Guy Gonzalez had a post up recently about the Domino Project, which Seth Godin is closing down. Included in the post was a link to a talk by Richard Nash, ruminating about what did and didn’t work at Red Lemonade, Nash’s web startup.
I generally agree with Guy’s take about both projects. Before I throw in my two cents, however, I want to state without reservation that both men deserve credit for putting their time and money where their mouths were. In a world of wall-to-wall pundits and doomsaying snipers with no skin in the game, we need all the people we can get who are willing to step in the arena and risk being humbled. It’s the only way progress will be made. Having said that, I have my own thoughts on what the end of these initiatives means. (Previous posts mentioning Seth Godin here, Richard Nash here.)
Both Godin and Nash garnered a great deal of interest a year ago as a cresting wave of change and doubt swept through the traditional publishing industry. Capitalizing on their celebrity and showmanship, both men looked into the future, saw a way forward, and acted on it. Godin, by partnering with Amazon in a publishing venture; Nash by creating and launching Red Lemonade, the first of an anticipated series of sites under the Cursor brand. Each project, at root, envisioned a new way of publishing content outside the traditional publishing paradigm.
So what can authors learn from their efforts? Well, given that most writers will never publish the work of others, probably not much. Unless you’ve a mind to become a publisher — whatever that elastic term means to you these days — most of what Godin and Nash have been through is probably inessential, however interesting it might otherwise be. Still, I think it’s possible to see connections to authorship in these ventures — if not directly, then indirectly, as confirmation of other truths.
The Domino Project
The most important thing to know about Seth Godin is that he is a marketing guru. Whatever else he may have done, that’s the rep he had when he brokered his deal with Amazon. As a general rule I’m not fond of gurus. People always want to know the Secret of Success (TM) in whatever business or industry they decide to enter, and that’s what gurus of all types purport to sell — and I mean sell for cash money. Like evangelical preachers, gurus draw endless pat answers from a sure-fire philosophy that demands only one thing: faith. They’re often so selfless and convincing that people end up attending multiple seminars at hundreds of dollars a crack just to get another jolt of the enthusiasm they can’t seem to produce for themselves no matter how hard they try. (And yes, there’s a seminar for that.)
I’ve talked before about celebrity, and why celebrity is the main reason publishers sign authors. If your writing quality is excellent but you have no celebrity you probably won’t get published. If your writing quality is terrible but you’re a well-known celebrity you’ll almost certainly get a book deal, even if the publisher has to find someone to write the book for you.
To Godin’s credit I believe he writes the words in his books. I think it’s an open question whether those words have driven his success as an independent author, or whether he leveraged his career as a public speaker and marketing guru in order to sell books. In any case, I think it’s inarguable that it was Godin’s celebrity and visibility last year that convinced Amazon he was the right man for the Domino Project. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. When you’re hot you’re hot.
In any case, here’s Godin on why he decided to end the Domino Project:
By most of the measures I set out at the beginning, the project has been a success. So why stop? Mostly because it was a project, not a lifelong commitment to being a publisher of books. Projects are fun to start, but part of the deal is that they don’t last forever.
Where Guy sees this as an “awkward explanation”, rather than Godin “admitting that publishing is harder than it looks if you want to swim at the deep end of the trade pool in the middle of a dramatic transition”, I see Godin’s quote as a blinding statement of fact. If what you’re in the business of selling is yourself, then everything you do is a project — what marketing people like to call a campaign. You plan a campaign, you execute it, then you beat it and beat it and beat it until it drops dead, at which point you move on.
The takeaway, for me, is two-fold. First, it’s more confirmation that nothing beats celebrity no matter what the publishing paradigm — as the recently released Kardashian novel also made nauseatingly clear. If Seth Godin shows up next on a dais with the Kardashian family, announcing a venture in which he’ll help them make ten times as much money by self-publishing their books, I won’t be surprised. And because the whole venture is based on celebrity, it will probably work.
Second, unless you already have an exploitable reserve of celebrity you’re probably not going to be asked to partner in a publishing venture with Amazon or anyone else. When the only definition of success that matters is the ability to attract attention, and the only reason anyone wants to be in business with you is the fact that you can attract attention, you pretty much know going in whether you qualify or not. Which is to say that while the Domino Project sought to exploit a void in the traditional publishing paradigm, it ultimately positioned itself as simply another publisher — albeit one fronted by a charismatic publishing renegade, and backed by a world-dominant company whose market capitalization makes traditional corporate publishers like HarperCollins and Random House look sickly in comparison.
In contrast, Richard Nash’s Red Lemonade project tried to build a community-based publisher from the ground up. It would be presumptive to say that nothing like it had been attempted before because I don’t know that to be true. (Besides, the whole question hinges on what “like it” means.) As Guy Gonzalez points out:
…Red Lemonade effectively ends up being a mash-up of Subterranean Press and, to a lesser degree, Writer’s Digest (with a more literary slant)…
I know little or nothing about those ventures, but when I first turned my mind to the publishing industry two years ago I took a look at Authonomy, which clearly has some parallels, however faint they might be. Perhaps what Nash tried to do with Red Lemonade was different by degree, maybe it was radical more in conception than practice, but to my mind it was still an attempt to break new ground.
While Nash himself has talked about how difficult it was to raise capital for the venture — and intimates that failure to do so was the main reason Red Lemonade didn’t take off — I’m not so sure. While money is useful and necessary, particularly in the ruthlessly trendy world of high-concept web start-ups, I don’t necessarily see Red Lemonade as a scale-dependent model. Meaning I don’t think Red Lemonade had to go home because it failed to go big.
The economics of any business are obviously critical. I don’t know how much money was behind Red Lemonade and I assume more would have been helpful. But what’s also crucial in a start-up is getting the ingredients and focus right. I think Red Lemonade had the ingredients right, but from the outside looking in I think the focus was off. To the extent that I’m relatively new to publishing and have never been a publisher it’s possible my perspective is inadequate. On the other hand, Red Lemonade was aimed at writers and I’ve been writing my entire adult life, so at the very least I feel qualified to speak from that perspective.
It’s axiomatic in online communities that if you don’t give people what they want they will go somewhere else. The problem with this axiom is that it assumes eyeball retention is all that matters. On a chat site like Twitter, which has no objective other than facilitating talk, there’s only one requirement: you must limit your blather to 140 characters per tweet, though there are workarounds to even that restriction. On a site like Red Lemonade, however, which harbored related goals for both user and owner, the intersection of site functionality and user interest was considerably more complex. In effect, succeeding required not simply a clear understanding of how the site would monetize eyeballs, but a clear — even intimate — understanding of what those eyeballs wanted and needed.
In my work in the interactive industry I learned early on that everyone involved sincerely believed they understood storytelling even if they had never written a story. There were reasons for that consistent bias, but most of the people who held that view were flatly wrong. That these people were often in positions of power, making project-critical decisions based on their own faulty assumptions, created obvious and inevitable problems. As I’ve said before, if you’re not writing stories (or nonfiction) you don’t know what it’s like to be a writer. You may know a lot about the craft of writing — more, in fact, than many writers — but in terms of being a writer, by definition you don’t share that experience.
In the interactive world a lot of well-intentioned and extremely smart people tried to solve the interactive storytelling problem. They all failed, mostly because it’s a tricky problem to solve, but also because they underestimated how stories are constructed. And no amount of processing power or algorithmic sophistication can make up for that lack of knowledge. If you don’t know, you don’t know. And I’m not sure, despite Richard Nash’s considerable experience with publishing and working with writers, that he really knew what writers wanted and needed in a site like Red Lemonade.
Again, I think he had the right ingredients. Community involvement, an emphasis on shared learning, and a means of judging writing in a supportive environment were all critical. As was an in-house policy by which good writing could be elevated to the status of a publishable work. The problem, however, is that one of these components — community involvement — actually works against the others. Whatever anyone wants to say about the workshop process, it is not a democratic process. Leadership and authority are not simply valuable, they’re critical if the end goal is good writing. (Without a standard, and someone to enforce it, everyone agrees to support and like and friend each other as a mutual means of ensuring success. Or worse, anarchy ensues.)
What I didn’t see at Red Lemonade was authority. I saw the carrot, I saw the community, I saw the honest effort and I saw the sincerity of the users, but I didn’t see any mechanism by which all those things could be focused through the lens of authority into the kind of intimate writing environment that I think authors need.
Admittedly, it’s a tall order. But I think it’s doable, probably on a small scale at first. Which means the problem with Red Lemonade may be that it tried to do too much too soon rather than too little. It’s hard to imagine there is no economically viable intersection between the internet, online education, broad interest in writing, self-publishing, and the desire to find good independent writers suitable for publication. The trick, again, seems to be in combining these elements in the right proportion. (Yet another reminder that there’s a world of difference between cooking and baking.)
So what’s the takeaway for Red Lemonade? If you’re thinking about trying something similar, as a publisher, the problem has yet to be solved. It’s complicated, it’s delicate, but I think Red Lemonade points toward a possible proof of concept. Even a successful example might never appeal to venture capitalists — in fact, it might not scale at all, but rather succeed through replication — yet it would still accomplish the goals Nash laid out. In that sense I think Red Lemonade is both a noble effort and a useful reference for the next person willing to step into the arena.
From an author’s perspective I think the lesson is that independent writers need to think seriously about, and be clear about, what they want and need. Do you really want to learn the craft of writing or are you simply looking for a step-by-step formula to follow? Are you invested in writing for the long term or do you simply have a project you’re trying to knock out? Are you willing to be a full partner in an online community, even if it’s a small one, or are you simply looking for people who will help you while asking nothing in return? Whether you prefer the former option in these questions or the latter it’s important that you make those preferences known. (The former options describe a community; the latter options describe services.)
In the end the Domino Project was simply another publisher. It was a non-traditional publisher, but it was a publisher. Having bled it for all the buzz it was worth, Amazon and/or Seth Godin are moving on to the next big buzzy thing. Red Lemonade was an online community centered around writing. As a publishing model it may not have succeeded but I think it advanced the cause. I’d like to think the next attempt will build on Red Lemonade, but my experience in the interactive industry tells me that probably won’t be the case. Every person who tackled the interactive-storytelling problem thought anyone who made an earlier attempt was an idiot, then went right out and made the same mistakes.
— Mark Barrett