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Why wasn’t I told?

January 22, 2011
by seth godin

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This is the heart of the issue. When a movie is important, or resonates in our community, we hear of it. We might even go to see it. We certainly get sent a link about it or engage in a discussion. That’s partly because movies have broader audiences and partly because they’re easier to share and partly because they only make 400 biggish movies a year.

In 1976, Richard Dawkins published The Selfish Gene. If I had been informed, I would have read it the year it came out, for sure. If I had known about it in college, I would have read it, most certainly. But I didn’t discover it until I was researching Unleashing the Ideavirus, almost a quarter of a century later…

How is it possible that I lived for twenty-five years as an intelligent person interested in these topics and no one told me?

Actually, with 170,000 books published a year, how is it possible that anyone finds any book?

Since the real heyday of books as a cultural force, what we’ve seen is one medium after another getting better at spreading through the culture. And they’re leaving books behind. The challenge, then, is to re-organize the way books can interact so they have a fighting chance… a way to combine the innate power of the printed word with the viral power of the web.

This is the rubicon that book publishing must cross to survive. Books appear to be designed to be difficult to spread, completely in opposition to every other form of media, each of which are tuned and organized to benefit from significant word of mouth.

Sure, Amy Chua has shown up in the Times a hundred times in the last three weeks. But unless we’re going to publish nothing but self-destructive books by Yale law professors, the world needs a better approach.

Imagine a scenario in which a major movie with a star you care about  comes and goes and you don’t hear about it… not likely. Books will never be movies, because they are micro, not mass. But the challenge (and the opportunity) is to reach the people who care, and to do it far more effectively, offering them books worth talking about.

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{ 22 comments }

Graham Strong January 22, 2011 at 6:52 pm

Why do I have the feeling you already have the answer to this (or at least an inkling thereof)?

Seems like a basic marketing conundrum. Should be right up your alley…

~Graham

Jason Brinkerhoff January 22, 2011 at 7:22 pm

We produced a movie that is finished but due to release March 1st. Although it is focused on the Mormon culture and dating, I think it has relevance to anyone who is older and dating or if anything, a unique look into the dating scene for singles in the LDS/Mormon culture. It might not have a big appeal to everyone but I would love to hear what everyone thinks about the movie.

Brett H January 22, 2011 at 7:33 pm

I’m someone who cares! You brought words to the problem I agree exists, and painted a picture of a world that would be wonderful to live in. Give me a smart and effective way to learn about books that interested and I’m sold completely.

Bill O'Hanlon January 22, 2011 at 7:49 pm

Recommendation engines/sites like Goodreads fill this function a bit, as does Amazon.com’s “readers who bought this book also bought . . .”, but it is a challenging issue.

David Sanford January 22, 2011 at 7:51 pm

170,000 new books? The numbers aren’t in yet for 2010, but 2009 was a huge book publishing milestone year. It was the first year more than 1 million books were published in a single year, including hundreds of thousands of brand-new titles. If the title of every book were scrolled on the Amazon home page, the titles would fly by faster than most people could read them. Within months, Amazon will offer more than 10 million books for sale. That’s why so many great books go unnoticed.

Chris Taylor January 22, 2011 at 8:06 pm

This EXCITES me. Thank you, Seth and Domino team for tackling this issue before books went too far the way of the buffalo.

I can’t to see what you showcase!

CT

Jeremy Sand January 22, 2011 at 8:08 pm

So are you offering a solution to this problem?

Kevin Antone Broccoli January 22, 2011 at 8:42 pm

I’m sure, Seth, that you have a method in mind already to solve this problem. Working in publishing, too, I’ve thought this over in the past and came up with, perhaps obvious, but vital criteria:

Book content must be extracted in chunks and made “readable” on the Web. I don’t mean Amazon’s Look Inside” nor Kindle’s “download a chapter”; these aren’t sufficient. The content must be made available as results of current info searches being done by Web users.

The key, I believe, lies in giving away enough of the book for the potential book buyer to truly evaluate the content, not by reading a page here and there which may not contain the info that he is precisely interested in…and especially not by giving the introductory chapter which isn’t the meat of the content.

It’s do-able. And really, for the reasons you mentioned, it must be done.

Linda K. January 22, 2011 at 9:01 pm

i agree that knowing which books to read is harder than finding which movie to watch, but with the rise of blogosphere, my reading queue is never empty. My favorite bloggers often recommend books. Honestly, if I had many more suggestions, I would need a better way to select among the many. I already read the reviews at Amazon to ensure that the blogger suggestions match my interests so that my investments are usually worthy.

Maybe an application showing visual connectivity of what Amazon or Kindle readers are reading (buying) would compel me to change my selection habits? (People who read book#1 also read book#2 with distances between nodes showing topical similarity and node size as popularity.)

Deirdre January 22, 2011 at 10:29 pm

At least half the books I purchased last year came to me via friends’ recommendations on goodreads.com
One power of this online sharing of one’s personal library is that when you add a friend, you gain access to not only their most recent reads, but, by easily selecting their 4-star ratings, the best of what they’ve ever read.
Surely if goodreads had existed when we were in college, you would have heard of Dawkins. I’m curious to learn how the Domino project will be similar and different from goodreads.

Oliver Gassner January 23, 2011 at 12:17 am

It seems to me that speed and ease of consumptionn are also a factor here. Songs and movies are faster to consume and faster to get to than a book. Songs and movies are also social “events” or embedded in social activities. The way books were social in the salons of the 18th and 19th century. The idea to recreate the literary salon on the net keeps coming back to me.

Melissa Giovagnoli February 6, 2011 at 12:05 pm

Oliver,

I agree with you. I think what’s missing are places where people can come together and discuss books. I believe that through facilitation and the creation of a “tele-salon” with an author can we then get deeper into the books that can create “idea viruses.”

I think we actually should take a step back and use tools like Free Conference.com (www.freeconference.com) and create these salons–connecting people and ideas from books together to achieve positive change, growth and innovation. I have created these types of events with authors like Andres Tapia, Chief Diversity Officer of Hewitt, who wrote an amazing book on diversity (www.inclusionparadox.com).

It worked very well. We have 50 people on the first call and the numbers are growing.

Dave January 23, 2011 at 12:47 am

I love your goal to change the way books are published and consumed. Many people think books will all be digital soon, and this would certainly allow them to be more viral, more interactive, and for the ideas they contain to be more fluid in our social culture. What if we could make printed (paper) books interactive, viral, and social? I have an idea (and have already created the technology) to do this. But it would take someone thinking way outside the current “page”, so to speak, to make it work. Seth, you strike me as that type of person. Can I share my idea with you?

Ruben A. Bravo Castaño January 23, 2011 at 1:06 am

So from what I understand, the Domino Project will offer valuable “bite-sized” pieces of extraordinary Purple Cow-like content called manifestos (more formats will be used in the future) that can be accessed through a wide variety of devices (smartphones, tablets, kindles, …) . They will likely be shared through social media and the project will generate a “domino effect” encouraging people, through a reward system, to pass these manifestos from individual to individual and possibly add value to them (adding comments etc.), which will prevent great material from going unnoticed. In addition, it will probably use Amazon’s recommendation engine taking a big step into what it’s started to be called the Web 3.0. Seth, Dominoes, is that the basic idea or am I too far off?
What you are doing is simply fascinating. I’m looking forward to the result

Phil Simon January 23, 2011 at 5:43 am

Awesome post. I have had that same revelation many times: Why am I hearing about this only now? I can’t wait to see what this project has in store. Publishing needs a good swift kick in the ass.

John McNeil Scott January 23, 2011 at 8:36 am

I’m excited by this idea too. I think increasingly authors and publishers need to recognise that there is a tradeoff between quick revenue generation and “getting an idea out there”. There has been lots of writing on this topic. The “kindle model” has its benefits, but publishers and authors still think they can monetise their contribution in the old way, and greed has made them think that customers haven’t noticed that costs of dissemination have plummeted. (Personally, I will always choose paper unless an electronic equivalent is much cheaper.)

I am eagerly watching this space to see what Seth and his associates come up with.

Greg McIver January 23, 2011 at 9:57 am

The social book site is shelfari dot com. It’s like Facebook for book lovers. If you want other peoples opinions all about books it may work for you.

Amazon does a decent job letting you find what you’re looking for and seeing what others who have read it think about it. If you’ve got a brighter idea I’d love to see it.

Regarding Richard Dawkins books and theories, you must see the Ben Stein’s documentary, “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed” instantly viewable on Netflix, if only to see Mr. Dawkins pressed for intellectual honesty regarding the smallest possibility of intelligence involved in the universe at all. Very compelling. I found the whole documentary very surprising and illuminating.

Peter Turner January 23, 2011 at 12:27 pm

A particularly good post, Seth. I tend to frame the challenge/opportunity in another way. It’s the dynamics of discoverability that are changing as we shift to the digital space. Book communities like GoodReads.com are great, but they won’t be enough. Something much more dynamic and organic, taking advantage of the characteristics of the web–that’s where the opportunity is. We need tools to leverage niche groups across the web into meta-communities.

Jo Vraca January 23, 2011 at 5:28 pm

I’m totally intrigued by these posts and by the Domino project, particularly as I work in publishing and the current question we’re all asking is “what’s going to happen to books?”

And yes, finding books you’ve never heard of by writers you’ve never heard of is fantastic. That’s why I love remainder bookstores. You get real gems for only a few bucks. They make you wonder how some of the garbage gets through to the publishers when amazing unknowns are out there on the $2 table.

Shelley January 27, 2011 at 2:28 pm

I’m laughing at that “self-destructive books by Yale law professors.”

Sherman Alexie:

“In this country, when artists speak of being oppressed or censored, what they’re really saying is they’re being ignored. There’s an epic difference between being oppressed and being ignored.

Welcome to the United States, Land of the Free, Home of the Ignored!”

Ellen Mendlow January 31, 2011 at 1:52 pm

Hmmm….you know I love you guys/huge champion here. I will call a bluff–why wasn’t I told? This post is followed quickly on by a post looking for the 50 person street team. I’d love to have had the opportunity to amplify your message and send it to social media conscious folks I know in who might either have an interest in participating or would send it to others.

But I just discovered that post today (a teensy bit too late for the deadline) because I was looking for your street address for other reasons and decided to spend a little time catching up).

Why wasn’t I told? Meshpucha here…I hope…and eager to amplify your message.

On a sidebar, this summer I spent 10 weeks doing green strategy for a theatre company. One of the main takeaways? Make it easy for people to work with you and follow the path you want and people will do it!! I’m happy to help anyone figure this out. It’s fun to do and with great tools even easier…

Charles Cordova February 2, 2011 at 10:12 am

I have been asking “Why wasn’t I told?” since childhood. Too much too learn, too much to discover, too much to explore. That mind boggles at its own ignorance. I just found Richard Dawkin’s “The Ancestor’s Tale” a couple of months ago. Not being a scientist (or anything like), I just like well written books regardless of subject. My question today isn’t why wasn’t I told, but “What comes next, and I how can I not get left behind?”

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