You Aren't Seth Godin And Neither Am I

Blogging is perhaps the least efficient marketing platform known to man. So why are blogs so popular with authors and publishers? A lot of it has to do with the high profile attained by marketing superstars, who deliver high energy inspirational talks on the new publishing paradigms and suggest that everybody is just a blog post away from becoming an online Oprah. What these gurus don’t explain is that the odds of your blog ever moving into their neighborhood are worse than a million-to-one. You have a better chance of writing a NYT bestseller than you do of becoming famous through blogging.

A reader of this blog sent me a link to a Seth Godin video the other day and asked my opinion. I’d seen Godin’s name before on Matt Cutt’s blog (the only blog I check on a somewhat regular basis), but I didn’t know anything about him or his web marketing. So the first thing I did after listening to the video was to check his blog on Quantcast:

It turns out that Godin has “Quantified” his blog, meaning the traffic report shown above isn’t an estimate, it’s based on actual visitors. So are 147,000 U.S. visitors a month a strong showing for a blog? If you have any favorite blogging gurus check them out on Quantcast, and chances are they won’t even have enough visitors to show up at all, because most popular blogs depend on subscribers taking (and not reading) feeds. I checked a few sources that report on the popularity of blogs, and if we go with Technorati, Godin is the most popular individual blogger in the world. The stress is on “individual blogger”, there were 15 blogs ranked higher than him, but they were all collaborative efforts. So, if you think you have the potential to become the most popular blogger in the world and share the conference circuit with internet publishing prophets like Chris Anderson and Tim O’Reilly, blogging and tweeting may be the way to go. But what if you’re just another author like me who writes and publishes books for a living?

Seth Godin and I have something in common in that we both talk about marketing books by giving away free content, and it turns out that we both get around the same number of U.S. web visitors. Godin’s traffic is growing at a much faster rate than mine, but as a blog, two thirds of his visitors are repeaters, either regulars or “addicts.” Less than 20% of his blog visitors arrive from search, if we go by the Alexa estimate and double it to calibrate with my benchmarks. My fonerbooks website gets around 80% of its visitors from search, and barely over 10% from returning visitors, both by design. In the course of a year, over 1.5 million U.S. visitors will arrive on my site from search, and not because they are searching for “Morris Rosenthal”. If we estimate from the adjusted Alexa percentage, perhaps 300,000 U.S. visitors a year will find Seth’s blog through search, and I’m willing to bet Godin lunch if we’re ever at the same conference that most of his popular search phrases include “Seth Godin” in them.

All of this isn’t to say that Godin is doing anything wrong. In fact, I would say that’s he’s done pretty much everything right. He’s a bestselling author of 10 books, writes the most popular blog in the world according to Technorati, he's a recognizable name in marketing and a sought after speaker. I assume Godin hears from corporate executives seeking help with launching and marketing new products at the same rate I hear from college kids hoping to trick me into doing their homework. The problem is that I don’t see his success as a model that will help the average working author. A top blogger may end up with over 100,000 subscribers, but we can’t all be top bloggers unless every one of us subscribes to over 100,000 blogs. People may follow thousands of Twitter feeds, but they have to use filters and make endless heart-wrenching decisions over whether or not to actually read 140 characters. After all, who has the time? It’s true that niche success is somewhat easier to achieve, but blogging is probably the hardest way to get there.

Godin’s blog has eight times as many pages as my website and almost a hundred times as many incoming links. So why doesn’t it dwarf my search traffic? It’s not a technical problem, though the blogging structure does have “issues”, it’s that blog content tends to be heavy on repeated opinions and commentary which do poorly in search. If you are an author, you already have the prime ingredient for a website in your niche. It’s the book you’ve written and any intelligent research notes, updates, or additional material that didn’t make the final edit. You don’t have to put your whole book online, you can use excerpts, chapters, or any approach that makes you comfortable. A blog with occasional updates will help with repuatation, but it's only required if your goal involves becoming a public figure. The important thing is that you provide enough resource content so that visitors will find your website useful without having to buy the book, and that you don’t break it up into a hundred blog posts. If all you provide is a teaser, it may be more effective in terms of sell through, but you’ll never get the links and increased traffic to put your website on the map because you’ve created an advertisement rather than a resource. Drawing visitors from search is about informing the general public, not preaching to the converted. Dave Taylor has had tremendous success simply answering topical questions, and his traffic (primarily from search)makes Godin and I look like losers:

Famous authors can sell books through their websites simply by announcing that a new book is coming out and “allowing” fans to sign-up for the first copies. I’m not a famous author and you probably aren’t a famous author either so it won’t work for us. Nobody will buy my books because I’m a cool guy, a compelling speaker, or offering a path to success through some clever insight that fits into a book title or a tweet. I would argue with some of Godin’s conclusions, especially the souvenir thesis as a model for the publishing industry, but he sells a lot more books than me and he sits at a higher table. Just remember that he sells those books by being Seth Godin and choosing to write on marketing subjects with large potential audiences. And I’d like to see Seth do the following with one of his hard covers:-)


Seth Godin said...

I guess we can disagree.

First, I wasn't famous, far from it, when I wrote the first few books (I'm hardly famous now, if famous means that most people know who you are. Almost no one knows who I am.)

What matters here for an author are two things:
1. almost all the time, trade publishing is a sucker's game. For the publisher and the author. The odds are horrible.
2. You don't need to be famous. You need to be well known to your niche. And to do that you might only need 200 or 2000 readers (if the niche is powerplant architects, say). And blogging is the most efficient marketing tool known to man if that's your goal.

Thanks for your post!

Anonymous said...

I'm glad I was able to read your blog post Morris after watching Godin's video, it saved me from madly jumping off a bridge and giving away all my books free online. :-) Your post was a good tempering of reality.

On the other hand watching the Godin video did something that has been long in coming with me - drove home the reality of the "free" paradigm. Maybe not giving away the farm for free, but how about the chicken coop in hopes of getting someone to buy the farm :-)

This led me to thinking about a fortunate mis-step that happened to me after the release of my latest book. Normally based on what I've learned about free, I give free excerpts away for all my books, and this has worked well. But for some reason I decided not to do that with the title I released a month ago - no free content.

Here's where the story turns fortunate - I'm toying with the idea now of sending out anouther email blast this time not announcing the new book but announcing a chapter or 2 online for free. Why is this better than announcing this free content along with the first blast which announced the release of the book?

Simple: I get an excuse to do a second email blast and a second wave of marketing. Now the only question is, do I announce the free chapters now while sales are already strong, hoping to compound momentum, or do I wait until things cool off and do it then? I'm hoping Morris has an insight into this question.

I'm pretty excited about the idea of giving away a free chapter. I'll put the links on the PDF for where to buy the book and I think the free chapter will get circulated a good bit. Hopefully it will stimulate sales.

This is of course a short term stunted solution to the overall problem publishers face of content going free. Ultimately I think we have to contend with the inevitability that books themselves may go away entirely and be replaced by free content. But I'll leave that question for the experts to solve and I'll try to get over my neurotic perfectionism of always trying to have my business model squared away for the next 3 decades :-)


Morris Rosenthal said...


I'll admit I don't know your history well enough to say when fame kicked in. Clearly, you are famous now.

We agree about trade publishing being a suckers game for the vast majority of authors. I've found a way to make a good living self publishing, you've expanded into bigger things. I'm not up to bigger things, andI don't believe most authors are either, which is why I focus on trying to help them make a living self publishing.

And I'm also a big advocate of niche publishing, but selling 200 books isn't much of a living even if you run the price up. My website exists in at least six or seven distinct niches, but I don't see every one as an opportunity to publish a book. In some cases, I lack the depth to write the book, in some cases, the market lacks the depth to pay for my time.

Example: I just found a place to store my 1986 Dodge Omni for the winter, and I built a website around the car that draws around 400 visitors a day. But I know from the search phrases that are bringing them that I'd get nowhere writing a book about Dodge Omni ownership. Yes, if it was the next "Zen and the art of..." title it might make it, but I just write straight how-to.

We disagree strongly on blogs. I won't challenge you to start collecting examples of successful blogs while I collect examples of blogs without audiences because we both know the outcome of that contest. You might argue that the bloggers who fail to establish a serious following just aren't the best in the world at their niche. I would argue that their niche doesn't consist of people who are interested in blogs.

I think that pretty much everybody who spends any time online knows what Google is and has tried at least a couple Internet searches. Relatively few of my friends and family know what a blog is, and nobody I know outside of my publishing circles subscribes to any blogs. I'm aware that there are somewhat popular blogs in some niche areas, but I'm saying that you way overestimate their penetration.

We aren't all activists or voyeurs. It's instructional that the most popular bogs in existence are all "look at this" sites for people who like "looking at this." That's a small minority of the adult population.


Morris Rosenthal said...


You know I have zero experience on e-mail blasting, so I don't really know what to tell you. I suppose I'd be inclined to wait since the book has already reached critical mass on Amazon in your niche. If sales fall at some point in the future, you can experiment with e-mail notification of excerpts at that time.


Robert Plamondon said...


Seth is creating a never-ending series of books based on the same topic as his blog, and in one case ("Small is the New Big") consisting of collected blog postings. His blog followers are thus primed to buy his new books as a matter of course. I certainly do!

I would think that a series of blog posts on the same topic as the books one is publishing would serve the dual purposes of drawing search-engine traffic and attracting followers. That said, however, my own experience is that my emailed newsletter is more effective than my blog ( vs.

With a point product that you don't expect to be following up on with new offerings, I think your more focused approach is the right one.

HomeSchoolCollegeCounselor said...

The reason Godin has received such a huge following is because his content is great! To use his own lingo, he's a "purple cow." The best way to succeed in the business is to stand out from the pack by being remarkable...but you also have to have the correct marketing structure to get readers/followers.

Morris Rosenthal said...


I think you missed the point of the post. As I offered to bet Seth a lunch, I believe his main search traffic comes from people searching on "Seth Godin" and variations thereon. In other words, he's famous, so blogging works for him. If you rolled back the clock nine years or whenever he started, his blog traffic would have been trivial. Did it build because blogging worked, or because he wrote bestsellers and went on the speaking circuit? You know my opinion.

What he and I dissagree over is whether he is now famous and getting a lot of blog readers because blogging is a good way to get the word out, or whether blogging works for him and a couple hundred other people in the world, many of them inspirational marketing consultants, because they have been successful promoting themselves to each other and through speaking in the brick-and-mortar world.

I'm not looking at it from the standpoint of seeing who can yell the loudest, but by looking at search statistics. My own experience, and the experience of all of the highly professional, highly skilled, but not famous bloggers I know, is that blogging sucks for search.


nethy said...


I believe that you are missing some subtleties.

Blogging is a way of developing a certain type of interaction & relationship with potential readers. It is a marketing device where individuals have an advantage over larger companies.

There is certainly value in getting people who don't know you to buy your book. But there is also value to getting people to know you so that they buy your next book because they know you. A blog is not just a way of finding buyers for your books. It's also a way of maintaining a link with readers. I almost always Google the author of a book I am reading these days. I don't always stick around, but there is usually a chance of keeping me around.

Morris Rosenthal said...


I think you've completely missed the issue. As one of the senior bloggers in the publishing field, and having been involved in heavy publishing correspondence with authors for over a decade, I have a lot of experience with the author side of blogging. We aren't talking about the reader experience here, whether it makes you happy as an individual to find an author who blogs, but whether it makes sense for authors to pursue blogging as a marketing strategy.

For the vast majority of authors, the answer is a resounding "No." They will never build enough traffic to justify the time invested, or perhaps, wasted is a better word. It's just another marketing fantasy brought to you by people who make a living sellig marketing fantasies.