Rebutting the Seth Godin and Textbooks rant

By | June 15, 2009

Seth Godin complaining about someone turning a profit from book writing is a bit like Karl Marx bemoaning the onset of socialism.

Pick apart a post time
1. A textbook author in Toronto made enough money from his calculus textbook to afford a $20 million house. This is absurd on its face.
Why? A specialist product with a distinctive market should be profitable. Surely the amount of money can’t be the issue – after all, Seth Godin and cohorts banked USD$30 million for selling Yoyodyne to Yahoo back in 1998. One millionaire wouldn’t begrudge another millionaire would they? Aside: Funny how a post about ostensibly about marketing texts cites a calculus text as proof marketing texts are overpriced. And cites it in a way evocative of the “I made a million from Google” adverts. Compare also: Mark this down as another job for the new economy: someone who can collate, amplify and leverage the work of writers and turn it into cash with the complaint about someone who did, and did it rather well, and did it in the old economy as well.

2. They are expensive
True. First book cited is the USD$50 326 page Lamb, Hair and McDaniel paperback edition of Marketing 3.0. The second book cited is the USD$150 Kotler and Armstrong Marketing (12th Edition) which is 736 pages and in hardback. Fair point about the price of the books. They’re rather expensive, and it’s something publishing industry ought to consider – were the publishing industry not following either the harvesting method where Price should rise with value delivered. As your work spreads and your reputation increases, you should be able to charge more, not less.. Kotler being one of the foremost authors in the field of marketing with a track record approaching 40 years, constant updates and contemporary techniques including the ultra-high risk move into adapting commercial marketing for poverty reduction (launched with Nancy Lee in 2008). Seth Godin says a good reputation says you can charge more, not less. What if the textbook industry positions a book on marketing by the legendary Philip Kotler as a premium product since Seth defines them asexpensive variants of commodity goods. A book by Kotler as an expensive variant of a commodity good? Why, that’s outlandish that these publishing industry types should follow such a trend espoused by Seth Godin

3. They don’t make change
This is fascinating. The assumption underlying the statement is that a student comes to a subject already knowing the subject matter, and that mere exposure to the constructs of the course in a linear fashion (maquillage pas cherdoesn’t result in a state change between the pre-course and post-course student. Simply put, reading a book induces change – mere acquisition of knowledge requires the reprocessing, categorisation and fitting of the new content into your personal memory schema. Change happens whether you intend it or not. To say that a book that’s read doesn’t induce change is wrong.
Sub points
Textbooks have very little narrative.
Narrative being (and I wikipedia quote) a constructed sequence of events with a relatively linear path (it can vary). Sure, I might be taking this critique to heart given my books have text crossreferences (I write print books with the structure of hyperlinks in mind), sequences, and I flag the direction of the content to indicate the building blocks in Chapter 4 are necessary to understand before application in Chapter 9 (and in Chapter 9 I point backwards to the conceptual building blocks in Chapter 4). Maybe it’s also the fact that the CB text I used this semester had the entire narrative structured around a model of consumer behaviour, the social marketing text (Kotler and Lee) had a cohesive structural narrative of the development of insight into the pieces of the puzzle required to assemble a social markeitng campaign… Unless by narrative, you mean something non-narrative like in nature.

They don’t take you from a place of ignorance to a place of insight. Instead, even the best marketing textbooks surround you with a fairly non-connected series of vocabulary words, oversimplified problems and random examples.
Must.not.take.this.personally. Introduction to Marketing, 2004, ongoing continuous case study of Eagle Boy’s Pizza. Linear narrative that linked together the concepts from the chapters into the single story line in the assessment, support material and case study.
non-connected series of vocabulary words
Meatball sundae, the big moo, purple cow, ideavirus, permission marketing, big red fez…
oversimplified problems
Simplified problems exist in text books. This is why flight simulators let you practice simplified problems of flying airplanes. Simplified problems are teaching moments. Simplified problems take the existing wildly complex world and break it down into manageable sections. Which, y’know, is how we learned a lot of things like “sneezing ideas“.
They’re out of date and don’t match the course. The 2009-2010 edition of the MKTG textbook, which is the hippest I could find, has no entries in the index for Google, Twitter, or even Permission Marketing
Can’t prove this one way or the other since I don’t have MKTG3.0 handy, and it’s not indexed on Google Books yet. I find this comment to be very obtuse though – Seth can’t find reference to Permission Marketing (1999) in a specific 2009 book, and he complains the books are out of date? Long bow to draw, and carefully worded (I first though he’d said that all the 2009-2010 books lacked these three terms). Since I can’t validate MKTG3.0, I went for the next best thing – the highly inexact science of Google Books (limited database that it is), and turned up the following 2009 books with Google, Twitter and permission marketing. Permission marketing is cited in a 2009 textbook. Google has been cited by Intro texts at least once. Like in the earlier edition of Lamb, Hair and McDaniel that Seth quoted as the $50 textbook. While we’re at it – say hello to Alan Charlesworth’s 2009 textbook on Internet marketing. It mentions Twitter as well.

This is an area where the lag between manuscript and physical copy is an issue. It’s serious problem that’s beset the industry – I’m writing away at my book at the moment, cramming in content about Google Wave, Bing, Xbox360, reading the news off E3 about potential replacements for the Wii, and as good as I can be at keeping my blog reader up to date – I hand off the manuscript in July 2009, and it doesn’t hit the shelves until 2010 at the earliest date. This post hits the ‘tubes seconds after I write it, PDFs go live in minutes after clearing spell check. Time lag is the issue, and that’s something he should have focused on – not a carefully crafted attempt to wipe the entire textbook industry on the basis of a single book. Plus, I can’t shake the amused look at being upset that nobody cited Permission Marketing (1999) as proof that the textbook is out of date.

4. They don’t sell the topic.
Agreed. That’s largely because they’re bought after someone’s already bought into the subject at the gatekeeper role. This is about the most accurate and serious point we both share – textbooks are designed to look pretty with pictures and colour without bringing the sense of life to the subject matter. The books we’ve written that have scored well with students on the readability have been criticised by academics for being lightweight. The sense that education is SRS BSNS is a barrier to putting the life into the content. It’s a broken area, and one where we need high levels of persuasive structural change that doesn’t conflate “difficult to read” with “educational”.

5. They are incredibly impractical. Not just in terms of the lessons taught, but in terms of being a reference book for years down the road.
This is going to be interesting. Textbooks are specific purpose devices designed for encapsulated environments. They have a functional lifespan for the duration of the subject (that’s a problem in its own right), yet it’s also a functional version of Seth’s advice for Needle in a Haystack marketing. First, really solve the problem – produce a device that aids the teaching of specific content over a defined period (market = lecturer, administration) that enables the completion of the course (market = student) at varying levels of success. Second, make it a habit. Look at the textbook publisher market, and there are few, if any, subject specific solution providers that just publish the one book. Most have wide ranging publication lines that replicate the same solution (textbooks) as a habit to create those thousands of solutions.

Sub point attack.
In a world of wikipedia, where every definition is a click away, it’s foolish to give me definitions to memorize.
There’s several levels of error in this statement, starting with ideavirus, sneezing, big moo, purple cows, The Dip and any other book Seth’s ever written – definitions to memorise are building blocks of language, and part of his stock-in-trade. Twitter is a definition to memorise, as is wikipedia, google and permission marketing. It’s a paradoxical situation that Seth’s anguish at the lack of these definitions in the book is followed with a complaint about definitions. Wikipedia isn’t always a click away. Language and learning count for a lot, and as a person who trades in catchphrases and specific terminology, I find Seth’s argument ill-considered. It’s like throwing out the dictionary during primary school because we don’t need to learn the meaning of the words if we can…um…that word that means looking something up with that search engine. Yahooing! Binging? Wikipediatric?

Where is the context?
Where is the context for the physics diagram or the math equation? Where is any of the context of education? The class room. Education is a simulation.

When I want to teach someone marketing (and I do, all the time) I never present the information in the way a textbook does
Yes you do. In fact, you’re quite prone to the mini-case with double or triple bullet point structure. Case study, application, application. I found the structural approach of “The Dip” and “Ideavirus” to only be missing the end of chapter questions for their text book like nature. Structured linear narrative of example surrounding a single core concept a book by Seth Godin and a text book make.

I’ve never seen a single blog post that says, “wait until I explain what I learned from a textbook!”
Just because it amuses me to do this – I tried a keyword search for ““learned from Seth Godin’s book”. It’s another one of those phrases that make no sense when you try to dissect it for an answer. I can’t recall ever hearing “Wait until I explain what I learned from” as a phrase – largely because it’s a signifier of internal dialogue. I’ve seen people discuss about what they’ve learned from a book, I’ve seen lessons from books slides on Slideshare .

Now down to bug hunting the solution presented;
The solution seems simple to me.
I’m not letting this go to the keeper (I should, but still) – a post that complains about simplistic problems offers simplistic solutions?

Professors should be spending their time devising pages or chapterettes or even entire chapters on topics that matter to them, then publishing them for free online. (it’s part of their job, remember?)
So many levels of false, such little space left to falsify the argument.
1. Not part of our job. Seriously, not actually part of our job. Misleading statement which misunderstands our contemporary workplace.
2. Most universities already own the IP we produce whilst on the clock for them. ANU recently revoked a section of the IP contract to allow us to assign the intellectual property rights of our papers to third parties, and had to restore that limited right when it was pointed out that we couldn’t publish in mainstream journals if they didn’t give us the right to forsake our rights to corporate publishers. We didn’t actually get to keep the IP in the powerpoint slides we create to use in our class rooms, and we can be formally reprimanded if we release the University’s property to the public domain.
3. There’s a subtle difference between allowing us the choice to free publish (as is Seth’s option with ideavirus and other CC licensed work) and forcing us to handover the work without compensation. I don’t believe that Seth Godin intends to handover every book for free (after all, it’s part of his job, right?).

When you have a class to teach, assemble 100 of the best pieces, put them in a pdf or on a kindle or a website (or even in a looseleaf notebook) and there, you’re done.
Can I begin by saying that this already exists? Been there, done that, handed out the USB drive full of data. As for this as a serious suggestion in a post that criticises current textbooks for their lack of narrative? For being random clusters of examples assembled together with no sense of continuity?

You just saved your intro marketing class about $15,000
Assuming that 300 students purchase $50 or 100 purchase $150 text. And that no printing costs, Kindle cost or other costs are incurred. Funnily enough, I had students complain about the costs of the USB device I provided because they were printing out elements of the course at far below economy of scale prices.

Any professor of intro marketing who is assigning a basic old-school textbook is guilty of theft or laziness
Oh, troll bait conclusion. Sorry, not biting.

Here’s the problems we have in the industry

  • University contracts prohibit open source solutions. We have automatically assigned our IP to our owners when we sign onto the university. If we start mass producing chapters in the manner suggested, the university will start enforcing their ownership. That part of the model is broken.
    Solution: Help us lobby to fix IP ownership in the university structures.
  • Career paths in university structures are broken: We are not rewarded for contributing to education by publishing in the manner suggested. Publishing text books is grounds for reprimands from bosses (been there, done that, kept the paperwork). Publishing in unreadable in the unread is rewarded. We need help in breaking that model, not criticisms for preserving our jobs when we comply with the terms and conditions of our job contracts (BTW, been there, criticised that, paying the price to this day for breaking the industry gold standards).
    Solution: Help us break the publish-perish model. Boycott university structures that perpetuate this process.
  • Copyright law is broken. I can be charged under the copyright act for handing out a USB containing articles I wrote because I no longer own the ideas I created once they’re published by someone else.
    Solution: Help us fix the copyright law
  • Lag time. Keyboard to textbook speeds are horribly broken. I produced a PDF supplement for my 2007 Competitive Marketing Strategy text. Layout to upload took 26 hours from the draft returning from the grammar/spelling editor – and this was using software I’d never used (inDesign. I was trained on Pagemaker). From the time I submitted the chapter to my publisher to the time they announced it to adopters of the existing print book – 3 months. That is broken.
    Solution: Help us speed up the production time for the print industry. Help us gain access to the Kindle outside of America. I can’t see a legitimate argument for an Australian academic to give their IP to the Kindle if the Kindle itself can’t be accessed in Australia.
  • Geographic exclusionary distribution deals are broken: My internet marketing book couldn’t be sold on Amazon because the US arm of the Australian publisher saw it as a rival to their own work – they’re both part of the same company, and the US arm prohibited the Australian arm from selling online to preserve profits.
    Solution: Help us break the geography locks that prevent the Kindle from being in Australia, the Flip video from selling direct to us online. Help break the geographic locks from American to Australia.

    Solutions we’re trying

  • Lulu Press. Charles Hofacker‘s been quite the pioneer that I’m aware of in this respect. Even uses the Free PDF and print text model for his stats text
  • Scribd: I’ve been taking the risk of sticking my publications up on Scribd and waiting for the cease and desist from the owner of my ideas. I’ve given copies of my eMarketing and Intro texts to my students in PDF (Only just got the legal rights to those books back into my possession. Had to break copyright law to give my book to my students in my course. Go figure)
  • Textbook free education: Been there, done that back in 1997, 2001 and 2002. Not news, not new, and not that rare either.

    It’s frustrating that a business figure like Seth Godin openly attacks the text book sector for daring to turn a profit when he’s a profit driven operator. It’s frustrating to see him attack printed materials when he produces printed materials. It’s frustrating to see his call for academics to give away chapters for free when he’s going to charge for access to his work in the same field. Finally, it’s frustrating to see someone who shoud know better as an orator, writer and business person call out the academics in the sector with a cheap shot when he knows the real problem is at the structural level. He’s right when he says the MBA has changed, and he’s rich enough, powerful enough and influential enough to take on the administrator-ceo Vice Chancellors of the academic sectors if he really wanted to see change in how we do business education. Instead, he rails at the weaker end of the structure, confident that when we do fight back, he can preemptively write us off with a single tag line in his post.

    That’s disappointing from a man who understands the power of words, ideas and sneezing.

    Disclaimer: I write text books and I teach at university. I have a Grad Cert in Higher Education, I have eight textbooks to my name (and I’m taking time out of a rush to the deadline on an e-marketing text to write this post). I have been formally reprimanded by a Head of School at for having my textbook positively reviewed in the UK Times Higher Education Supplement. I was formally reprimanded for expecting students to download powerpoint slides from a website (1998), and reprimanded again for making my lectures available by mp3 in 1999 and 2000. I have been cautioned by every academic boss I have that I spend too much time (40% of my job) on teaching because I regularly do innovative things with the courses I teach, score well on evaluations, and master the education technologies at my disposal. I have been nominated for a Vice Chancellor’s Award in Teaching Excellence in the same time frame as I was cautioned for investing too much time in the education of my students.

    BTW: 3100 words in this post if you get this far. If you don’t, try again.

  • 3 thoughts on “Rebutting the Seth Godin and Textbooks rant

    1. abhi

      Its interesting that just this morning I deleted a spam comment from someone trying to make money off of a Squidoo Page. A part of what that spammer generates via squidoo goes straight to Seth Godin.

      The single statement that really bothers me in Seth’s post is his belief that writing a textbook should not make someone a millionaire.
      This coming from someone who is not averse to making millions off of letting spammers pollute the internet with the sort of drivel you find on squidoo.

      I have a lot of respect for Seth Godin’s marketing skills.

      However, its rather wrong of him to attack a Professor making money from a calculus textbook.
      Anyone who excels in their field and creates huge value ought to get rewarded.

      There are people who are making millions off of random Internet sites, by playing professional sports and doing lots of other things that aren’t necessarily ground-breaking.

      People who are doing huge value-add jobs like doctors and teachers and scientists ought to be making millions.

      If we could do an analysis of the benefit that calculus textbook has provided to students over the years and compared it with whatever benefit yoyodyne has provided the winner would not be the company that made seth godin 30 million dollars.

    2. Stephen Dann Post author

      @Seth Godin.
      Thanks for coming down to the blog, and thanks for the acknowledgement. We don’t see eye to eye, so full props to you for coming to my blog to let me know the message was received.

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