Monday, April 05, 2010
Fighting fungibility, changing the definition of marketing and putting Dylan against the Monkees: Colin Marshall talks to writer, speaker and "Agent of Change" Seth Godin
Speaker, writer, blogger and entrepreneur Seth Godin, having already built a large body of published work on the nature of ideas, how they’re conceived, how they’re spread and how they’re executed, has expanded his intellectual purview with his new book Linchpin. Extending the thoughts and observations he applied to marketing in books like Purple Cow and All Marketers are Liars, his latest work examines how individual human beings, not corporations or organizations, can most fruitfully practice their art in the transforming information economy. Colin Marshall originally conducted this conversation on the public radio program and podcast The Marketplace of Ideas. [MP3] [iTunes link]
I read Linchpin in kind of a strange way: I spread it out so whenever I was reading it, I was also reading another Seth Godin book. What I noticed doing that is that Linchpin just feels different, in a visceral way, than your other books. I heard in another interview with Merlin Mann, a former guest on this show, that you said Linchpin was the hardest book you've ever had to write. Are these two things related?
For sure. Most of the books that I've written, other than probably The Dip, have been written to organizations, written to people who are doing strategy, written to people who are working at the bloodless act of spreading an idea. This book is personal. It's not personal in that it's about me; it's personal in that it's about you. That's a pretty different responsibility for the author. The argument I'm pushing forward is frightening to people, so I had to handle it in a way where I was pushing hard enough to make an impact, but I was treating your fears and skepticism with respect. Otherwise it becomes a jeremiad and isn't very helpful.
How much of the difficulty comes
purely from having to switch the whole way you think about your
audience? You said you write to organizations, to idea-spreaders — now
it's to living, breathing humans, in a sense. Was a lot of the
difficulty simply changing your own mindset?
Not really. For me, there is a revolution going on, and I've been lucky that I've been able to carve out a niche by chronicling that revolution and talking about some of the elements of it. The death of the industrial age is the most important historical shift of our time. A lot of people don't see it happening, even though it is changing their lives every day. For me, then, the purpose of this book is to bring home what that death is going to mean to everyone, and what the opportunity it creates means to everyone.
But when I'm writing, I'm not visualizing what the reader looks like. Judging from my inbound e-mail, there is no way to characterize anything about my readers: where they live, how old they are, what their gender is, what their race is, what they do for a living. They don't have anything in common other than the fact that they don't have anything in common.
You have a bit of an angle in the book — I don't know how deliberate it was — it seems like you're somewhat angry that the death of the industrial age, as you've called it, has resulted in a bit of a bill of false goods being sold to a lot of people. Have I characterized that right?
Well, there is no angle. I'm a big fan of gimmicks, but this book doesn't have one. Yeah, I'm angry, and what I'm angry about is that the bill of goods was sold to us ten, twenty, thirty years ago, and it is that if we do what we're told and are compliant, we will be rewarded. It bothers me when I see a bank, which has more power and insight, take advantage of someone, and the person loses their house. It bothers me when I see someone work somewhere for twenty years, doing what they think they're supposed to do, and then lose their job when it's not their fault. It bothers me when we organize schools to create ever more compliant workers for ever more mediocre factories.
I think we need to stop burying our potential and instead start embracing the fact that there's this huge opportunity here, even thought it makes people uncomfortable to tell them the truth.
Some people write books because they write books. Some people write books to make a living. I write books because I have no choice. Writing a book, for me, isn't a fun pastime, nor is it a lucrative way to spend my time. Writing a book is something I do when the idea won't permit me to do anything but that.
Unbeknownst to me, I'd been working on this book for ten years. It comes from things that started happening to me when I was five or ten years old, and having seen these things unfold, I wanted to be able to share the idea in away that was more cogent and made a clearer argument than I every could in a series of blog posts. That's the best reason I know to go to all the trouble of writing a book.
The roots of this idea in Linchpin, this suite of ideas, it goes back to — really — when you were five?
I grew up with ADD. A lot of people did. I was lucky that my parents resisted the temptation to give me meds, but I have plenty of scars from the push to fit in, the push to sit still, from the dominating culture of the placement office and the homecoming king and the mindset that said the most obedient person wins. I was never good at being that person, and the way the system enforces it is by explaining to people who aren't good at being that person that they're not going to amount of very much.
I was really lucky, as a teenager, to be able to find an outlet doing entrepreneurial projects, doing things that were outside the box, and getting support for doing them. Now, when I see kids growing up, people in school, who are going through that same thing, I have this almost irresistible urge to hug them and then shake the people telling them they'd better take their meds and fit in.
I do feel that, because I come from the generation that is perhaps the most Ritalin-medicated of all generations. I never got it myself, but I did have the same feeling of actively not wanting to fit in. This book lines up with some ideas I've had recently, just thinking to myself how to make interesting stuff, how to get that stuff out there. I think of my favorite creators, my personal icons, and they all seem to be a little bit... insane. That's reflected, I would say, in the text of Linchpin. It seems like a slight amount of what we maybe used to call insanity is necessary. Are you on board with that?
I like the definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and hoping for different results.
Different than I mean, but yes.
Right, well, by my definition, the only people who aren't insane are the people you're talking about. It's the people in society who go to Las Vegas and keep pulling the same slot machine arm, it's the people who keep showing up at one place or another waiting for the fickle finger of fate to pick them out and make them a superstar, it's the people going on American Idol thinking that that's the way they're going to become a musical hit. I think that is insanity, because all rational thought would tell you that doesn't make any rational sense at all.
Instead, it's people who dig deep and do what I'm coining as "emotional labor," the people who are letting their desire to make change happen drive their decisions and are willing to make lots of small steps on their quest to make a big difference. Those people are not insane.
So we'll call that "not insane," but we can say that goes against our every ingrained impulse.
Tha's right. People could accurately call us nuts. We are nuts about getting this done, and we are willing to do things that people are afraid of, including being laughed at, in order to make it get done. The things that's fascinating is, how did it become ingrained? It became ingrained because evolution rewarded people who fit in. If you were in a village 50,000 years ago and you had a fight with the chief over an issue of how to chant some song, they would throw you out and a sabertoothed tiger would eat you. That means you didn't have any kids. So there is a large reason, and you can see this in plenty of animals, where sticking with the herd is the way to ensure your survival.
What our economy has done in just the last few years is turned around and said, "If you are in the herd, you are going to fail." That is a massive shift, and we are not prepared for it, but in fact, it's what the economy keeps rewarding. Would you rather own stock in Dell or Apple? Dell equals the herd, and Apple equals standing out. What the market keeps saying over and over again is, "If you're selling average stuff to average people, they will find a way to get it cheaper," and therefore you're not going to do very well. But if you're willing to sell standout stuff to people who care, whatever that thing you're selling is, you're likely to do better.
There's a theme I take from this. I don't know if you use this term in the book, but I think of it to myself as avoiding fungibility, fungibility being, for a listener who might not know, the economic term for stuff that's as good as other stuff of the same kind. One scoop of this stuff is as good as another scoop. I think of this as avoiding being a scoop of humanity that can be replaced just as easily with another. I believe in the book you use the example of classical musicians, who are all trained well, but one can do the same thing as another and that's why they're paid somewhat low?
Exactly. Here's a good question you might ask yourself: do you deserve to get paid more than the cheapest person I can find to do this? If so, why? What happens if you train to be a classical musician is, you are trained to comply with the conductor and the score. Your job is not to make any mistakes, and for the first ten years you're doing it, that's what you're pushed to do. This leads to a huge surplus of second violinists, a huge surplus in every city in America. You can go on Craigslist and put together an orchestra in two days for a few thousand bucks.
But that doesn't explain Ben Zander and Yo-Yo Ma and the superstar musicians. In fact, what those guys are doing is not fitting in. What those guys are doing is saying, "If you can find someone to be Yo-Yo Ma cheaper than I can be Yo-Yo Ma, go hire him. Good luck. Knock yourself out." That's the secret: not to be yet another scoop. But think about what what systems we've built in our society. What is a resume but a brand name-filled chronicle of compliance? If you have a resume, what you're saying is, "Look at this evidence that I can comply with the system. If you hire people by screening their resumes, that's what you're getting. It's what you signed up for. These are replaceable people, there's a big stack of 'em — if this guy doesn't take the job, I'll just get the next one.
This is an idea that I can trace back to your older book Purple Cow, in which you say that you can be excellent, sure, but excellence is not so much the deal. It's being remarkable. What I took from the section on musicians in Linchpin was that — if this is correct, it's important — a linchpin of a musician may well not be as technically excellent as the second violinist you talk about, as the fungible musician.
That's absolutely true. You're getting the essence of the first part of my book, which is to say that there is not shortage of competence anymore. Showing up and saying, "I'm slightly more competent than everyone else and I deserve this gig" doesn't work. What we're looking for are incompetent people who are incompetent in interesting ways. We don't buy a record because auto-tune was used perfectly; we buy a record because the musician changed the way we think about the world when we listened to it.
When I hear you articulate these ideas, I'm definitely on board. But give me a sense of how hard it is to actually get people to believe this.
Right, and that's what the entire second half of the book is about: what Steve Pressfield calls "the Resistance," the biological part of our brain, I call it the lizard brain, whose job it is to get us to fit in, to not be laughed at, to survive, to have lots of kids and to get revenge. We can do a functional MRI or a simple thought experiment to show how powerful the lizard brain is. If you're on an airplane writing a great chapter of a great novel and you're on a roll and then you hit turbulence and the plane drops 10,000 feet, during that drop you're probably not doing a lot of good writing. What you're doing is bending over, screaming at the top of your lungs, "We're gonna die! We're gonna die!"
That's because the lizard brain is activated. It is trying to get you to survive. This voice in our head is not always the voice of sheer terror. It's the voice of, "Well, I don't really feel like it." It's the voice of, "Well, he doesn't want me to call him so soon." It's the voice of, "Well, I'd better polish off this edge because people might yell at me, the editor won't print the article if I leave this in," and so we take off all the rough edges. We've been living with the Resistance our whole lives, and it feels like part of us. When people read the book, a lot of people — fortunately for me, because I have a track record with them — gave me the benefit of the doubt and are trying on the glasses. They say, "Wow, I wonder what the world looks like when I look at it this way." But some people immediately go into lizard brain mode and find ten reasons why either I'm crazy or it doesn't apply to them.
You can disagree with my economic thesis, but what you can't do is say the Resistance doesn't exist. The main objection that people have when it comes down to doing the real art of it is that they're afraid. I'll give you the most prosaic, businesslike example I can think of. I hear from a lot of real estate agents, because real estate agents are sort of entrepreneurs and sort of on their own but also doing system-type work. They say, sending me their little photo-ridden business cards, "I'm a purple cow! You can tell, because my business card is purple." Or, "I'm a purple cow because I'm announcing to the world that I'm the best real estate agent in Gainesville!"
I bet you get purple stuff in the mail all the time.
I have a whole collection of it, yes. My argument to them is, they're just doing little tiny tweaks on mediocre work. When you find a true purple cow — there's a real estate broker, I think he's in Ohio, who has a staff who do nothing but organize his time. He sells five times as many houses as anyone else in the state. He's approaching the act of selling a house in a fundamentally different way than any other real estate broker in the state. That is gutsy. That could fail, and then everyone would make fun of him. But most people, when the Resistance sets in, figure out how to back off just enough that what they did is defensible. What artists do is work that's indefensible.
In your own life, at what point did you realize that this was a problem? When did you realize, "This is something that I've got to work against?"
I was a book packager before I was an author, before I started my internet company. What a book packager does is come up with ideas, send them to book publishers, and if they like them you get paid money and you go make them. I did books on personal finance and gardening and lots of other things. There's an enormous amount of pressure in that business and every other one to basically write Dummies books, to do what someone did last week and put a slight spin on it, because it's easier to sell.
That voice in my head kept pushing me to say, "You know what? I'm struggling. This is really hard. I should fit in more." Finally I came to the realization that every time I listened to that voice, I was heading down the road to ruin. Every time I listened to that voice, I was becoming more mediocre, not worthy of seeking out. So I started using it as a compass: any time that voice tells me I shouldn't do something, that's how I know I'm on to something and I go ahead and do it.
I did like that line you said in another interview, that "if the Resistance tells me not to, I do it," another way of thinking that may sound somewhat nuts to people. But I would imagine that the times that has actually really, really harmed you, you could count on one hand, if you even needed that.
Sure, and the reason is that it's a little hyperbolic. If the Resistance says, "Don't go up to that security guard in Cuba who's standing there with the AK-47 and tell him a joke," there's another executive function in my brain smart enough to differentiate between artistic endeavor and suicide. That's not what I'm talking about. What I'm talking about is when I say to my publisher, "You know, I want to give this whole thing away for free," or when I say, "You know, we're going to not do any media whatsoever to promote this book. We're going to do it 100% online with the long tail of people who have small, tribal audiences." My publisher says, "That's crazy, we have too much invested, don't do it."
That's how I know I'm on the right track. Deep down, I know that if I just did what he wanted, he wouldn't be able to blame me if it didn't work. My art is in challenging the appropriate parts of the status quo, saying things that people believe but have been afraid to say before.
People fear being shot by a Cuban security guard, sure, but that's not a fear that comes into their lives. Their fear seems to be almost exclusively about being laughed at, and nothing more.
That's exactly right. This fear of being laughed at becomes the dominant force of most peoples' lives. They come home from work. "How was your day?" "It was terrible." "Why was it terrible?" "Because at 3 o'clock in the afternoon, the boss looked at me funny." Let's go over this. How many times in the history of your company has that led, the next day, to the boss firing you? Or anyone? The answer is never. The way you get fired is, you're one of the 10,00 people on the assembly line who did what they were told, and then there's a giant layoff.
The people doing innovative work, the people standing up and speaking out and making a difference, they're never getting fired. It just doesn't happen. And ever if they do get fired, they don't instantly become homeless, starve to death, watch their family die at their feet. What happens is, they're instantly scooped up because they're scarce. And yet we have built this entire system from the age of three playing Candy Land on up to say, the way to succeed is to be obedient. And it's a real problem.
There is an extent to which, when somebody gets to a certain level of public profile — and it seems like anybody, to be a linchpin, needs to get to a certain height of profile — no matter who you are, if you're that well known, you're going to get laughed at a certain amount. You are going to be laughed at. How do you personally deal with that?
Let me first describe a distinction between the Monkees and Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan gets laughed or booed off the stage every ten years, whether he wants to or not. He got booed off the stage when he went electric and again when he went gospel, and most recently with his horrendous Christmas album. The Monkees never get booed off stage, because the Monkees play "Last Train to Clarksville" exactly the same way they did it 30 or 40 years ago. Here's the thing: Bob Dylan keeps selling out stadiums and no one goes to see the Monkees, because the Monkees aren't doing anything worth noticing. There are people who have succeeded who just keep playing the same song over and over again, whatever that is that they do.
If we look at internet companies, the difference between Google and what happened to a lot of people who were winning after the last bubble is, those companies hunkered down. Google keeps failing and keeps getting laughed at. That's a decision you gotta make. For me, part of it is insulating myself from people whose opinion I don't really care about but who laugh quite loudly. I don't need to expose myself to that, because if I did enough of that, I would hunker down too. It's no fun. Instead, if someone sends me an e-mail with their real name on it and I engage with them, I really care about what they have to say, and it informs my work and makes it better. I try very hard to ignore hecklers. I haven't checked my reviews on Amazon in months and months, because they didn't do anything to make my work better.
I think of this Bob Dylan example, of him staying relevant and at the same time — not unrelated — getting booed off the stage periodically, that getting booed, that being laughed at actually becomes an indicator, a positive indicator, of how relevant he's going to stay. Is there a way you keep an eye on your equivalent of this, so you know you're being provocative enough, so you know you're taking enough risks?
That's what the blog does for me, because I do it every day. I've limited myself to one post a day, though I could do ten. I try in that one post to push my envelope, whatever it is in the moment. Not to provoke people for the sake of provoking them — we've certainly seen political commentators to that, and I find that a sad sideshow — but to push people because it's good for both of us, to get people to think about something in a way they haven't thought about it before. If the response I get from people is, "That was obvious," then I know that I've given into the Resistance. If the response is, "I hate you and I'm never going to interact with you again," then I say, "You know, maybe I should rethink how hard I pushed this time, because it didn't resonate with some of the people I was hoping to resonate with."
That's a fine line. I don't have to walk it. I could go all the way out to the extreme and just scream and yell about baby seals getting nuked with clubs every day. But my feeling is that part of my challenge is to both go deep, touch people in a way that matters, and go broad, to the extent that there's more than a trivial number of people I'm able to interact with.
From reading your blog and Linchpin, I do feel a bit of a relationship between those two projects. I'm not sure why — maybe it's because the blog posts are somewhat short and the book is written in short chunks of text — but is there a real intellectual relationship between specifically this book and what you do on the blog?
The blog has ruined my ability to write long-form. When I started writing for Fast Company, when they were selling 300 pages of ads an issue, Alan Webber used to push me, because he needed longer columns so he could sell more ads. I had a hard time, even then, making the columns long enough. It's hard work to make it short, and I wasn't willing to trade that in for the easy thing of always double-explaining myself and making it longer.
The blog reinforces that. You could always write the longest blog post you've ever written, but it wouldn't be better than a short blog post. What I'm trying to do in the book — and I think Tribes was like this, to an extent — is match the rhythm that the internet has forced people who read to engage in. That rhythm is not 40-page chapters. That rhythm is now two-page chapters, because if the idea doesn't resonate with you within two pages, you get restless. What that means is, my chapters have to be about smaller things, but then hopefully 20 of them add up to what used to be one chapter.
This is interesting; I want to be sure to nail it down. It is, to your mind, a rhythmic issue, not one of absolute book length? Linchpin is paper, of course, but it's not paper-thin. It's a regular-size book, but it's written in smaller chunks. I take it that you thus find the hand-wringing about books shrinking down to nothing in the age of the internet to be a little overblown. It's more about the way the content is organized?
There's a whole discussion we could have about the book industry, and how they cruelly abuse the ideas handed to them by their authors. Most authors I know complain that their publisher makes them make their books too long. But every once in a while, I run into an author whose editor didn't have the discipline to make their book shorter. There's this mindset that a book has to be a certain length in order to sell, so that gets into a whole other discussion. I do believe that we are pushing ideas to be too digestible and too short if we want them to spread.
The distinction is, the intellectuals who were reading Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon, there weren't very many of those people. There are actually more people now who are engaging in big ideas than before. If you want to reach them, there's no question that you have to give them something to talk about. That's Malcolm Gladwell's greatest gift. After you read a Gladwell book, you are desperate to tell other people what you just read, which is how the idea spreads.
I think about Malcolm Gladwell's books, and of course I think about the cascade of imitators that followed afterward. I see this as a cheapening of the idea book. Do you see it the same way?
No, I think it's a symptom of how powerful the lizard is on editors and publishers and writers. Little known fact: the guys who started doing the Dummies books, I knew the agent. The Dummies books were first only for computers, and I was the guy who came up with the idea of doing Dummies books about everything. I did 30 proposals for them, at their request, for everything from Cooking for Dummies to Public Speaking for Dummies. They stole my idea — the only time, ever, anyone in publishing has ever stolen anything from me — so I'm the one you should blame for 500 Dummies books.
Once you have a format, anyone knows how to copy it and anyone is eager to copy it. Freakonomics comes out and every economics professor in the world wants to write their own version. A book like The Tipping Point takes sociological insights by other people and strings them together into a cogent argument, and a hundred other people want to do it. That's because you can't get made fun of for copying the format. That's been around forever. Forever and ever. After Charles Dickens started serializing stuff, a hundred authors started doing serialized stuff. After Mark Twain wrote a certain way, a lot of people wanted to it. David Sedaris led to this whole generation of self-deprecating humorists.
That's not new. What's new is, the industry jumps on it ever faster. The cycle for books and music used to be so long that it didn't make sense to do copycats because they took too long to come out. But now, if you can do a song in a week or a book in three months, might as well, because you could sell some. I'm not happy about it, but as long as I'm going first, it's okay with me.
My favorite illustration of this — it goes even more superficially than copying a format — is when Jim Collins' Good to Great came out. Then out came the tidal wave of business books... with red covers.
Yeah! Design also has cycles. Myriad Pro Bold Condensed is the font of the moment, and it won't be the font of the moment in two years. That keeps things interesting. What I find amazing is that people who are ostensibly creative, people who are calling temselves artists, are really just chickens who are busy following the trend. That's why a Chip Kidd, when it comes to cover design, is so rare. He refuses to even copy himself.
He's been a guest on this show. I totally agree.
He's a great guy. The internet is what's really cool here. It used to be that industry could keep the outliers from even being seen. The outliers didn't show up in the bookstore, the outliers didn't show up in the record store. The internet lets Danger Mouse put The Gray Album up. It's up. It's out. You can't stop it. That means that the cycle of true innovation is going to get ever faster, because without the accountants to tell you that you can't do that thing, that thing is going to get done.
The audience, which has now been trained to look for the innovative and the new, is going to want ever more of it. Lady Gaga's half-life is going to be really short, because once people get the Lady Gaga joke — once they get the story — unless she reinvents herself, they're going to go on to the next one. Whereas someone like Madonna could have run it for ten years, it's going to be hard for me to see Lady Gaga in the year 2020 doing very well.
Given what we've said about the specific publishing microclimate we find ourselves in now, when you're puttng out a book like Linchpin, what did you think to yourself what you wanted to avoid being like?
I never had that discussion to myself once. The idea was, "I have to write this book. I know what this book is. I have to chip away all the things that aren't part of this book, and then I have to get this book in the hands of the people whom I need to read it." There wasn't a strategic conversation about much of anything. The one thing I caved on was the cover. That's not the original cover. I was lucky to have cover approval. I had one cover that I stuck with through more than 60 alternative covers presented by my publisher until I finally realized just how frightened they were and gave them my second-best cover instead.
They were frightened of your cover?
Oh yeah. My cover was a silhouette of a lizard, and it was downbeat and frightening, and would require people to say, "Why the hell is there a lizard on the cover of the book?" My publisher had a lot at stake with this book, and felt strongly that since they were responsible for selling the book, that they should issue it with a cover that they were sure would fail. I respected their professional judgment enough to give them my other cover.
I want to put this book in context with your other ones. When reading your previous books, if a friend came up and asked what I was reading, I could always say, "This is a book about marketing. This guy Seth Godin, he writes marketing books." But when I was reading Linchpin, I did not feel I could say it was a marketing book. There are elements of that, and I know that's a broad subject designation, but there's so much else as well. Do you feel the book extends do vastly far beyond the reach of your others, like I do?
I want to be egomaniacal for one minute here and argue that, in the last twelve years, I have changed the definition of marketing. When I wrote Permission Marketing, marketing meant advertising. Over the last few years, thanks to the work of some really smart people and my relentless pursuit of this, marketing now means pretty much everything. The way you answer the phone, the way the product is designed, every story that goes with your political campaign or whatever you're doing now is easy to talk about as if it is marketing. Which is all brand new.
If people say, "I hate marketers," what they really mean is, "I hate people who advertise and promote average stuff for average people." They don't say that Jonathan Ive, the guy who designed the iPhone, is a marketer. But I do, because that's what he did. He created an interface and an interaction that made us willing to pay extra for poor service. By that definition, Linchpin is a marketing book in that it's Purple Cow for people, that what it says is, "Everyone is in a race to market their ideas to the world, and if those ideas are just warmed-over, recycled, safe ideas, you will fail. If you believe that the way to carve your path through the world is to be a compliant cog in the industrial system, you will fail." But no, I'm not calling it a marketing book either, because at some point the word marketing means nothing and I'm willing to draw the line here and say this is just a book about art and life and making a difference.
I think back to the interview I mentioned before that you did with Merlin Mann. He says something that resonated with me in it. He says, "You write so well and so engagingly about a subject I usually can't stand." He means marketing. To an extent, I'm the same way; I do pick up the occasional book that is explicitly about marketing and put it down because it's not like reading something that a human wrote. You would say, then, that Merlin and I can stand, and even like your books because marketing, for you, is a different thing than marketing for Joe Bestseller?
That's absolutely correct. There wasn't a category for the kind of books I wanted to write, so I had to pick one. When you're in the bookstore, you have to be in a category, so I picked marketing and put it in the titles of Permission Marketing and All Marketers are Liars. I learned a lesson when I called my readers liars in the title, which is: they hate that. You shouldn't make that mistake twice.
The opportunity here is this: a book is magical because, unlike click-click-click-stumble-upon, when someone trusts you enough to read your words, they're letting your words into their head. You don't get to do that very often. The thing about movies is, they cost $100 million to make. A book can be written by one person. That's a privilege, and if I can get into someone's head, even 100 people, and speak to them calmly at their pace and help them see the world differently, then that is a chance that few people will get.
You sound to me like you're much more book-optimistic than many, and I mean that in the sense of books as the actual, physical, printed things. Do you have a position on this discussion so many people want to throw into about whether e-books are better, or printed ones, or whether everything has its own individual place in the more fragmented media landscape? Where do you fall on this reading books versus reading the internet versus reading e-books, yadda yadda yadda discussion?
Oh yeah, I totally have a lot of opinions. First of all, 175,000 books are published every year, and 165,000 of them are worthless crap. Number two, the industry of making books is about to fall apart completely. The economics of it are broken; they've been broken for a while. What e-books are doing is skimming off the top the stuff that made all the money, and as a result, the industry of making books will never be the same and never recover.
I believe that books are going to become like vinyl LPs: they're going to be a wonderful thing for a small part of the population, a reminder of how things used to be and in some ways a better fidelity way of getting the idea. But for the vast majority of things currently printed in book form, which I would say includes most nonfiction and most entertaining fiction, there is no good economic reason to chop down a tree, ship it on a return basis to a local bookstore, hope that people will find it and then sell it.
I think instead what we're going to see is that e-book readers are going to get way better and cheaper in just eighteen months, that the act by an author of distributing a book directly to the reader with many of the elements that digital can give us is going to be incredibly powerful. Authors with followings, authors with tribes, authors with ideas that can spread will look at the alternative, which is to wait a year, give up most of the money and probably fail, and they will say, "No, I'd rather just make it digital."
I take it you see your own books in the future as being digital?
I think this is probably the last book I'm ever going to write.
You're going to shift to the e-book format, perhaps?
I don't know what I'm going to do. As I said earlier, I don't set out to write a book. This one was really painful and I'm really glad that I did it, but right now I'm so exhausted by the process and so dubious about the system of hoops you have to go through to make it happen that I'm not sure why you would want do do it again. Now, I reserve the right to change my mind, but the fact is that I don't do this for the money.
If you were doing this for the money, it doesn't make sense. If you're not doing it for the money, if you're doing it to spread ideas, it's not clear to me that this process lends itself. The people who run the big publishing companies in America are so clueless and so filled with fear about what the future brings that I am not optimistic that the ones I've met will get their act together in time to leverage the head start they have.
On the subject of not being in it for the money, I've read and heard you say in other contexts that the less you actively try to make money, the better you do. Why is that?
I'm not going to put myself in the category of visual artists like Picasso or Shepard Fairey, but the same thing is true with them. What you sell when you do art is the souvenir of the idea, because the idea is always free. Ideas that spread win, and the best ideas for spreading are the free ones. The question is, what's the best souvenir? In terms of, what is is that people will pay for? The Grateful Dead proved this in a really elegant way. They made almost no money ever selling records. They made their money by organizing the tribe and putting on a show for them that traveled around the world. The more the dead tried to do art that resonated with their tribe, the more likely the tribe was to want to come together and pay for the privilege.
If you do something to make money, you're probably doing something to satisfy, in the short term, the demand of what the market thinks it wants. If you do that, you very quickly become an oldies act. You very quickly become somebody doing something that will get applause the first time you say it. You don't do things that make people uncomfortable, because then they're not going to pay you.
It turns out, having thought about this for awhile, that if I let go of all that and just say what I think needs to be said, if I just point out the things that I would point out even if there was no money on the table, if I can make the audience uncomfortable, some people, some members of the tribe, will find that remarkable and interesting enough that they'll want the public speech, or they'll want some other interaction that, in fact, costs money. The more I focus on the art and the less I focus on the commerce, the more the commerce seems to take care of itself.
I take it you see no future in focus-grouping things.
There are two kinds of focus groups. Most focus groups are run to give the person who runs the group deniability. It's a committee on the hoof. It's a committee that lets you smooth out the edges and do something that's beyond reproach. Most people who know anything about focus groups say that is a complete misuse of what they're for. On the other hand, there are some very clever ways to interact with the real world to learn stuff.
I'll give you one simple example, because it's not really a talk about focus groups: some focus groups are run where they'll get ten people together and talk about a new product and get some feedback. They they'll say, "Okay, we'd like to reward you for coming. Would you rather have $40 or the product we just talked about?" That is a really brilliant way to find out what people think your stuff is worth, because it's unvarnished truth. If you've got a $200 clock radio and someone would rather have 40 bucks, you just learned a really valuable lesson about what the first tier of people in the market are going to think.
I'm not saying you have to listen to it, but so many things come to market — and I'm thinking of the new Palm iPhone killer which is not long for this world — at what point did the guys at Palm stop saying, "This is what we think," and start saying, "Now, someone who isn't our mother-in-law or sister. What will they think? Will they put up money?" I don't think they ever had that conversation.
I've thought a lot about this topic, motivated by your books and others, in terms of the way that someone should think about balancing out satiating audience demands directly and adhering to their vision of whatever the thing they make should be. Is this some sort of dialectical synthesis to be achieved, to your mind, or do you think of it in a different way?
I think it depends on whether you're owned by Wall Street or not. Wall Street's stated goal is to make as much money as possible. What this means is, they want your company to go from the early adopters to the mass market to saturation, and then die. It's okay with them that you jump the Shark; Happy Days and Fonzie should have run for as long as possible, because the network is a public company. Extract maximum revenue. But when Jerry Seinfeld turned down hundreds of millions of dollars to do one more season of Seinfeld, he wasn't focused on maximizing anything. What he said was, "I just don't have this in me to do the art at the level I want to do it. Bye." That act is the act of a human being, not the act of a corporation.
I guess the question is, which are you? If you're a corporation and your charter says you should maximize profits in the short and long run, then you're going to make different decisions about satisfying market demand than if you're an entrepreneur who owns her own company or if you are an individual who has a career or if you're an artist who works as an independent person. Those people have to deal with a balance of "How much is enough?" and "What am I trying to maximize?" "Am I trying to maximize cash?" "Am I trying to maximize my connection with my core tribe?"
We look at companies like Harley-Davidson, which could do no wrong and got bigger and bigger and bigger until — whoops! One day they woke up and they're not selling as many motorcycles as they can anymore. In fact, they're in some trouble. The reason is, they let the tribe get too big; people who didn't care as much joined. They satisfied a larger and larger audience until the core of the audience found they could live without them. That ever-rising expectation of size is a curse of our always-on, always-maximizing industry. Maximizing might not be the best thing to do.
I would bet the individuals — the people who work for themselves, the artists, the people who are more self contained — who read Linchpin, they will hear this stuff and they might not have thought of it themselves, but it'll seem natural. I imagine, to the sort of people who often read your books, the types that work in large companies or do management in them and hand out your books to their employees, some of this has come offas fairly heretical.
Oh yeah. On purpose. But the good news — the thing that amazed me — is, I was right in that they understand that if they don't get this behavior happening in their colleagues, their company's going to fold. That is a huge leap for someone to make after reading 100 pages of a book, but that is exactly what is happening.
What's happening is, the largest food company in the world, I was talking to some key people there and they're saying, "Yeah, we can't somehow trick people into buying more potato chips. People can't eat any more potato chips. So we've got to figure out a way to get people in this company who are going to more than what we did five years ago, louder. Because that's not the answer." That was one of the many gratifying things to come out of this book: to hear people in some of my traditional constituencies get the fact that they need to mentally change who they hire, how they hire them, what they reward, how they train them and what they consider to be successful. And that's really cool, to see that happen.
In all of these sections of the book, the term "art" is very important. You talk about artists, you talk about art they do and the art value they add to things. You talk about them and you use the word in the same way you use "marketing," in that your own idea of it may differ substantially from many peoples'. What is your "art"? What is the way you think of art?
We can all agree that Monet was an artist. But he was also a painter. We can agree that Joseph Beuys or William Shakespeare were artists, but they didn't paint. We can probably agree that a modern author or playwright is an artist. But then I can extend it even further to places you might have to think twice, like the receptionist I used to know at Kodak in Rochester who could never, ever be replaced by an automated system. She knew everyone's name, and she made them feel at home, and she was a person doing work you could not write down in a manual. She set out to be generous, to do more than she was paid for, and to connect with people and change them for the better.
That's my definition of art: somebody who does work without a manual, work that hasn't been done before, they're improvising, they're doing it for generous reasons, not just because it's their job, and because they're changing people for the better. We don't have another word for it, other than "artist," so that's the word I picked.
With these observations about what works with individuals who create something, who give, as you call them, "gifts" to the world, you lay them out in this book, and was there any reflexivity to this? In that, having laid them out clearly, is there any sense in which you saw them stated, by you, and then found it looping back in on yourself? Saying, "Well, now how can I apply how what I just laid out to myself and iterate forward?" Does that make any sense?
It does. I thought you were going to ask a different question, so I'll answer that one first, which is, I was worried that, as I started to examine this, it would stop being art. There was a lot of pressure to give more lists, tell people how to do it, describe how to overcome the Resistance. I resisted all those things, because if I tell you what to do, it won't be art anymore.
But you're correct — writing the book made me a lot more honest and serious about my own work. There are things I used to do, choices I used to make, that I don't anymore. Some of them are really uncomfortable. The easiest thing for me to do would be to go to my publisher and say, "Okay, here's a three-book deal: the Permission Marketing workbook, Purple Cow 2 and How to Be a Linchpin." If I sold them those three books, he'd sell plenty, but I can't do that now. And I'm glad I can't do that.
It's cut off that avenue for you?
I'm not even interested in it, because why would I be doing it?
This has made you uninterested, or you already were uninterested?
I never wrote a sequel before on purpose, but now I now why. Now it's ever easier to resist the temptation.
If nothing else, you do have this public example of all these principles that you've laid out. If you violate them yourself, that's going to... well, we talked about being laughed at. I guess that would be an occasion to be laughed at?
No. I'm not going to give you that one, sorry. To use Bob Dylan as an example, if Bob Dylan wanted to be a Willie Nelson-type oldies record where he sang his old songs again and it looked like he was cashing out, one could say, "Okay, we're going to laugh at you for selling out," then it becomes recursive. Then it's self-referential, and maybe that's why he did it.
I want to ask one last thing about this book: I know you get a lot of e-mail. How wide a range of interpretation have you seen of the ideas you've written about in Linchpin? I can see these being used a million different ways. I want to know if anything has surprised you about the way people have received, executed, acted on, re-interpreted these ideas.
There's one big surprise. What tends to happen, as I told you with the real estate brokers, is that people read Purple Cow and they write me notes saying how "I'm a purple cow" even though they're not. People read Linchpin, the Resistance kicks in, they redefine what it means to be a linchpin, they announce they are one and they tell me. That's what I expected. But what has meen extraordinary to me is the range of people, in a really heartfelt, genuine way, sharing the fear they had been wrestling with, the paralysis that they had been feeling and how they were able to get through it. Particularly the audio; the audio of this is selling better than any audio I've ever done.
Why do you think the audio sells better?
Because you can listen to it over and over again. What I'm hearing is, people are putting it on in their car and leaving it there. I got a note from Australia. A woman said her fourteen-year-old was in the backseat — she'd picked him up from school — and when they got home, the kid stayed in the car with her for 20 more minutes to finish that section, because the lessons about school and being brainwashed were so resonating with him.
When I hear stuff like that, that goes a long way to making up for the anxiety and hassle of putting something like this out there in the world. I already get way more than my fair share of positive feedback, way more than my fair share of reward for the work I do. But when it's that personal, it's really remarkable. It's the kind of thing you treasure for a long time.
To pull a term from the book, you can really feel like you've given a gift.
All feedback welcome at colinjmarshall at gmail.
Posted by Colin Marshall at 12:41 PM | Permalink