set up a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to publish his next book. (You can read the announcement on his blog here. You can read the Kickstarter offer here, although I don’t know how long it will be available.) The goal amount was $40,000 but by the time I saw it, the project had raised $204,375; as of this writing the total is $264,823. And there are seven days to go.
Yes, Seth Godin is raising money for his next book by crowd-sourcing. From atop his very large platform. (You’ve been hearing that word, right?) I appreciate that he’s worked very hard to build that platform. I think he achieved his acclamation, though, by saying smart things about marketing. Honestly, he’s a marketing genius. And he’s done a very, very good job of marketing Seth. But I’m not convinced this grants him the right to define “art that matters.”
You see, Godin’s book, the one he’s crowd-sourced, is called The Icarus Deception: Why Make Art? In the marketing materials for the project he says, “We are all artists now, and the connection economy we’re living in relentlessly rewards those who do work that matters.” I’m not sure I agree with any part of that statement.
I object more than anything to the bit about “the connection economy we’re living in relentlessly rewards those who do work that matters.” Because I think that there are plenty of people doing work that matters who are not being rewarded at all (except, it should be noted, by the accumulation of jewels in the crowns they’ll wear in heaven; but Seth is absolutely not talking about that).
I also object to Seth presuming to say what matters and what doesn’t matter. We already have a model of this in his experiment: he raised an enormous amount of money in a very short time. Is that because the work he does matters? One can argue—in the case of the One Thousand True Fans—that the work does matter to the fans, and I agree. I like Kevin Montgomery’s music; I’ve been a fan for twenty years. Last year I preordered and paid for a CD I didn’t get for six months or so. I have preordered books and DVDs and I have also pledged in Kickstarter and other fund-raising campaigns. So I understand the concept.
But I think Seth is the product here; the book is secondary. I’m not convinced Seth ever needed $40K, much less $265K. It feels more like he is—cynically, perhaps—trying to prove a point to people like me who refuse to get on board. Think about it. Seth says, “Please help me show my publisher, the bookstores and anyone with a book worth writing that it’s possible to start a project with a show of support on Kickstarter. … If this Kickstarter campaign reaches the minimum, then the publisher has agreed to launch a major retail campaign to introduce the book to readers in bookstores.”
Stop right there, dude. Seth Godin has written fourteen books (almost all of them traditionally published). All have been international best sellers; they’ve been translated into more than thirty languages. What publisher in his right mind is refusing to publish Seth’s latest book? Which bookstore is refusing to carry his books?
I’m not the only one who wonders this. Dan Blank of We Grow Media wrote a brilliant reaction to Seth’s Kickstarter experiment. Dan also understands that Seth’s genius is in marketing:
There is a tone throughout the Kickstarter description that asks us to prove something to someone. That there is an “other” that we must fight against. …This is a theme throughout the piece, that this isn’t just about publishing a book, this is about taking a stand. … There is almost an “us vs them” attitude here, and certainly a focus that this is about supporting a cause, an ideal, not just buying a book.
There’s much, much more in the post; you should definitely read the whole thing. Blank delves deeply into the mechanics of the packages offered in the campaign, for one thing; if you are even remotely considering a Kickstarter (or other fund-raising) project, there is a world of useful marketing advice here.
This post has gotten (unavoidably) long, so I have to wrap it up. A friend of mine said (in a discussion about this very topic on my Facebook page), “This and the 1,000 True Fans seem to me to be very much like a great artistic commonwealth where creators ply their trades directly to their audience/buyers without interference from others. It is the purest form of artistic expression, and gives the creator ultimate control of his/her creation, which is as it should be.” I don’t disagree. And I’m not opposed to Kickstarter. Recording artist Amanda Palmer has also used it to great effect. (But don’t be dazzled by the numbers here, kids; read the material, all of it, particularly “the Loanspark Collective” part. You can draw your own conclusions.)
Nonetheless, I’m reserving judgment. When every artist can do this, I’ll believe in its efficacy. Right now Seth and Amanda feel like outliers to me. And I’m relinquishing my spot on Seth’s list of True Fans. I’m sure he won’t have any trouble replacing me.
*Update: Kickstarter has let users know there are no guarantees that projects utilizing their services will come to fruition. This is interesting, I think.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”