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Performance anxiety

January 19, 2011
by seth godin

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What to publish? How much to publish? Should a successful artist paint another painting, should a beloved musician record another record?

This is the dilemma of every publisher (and in the digital world, that means all of us). On one side lies logorrhea, too many words, too much published. On the other lies fear—fear of wearing out a welcome, fear of not meeting expectations, fear of failure. The safest thing to do is nothing.

Harry Potter was rejected by more than a dozen publishers. So was Stephen King’s first novel. Same for A Confederacy of Dunces. How many books that were never published have you had a chance to read, to love, to share and to be changed by?

Ted Williams or Babe Ruth? The Babe struck out a lot. That’s what comes from swinging for the fences. If the cost of striking out is low, and the reward to the reader and the publisher of getting it right is high, then giving the author that chance makes sense to me.

Which blog posts should I have skipped writing? Which books were a mistake? I know that my answer after the fact is always different than it was before I decided to publish. The market, it seems, is a better judge of what matters than I am.

I know what quality is when it comes to making a pacemaker or a tablet of Tylenol. I’m not sure, though, that six sigma perfection can ever be the goal of a successful publisher. Going to the edges and publishing work worth a conversation will always be in conflict with the idea of getting it perfect.

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{ 18 comments }

Paul Carney January 19, 2011 at 12:03 pm

So true, even in business and politics. In business, a leader goes through the same process when making decisions. And politicians usually do the same, only to have any decision they made thrown back into their face when the going gets tough.

No wonder people don’t want to stand up and lead the tribe any more. Good thing that you and I are still willing to do it!

Graham Strong January 19, 2011 at 2:04 pm

“The market, it seems, is a better judge of what matters than I am…”

That, in a nutshell, is the publishing biz. Isn’t it? It’s the side that most writers don’t seem to get (though if more understood that, it might help them get published…)

Six Sigma perfection may be unattainable in publishing, then that’s likely true of all art. It’s finding that mix — the books that are both art AND (in your best estimation) marketable.

IMHO,

~Graham

Lindsay January 19, 2011 at 2:07 pm

The trouble is in assuming that by taking a risk or by giving something / somebody a chance that this will pay off.

“cost of striking out is low”, says who? If I played baseball and swung for the fences I would strike out, I suck at baseball. You need the talent and success to counter any failure, but taking a chance doesn’t guarantee this.

If an author (artist) has the belief, desire and obviously talent (although this is subjective) in their work then they will endeavour to reach their goal.

A publisher likewise has to believe in the work they produce. For what one publisher may consider risky or taking a chance for another publisher it maybe just what they enjoy being involved in. Again though they need to talent of knowing what is worth perusing.

If neither believe in what is it they are doing then they should not do it just for the sake of taking a chance.

subashish January 20, 2011 at 2:15 am

I am not sure if an artist will always like to listen to market, rather than her heart. Art is a labour of love and there is a part of herself in it created just for herself. Somewhere in the early days of her struggle (dip?) she should have acquired the wisdom (not experience, not skill, but wisdom) of which she should let go and which she should kill.

There are many examples of such, even in this age of glut. See Franzen and his Freedom – 8 years of penance. Newton kept behind his works a long long time before getting convinced he should set them free.

Sometime I couldn’t help wondering if there can be some version of twitter which restricts just 2 tweets a day…

Noreen Campbell January 20, 2011 at 2:51 am

Going to the edges vs getting it perfect. You know you are creating great content, Seth. I’ve pushed myself farther since meeting you. Keep up the good stuff. We want you and your organizations to be successful.

Mike Monday January 20, 2011 at 3:11 am

One of the unforeseen consequences of deciding to encourage a public conversation about my music as I write it is that I’ve also realised that “the market…is a better judge of what matters than I am”.
So is the solution to publish everything and let the market decide? An interesting and frightening prospect. I can feel my lizard brain twitching already…

Marja January 20, 2011 at 3:12 am

I have this problem : shall I apply state funding to my project – a salary of 21 000 euros for a year -
or just do it by my own .

I´m in big trouble mentally
if I take state money – I ´m in big trouble financially
if I do it by my own .

If I live in forest , I`ll manage – if I stay in city , I´ll
starve ; )

Eline de neree January 20, 2011 at 3:15 am

There is Dutch concept that cleverly has crowdsourced his decision. (no affiliate of mine!). The concept
Is simple: if you can sell a minimum of 2000 shares (to unique buyers) at 5€ a piece, you’re book will be published with a renowned publisher. If the book outsells a certain number of copies he shareholders get part of the royalties (www.tenpages.com). I haven’t seen or heard of it anywhere els inhis form at least

Michael Kennedy January 20, 2011 at 5:47 am

“The safest thing to do is nothing…” In my world that spells defeat. When you decide to do nothing, you’ve lost in the game of life. ROI (that’s Risk Of Inaction) plays an important role in all our lives. The artist who doesn’t write, draw, paint or publish… Is dying. We need you! The preacher who doesn’t preach, the leader who doesn’t lead, the warrior who doesn’t fight and protect… Is dying. We need you! If it’s your dharma (right action, righteousness) to be a teacher, preacher, parent, warrior or artist, then BE that person. It’s your duty. And be the best you can be. It’s never too late to be all that you were! Hurry, we’re waiting!

Todd Musig January 20, 2011 at 8:12 am

The first book seemed easy. The second has been extremely hard…for this exact reason – “fear of meeting expectations”. You are right though, you have to eventually step to the plate. Batter up!

Marja January 20, 2011 at 8:20 am

Thank You Michael Kennedy !

I`ll do my best with my story as I did my best with my tomatoes -

didn ´t deliver them to customers before they were fully matured, perfect in shape and colour !

Bernadette Jiwa January 20, 2011 at 8:41 am

Doesn’t the current publishing lottery prove that even the establishment is just making it’s best guess at what will succeed and what won’t? They are aiming for safety and the middle.

I read today that in response to “How much market research did you do for the iPad?” Steve Jobs replied: “None. It isn’t the consumers’ job to know what they want.”

By going to the edges you are giving more people more of what they really want and not just what the CFO thinks that they need.

Phil Haussler January 20, 2011 at 10:49 am

“On one side lies logorrhea, too many words, too much published.”

In the old (paper) world, there was real risk from “too much published”. Too many strikeouts, too few hits — that was a recipe for going out of business. So the manager (editors and agents) had to decide who got in the batter’s box.

Trouble is, words/books/art are harder to judge than baseball talent…

In the new world — without the hard cost of production/distribution — the greater risk is misjudging talent…keeping Babe Ruth out of the batter’s box.

Let ‘em hit! And let the spectators decide what’s a home run.

Bill Wagenheim January 20, 2011 at 10:52 am

The writer of books and blogs does not get acknowledged for excellence that an actor does by receiving an academy award.But what of all the brillant performances of actors who don’t receive one. Are their efforts any less by a lack of this recognition? No. They do their best with each new role, and movie goers keep buying tickets to see them. Keep on writing you know what you’ve got. The market told you.

Stephanie Diamond January 20, 2011 at 11:39 am

You’ve built a huge reservoir of good will and great writing. One can’t fail when everyone is rooting for them to succeed.

Lindsay January 20, 2011 at 5:45 pm

“the market s a better judge of what matters than I am”

The market according to who? The Jobs quote is great, the modern day H. Ford. He’s fortunate to have the press in his pocket and loyalty to the brand that he is able to exploit. In his case it the market according to Apple.

Should you care about the market? Or should you care about doing something you believe in? I thought the point of things like this is to stick two fingers up at “the market” (which is anyway governed by the massive publishing houses and distributors) and promote diversity and creativity, to focus on what you are doing not how much money will be made or if the market likes it.

Kevin Shockey January 23, 2011 at 7:03 am

I think there are two fundamental misconceptions of the future of publishing:

- Due to long tail, there really is little reason to try to “predict” what the market will want, the market’s just too big.
- Always be producing, if you accept premise #1, then you must “Always Be Producing!” Something, anything, and then mashing it up to generate as many products as possible.

Now in case you’re wondering how this turns into $$$, you then need to “publish” your story out to cover as much of the inside of the box as possible. So where ever anyone might come into contact with the box, there you are.

Noah Fleming January 25, 2011 at 5:52 pm

You know Seth, I had some serious performance anxiety. You saw it when we talked in Chicago.

It’s one of those things I struggle with often.

Am I good enough to say that?
What will people think if I do that?
Is blogging a big waste of time for me?

Thanks for always asking me to get a bit closer to the edge. It helps knowing there are others standing on that same ledge.

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