Interview with Jane Friedman, Part 1

PhotobucketJane Friedman isn’t just a Writer Unboxed contributor whose posts frequently receive mega-hits and comments. She’s a visiting assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati in the e-media department of the College-Conservatory of Music (CCM), the former publisher of Writer’s Digest (F+W Media), and a contributing editor to Writer’s Digest.

In short, Jane understands the business of writing. She sees where publishing has been and where it’s headed, and she understands what writers want and need to thrive. She has true authority and a rare breadth of publishing knowledge we’re only too happy to showcase here.

We’re thrilled she’s with us today for part 1 of a two part Q&A. Enjoy!

Interview with Jane Friedman, Part 1

TW: You recently left your position at F+W Media, where you served as the publisher for Writer’s Digest, and accepted a new full-time job with the University of Cincinnati as an assistant professor in the e-media department of the College-Conservatory of Music. Can you speak to this change, and how what you’re doing now is in concert with what you’ve done in the past? Will you remain involved with Writer’s Digest?

JF: One of the most fulfilling aspects of my job at Writer’s Digest was teaching, or helping writers grow and succeed. My professorship allows me to focus more on that—I teach writing to e-media majors, covering many mediums—plus I can now spend more time discussing and researching the future of writing and media.

I’m still a contributing editor to Writer’s Digest, and blog at There Are No Rules on writing/publishing and the future of authorship. I think it’s important as a writing professor to stay engaged professionally and keep tabs on the marketplace. Otherwise you churn out graduates who can’t sell what they create, or who have a limited view on how to make an impact on the world. It’s not about craft alone. (Well, maybe for a talented few.)

TW: You run a great blog called There Are No Rules, which feels like the perfect way to describe this period in the history of publishing. How are the traditional roles of author, publisher, and even agent transitioning? Can anything be rightfully expected of anyone anymore? Are there truly no rules?

JF: There are principles, but no rules. So, here are three principles regarding the transition:

1. Authors will always have good reasons to partner with publishers and agents (I don’t foresee a 100% DIY future for even bestselling authors), but the most empowered and successful authors will be the ones who can connect directly with an audience or community without relying on a publisher. A direct relationship with your audience will be very important as bookstores decline in importance for marketing and distribution.

2. Publishers’ power in both physical and digital distribution will become less important, so they’ll have to find other ways to remain relevant to authors if they want to keep or attract authors. Some publishers, like Sourcebooks, think they will be the linchpin connecting authors with readers. There’s a similar play by F+W, who want to be the go-to resource for specific niches, with premium marketing and promotion power that’s direct to reader. Others speculate that publishers need to focus on the quality they bring to the editorial process. Personally, I think we’ll see a variety of models work out, depending on the market served. But I agree that each publisher needs to decide what it stands for.

3. As long as authors need someone to handle the business end of their careers, agents will have jobs. And the business end is probably going to become more complicated rather than less. Authors also need partners to help them exploit subsidiary rights for their work, which is a specialized skill set (translation rights, foreign rights, movie/TV rights, and so on). That said, agents’ numbers will diminish as publishing’s business model changes (lower advances, digital editions first, fewer titles published, etc).

TW: It’s a tested marketing truth: If a consumer knows about a product and feels positively about a product, they’re more likely to purchase that product. Hence ads and commercials, and mascots like the Pillsbury dough boy and Snuggles the bear and Joe the camel. It seems to me this idea has shifted in publishing. No longer is the focus necessarily the book—marketing one particular story. The focus is the author. We are marketing ourselves though social media. We want people to know about us and feel positively about us, and we’re hoping that when we mention we have a book for sale that our listeners will respond. This, in my opinion, is the most significant change in book marketing. Do you agree? And do you think we’re relying on the power of selling authors rather than books overmuch? Are there inherent dangers to this approach, or do you think this is an opportunity for us to have the best of all worlds—and if so, how?

JF: We live in a culture (in the United States at least) where many forces have helped produce what you describe. I’ll mention two.

First, experiences or products are now more customized or slanted toward me-me-me. This is a phenomenon that many have pointed out, going as far back as Time magazine in 2006—when Person of the Year was YOU—as well as Nick Bilton in his book I Live in the Future and Here’s How It Works.

Second, we’re all looking for meaning and authenticity and what is real. And certainly you didn’t encounter this in, say, the 1980’s. Start observing how much marketing around you is focused on the natural, real, authentic origins of things.

If people seek to experience something meaningful, personal, and authentic, then the author’s involvement can be a key factor in developing a loyal readership that helps build the all-coveted buzz. Exacerbating this fact: authors throughout every culture are highly admired (it’s probably why so many people aspire to be authors); we often want a little piece of them; and we are often disappointed when they don’t live up to our expectations. (Which is a funny phenomenon, and why I like this piece so much about how writers aren’t necessarily good or nice people.)

Overall, social media tools—and I use that term broadly, to include all types of person-to-person interaction online—have driven transparency and opportunities to communicate with and reach a very distinctive and unique audience. Who’s to say that these things are antithetical to authorship, or to book marketing, when they simply weren’t possible or practical behaviors before?

I’d argue: What’s important to book marketing and authorship has not changed, but tools are now available that allow a natural behavior to be more readily expressed—which is the ability for an author to reach and engage with his audience. Most authors have always been interested in this interaction. Of course, this becomes a very philosophical conversation very quickly, because I know some authors distinctly want to avoid contact with readers. So my question would be: If you don’t want to interact with your readers, why not? And if you don’t, then I recommend you find ways to weave mystery, passion, and intimacy into some kind of experience to keep your readership engaged, even if it’s not interaction with you specifically.

TW: The big challenge for authors in this new era is knowing how to play the game, because it seems the game changed overnight. Blogging, facebooking, tweeting, staying abreast of fresh ways technology and writing can intersect, and oh yeah, the writing itself. Many authors feel overwhelmed. I’ve heard some authors say they just won’t do it; they’ll write, period. I’ve seen other authors throw themselves into every possible form of social media for fear they’ll be left behind. Some have even admitted addiction. I’d love to see you fill in these blanks. At the very least authors should ______________. If an author has to let go one thing, they could probably afford to drop ______________. An author knows she may be at risk for social-media overload if _____________.

JF: At the very least authors should make an effort to connect with their core audience, online or offline, wherever that can be done effectively, efficiently, and without robbing quality from existing and future works. If an author has to let go one thing, they could probably afford to drop argumentative message/comment threads (online politicking), most news sites, and most blogs (stick with only the most essential and highest quality outlets, which includes Writer Unboxed, of course!). An author knows she may be at risk for social-media overload if there’s any angst over follower/friend/fan/traffic numbers, or if she angsts/becomes upset over comments/responses in any channel. That’s a sure sign of taking it all too seriously.

TW: Recently, I heard you use the term “embittered authors,” and mention this as a new trend. Can you tell us about this? What can authors do, if anything, to prevent this unfortunate scenario?

JF: Embittered authors are people who didn’t expect change when it happened, and feel like victims as a result; or people who hold very misguided expectations about what is owed them by a publisher or agent (or any publishing professional).

Writers can avoid this embittered state by eschewing victimhood; by being responsible for their own careers; by taking proactive steps or being proactive in asking questions to set the right expectations; and by viewing everything as a partnership, not a dependency.

Also, it’s cliché at this point, but it keeps getting repeated for a reason. Publishing is a business. The more you treat it like one, the less embittered you become. Everything happens in publishing as a result of a business decision. It’s not personal, although it can quickly become personal if people hate working with you—then you’ll be avoided at all cost.

Agents and editors avoid embittered authors because they know such people can never be satisfied or pleased—and such people always suspect they are being taken advantage of, or are not getting what they deserve. Such people are exhausting.

I admit there is a fine line between sticking up for yourself (being proactive, being bold), and being a pain in the ass. If you have an agent, they can help you identify where that line is.

TW: Is it possible that an author with a strong platform might have a better chance landing a publishing deal than an author with no platform at all?

JF: Yes, I believe it happens every day in nonfiction! It happens every time a celebrity is signed to a book deal (hello, Snooki!), it happens every time a non-writer gets a book deal only because he is an expert or an authority with excellent visibility to the target audience.

All other things being equal, publishers will choose the author with the platform. It happens with novelists and children’s authors, though not to the extent that it does with nonfiction. (I don’t think it’s appropriate to talk about platform in a novel query, BUT if the agent or editor has heard of you because you’re high profile in some way, you will be given a closer look.)

Readers, please click HERE for part 2 of my interview with Jane Friedman, when we’ll discuss Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn (oh my!) — and a lot of other very interesting stuff. Trust me.

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About Therese Walsh

Therese Walsh co-founded Writer Unboxed in 2006. Her second novel, The Moon Sisters, was named a Best Book of 2014 by Library Journal and BookRiot. Her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, sold to Random House in a two-book deal in 2008, was named one of January Magazine’s Best Books, and was a Target Breakout Book. She's never been published with a lit magazine, but LOST's Carlton Cuse liked her Twitter haiku best and that made her pretty happy.

Comments

  1. says

    Wow. Honestly this was one of the best interviews I’ve read, here or anywhere, in quite a while. Great questions, Therese, with wonderful, thoughtful answers from Jane. I feel reassured, educated, and entertained. And I *don’t* feel like Jane copped out of answering anything, which can often happen in interviews. Well done, and thank you!
    Kristan´s last blog post ..Holiday special

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  2. says

    I devoured this – thanks! Two things:

    One, on the point about the marketing focus being the author him/herself (which seems to be increasingly true), I worry that this reduces the importance of the quality of books in favor of the marketing of an author’s name. So often I see a fantastic first book that becomes successful, then its author hurrying to get that second book out so he/she can be marketed some more. But the second book’s rarely if ever as good! (Polite understatement.) Such a shame.

    Two: Jane, you’ve got the best hair!
    Sharon Bially´s last blog post ..The Flashback Sin

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  3. says

    I’ve been in publishing for over 20 years and seen many changes. The embittered author is an ignorant author. We’ve always had those. The ones who don’t stay abreast of what’s happening in the business, and ultimately, don’t treat it like a business. I think it’s an exciting time to be an author with more opportunities than ever before, but it’s changing so fast, you have to keep your head on a swivel. Change is very hard. In my Warrior Writer program I teach that the successful at the elite 5% who are capable of internally motivated change. Some people take offense at that, but it’s the reality. The authors, agents, publishers, bookstores, etc that change are the ones who will not only survive, but succeed.

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  4. says

    Amen! Amen! A million AMENS! This is great stuff and so important for writers to understand. I know us creative types tend to hold on to the past. We love anachronisms, but we can no longer do so at the expense of our future careers. So keep the wax seal for the letters you write with a quill purchased at B&N and lose the fear of social media.

    I love that you focus on a balance of both…the writing and the platform. Too many writers go to one extreme or the other, either hiding their heads in the sand and refusing to accept change or by becoming a spam bot.

    Thanks Therese and Jane for taking the time to serve your fellow writers with this excellent information. You are greatly appreciated.

    Kristen Lamb

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  5. says

    Fascinating interview and ultimately optimistic, which I love.

    Jane, I wonder if you can elaborate more on this point: “So my question would be: If you don’t want to interact with your readers, why not? And if you don’t, then I recommend you find ways to weave mystery, passion, and intimacy into some kind of experience to keep your readership engaged, even if it’s not interaction with you specifically.” I’m such a newbie in this, I wonder what those alternate engagements would look like. Can you point to any specifics?
    Jan O’Hara´s last blog post ..Can Student be Teacher

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  6. says

    This is one of the most thorough, complete, and knowledgeable post I’ve read on this subject, so thank you!

    Question: Since you mentioned each publisher needing to find out what they stand for or offer, and authors beginning to become the brand/mascot for their books in most cases, do you think it’s possible that one of the things publishers will do to make themselves stand out is increase their brand recognition? I know in some genres, readers do trust certain imprints more, but that brand recognition doesn’t seem as pervasive as Jif’s or Dreamworks’ or Snuggle’s. Will we see ads someday marketing the book as the “New Release from TOR” as a major selling point?
    Kristin Laughtin´s last blog post ..Book Review- The Edge of the World- by Kevin J Anderson

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  7. says

    Wow, Jane, your students are lucky to have you! Just the knowledge conveyed here is enough to fill an entire semester. Can’t wait for Part 2.

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  8. says

    Jan asked me to elaborate on this point I made:

    “So my question would be: If you don’t want to interact with your readers, why not? And if you don’t, then I recommend you find ways to weave mystery, passion, and intimacy into some kind of experience to keep your readership engaged, even if it’s not interaction with you specifically.”

    Jan says: “I’m such a newbie in this, I wonder what those alternate engagements would look like. Can you point to any specifics?”

    Later in this Q&A, you’ll see I mention Andrew Shaffer as someone who does some unique things outside of authorship that create mystery and engagement (e.g., @EvilWylie). You can see more here: http://www.orderofstandrew.com

    I also remember a YA author (her name escapes me now) who started a blog in the voice of her teenage self. (That is, she posts what she might have blogged about if such a thing had been possible when she was a teen.)

    There are often aspects of our personalities and interests (or daily lives) that can be fascinating when revealed in small doses. I often think to Salman Rushdie’s MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN, where a man is seduced because he can see only a tiny little bit of a woman through a small hole in a sheet.

    You don’t want to cross the line into TMI (there is such a thing as showing too much, talking too much), but (for instance) often when authors give a reading, nothing is more interesting than knowing what they had for breakfast that morning.

    I hope that helps. It can be hard to pinpoint things — so much depends on who you are, and what kind of readers your work attracts.

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  9. says

    Kristin asks:

    “Since you mentioned each publisher needing to find out what they stand for or offer, and authors beginning to become the brand/mascot for their books in most cases, do you think it’s possible that one of the things publishers will do to make themselves stand out is increase their brand recognition? I know in some genres, readers do trust certain imprints more, but that brand recognition doesn’t seem as pervasive as Jiff or Dreamworks or Snuggle. Will we see ads someday marketing the book as the “New Release from TOR” as a major selling point?”

    Absolutely, yes. I think this will happen particularly when the target audience remains similar from book to book, as in the case of TOR (science fiction & fantasy). Other examples might include Harlequin (which already has strong brand recognition), Hay House, and McSweeney’s—as well as imprints like Writer’s Digest!

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  10. says

    Thank you for sharing your insights, Jane. Wonderful interview! Topics like social media, platform, and the future of publishing can all seem a little overwhelming at times (especially to this introvert). But, as Jan said above, you present it in a optimistic matter-of-fact way.

    Jane, you have a great social media/blogging presence. I’m wondering how much time per day (or per week if applicable) you spend on social media/blogging, etc? There is life (and writing) outside the blogsphere…you must have a fantastic balancing act going on. Perhaps this will be covered in Part II?

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  11. says

    Thank you for a very insightful post about the publishing industry. I’m trying to master the social media part of it before I get the call. It’s a job, but worth the effort — but I do put my writing first. Can’t sell anything if I haven’t written it! Balancing it all is a struggle at times. I’m striving to achieve that balance.

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  12. says

    Jane, you’ve provided terrific information here (as always). I realize you may get inundated with questions, so thanks if you have time to offer your opinion to my question (no worries if not!).

    It makes sense that newer novelists need not be as concerned with a platform as with nonfiction authors. So for the unpublished novelist, on average, what would you say the split should be between building a platform (writing articles, blogging, twitter, facebook, etc.) and writing the novel? 40% platforming / 60% writing? 20/80? 10/90? (I realize it depends, but let’s say for the average person working a full-time job and writing during the night/weekends.)

    I’m wondering if new novelists are placing too much pressure on themselves to build a readership online vs. finishing the book and honing the craft. Thanks!
    Brock S. Henning´s last blog post ..Pool Closed

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  13. says

    Regarding Amanda’s question about how much time I spend on blogging and social media:

    Sometimes it’s difficult for me to estimate because all aspects of my life are so tightly woven together. No matter what social network site I might be on, there are both personal and professional interactions. And what I blog about for fun is also an element of platform building.

    Further complicating things: I’m online most of the day, so I might steal a few minutes here and there while I’m doing other tasks (like prepping for classes).

    So, over the course of the day, who knows what it would add up to! It’s all part of the air I breathe. I know this kind of approach isn’t for everyone (especially someone focusing on the completion of a manuscript).

    For argument’s sake, let’s say I segregated ALL activity I’d consider strictly professional platform building or blogging. I would probably reserve 2 hours per day.
    Jane Friedman´s last blog post ..When Mom Was My Age 12

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  14. says

    In response to Brock, who asks:

    “It makes sense that newer novelists need not be as concerned with a platform as with nonfiction authors. So for the unpublished novelist, on average, what would you say the split should be between building a platform (writing articles, blogging, twitter, facebook, etc.) and writing the novel? 40% platforming / 60% writing? 20/80? 10/90? (I realize it depends, but let’s say for the average person working a full-time job and writing during the night/weekends.) I’m wondering if new novelists are placing too much pressure on themselves to build a readership online vs. finishing the book and honing the craft.”

    Here’s the deal: If you’re an unpublished/unknown novelist waiting for your big break, you want to make sure that you’re comfortable and part of the communities that may be important for spreading the word about your book and your audience. I always cringe when debut novelists, 6 months before book release, ask me if they should start a Twitter account or a blog. Because by that point, it’s usually too late — unless you’re focused & strategic, maybe have some professional help, and know *exactly* what you’re doing. Otherwise, your efforts are more likely to come off as rushed, less thoughtful, and more focused on self-interested selling (which turns people off).

    When you already have social media/platform activities integrated into everything you do, BEFORE you sell a book, then it’s very easy to shift gears and be a little more focused and strategic, to reach out to your community in a very meaningful way, because the relationships are already there. You’re not building them from scratch after you have a book deal.

    So … while it’s true I’d hate for a new novelist to be obsessed with platform building or social media at the expense of their work (and there ARE those types out there), it’s wise to put in 3-5 hours per week (or 30-60 minutes per day) in activities that help build your platform — and such activities should also be fun and meaningful for you. This shouldn’t be drudgery. You’re allowed to be yourself. In fact, it’s mandatory. Go and stand for something, wherever you go. Participate, have conversations. Don’t see it as a marketing exercise.

    I hope I didn’t dodge the question! Feel free to follow-up if I’ve opened up a new set of questions.
    Jane Friedman´s last blog post ..When Mom Was My Age 12

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