Seth Godin’s Poke the Box, Doubt, and the Will to Publish

by Joel Friedlander on March 16, 2012 · 13 comments

Post image for Seth Godin’s Poke the Box, Doubt, and the Will to Publish

Could you sell a small, 84-page hardcover book with no title on the jacket for $12.99? Seth Godin can.

Godin, one of the premier marketing minds of our time, a prolific blogger and the author of numerous bestselling books recently closed down the publishing activities of The Domino Project.

This was an experiment in publishing books in partnership with Amazon, and resulted in numerous publications that are interesting to other publishers for lots of reasons.

I wanted to take a look at his book production and bought the little hardcover to have a look.

As a fan of Godin’s blog and other writings, I wasn’t surprised to find many of the same themes he’s often written about in the book.

He concentrates on the importance of “shipping,” actually moving forward and putting your work to the test in public, all the while understanding that the risk of doing nothing is far greater than the risk that your effort might fail.

Godin-isms Abound

Godin explained the lack of a title or any other copy on the cover, a pretty unusual move, by reminding readers that the book was only available online, where the cover is always shown next to the title and description.

Seth GodinLike a number of other unusual features of his book publishing, this makes perfect sense—for him. If you’re not a world-famous marketer with intimate ties to the largest book retailer in the universe, it might not work as well for you.

However many of the lessons Godin draws from his work with large corporations are so basic, so insightful about basic human truths, that they are just as useful for you and I, working silently away at our keyboards.

“It’s extremely difficult to find smart people willing to start useful projects. Because sometimes what you start doesn’t work. The fact that it doesn’t work every time should give you confidence, because it means you’re doing something that frightens others.” All quotes in this article are from Poke the Box

Godin’s background as a blogger is evident throughout the book, which reads like a series of his blog posts. It’s divided into little sections, each with its own headline followed by about six short and conversational paragraphs. It’s a completely “chunked” book, ideal for reading in 3-minute spurts.

Throughout Poke the Box Godin shows how inaction, fear and doubt are the real enemies, not failure or risk.

“We’re extremely adroit at hiding our fear. Most of our lives in public are spent papering over, rationalizing, and otherwise denying our fear.”

Godin constantly reminds us that planning, projecting, brainstorming and other activities are fine, but they are not “starting” and they are not “shipping.” Starting means initiating something new, sticking your neck out.

“Part of initiating is being willing to discover that what you end up with is different from what you set out to accomplish. If you’re not willing to discover that surprise, it’s no wonder you’re afraid to start.”

Shipping, on the other hand, is finishing, getting the new project, the new proposal, the new book “out the door” and into the public’s hands. Maybe it will fly, maybe it will crash. Without shipping, you’ll never know.

Poke the Box is, in Godin’s words, a “manifesto about starting.” What exactly does he mean by “starting”?

“Going beyond the point of no return. Leaping. Committing. Making something happen.”

On a small scale, publishing a book with no title on it is a risk, isn’t it? Will it work? Or will the book fail? Godin has often done this, including giving books away rather than selling them. Or trying to sell a book to marketers that’s titled, “All Marketers are Liars.”

But that’s the nature of risk, isn’t it? If you stand to lose nothing, you haven’t risked anything.

Where Publishing Fits In

Poke the BoxOne of the reasons I admire Poke the Box and a lot of other work by Godin is his insistence on owning your own ideas, standing up for your viewpoint, being willing to take the risk.

That’s not so different from self-publishing, is it?

In traditional publishing you can get some of this, but your work is mediated by agents, editors, marketers and publicity people at the big publisher who took the risk on your book.

But when you publish your own books—like Godin did with Poke the Box and others from The Domino Project—there are no intermediaries. Instead there are collaborators, colleagues, contractors you hire and over whose work you maintain the ultimate control.

This puts you in the position of taking a risk with each book you put out. Will it fly? Will it crash and burn?

Doubt and fear are what hold us back. Year after year I talk to authors who want to publish their own books. Some tackle the project with relish, anxious to get feedback from the ultimate authorities—their readers.

But others dither. They find reasons to not publish. There’s a new technology coming along next month. They haven’t decided whether to add one more chapter. They can’t settle on a title, or whether to go hardcover, or what trim size to pick, or who to ask for testimonials, or …

The list goes on and on, but the real reasons are doubt and the fear that it produces.

2 Years of Shipping

Like you, I’ve been confronting this situation since I started blogging a couple of years ago.

Over and over, I’ve been captured by doubt, but somehow managed to ship anyway:

  • This blog, launched despite the doubts that anyone would be interested in “book construction”
  • A series of subject-matter guides for authors, despite the doubt that I could sell $10 PDFs from my website
  • A Self-Publisher’s Companion, put together from blog posts, although I had written that making a book from your blog is a bad idea
  • A website for eBook conversion services, although there was no obvious way to monetize or profit from the site
  • A blog carnival, despite the obvious signs that blog carnivals were a dying form
  • Monthly ebook cover design awards, despite the possibility that all those judgments might tick off my readers
  • An online video training program for authors, even though I had never constructed a course, created lessons, or shot instructional video in my life.

A Self-Publisher's Companion--KindleTo be frank, some of these were pretty much failures. Sales of some of the “for sale” items were dismal and, the last time I looked, the Amazon sales rank for my book was about 800,000 (although I’ve contributed to this by leaving the book at Lightning Source to measure the impact of Amazon’s recent changes to their process for selling books from third-party POD suppliers).

Each time, the doubts in my own mind were the real enemy, it wasn’t resistance from the “real world.”

How Doubt Works

Godin talks a lot about the “lizard brain,” that primitive part of our thinking left over from the time when we were concerned almost exclusively with physical survival.

“The connected economy of ideas demands that we contribute initiative. And yet we resist, because our lizard brain, the one that lives in fear, relentlessly exaggerates the cost of being wrong.”

What did I really pay for the failures? If I remove the emotional let-down, not really that much.

But each time I gained invaluable lessons, lessons in what really works and what doesn’t, what people want, and what they need.

Do you ask people what they want? Do you really understand the needs of your market? Or maybe you’re just a bit ahead, and people aren’t ready for your ideas, your innovation or your particular story.

Without shipping, without actually taking that idea into the marketplace, you have no way of knowing, you’ll just be left wondering or worse, fantasizing.

The Voice of Doubt

The worst part of doubt, the one that affects me and maybe you the most, is the voice inside my head.

You have to pay attention to hear this voice, but it’s there. It’s the one straight from the lizard brain, but it’s a voice you’re so familiar with you might not recognize it right away.

It says things like

  • “I’m not really good at writing copy, am I?” Or,
  • “Screwed that one up, didn’t you? Typical.” Or,
  • “What did you expect? It didn’t work last time either.” Or,
  • “If I write that, people will know how lame I really am.” Or,
  • “If I get it wrong, that will be the end, I’ll never be able to do this.”

These are the doubts that pull us down, desperate to prevent us starting, initiating, focusing and shipping the wonderful thing that’s in our heads.

And that’s one of the reasons I love both self-publishing and blogging.

When you get that book out, when you stop censoring yourself, pulling back from the ideas that really excite you because you’re afraid they might be just too outrageous, too outside your own definition of yourself, you win.

And you win whether the book or the article or the idea “wins” or not.

“Of course, the challenge of being the initiator is that you’ll be wrong. You’ll pick the wrong thing, you’ll waste time, you’ll be blamed. This is why being an initiator is valuable… Initiative is scare.”

So here’s the message: technology has put the tools of publishing into the hands of creators: you and me.

What will we do with the tools, the new reach the online world has given us to promote our ideas, our stories?

Will you start?

Will you ship?

That’s what self-publishing is all about to me.

Remember the little man on the cover of Poke the Box?

“He’s you, the excited, optimistic experimenter who understands that risk is misunderstood and that forward motion is the key to success.”

Our responsibility is to make sure our ideas are clear, and clearly presented. That our books are as good as we can make them.

Keep publishing, and thanks for reading.

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    { 12 comments… read them below or add one }

    J S March 19, 2012 at 3:11 pm

    Godin does a great job in a lot of areas and I used to read his blog a lot, until I realized that his blog has no space for comments. Active blogs are often useful as much from commenter’s input as the posts made by the owner/author.

    So if you get Seth in a discussion .. have him post why and open the comments.


    Marla Markman March 16, 2012 at 10:39 am

    What an honest and insightful post about feelings we all have–even us editors! Your writing just gets better and better!


    Alexander M Zoltai March 16, 2012 at 9:51 am

    Exemplary post, Joel!! :-)


    R. E. Hunter March 16, 2012 at 9:32 am

    Hi Joel,

    I find myself in much the same position now as you describe yourself a couple of years ago. Just started working on a novel after years of holding back. Just started a blog because Godin, Turndog Millionaire, and others all say I should start building my brand now, long before I publish my first book. Right now I have three posts and zero readers. Fear, uncertainty and doubt (or FUD as we refer to it in the computer business) certainly make it hard to stick with it. What makes me think anyone wants to read what I have to say? Even if they might find it interesting, how will they find me among the millions of other blogs? I have to force myself to keep at it, and keep looking for ways to get noticed. I should probably had Godin’s book to my reading list, to help motivate me.

    Oh, and I really enjoy your blog. It will be a while still before I need to decide whether to try designing my own cover or pay a pro. I do have somewhat of an artistic background, and I’m learning a lot of do’s and don’t’s from you.


    Joel Friedlander March 16, 2012 at 3:00 pm


    I can relate. Every blogger starts with 1 visitor: you. It’s all uphill from there. One of the biggest lessons I’ve received from the last 2 years is to just keep going, trying to improve what you’re doing and celebrating the positive feedback you get. The first time someone linked to my blog and I received a rush of 20 or 30 readers, I was ecstatic. It all builds from there.

    You might want to follow this series, which is ongoing:

    Author Blogging 101


    R. E. Hunter March 16, 2012 at 7:17 pm

    Thanks, Joel. Yes, I have been following your blog since the start of the year. In fact, it was your post about WordPress that convinced me to go with WordPress for my blog, and I haven’t regretted it.


    SJ Byrne -Author of Mo Dearbadan~de March 16, 2012 at 6:09 am

    Thank you very much for posting this blog. This is EXACTLY where I get hung up – fearville! I will re-read this many times and use it to boost me up when I feel like refusing to “Ship”!



    Joel Friedlander March 16, 2012 at 2:56 pm

    SJ, I might post it on the board for myself, because moods change and we can all use the encouragement from time to time.


    Martina March 16, 2012 at 1:47 am

    Hi Joel,
    after reading this article I just had to write and thank you for this blog.
    I stumbled over a link to your blog in November 2011 and have been coming back daily. It was at the time when I had decided to self-publish my E-Book at and your blog gave me so much information and most of all confidence. There are times when my lizard brain tells me it’s better to work at a supermarket check-out, and yet I know and have known all along that this what I want to do: write and publish my own books and take the responsibility for the outcome.
    Thank you!


    Joel Friedlander March 16, 2012 at 2:55 pm

    Thanks for going after your dream, Martina, and for staying tuned in.


    Marine March 16, 2012 at 1:21 am

    Hi Joel,
    My first comment here to say thanks for this blog and this post in particular (+ hello from Paris ;)
    I just selfpublished my first eBook on Amazon (see link on my name) and instead of feeling happy and excited about the next stages I feel in doubt. Funny that a confident part in me knows I should be a bit proud (I even did the file myself though I am not really technical !) and that I learnt so many things that might actually be beneficial for my “other work” (consultant and trainer in web/marketing — and soon ebooks industry ?) while my lizard brain is full of fear, waking me up at 5 am so I can list all the things that are wrong with this first experience.
    So thanks for the blog, the encouragement and good spirits…


    Joel Friedlander March 16, 2012 at 2:55 pm

    Marine, you’ve come so far with your publishing project, that might give you some juice to keep going. Good luck with your book.


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