Martha Beck and Seth Godin discuss the future of publishing

(Pam Slim here once again to give you a sneak peek into a discussion between Martha and Seth Godin.  Both are doing a lot of thinking about the future of the publishing industry, as well as the emerging role of author as coach and leader. Enjoy, and please share your reactions in the comments below!)



Drawing and painting were used to convey images before photography, so representational art was considered most valuable.  When photography was invented, realistic images could be replicated easily and accurately, so the value of drawing/painting as representation collapsed.  Impressionism and other non-representational genres emerged as “valuable” art.

For centuries, the only way you could hear a musical piece written by a certain musician was to write down the music note for note and get another musician to play it exactly as the first one had. When recording equipment was invented, replication was easy and accurate.  Immediately, jazz and other improvisational forms became highly valuable.

You see where I’m going with this, right?  Since Gutenberg, the printed book was the cheapest, quickest way to transfer a large block of written work.  With Internet technology making replication quick and cheap, publishers everywhere are seeing themselves become unnecessary.

Question:  What is the literary equivalent of impressionism or jazz?

Because that’s what’s going to become valuable in what has always been the book world.  I have a few ideas of my own, but I’m dying to hear your take on this.



Painting and music moved in two different directions because of technology.

Painters discovered that in order to succeed, they needed to become more human, more emotional and less like cameras. Pushing to the cutting edge and being personal were the two ways painters thrived over the last hundred years. When you see a painting, you probably know who made it.

Musicians discovered that in order to succeeded, they needed to create music that would spread, recordings that would be shared and talked about and bought in bulk. They didn’t write on commission for the king, they wrote for the radio. Ideas that spread, win.

Writers are discovering that a book that tells people how to do something is obsolete. Knowledge no longer needs to live in an arcane format like a book. And facts are free, because they spread easily.

So, writing that is worth paying for is either encased in a souvenir-like rarity, like a limited edition, or a reading or a conference…or it’s delivered quickly and personally so that the convenience and exclusivity is worth a premium or it’s personal and direct… almost bespoke.

The last is the biggest opportunity. Our tribes need leaders. We need people who will assemble and introduce and connect and lead. People who will help us get to where we want to go. Writing (at least a certain kind of writing) is now more like coaching or governing or teaching. And there’s a real shortage of that and we’ll happily pay to be part of this tribe if someone will only step up and lead us.

Seth Godin blogs at His new book Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? hits shelves today.

18 replies
  1. Source
    Source says:

    I’m in a deadend job, I really need to take some advice and get some small business going! =) I need to find a niche small company of some sort.

  2. Jenny
    Jenny says:

    So, is Seth saying that we need leaders who will connect us with resources (which seems like a zero-sum, because once we learn the pathways we don’t need the leaders any more), or is he saying that we need leaders who will connect us with the artist’s experience by helping us recreate it? If pathways are unique, and if personal identification is key to appreciation of art, is preserving the pathway to that mashup crucial knowledge to retain and replicate?

  3. Juxta
    Juxta says:

    Seth Godin – You are truly a hero. Thanks for keeping the energy up – when I “chat” with you via blogs, interviews, etc, I really feel like I am a part of an underground revolution and just spoke with the leader. You rejuvenate those of us who need to be rejuvenated so that we can, in turn, spread the contagion…the idea virus… 🙂

    Much Love and Cheers to your endless effort and energy!

  4. Janelle
    Janelle says:

    A perfect conversation to stumble upon. I’m finishing a book, and wondering about its future in the world of publishing. Though I do think publishing may become obsolete, I hope editors do not. Unlike painting, writing is a process that is helped by a second party (in fact, many parties). The finished product is part of a conversation held between several people who care deeply about the story or impact of the words. Writing, like any art form, is hard work, and though we have become used to sharing it for free online, writers need to be compensated for what they do or else we’ll lose the good thinkers and storytellers. So, how do we reward our thinkers and storytellers, provide them access to mentors (editors), and deliver their thoughts and stories to the general public? I hope you two can figure it out. 🙂

  5. Terri Conrad
    Terri Conrad says:

    as a professional artist creating for consumer product, my community must not only keep up with but be ahead of the changing technological tide. The storytellers, the purveyors of desired information, and publishers, too, must also think ahead of the technological tide and position themselves so to protect the value of the written word.

    Painting, and its manifestation be it canvas, reproduction print, or licensed art all still exist; photography, and its manifestation of a photograph, reproduction print, or licensed art still exist; and so to, writing, its manifestation of a tactile book (we all have so deeply a love affair with), or a blog, or Kindle transmission will also continue to exist. The delivery and reception of the written word, and compensation to the parties involved in bringing the written word to the reader, is indeed evolving and providing greater variety in format – the book will always remain tho – especially for those of us who love to highlight, pen notes and dog ear the pages of our beloved books.


  6. Victoria Vargas
    Victoria Vargas says:

    I agree with Martha’s comments about the future of publishing, but also think there’s another area of opportunity that’s emerging. People are being inundated with such a plethora of information at an ever increasing rate that there’s also a need for the synthesizers. Those voracious readers/thinkers who can filter out the dregs, assimilate the gold, and communicate it to an audience that just wants to cut to the chase. What works, what’s valuable and useful to the reader about a specific personal issue or topic, those are the books to which I gravitate these days.

  7. Franklin Taggart
    Franklin Taggart says:

    Martha asked:

    What is the literary equivalent of impressionism or jazz?

    I think blogging and microblogging can be considered equivalent in the way you’re framing impressionism and jazz as responses to technological shifts. I also think that we have to look at multi media presentation as a whole, because it’s not about any one form of media any more. Writing, speaking, videography, photography, music, design and visual artistry are all necessary at once to convey ideas thoroughly and memorably enough in a short amount of time. I think what we’re going to see in an evolutionary sense are two things: a huge increase in collaboration and people that are highly skilled across different media disciplines. I have a sense that “publishing” now has as its core function the enabling of such collaborations and crossdisciplinary content creators to enhance the immediate translation of idea to action that the internet facilitates. It’s not the content that people will pay for…the money is to be made in providing relevance, connection, mobilization and other enhancements of the quality of life…and it has to happen at a higher speed than the fastest broadband channels can handle.

  8. master lord
    master lord says:

    Martha Beck is has potential……I’ve got a super throbbing heart for; her please email me ……..boing!!!!

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