Jane 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.