While driving home from a lovely Labor Day weekend on Lake Michigan, I listened to an interesting podcast of Joanna Penn interviewing Tim Grahl. I found what he said to be pragmatic and his approach low-key and reasonable. So I bought his book, Your First 1000 Copies, and I found it a useful read.
The thesis of the book is that the way to make sales in the present era is to establish a loyal following (your “tribe”). You first get “permission” to include them on your email list/newsletter. Then you regularly provide them with valuable material, so that when your book(s) come(s) out, they rush to buy it. He calls this the “Connection Method.”
Central to Grahl’s philosophy is his belief that we market successfully by genuinely looking out for the interests of our potential customers. He talks about the Golden Rule, about treating others as we would like to be treated.
I think I have three question to ask about Tim’s approach.
1. Is this really the way to sell your book? My sense is that most people don’t buy a book (or get it from the library) because they are a part of the author’s “tribe.” I know that’s not how I make buying decisions. The answer, I think, is that in today’s market, the tribe provide the “kickstart,” the “critical mass,” to get the book moving. If most people buy a book because of “influencers” (whether one-to-many influencers like reviewers or one-to-one influencers who create “word of mouth” advertising) the tribe gets enough people aware of the book so that the influencers can do their work.
2. Does one build a “tribe” only to sell books? I think not. Building a tribe—getting a large mailing list of followers who have given you permission to contact them and who become your fans—would seem to be, for some people at least, worthwhile in itself. If you’re building your tribe by providing them with resources that really improve their lives (which can be many different kinds of recources, from “pure entertainment” to really practical “how to’s”), then that may well be a good and appropriate thing for you to do, even if you never have any books to sell.
3. Does Grahl’s philosophy conflate two different things: “tit-for-tat” (quid pro quo) and true altruism or compassionate love?* It will be natural, I think, for many to respond to Grahl’s approach by dismissing it as manipulative, as pseudo-caring. The problem, it seem to me, is that in cloaking his approach in the language of “true commitment to what’s good for the customer,” Grahl does not adequatly distinguish between tit-for-tat and true altruism/compassionate love. And this in turn could well cause some people to be “turned off” by his approach, as they react: “Yeah, but it’s still ultimately selfish and thus manipulative.”
I would suggest that the “moral life” has room for both tit-for-tat and for genuine altruism, and that there can be a significant overlap between the two approaches, even while they are distinguished by their motivation. That is, lots of behaviors can fit under both rubrics, by having both kinds of motivation.
Much of what we do is, appropriately, tit-for-tat. We are necessarily interdependent. “Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for you.” “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch your back.” And we necessarily have the responsibility and the right to take care of ourselves. So, much of what we do involves trades, exchanges. I give you money, which you want, and you give me potatoes, which I want. I pay my taxes and I expect the government to give me a safe, just society. Not all such tit-for-tat behavior is linked to explicit exchanges, however. This is what so much of current “marketing,” including Grahl’s approach, is based on. We all do well to build a nebula of good will around ourselves, not only because we are genuinely concerned with the other’s wellbeing, but also because in the longer run this is likely to pay rewards, as we get by with a little help from our friends.
Some things are done purely out of long-run self-interest (tit-for-tat). I can answer a query on a forum simply because I know that doing so gains me some points, even though I have no motivation to help the particular person making the query. I’m doing it just to contribute to my nebula of good will. And there’s nothing wrong with that. (Of course I’m not talking about enhancing my reputation by doing something that’s not really good for the other person.)
I can also do things simply out of concern for the other’s wellbeing (purely altruistic). E.g., I may give a stranded motorist a ride to the next service plaza even though I’ll never see or hear from that motorist again. And, contrary to what some economists and other cynics seem to believe, a father’s or mother’s care for the infant, to the extent that it goes beyond “instinct,” really does not involve a calculation of future benefits to be received from that infant.
But much, perhaps most, of what we do “for the sake of others” arises from both kinds of motivation. I answer forum questions because, even though I don’t know the inquirer, I still want to help her. I also know that this enhances my nebula, and the two motivations work together, like supporting vectors.
Coming back to Grahl, then, I think we can say this: Even though he talks about the Golden Rule, about being genuinely committed to providing things that improve your potential customers’ lives, he’s really talking about the tit-for-tat sphere of life. As we have seen, the tit-for-tat sphere is a valid and important sphere. It can and does overlap significantly with the compassionate love/altruism sphere. But the fact that tit-for-tat motivation differs from altruistic/compassionate love motivation does not render the former inappropriate or morally questionable.
*See, e.g., Lynn Underwood, “Compassionate Love: A Framework for Research” in The Science of Compassionate Love: Research, Theory, and Applications, Fehr. B. Sprecher, S, Underwood, LG, eds. Oxford England, Malden Mass: Wiley-Blackwell. 2009.