Guest post: Seth Godin’s Advice for Authors

Posted March 22nd @ 1:23 pm by Roger C. ParkerPrint

Almost five years have gone by since Advice for Authors, by Seth Godin, appeared. Like many of his blog posts, it’s too good to remain hidden in his archives, so I asked–and he gave–for permission to reprint it. I thought of it while reading his latest book, Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?

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Seth always says a lot in a few words. And, as always, he’s ahead of his time. Despite its age, his advice, below, is as relevant as it originally was.

Seth had a major impact on my career, as have thousands of successful authors who have benefit from not only from his inspiration and support, but from the quality standard he has set.

Advice for Authors, by Seth Godin

It happened again. There I was, meeting with someone who I thought had nothing to do with books or publishing, and it turns out his new book just came out.

With more than 75,000 books published every year (not counting ebooks or blogs), the odds are actually pretty good that you’ve either written a book, are writing a book or want to write one.

Hence this short list:

  1. Lower your expectations. The happiest authors are the ones that don’t expect much.
  2. The best time to start promoting your book is three years before it comes out. Three years to build a reputation, build a permission asset, build a blog, build a following, build credibility and build the connections you’ll need later.
  3. Pay for an eidtor editor. Not just to fix the typos, but to actually make your ramblings into something that people will choose to read. I found someone I like working with at the EFA. One of the things traditional publishers used to do is provide really insightful, even brilliant editors (people like Fred Hills and Megan Casey), but alas, that doesn’t happen very often. And hiring your own editor means you’ll value the process more.
  4. Understand that a non-fiction book is a souvenir, just a vessel for the ideas themselves. You don’t want the ideas to get stuck in the book… you want them to spread. Which means that you shouldn’t hoard the idea! The more you give away, the better you will do.
  5. Don’t try to sell your book to everyone. First, consider this: ” 58% of the US adult population never reads another book after high school.” Then, consider the fact that among people even willing to buy a book, yours is just a tiny little needle in a very big haystack. Far better to obsess about a little subset of the market–that subset that you have permission to talk with, that subset where you have credibility, and most important, that subset where people just can’t live without your book.
  6. Resist with all your might the temptation to hire a publicist to get you on Oprah. First, you won’t get on Oprah (if you do, drop me a note and I’ll mention you as the exception). Second, it’s expensive. You’re way better off spending the time and money to do #5 instead, going after the little micromarkets. There are some very talented publicists out there (thanks, Allison), but in general, see #1.
  7. Think really hard before you spend a year trying to please one person in New York to get your book published by a ‘real’ publisher. You give up a lot of time. You give up a lot of the upside. You give up control over what your book reads like and feels like and how it’s promoted. Of course, a contract from Knopf and a seat on Jon Stewart’s couch are great things, but so is being the Queen of England. That doesn’t mean it’s going to happen to you. Far more likely is that you discover how to efficiently publish (either electronically or using POD or a small run press) a brilliant book that spreads like wildfire among a select group of people.
  8. Your cover matters. Way more than you think. If it didn’t, you wouldn’t need a book… you could just email people the text.
  9. If you have a ‘real’ publisher (#7), it’s worth investing in a few things to help them do a better job for you. Like pre-editing the book before you submit it. Like putting the right to work on the cover with them in the contract. And most of all, getting the ability to buy hundreds of books at cost that you can use as samples and promotional pieces.
  10. In case you skipped it, please check #2 again. That’s the most important one, by far.
  11. Blurbs are overrated, imho.
  12. Blog mentions, on the other hand, matter a lot.
  13. If you’ve got the patience, bookstore signings and talking to book clubs by phone are the two lowest-paid but most guaranteed to work methods you have for promoting a really really good book. If you do it 200 times a year, it will pay.
  14. Consider the free PDF alternative. Some have gotten millions of downloads. No hassles, no time wasted, no trying to make a living on it. All the joy, in other words, without debating whether you should quit your day job (you shouldn’t!)
  15. If you want to reach people who don’t normally buy books, show up in places where people who don’t usually buy books are. Media places, virtual places and real places too.
  16. Most books that sell by the truckload sell by the caseload. In other words, sell to organizations that buy on behalf of their members/employees.
  17. Publishing a book is not the same as printing a book. Publishing is about marketing and sales and distribution and risk. If you don’t want to be in that business, don’t! Printing a book is trivially easy. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not. You’ll find plenty of printers who can match the look and feel of the bestselling book of your choice for just a few dollars a copy. That’s not the hard part.
  18. Bookstores, in general, are run by absolutely terrific people. Bookstores, in general, are really lousy businesses. They are often where books go to die. While some readers will discover your book in a store, it’s way more likely they will discover the book before they get to the store, and the store is just there hoping to have the right book for the right person at the time she wants it. If the match isn’t made, no sale.
  19. Writing a book is a tremendous experience. It pays off intellectually. It clarifies your thinking. It builds credibility. It is a living engine of marketing and idea spreading, working every day to deliver your message with authority. You should write one.

What do you think?

What’s changed since Seth wrote his Advice to Authors in 2006? What advice remains true today? Which trends have accelerated? Which advice do you wish you knew before you wrote your first book? Share your experiences as comments, below.

6 Comments

  1. Dana Lynn Smith
    March 22, 2010

    Wow – what terrific advice for authors! In the past few years the number of books published has continued to increase (to around 300,000 a year) and ebooks have become more prevalent, but Seth’s tips are still right on the mark. I especially like #2 – it’s never to early to start building your author platform and promoting your book.

    Thanks Seth, and thanks for reprinting this, Roger.

    Dana Lynn Smith
    The Savvy Book Marketer

  2. Stephanie Chandler
    March 22, 2010

    Love this! And I agree on so many points: editing is critical, people DO judge a book by its cover, and whether you land a traditional book deal or publish it yourself, it’s all about marketing, marketing, marketing. And the bulk of the work falls on the author.

    Also, you can see the difference five years makes since he mentions that 75,000 books are published per year. I think there were around 380,000 titles published in 2008 and for the first time ever, self-published titles exceeded traditional press titles. Times are changing!

    Many thanks for sharing!

  3. arthur einstein
    March 22, 2010

    Once again, Seth hits one over the fence and out of the park. Having just finished writing a book that’s about to be published I buy almost every point. Mine happens to be in a niche market and I think blurbs help – not that anyone believes what the blurb-er writes. It’s more endorsement than evaluation. In the years since 2006 when this was written Social media have become an important way to let your prospects know about your book. I’m not a huge fan of giving the content away (#14) unless you have another plan for covering your expenses with paid speaking gigs, consulting, etc. – But when Seth says printing and publishing are different things – and you’d better know the difference – that’s pure gold. I loved this post.

  4. Rachel Rueben
    March 28, 2010

    Seth’s right on most of his points, but I disagree with the whole lower your expectations thing. I think we need to make our expectations realistic for what we’re doing, but we should never lower them. That makes an author open to abuse by agents, publishers and God knows who else. It’s great to have a big vision granted, you may not succeed every time but at least you didn’t settle! In writing, you get whatever you put into your projects. So if you put in enough care and time, you won’t even need Oprah!

  5. Roger C. Parker
    March 28, 2010

    Dear Rachel:
    Thank you for taking the time to comment on Seth Godin’s guest blog post. I applaud your emphasis on quality.

    Best wishes with your blog and your continued writing success.
    Roger

  6. Martha Hart
    June 8, 2010

    Nicely done. My 20 months of spare-time writing took shape as a Blurb.com book. Sold about 25 copies, which is what I’d expected. My payoff was not in money. The value of point #19, what it does for you, how it transforms you, how it satisfies, cannot be overestimated. Thanks,

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