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When talking about your work is the same as your work

March 12, 2012
by seth godin

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Movies are a special case. When Tom Cruise goes on Oprah to promote a movie, the interview is of course no substitute for the movie. Even the coming attraction for a movie isn’t usually a replacement for the movie (except for stuff like Cowboys and Aliens…)

On the radio, pop music had this debate fifty years ago. Is listening to a pop song on WPLJ over and over going to be a substitute for buying the single or the album? For forty years or so, the answer was no. Radio time led directly to sales. Why? Ownership. Control. If you own the album you can show your friends you own it and you can listen whenever you like.

For literature and complex non-fiction, the situation was the same. Going on a talk show or writing an op-ed piece or giving a lecture wasn’t anything like a substitute because the experience of reading a book is very different from watching a TED talk or hearing about how difficult it was to get out of rehab long enough to write the thing.

But something fundamental is changing in the economics of attention: the cost of delivering the thing itself digitally is getting so cheap that there isn’t really a bright line between exposing the work and delivering the work.

It turns out that the best way to promote your song is to give your song away. The best way to promote your ebook is to give your ebook away. The best way to get people to watch your thirty minute viral video is to give the video away. The whole thing.

No right?

Does that mean that authors and musicians and directors have no right to make a living? Of course that’s not true. We need artists to make a living and I want them to. I think, though, that it’s a mistake to confuse ‘a right’ to do something with the concept of a birthright, of the automatic assumption that the marketplace will insist on paying you for creating something it pays attention to. It won’t, not any more.

We’ve already seen musicians go through this painful process. Some of the happiest, most engaged and most successful pop musicians and DJs working today are making their money daily, from live events, and eagerly using their recorded work (in digital form) as the promotion engine for those events. That’s different, but it’s not less. It’s just different.

In the written world, we’re already used to the notion that if you write a blog or post a comment, you’re not going to get paid to do it. The idea that writers might contribute 500 or 5000 words to the public sphere regularly was anathema to the Writer’s Guild and others just a few years ago. Today, it’s obvious.

The complexity kicks in when we see one economic system (paying obscure authors up front for their work) fade away at the same time another system (authors racing to earn attention and thus permission and thus the power to monetize their work) grow. This is the moment (the best and possibly the last moment) for authors with talent to figure out how to be both generous and well-compensated.

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