Spreadability: Books, Ideas, and the Domino Project
Seth Godin’s publishing project reached more than a million readers
Launched in 2011, the Domino Project was a yearlong exercise in finding unconventional ways to publish a series of unconventional books.Seth Godin, marketer extraordinaire, entrepreneurial maverick, and publishing visionary, says the latest exercise in reinventing publishing, the Domino Project, is an effort “not to be a hypocrite.” What he means is that after 25 years and 13 books often focused on what is wrong with the publishing industry, he set himself the task of showing the way forward.
Launched in 2011, the Domino Project was a yearlong exercise in finding unconventional ways to publish a series of unconventional books, including the last book in the project, The Flinch, a motivational title by author, lecturer, and social media expert Julien Smith, coauthor of Trust Agents (2009), released as a free Kindle e-book at the end of 2011.
Over the course of a year, the Domino Project released 12 books, in all formats—hardcover, paperback, e-book, and audiobook—some for pay, some given away for free. All of them became bestsellers. While technically, the Domino Project is a self-publishing venture, it’s self-publishing on steroids, involving a meeting of the minds between Godin and Amazon.com that was just short of a true joint venture. Overall, the project attracted more than one million readers to the series of books. The Domino Project—so named because one idea strikes another, like a line of falling dominoes—is an exercise in what Godin likes to call “spreadability,” or the ability to find the best way possible to circulate an interesting idea to as many people as possible as quickly as possible.
Among the titles released by the Domino Project are The Flinch, in which author Smith exhorts readers to break with conformity; Zarrella’s Hierarchy of Contagiousness: The Science, Design, and Engineering of Contagious Ideas by social media researcher Dan Zarrella; Do the Work by Steven Pressfield, a manifesto on how to take action and get things done; B, a book of poetry by poet and TED speaker Sarah Kay with drawings by Sophia Janowitz; and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1841 essay Self-Reliance, produced in a hardcover edition. The Domino Project also published two books by Godin, We Are All Weird, a meditation on the end of mass marketing and the primacy of individuals and their choices, produced in a limited edition of 11,000 hardcovers whose price includes a donation to the Acumen Fund, a nonprofit venture that uses entrepreneurial projects to fight poverty; and a new edition of Poke the Box, Godin’s own call to break away from conformity.
The Domino Project offers a mixed bag of titles that would give most publishers pause before taking them on. And it’s also doubtful that a conventional publisher would find ways to give away titles by its most prominent and salable authors. But the Domino Project is anything but conventional, and Godin worked to find ways to connect to the public in all kinds of ways, from giveaways funded by corporate sponsorships to eccentric packaging and collectibles.
In a phone interview with PW, Godin says the project represents the culmination of a challenge he made to Jeff Bezos and Amazon to work with him to create a new kind of publishing platform, to redefine both publishing and the notion of the book itself. The Domino Project, he says, is out “to create a new kind of publisher and to chronicle how we do it on the blog. We published 12 books, they all became bestsellers”—a term Godin applies to any book that moves over 100,00 copies, whether for pay or free. “We tried to establish something about publishing,” he says. “We’re trying to make a point, not a living.”
Indeed, Flinch was given away and topped the 100,000-downloads mark. “I was trying to expose authors I believed in, publish great works, and Amazon and the authors made money.” Godin says now he can “declare victory” and end the project because his sole interest is really to find ways to spread new ideas. “We paid no advances, all the books that had a price made money; and the authors didn’t have to wait for months to get paid.”
“The race is to be found [by readers], and publishers today don’t know how to connect to readers,” Godin says, stressing that he found his authors in all kinds of ways—some were friends, while others were authors or entrepreneurs he admired. Smith, whose Trust Agents outlined a methodology for creating credibility online, said he was attracted to the Domino Project as a platform because he believed it could connect him to vast numbers of readers. “That’s what I do—I was one of the first to podcast and to use Twitter. I grow through platforms, and the Kindle is an amazing place to spread new ideas for free. You can reach so many people.”
“Seth is disruptive by nature,” Smith adds, “and the status quo is never good enough for disruptors—and we’re blessed to have them around to help move things along. Seth knows publishing well and he just wants to inject it with more life.”
Much like Godin’s efforts to provoke the publishing world, The Flinch, Smith said, is meant to force people to overcome their fear of trying something new and force them to embrace or create a new reality. The book was free because “giving away stuff develops goodwill,” he says. referring to the 100,000 downloads. “I could never get that kind of audience on my own. [Giving away stuff] is like hacking into the brain; it creates reciprocity. It’s like having a cup of coffee with someone and talking about something that matters.”
Godin says that the challenge facing publishers today is that “the golden age of reading books is over; today we may read more stuff—I read 200 blogs a day—but kids today think books are just something you read only when you’re in school.” He adds, “The cost of publishing on the Kindle is close to zero, do why wouldn’t a big publisher put one of its bestselling authors on every Kindle for free? Ten million potential readers?”
“Now I’m seeing a huge number of self-publishers and that’s new,” he says, “but I’m afraid the people running the big six publishers are only good at what publishers used to be. To succeed today you need to be able to become temporarily incompetent and remake yourself”—even if that means giving away books—“and finding a way to make money from that.” Godin adds, “I’m not in the paper business, I’m trying to build familiarity with new ideas. Cory Doctorow gives all his books away, and he still makes money.”
As the interview ends, Godin is asked whether he thinks Amazon is a predatory company. He pauses for a second before responding. “B&N was considered a predatory company at one time. Now everyone claims they’ll miss them if they go under. I think it’s hard to consider Amazon a predatory company, considering how they’ve opened their platform to authors and let people interact with their customer base.” Jeff Bezos, he says, “is ready to try something new, and fail, every day.”
While he’s tough on conventional publishing, Godin does offer praise to several publishing figures who he says are changing the business. Godin points quickly to Tim O’Reilly, publisher of O’Reilly Media, and his annual Foo Camp events. Foo Camps (or Friends of O’Reilly) are informal, invitation-only events in which O’Reilly authors and others from the tech industry essentially camp out in the O’Reilly offices and brainstorm. Call them “unconferences,” informal but intense efforts—everything from the agenda to the presentations are pretty much made up on the spot—that serve to attract new people and new ideas to the company.
“It costs no money, he’s done it for nearly 10 years and it shows O’Reilly is about more than just cutting down trees,” Godin says.
Godin also singles out Michael Hyatt, chairman of Thomas Nelson. “Hyatt started focusing on organizing conferences, and now a seventh of Nelson’s revenue comes from conferences; instead of a publisher that does conferences, they’re becoming a conference organizer that publishes books,” Godin says. “Yes, there are pockets of innovation gaining steam in book publishing.”