Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Marly talks to Seth Godin

Update: Perhaps I'm not very clear on the tone for this one because people have taken the introduction far more seriously than I meant! No worry. A couple of podcasts (okay, maybe I exaggerated--so I exaggerated!) will not magically transform me into a market-minded maniac. But I am rather fascinated by the slant of view and think he would make a good character. He even looks like a character...  A Dickens character, I think, one of the active and colorful "flat" characters.

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When I decided that I really must think about marketing, I listened to Seth Godin while I folded the laundry. He’s an informative guy, and he has quirky ways of looking at marketing. They are not my ways (I am afraid that marketing and I are a strange pair), but I find him weirdly revelatory of the way of the world.

I don't imagine that I will ever get to chat with such a well-known marketer as Seth in the flesh, so here I’m going to talk to an e-Seth, using some clips from an interview with real-Seth, along with my responses.

Usually when Seth talks, I just listen. This being my blog, I get to say more than he does.

* * *


Mostly, though, I think it’s a fading of the power of a published book to influence the conversation. When anyone can publish an ebook, anyone will.


The Tower of Babel Redux, and we have to deal with it--that's a fact. Our tongues are divided and swinging like mad, and the cacophony is increasing. 

You describe "a fading of the power of a published book to influence the conversation." How terribly poignant. But that is life a century after the crack-up of Modernism, it seems.  And one must tilt with the facts. 

Nevertheless, Seth, I still believe that there a secret world tucked inside our big, fat, hyper-materialist, and often-tasteless world--a world of people who care about beauty and rightness and all the golden things handed down to us by the Gawain poet and Shakespeare and Herbert and Austen and Dickinson and Dickens and more. And maybe that hidden world is enough to sustain a lot of us who are seeking to make something worthy.


An author starting out today needs to pick herself, establish a niche, become truly the best at it and relentlessly and generously give it all away as a way of leading and making a ruckus.


Seth, this is a bit discouraging, this niche business. I know all about giving away my words, but niche?

What if your sameness, your niche-ness, has always been never being the same? What kind of niche is that? Publishers never liked it--sounds as if you think the market won’t and perhaps can't either. 

Here I have to make a confession. I will go on dividing myself into poet and novelist (of various sorts) and children's book writer, and if my silver stream is diffused by the nature of the marketplace—by the way it considers all those things as being not from the same source (though they are, and seamless in some important ways), so be it. 

Further, Seth, I find that writing the strong, beautiful book I always dream of writing and that having a position of humility before the great masters of the past is more to me than having a niche and so gaining numbers.

I like “increasing readership”: yes, I do. But I love the tradition and the burning image of the strong, beautiful book more. And if I must choose, I choose the image and the masters.

You know that is unfortunate--you think that choice is in certain ways quite unfortunate. And in a worldly, blockbuster sort of way you are exactly right.


Who said you have a right to cash money from writing? I gave hundreds of speeches before I got paid to write one. I’ve written more than 4000 blog posts for free.


In the past, if you were mid-list who never got a "push" from a publisher, it was pretty much the same as writing for free--a dollop of money once in a very great while—and so that still means doing the work for love. Or love and pennies.

As soon as we finish this chat, Seth, I'm going to go read "The Artist of the Beautiful" one more time. Actually I am going off to a voice lesson, but in a metaphorical sense I will be reading Hawthorne.


Poets don’t get paid (often), but there’s no poetry shortage. The future is going to be filled with amateurs, and the truly talented and persistent will make a great living. But the days of journeyman writers who make a good living by the word–over.


“Truly talented”: what does that mean? I am a person often praised for tact (thank you, my Southern ancestors who don't allow me to say what I think!), but here I must veer toward the tactless. There's a kind of book we all know to be the equivalent of Twinkies--an easy dessert, a Ho-Ho of sugary cake wrapped around sticky-sweet cream. That kind of book is rising in the free and near-free e-book market, just as it rose in traditional publishing.

Often, then, the cooker-upper of Ding Dongs "will make a great living."

Just as in traditional publishing, there's a mix of good and bad in the future you predict.  Just as in traditional publishing, what’s not so great can be rewarded.

I'm not talking about genre here; I'm talking about quick, somewhat sensational or trendy or just plain junky books that have no soul, whatever their genre--literary or mystery or nonfiction or fantasy, on and on. (Besides, the only kind of book worth talking about is a good book; genre is nothing.)

Give me "a great book" over making "a great living." I have that choice, and I choose. The attempt to write true books is labor and play in the vale of soul-making. 

I've had decent advances, and I've had lousy advances, but the difference between decent and lousy money has never made one whit of difference to the work.


It’s not the market’s job to tell authors how to monetize their work. The market doesn’t care. If there’s no scarcity of what they want, it’s hard to get them to pay for it.


Absolutely true. The question is what people want, isn't it? And a lot of people don't want to sit down and read a good book, do they? We used to teach our children that thing called taste, didn't we?  But we don't anymore. And that's just that, a hard nugget of fact.

But there will always be scarcity of the best, Seth. Even among things (including books) touted as great or as works of art, only a percentage will make it to that pinnacle.

How will we know when books are great, Seth? Tell me that? When everybody has an e-book, and Babel is a nest of clamor, how will we find those voices?

Tell me that.


  1. I have personal reasons for disliking Mr Godin, but also he represents to me the "whatever is, is good" philosophy that seems to dominate the marketing world. I have friends who adore him. I don't.

    I understand that a person could think of every public move they make as their "brand," and that a person might, by thinking that way, gain a slight marketing edge. But I refuse to think that way. I won't even start. The spiritual cost -- to go on speaking in commercial metaphors -- is way, way too high.

  2. I've listened to a batch of marketers over the past week, and mostly come to the conclusion that I must be alien because they understand the world in an entirely different way than I do!

  3. Adding part of a quote from a fb commenter:

    "Fred Chappell once said if you observe an individual's contribution to this society, you'll find an inverse relationship to his/her income: the more important the contribution, the less money. Hence, the relative poverty of poets (and other artists, I would add). Fred was eloquent, of course, me not so much. Also, from Fred: Laborare est orare. For some of us, that is enough."

    Like that!

  4. Honestly, Marly, I think it still comes down to "to thine own self be true." The art you care about, the art that has lasted, was created by artists with integrity, not by those who cared primarily about the market or fame. We live in a particularly difficult time for this kind of art, but I know that for you, same as for me, the spiritual cost of selling out would be astronomical, perhaps suicidal. Write what your head and heart tell you to write, and don't worry about marketing experts' advice. They are living, as you say, in a different world, but they're also looking at a different time frame: short, fast, and finite.

    We have to ask ourselves what we really want. Assured posterity? Security? Praise? Or a sense that we've done our best with our gifts, and maybe written something that made a difference to a reader? It's the harder path, but the right path always is.

  5. I just don't think it's possible for certain kinds of writers to write another way--and I think that is the kind of writer I am.

    Think about how hard poor Melville tried to repeat his accidental success with "Typee." And when he had written a fabulous book, he was so hurt by the reactions of others. Makes you think of him saying, "What I feel most moved to write, that is banned, - it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches."

  6. hmmm...interesting, but...are you planning on inviting him to respond? That interaction would be much more interesting to me.

    Haven't we always had to sift through the muck to find nuggets of gold?

    You used the twinkies i will toss this in:

    We have choices in our rural county: McDonald's or 5 Guys,
    Walmart or Trader Joes. Marketing made the fortunes/success for all of these--yes, of different magnitude (at this stage)--but all are mightily successful and that success is making lots of "good" food folks, rich.

    And then much further down the ladder: in our neighborhood, there are two major farmers markets hosting a crowd of eager, local farmers of (mostly) organic food stuffs. Guess which one is experiencing phenomenal growth/business/helping young, eager farmers to realize their dreams and rescue family farms: the one being directed by those who love healthy food and are skilled marketers/cheerleaders/communicators to the "masses".

    The floundering farmers market is the one sponsored by local government, which happens to be the one with the larger advertising budget.

    i would add to Seth's comment: the truly talented and persistent--and those who secure the support and backing of a terrific agent or publicist (see: JK Rowling. If she had given up...)-- will make a great living.

    They aren't the only ones who will succeed at earning a living, but it sure makes a difference when you have a skilled marketer who recognizes gold on your side. And those talents--the marketing ones--are just as rare.

  7. Eloquent as usual, Marly. Personally, I am having fun selling my book. I don't have a whit of business sense, never have. But I like the challenge, akin to writing, of picking a target and selling my book. So far, it's hit or miss. I have not been very discriminating since it's more a game to me than anything else. I don't expect to make any money in the end, no matter how many books I sell. There are expenses in time, postage, envelopes, energy. But I am not compromising my writing, and I won't, in order to market my book. If publishing companies want me to write yoga poetry forever, that isn't going to happen.

  8. zephyr,

    Lots of interesting things to talk about there.

    I can't imagine talking to him because he is a major talker and I know what I know when I write it down. And sometimes not until I revise it.

    The issue with the marketer that you mention... Okay, when I was on the FSG list for the first time, I knew another writer on the same fall list. She was a bit of a digger and wanted to know things and was pretty good at finding out. She and I and probably most of us had the equivalent of a market's hangnail. Scott Turow was also on that list. He had three extra bodies--three full-time marketers for three months before his book came out.

    So generally it's not the marketer who recognizes the gold. Somewhere above, somebody decides what the lead book is, and maybe picks out a couple more for promotion, and everything else gets a bit.

    It's a funny system.

    Oh, yes, we have had to look through much straw to find a bit of gold. But when it was a normal-sized haystack, one had some hope of finding. Now the haystack will be much, much bigger.

    Just curious about how that will work.

    Interesting that the government market doesn't work. It is still much better to have enthusiasm and great word of mouth than anything else, I imagine.

  9. Robbi,

    Hah, hah! The idea of publishers wanting any kind of poetry forever is funny, sad to say! You're not with that kind of giant, so nobody will attempt to push you in a direction.

    Yes, keep pushing your poems out into the world. You're doing fine. And you did a great job guiding the cover. It's quite attractive, and I see plenty that are not.

  10. Yes, Marly, i'm very much aware of the "system" as you describe it. However, fabulously talented publicists, marketers (with integrity and heart) still exist--outside of the "big" houses. And when they see gold they can help a non-niche person "make it." As i said. It's rare. Maybe it's more like finding a flawless emerald than finding gold. But it continues to happen. Every year. More than once a year, in publishing/movies, etc. Searching for that type of support within the system/a big house is, i believe, mostly fruitless. But not always. Brian Selznick's journey as another example.

  11. Oh...and i simply meant sending an email to Seth inviting him to respond on your blog to your responses to his clips.

  12. zephyr,

    I am sure you are right... And there are always good stories of how people putter along and keep the faith and find their rightful readers/watchers etc. We like good stories!

  13. Oops, missed one--


    You are brave!

    You know, I don't mind talking to 300 people I don't know, but I'm not very good at the kind of thing you suggest. Evidently I am not brave in all ways.

  14. Or, in other words, no! I shall not invite him--


    And I imagine that a thousand blogs argue with a person like him every day, so how could he possibly care?

    I think maybe I'll start doing faux interviews regularly. They seem fun because: a. I get to out-talk the talkers; and b. I get the last word, unless I choose to give it away!

  15. i totally understand your reluctance. However...imagine the possible "traffic" if he did engage....just a thought.

  16. I wonder what kind of traffic such a thing would be.

  17. One never knows, do one.
    i know lots of "arty" bloggers read/listen to him. How many other "non-niche" like yourself (and me) have checked in with him from time to time.

    You never know.
    those who "break out" often do so because they are willing to take risks.

    i'm certainly not saying i think you "should" or "need" to invite him...i'm just saying these are some of the things people do to get noticed/get readers (buyers) in this wild new world.

  18. Wild New World. Aldous Huxley, tweaked and revised!

  19. Marly,
    I found something on Linked In that is useful. Interestingly, I found it via an article about Seth's Godin's book. But there are riches here for book promotion, and a reference to a book that sounds good on how to do book promotion for free or cheap.

  20. Forgot to leave the link. Here it is:

  21. Thanks, Robbi--

    There are quite a few such books, though I can't say I have read one. Of course, the things one could do are endless, so picking and choosing what you can do without feeling derailed is important.

  22. I liked this post, the format for responding to Godin. I don't know much about him but I enjoyed your "conversation" and like your strategy for getting the last word.

    I'm also in the process of trying to sell a book, fun for now as I take an approach similar to what commenter Robbi N describes, though like Dale I'm uncomfortable with the whole personal brand thing and so try not to think of things that way. Best to think always of working on improving the work, growing, wherever that might take a person.

    I hope you do more of these.

  23. Hello, James--

    I was thinking of doing one with Jonathan Swift--you can really have the last word there, when the partner-in-chat is dead!

    Yes, it's always good to be striving and learning in the arts. I've never been particularly drawn to marketing, though I try and do my part to help my publishers.

    And I don't know that much about him either--no doubt he is what we call a celebrity though, so it was rather impertinent of me to hijack him into my blog.

  24. nice idea..thanks for sharing....


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.