The Domino Project is a new way to think about publishing. Founded by Seth Godin, we're trying to change the way books are built, sold and spread. Find out more about our mission here.

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December 7, 2014
by seth godin

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There are two markets for books (and music).

The first market are grazers, collectors or omnivores. They make the market happen. They read a lot of books. They visit the library often. They have 2,000 LPs in their collection. They listen and read around the edges.

The second market consume in response to the market. The average American buys just over one book a year. When I was in college, the typical dorm room had just 40 LPs stacked up. (Even today, when students have 100,000 mp3s, most of them don’t listen widely).

This second market is almost always the market that turn a book into a bestseller. Bestsellers are the books that people who don’t buy books are buying.

Back to those college dorms: The typical women’s collection included Joni Mitchell, Dan Fogelberg, Billy Joel and Carol King. Not because these were demonstrably better records, but because they were bestsellers, the regular kind.

The same effect is responsible for all those copies of Harry Potter and The Davinci Code… they become bestsellers because people who don’t buy a lot of books are buying them.

So, consider the trap that the bestseller effect sets: the publisher and the author want a bestseller, so they spend a lot of time and money on mass media, on storefront promotion, on even writing a book that feels like it will appeal to the second group. But! That’s not what the second market wants. What they consume (read/listen to) is what their peers demand they consume. They are protective of what they buy and consume, because they don’t have many slots for new books or new music.

Which means that if you try to reach people who aren’t shopping for what you sell, who don’t think about what you sell, who aren’t even in the store for what you sell, you’ve got a tough road ahead.

The way around the trap, it seems (and I think this is true for many of the bestsellers that have broken through) is to obsess about delighting a critical mass of readers in the first group. To create a book and a marketing plan that captures the energy of this group and let them bring the work to the rest of the market.

Critical mass is a key part of this. In the era of weird, there isn’t one bestseller list, there are a hundred. There’s the bestseller list of political tracts (two, actually) and one of edgy rants from bloggers, and one for romance…

The sales for my new book just surprised me: Today’s sales were more than yesterday’s, which was a little more than the day before. That’s extraordinarily rare for a book ten days after launch, one with no retail distribution, particularly if there’s no big media or retail promotion going on. People are starting to read it because other people are reading it.

That’s a really simple sentence, but it explains Buzzfeed, Thomas Piketty, Psy, and a thousand other cultural hits.

Maybe yours.

November 24, 2014
by seth godin

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The secret of every book publisher’s success is the backlist. To Kill a Mockingbird, Stretching, Dune… these are books that sell, day in and day out, long after they’ve earned out their advances.

The distinction between the backlist and the frontlist (the new books, the promoted books, the books that publishers focus on, ironically) is based on two forms of scarcity that publishers have long dealt with:

1. There was scarce shelf space. The local bookstore could only hold 10,000 or 20,000 titles, and most of those slots (and virtually all of the merchandising and promotional slots) went to the new books. Book of year! is a category reserved for the new.

2. There were scarce review slots. The highest-leverage way a publisher could promote a frontlist title was to get it on Oprah, or reviewed in the local paper.

Backlist titles are noteworthy because of their profitability, but they also don’t depend on shelf space (people happily order them) and they don’t depend on reviews (the word gets out horizontally, or in a teacher’s assignment, not from the core of the media machine).

You’re probably ahead of me here, but:

There is now infinite shelf space. Infinite because the online booksellers carry just about every single book. And infinite because independent local stores carry relatively few books so that all but the hottest titles end up being ordered anyway.

And there are no more review pages to fight over, instead, there’s only the long tail, the countless peer-to-peer recommendations that aren’t bounded by place or time.

Launching a frontlist title using the old method makes no sense at all, because you will not capture these two scarce resources. Instead, as we saw from the gradual launch of the original Harry Potter and (in a totally different way) in the launch today of my new book Your Turn, success comes from whispering to the tribe, not from yelling through media amplifiers. Your Turn has already sold 32,000 copies, which would, if it were in a channel that bestseller lists tracked, would make it one of the top-selling books in the country. We did this without any shelf space and without any media other than talking to people who had already signed up. This takes patience and a willingness to focus on the long run.

Some people launch with the backlist in mind because they have no choice. I think it’s worth doing it because it’s the most direct and effective way to create a backlist success story.

The future belongs to this approach: Write for your readers, don’t try to find readers for your writing…

Pursuing horizontal publishing

I’ve explored a variety of ways to get to market with the books I’ve created over the last thirty years. I’ve self-published, worked with most of the major NY publishing houses, did a partnership with Barnes and Noble and another with Amazon… All as a way to solve the problem of discovery. How do we [...]

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The end of the independent bookstore (and a new golden age for books)

ACT 1: The Book of the Month Club. After World War II, a wealthier, better educated country started engaging in more culture, more often, in a more widespread way. We were more likely to watch the same movies, more likely to listen to more music, and much more likely to want to read the books [...]

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Does Kickstarter work as a platform for books?

Those that have been following along have seen the Kickstarter posts I did here, here and here. Feel free to go catch up, I’ll wait… THE THEORY: The hardest part of book publishing is getting the first 10,000 copies of a book read. After that, the book either resonates or it doesn’t. It’s talked about, [...]

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Voting for a winner

The single most fascinating Kickstarter stat is this: The odds of succeeding with your campaign are ten times higher once you reach about half of your goal. While this is somewhat self-fulfilling (only popular campaigns get that far anyway), it actually points to an irrational part of human nature: we don’t want to back a [...]

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When you focus on what’s being removed, it’s easier to understand the revolution

We remove shelf space as a limiting factor in books. We remove the cost of polycarbonate as a cost factor in CDs. We remove paper as an expense in magazines. We remove the number of channels as a limiter in the broadcast of TV. These are not small changes. These are revolutionary shifts in what’s [...]

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Confusing media with messages

Yesterday’s post about the halfway mark got a few responses from people who thought I was selling books short. “There has not ever been, nor will there ever be, a “halfway point” for cultural achievements,” one wrote. Let me try again, with more detail. We can probably all agree that more than half of the [...]

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And then what happens?

What happens when we reach the halfway point, when most of the great books have already been published?  Just as most of the great TV shows have probably already been made, and most of the great classical music recordings have already been recorded. Golden ages don’t last forever, and it’s entirely possible that we’ve reached [...]

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The power of simultaneous action

In 1776, the USA was more than 40 days across. It took over a month to ride on a horse from one end to the other. Today, it takes less than a second. And yet just about all of our systems are built around the slow build, the slow transfer of information and the slow [...]

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