When it comes to maneuvering the complex labyrinth that comprises the modern publishing industry, few voices are as respected as former Writer’s Digest publisher Jane Friedman. Teacher, consultant, editor, blogger, author, speaker – there are few hats she hasn’t worn in her 20-plus years in the business. Her e-book “Publishing 101” is considered essential reading for aspiring authors, and her industry newsletter, The Hot Sheet, equally so for authors of all stripes. She shared some time with me recently to talk about the industry and some of the key do’s and don’t for writers looking to make their mark on the world.
Open Mic: You say you prefer to serve as a bridge between the various aspects of the publishing world: digital, print, traditional, self-publishing, academia and business. What do you mean by that?
Friedman: I think in the case of traditional publishing and self-publishing to start, those two groups of people tend to rub up against each other in the wrong way. People who are self-publishing sometimes have a bit of a chip on their shoulder, and for good reason I might add. Many of them have proven their work market worthy even when they were rejected for many years and now they have the tools and the power to be as successful if not more successful than a traditionally published author, whether that’s financially or otherwise. So you know I’ve never put a value judgement on how people publish, it’s really a matter of the person’s goals and strengths. Certainly technology has made it much easier for any single individual to be entrepreneurial, to do things on their own that they wouldn’t have been able to do before. So I wouldn’t say I’m trying to bring the communities together because frankly that would be impossible, but I do think I help traditionally published authors see the value and to pass forward if they choose to self-publish, and to help independent authors see the value of partnering with publishers for certain types of projects. So I like having the 360-degree view. I would prefer not to be pigeon holed into either camp.
Open Mic: What are some of the most common questions writers ask you?
Freidman: Well if the person hasn’t really done their research or invested well in the self-publishing process, they often come to me after the book has already gone onto the market in some form and they’re looking for advice on how to actually get someone to buy their book, how to get a readership or how to increase their audience. There’s usually been some form of disappointment in what they’ve been able to accomplish in self-publishing, and many times I find that it’s not necessarily that they did something wrong but that they’re very impatient to see results. So that’s by and large the biggest thing self-publishing authors come to me with. If they haven’t yet published then their question often has to do with how they should distribute, what services should they use or about the editors or designers or companies they can trust. So they’re looking for some sort of guidance in what’s to come from the wild west of service companies out there. There are a lot to sift through because frankly there are so many people trying to make a buck off self-publishing authorship. If people haven’t already published they’re trying to figure out well what’s the smartest way to do it and not lose their shirt.
Open Mic: Technical things aside, what is the most common mistake you see writers make?
Friedman: Well there is a lot of rushing, I’ve already mentioned the impatience on the part of self-publishing authors, but really all authors are impatient to one degree or another. I personally know the feeling of completing a piece or a manuscript you really want put out into the world, and there is this eagerness and urgency you may feel. So I get why writers feel that impatience to get the work out there, but I think those authors could benefit from putting their manuscript away for a little while. I don’t mean years, but even for a couple of weeks just to get some perspective. I talk about distance so much in these types of conversations because everyone gets very emotionally involved in their work. The less emotional involvement you have the better off you’ll be. The more you are able to see it as a product to be packaged, the more you will be able to see its strengths and weaknesses and what you are doing as a career rather than as this thing that has the power to hurt you deeply.
Open Mic: Given all the changes in the publishing world over the last two decades, are things better now for writers or worse than they were 20 years ago?
Friedman: I feel like it’s a wash. It kind of depends on the type of person or author you are. I think the more entrepreneurial types – the ones who can see their career as a business or are eager to manage all aspects of it and are open and flexible to new technology, whether that is social media or whatever else will be coming down the pipe – those people are in a stronger position. They have more tools and more options available to them then they would have had 20 years ago. But there are other authors who really feel threatened by the change, there is a lot of fear and anger about these changes, especially if we start talking about Amazon. There is a nostalgia for the way that things used to be. I don’t really believe in that because things have always been difficult for writers. But when you look at all the change that has happened it is very easy to get a bitter taste in your mouth if you’re used to the way things used to work when the publisher would take care of you, which didn’t really happen but that’s how people see it. So it depends on your perspective and your attitude.
Open Mic: What are some of the things aspiring authors most commonly misunderstand about the publishing game?
Friedman: Probably the fact that it is indeed a business. I think that for especially those that have the dream of the big book deal in the sky where there is a big advance. There’s this thinking that the author will be evaluated based on their passion for the book or the time they put into it, or the fact that it’s a work of art or that it’s been very finely crafted. While quality does pay a role in every publishing decision, the bigger concern is ‘will this sell in the market?’ The book has to be able to make a profit in order for it to be attractive to the publishing industry, and some authors can’t see their work objectively in the way an agent or an editor would. They can’t see that the quality of their work alone won’t make it suitable for what I would call the ‘big five publishing treatment,’ where you’re getting distribution in every major book store in the country. That takes a very particular kind of book or story to be able to succeed on that level. So I think some authors just don’t get it because they’re too attached to their work
Open Mic: You have a very entrepreneurial focus. Sadly, many writers do not. Do you believe a writer can acquire that mindset?
Friedman: I think authors can be brought along and see that it’s not that bad. Some of the perspective or attitude that people have toward marketing, promotion, social media, technology is maybe just based in the culture or the community they’re in, and they haven’t even questioned some of the attitudes around them so it’s just taken at face value that many writers are bad marketers. I don’t think that’s true at all, but it’s one of those things that gets repeated and becomes a cliché or a stereotype and so you automatically believes that it describes you. So if you can get people to open their minds a little bit and see that many elements of marketing take the form of writing and creativity and imagination and can actually be quite satisfying and fulfilling and can actually show results, I think they come around.
Open Mic: I have writing colleagues who believe that before long all authors will go indie and that publishing houses will serve primarily only as distributors of already published content. Do you see that as a possibility?
Friedman: I know I’m biased because I do come from a traditional publishing background but no, I don’t think that will happen. I certainly think more and more authors will take responsibility for producing their own work and there is certainly more self-publishing activity than there ever was, and that will continue. But it’s not going to reduce the need or the function of traditional publishers. There’s always going to be writers and authors who flourish when they have someone who is really a partner in the publishing process. And not just distribution but the process of getting the work developed and packaged. It’s very lonely work to do by yourself. That’s true when you’re writing and it’s even truer when you’re producing. I know it’s possible when you are collaborating with other people to bounce ideas off of you get a better product almost every single time. So it’s not that authors can’t hire other people to do that but at some point you’re like ‘why am I hiring five people to do this piecemeal when I could just have a publisher perform all of the functions for me and they’re experts at all of it?’ So no, I don’t think publishers are going away. There are certainly going to be authors who prefer to not work with them but they’re function is not going to be obsolete.
Open Mic: Where do you see the industry going in the next 10 years?
Friedman: Whenever I’m prognosticating I like to think of it in terms of questions I’m not sure I have the answer to but I think will affect how we’re all operating. One of those big questions is what is the trajectory of Amazon and what are they going to do next? They’ve got an initiative right now to open bricks and mortar bookstores but I don’t know that it has as much to do with selling books as in getting as much customer data as possible. Which leads to a broader point about all publishers, all retailers or anyone who is selling stuff online. There is kind of a race for data and customer data and understanding behavior online and understanding how to get people to purchase through various means. So right now it sounds feel like we’re in the infancy of optimizing an Amazon page or making readers aware that your book is out, or understanding how key words and phrases play into that. Publishers aren’t always doing their due diligence on these things, although some authors are. It’s going to be very interesting to see what happens when some of these things become baked into the best practices of the industry. Right now if you search Amazon it has some sort of optimization system for delivering something that fits that search, but it’s still pretty poor in my opinion. I think part of that is because publishers and authors haven’t optimized for their keywords. If you search something like “how to fix my marriage” what comes up right now isn’t pertinent to that problem. I don’t think that’s smart. The big tech houses like Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook are all hoovering up this data about our behavior and using that to sell us more stuff, and I think again we’re still in the early stages of how that is going to play out. Another question is what more and more and more sales moving online – whether its print books, e-books, audio books – what does that do to the print book market and to brick and mortar bookstores? And how does that affect what gets published? This isn’t even saying that print books will go away, just that when there’s when like 80-90 percent of your book sales happen through Amazon, that changes what publishers need to do and how books get sold generally.
Open Mic: Amazon is the 500-hundred-pound gorilla in the publishing world right now. In general do you see it as being more positive or negative for authors?
Friedman: I think today it is more positive than it is negative. That said, that could change two hours from now. They have their hand on so many different buttons and levers that have the potential to affect earnings overnight. So part of the question is “do you trust Amazon to use this power for the greater good?” And no, actually I don’t. But it has nothing to do with Amazon specifically because I frankly don’t trust that of any corporation. So I don’t think their best interests are necessarily aligned with the author’s best interests, but I do think currently there’s a really good symbiotic relationship for the most part. There’s certainly things that authors are upset about that Amazon is not going to address – mainly related to the Kindle Unlimited program and e-book subscription services – and yeah Amazon holds all the cards so that makes it very hard to see them as a neutral force.
Open Mic: What is your thought on self-publishing for fiction?
Friedman: The decision is always so contextual. So much depends on the author’s situation and the type of book we’re talking about. Like if you were publishing a western versus a thriller my answer might be different. That said, I think if you’re a first time novelist or if you’ve never had any experience publishing professionally or commercially, you’re probably going to benefit more from at least giving it a shot with an agent or trying to get it published with a traditional house, be it large or small. And the reason I say that is because you’re in the position where you don’t know what you don’t know. I think most authors just don’t have the context for what goes into a traditionally published book. I know publishers catch a lot of flak for not doing their job right and for being a sausage factory or whatever, but there’s still a ton of work that goes into each book they put out. They refined the system and it does produce some standard of quality. You learn something from going through that process. Once you have that knowledge it just makes it much easier to do it yourself.
Open Mic: I’m afraid I know the answer to this already, but is the right platform more important than actual research and writing ability?
Friedman: Not always but I would say if we’re talking about anything that’s in one of the competitive informational fields – self-help, health, or business – if you don’t have a platform you’re most likely either looking at a small press or self-publishing. You have to have a pretty significant reach to get a publisher to take you on.
Open Mic: Presuming you have the appropriate platform, what is the key to a great nonfiction book proposal?
Friedman: You have to show why the book is needed in the market. I call this evidence of need. A lot of people just talk about what’s in the book, but you have to talk about why anyone cares what’s in the book, who it’s going to serve and why they’re going to be excited about what this book does for them, even if it’s just entertainment. There has to be a sense that people will care about its benefit or its purpose or its mission or its story. I think a lot of people have a hard time flipping it around from content to need.
Open Mic: There are so many blogs out there. Are they still a useful tool for writers? And if so, how?
Freidman: So the short answer is blogging gets overhyped and most people do it terribly so therefore it’s useless. So if it’s not done well you’re basically just wasting a lot of your time. That said, blogging is probably one of the number one content marketing methods available to the average author. Now when I say content marketing, I mean when you’re producing something. It could be a blog, it could be a podcast, it could be a video series, a newsletter or a Twitter stream. When you’re doing content marketing, you’re doing something to help make people aware of your work. So for most people who think about doing some kind of content marketing, a blog is at the top of the list because it seems like it’s the most approachable or accessible. The issue that comes into play is that online writing has to be treated differently than writing any type of book. When we’re online we have the attention span of a gnat, so to be able to attract somebody to your blog and keep them there for more than 10 seconds requires something pretty compelling and some people just don’t know what that is. Even if they have something interesting they don’t know how to package it in a way that would attract visitors. So I think most people, especially new writers, would probably be better served writing more work they’re going to publish in book form rather than blogging, and then maybe focusing on an email newsletter instead. Now for non-fiction, I don’t know if blogging becomes essential but you definitely need to have something you are sending out to a regular contact list. It doesn’t matter if it’s a blog but it has to act as a lead magnet to get you more readers.
Open Mic: How much does all of the teaching and consulting you do have an impact on your own work?
Freidman: Definitely the teaching and consulting and speaking I do directly inspires the sorts of things I put on my site in support of my business. So the stuff that I blog about or teach classes on are almost always a direct result of the sorts of questions I get and the problems and issues I run across working with clients. It’s all so intricately connected you can hardly separate it. Looking at my own process, in some ways it’s very strict and in other ways people I think would be shocked by how loose it is. To give an example of the loose side, you know I very rarely practically plan out long term projects. I don’t say “in 2018 I’m going to run three courses and I’m going to speak at 6 events.” I tend to be pretty passive. On the flip side, on a day to day or week to week basis there are certain things that I have to get done and so I can tell you what I’m going to be doing for the next five days on a task by task basis. I’m very deadline oriented. Certainly when people are paying me money for work to be done, or if they’re paying to subscribe to the Hot Sheet newsletter, or if they’re paying for a course that is definitely much more of a regimented system.
Open Mic: You have oft-noted your love of good bourbon. Do some writers actually write better after a few drinks? Or do we just think we do?
Friedman: Hemingway said “write drunk, edit sober.” I don’t think there is anything wrong with writing after a few drinks. I think for some people it helps take the critic out of their head, though you always have to be careful of any crutch that you’re using to get the words out. You don’t want to wait for the muse to come visit you. That’s why people so often recommend sitting down at the same time every day in the same place for however long until your time is up and whether or not you produced the words it doesn’t matter. You’re training yourself and training the muse to show up at the time that you sit down, and I believe in that. But there’s nothing wrong with helping things along.
Open Mic: Here at the Open Mic I like to close our talks with a hypothetical fantasy question. If you were able to have dinner, drinks and a long conversation with just one of the following people, who would you choose and why? Your options are: Friedrich Nietzsche, Bill Bryson or Jackie Onassis?
Freidman: I would have to go with Nietzsche mainly because I dated a philosophy major through college so that holds a lot of romantic appeal. I took philosophy courses so I also feel like I would have something to say in a conversation with Nietzsche whereas I would not with the other two. But you know the thing is whenever, the question always strikes me as somewhat impossible because if you’re in the presence of someone outsized who would you probably choose? You know with somebody who everybody knows and who has changed mankind you would probably not be able to speak in their presence. You wouldn’t be able to carry on a conversation because you would just be awestruck. Or maybe you would just bask in the presence. I’m not picking on the question at all – I just always think if I were in that situation having dinner I wouldn’t be able to talk, eat or drink and I would probably want to crawl under the table.