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Jane Friedman, Long-Time Publisher of Writer’s Digest, Talks with Self-Publishing Review

Image from Jane Friedmans "there  are no rules" blog

Jane Friedman talks with SPR

I first met Jane Friedman sometime around June, 2001, when she called to tell me that my novel Acts of the Apostles had won the Writer’s Digest National Self-Published Book Award for that year (in the “genre” category: a juried competition with 324 entrants, ahem; I digress).

That call took place pretty early in Jane’s 12 year career at F+W Media (and pretty early in my self-publishing career, now that you mention it.) Her talent was obvious and she rose quickly. In 2008 she was named the publisher of Writer’s Digest, the No. 1 resource for working writers. In her varied roles at F+W, she was responsible for the management and growth of multiple book lines, annual directories, newsstand and subscriber-driven magazines, online education and services, e-commerce, print and online advertising, as well as national writing events and competitions.

Jane recently left WD to take a position as assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati, and she now teaches full-time in the e-media department of CCM. She’s a frequent speaker at writing and publishing events; her focus is on helping writers understand the transformation underway in the media and publishing industries, and how they can be successful and in control of their careers.

I recently asked Jane if she would like to be interviewed for my blog Wetmachine and SelfPublishing Review. She said yes, and I sent her some questions; her answers appear below the fold. If you read my recent interview with Mark Coker of Smashwords, you’ll notice some overlap in my questions. I think it’s interesting to see where Jane agrees with Mark and where she differs. But all of her answers are thoughtful and some of them are quite intriguing.

Q: When I told a list I’m on that I was going to be interviewing you and solicited questions, my friend Dirk replied: “Please ask her what the fuck is going on.” I think that’s a pretty good place to start. Can you summarize the important trends you see in publishing right now?

I can’t state it better than Clay Shirky has: “Publishing is the new literacy.” If you don’t know who Clay Shirky is, just go buy his latest book, Cognitive Surplus . That will tell you most of what you need to know. For the short version, read this interview with Shirky over at the Barnes & Noble Review.

That’s from a very theoretical level, though. It’s a 10,000-foot view. Maybe 50,000.

I can tell you, as someone who has worked up-close with publishing financials, that the trend is: Publish fewer books (which are supposedly going to sell better due to higher quality, even as bookstores close across the country); focus on harvesting e-mail addresses of readers/consumers so you can have a direct marketing relationship with them; and look for niches/communities to serve. Because the days of broad-sweeping, generalist publishing are over. (If you’re not reading Mike Shatzkin’s blog, you’re missing out on the most-discussed dynamics and prognostications today in corporate publishing.)

That said: I don’t think generalist publishing is dead. Perhaps mostly dead. It is evolving, and it must. Book publishing, once allowed to be that genteel occupation—marginally profitable on its good days, kept alive by backlist sales—is no longer led by genteel, sherry-drinking folks. It’s led by multimedia conglomerates.

Yet how does one grow the profits of publishing when the very act of publishing is available to all, and when the ability to profit from professional publishing is declining, due to a deluge of free and cheap information and entertainment options? (And the fact that capable or established authors are realizing they can do this on their own far more effectively? )

Some believe that “small” presses will win the day because they are more willing to nurture and sustain good writing and accept lower margins. I also think there’s merit to author/agent collectives. (Think: United Artists from the golden age of film.)

But some form of the Big Six will survive (partly merged) as they continue to focus on celebrity and brand publishing—and marketing and licensing the hell out of those brands as only they know how. I think there’s an analogy (forgive me, I shoot people on sight for making this one) in the music business, observing how major labels vs. indie labels operate. I highly recommend reading this brief piece by Sasha Frere-Jones in The New Yorker for a glimpse of the new publishing dynamic. We see evidence of this today. Don’t major houses want solid brands and sure-fire commercial successes?

In summary, publishing can be a successful business. But the way the business has been built is very difficult to sustain in legacy form, especially now. It all goes back to this excellent blog post by Michael Clarke. It talks of scholarly publishing in particular, but it’s really about innovation—the kind that’s deeply impacting how we read, write and publish.

Q: You’ve been a strong proponent of electronic publishing. How do you think e-books will transform the publishing industry in the next five years?

Oh no. This is where I make a prediction that comes back to haunt me—and that also makes me responsible for a surge of drinking nationwide. Pick up your shot glasses!

Pundits believe the Kindle will be $99 this holiday season. Let’s say that’s true. Let’s say, in fact, that Amazon takes Seth Godin’s advice , and the price drops even further in 2011. Then it seems reasonable to say, even without dramatic innovations in e-reading/e-book technology (which there will be!), that e-books will comprise at least 30% of sales in five years. (Drink!) I would venture to say 50%, but there are so many people adamant about their god-given right to smell and touch physical books (because what we all remember about The Great Gatsby was its smell, right?) that it may take a while for people to let go of their nostalgic and sentimental attachments to those smelly books.

Aside from my arbitrary percentages, I think we’ll start to see smarter release patterns and pricing that reflect what Chris Walters has suggested over at Teleread. Because the pricing strategy right now, from traditional publishers, doesn’t make a lot of sense. And it doesn’t take advantage of true fans of authors or series.

Big Six publishers will be more likely to release and profit from e-editions without a traditional print edition (perhaps POD only), and will print and distribute on a widespread physical scale only if certain conditions are met. This is already happening, and working, with smaller outfits like Ellora’s Cave <>, who have an audience that’s accepting of e-editions.

Personally, as a longtime book editor, I also wonder how editors’ roles might shift too; already you can find small presses where an editor receives royalties based on a book’s sales. But editors may also serve as important curators and tastemakers amidst the noise—IF editors take the advice in this post, which they probably won’t, but who knows. Some might. Editors ought to be building their platforms, and becoming known for something, just like authors.

Also, from an editorial POV, the first chapter’s importance will begin to take on an almost terrible and obsessive importance, since the trend is now for the first chapter of an e-book to be free. I predict this will play a major role in how books start and how books are edited.

The huge wildcard for me is libraries. I don’t fully comprehend the library market dynamics, and I don’t use libraries (yet). But when you consider the implications for e-book borrowing from libraries that’s instantaneous and doesn’t require trips to a physical building … well, goodness. Why would anyone pay for an e-edition of a book unless they were certain they wanted to own it and all their markings on it? (If I am reading a book where I’m very covetous of my highlights or notes, and need to mark things for posterity and further study, then I want my own edition on my Kindle.)

Maybe a savvy librarian will read this and comment, and give an easy-to-understand perspective on how this dynamic may work itself out. (From my perspective: It’s a bloody mess.)

[ed: I'm married to a savvy librarian. Any comment, Dear Wife?/jrs]

Q: I write books that, generally speaking, appeal to hackers and computer geeks. I used to sell them in bookstores that catered to this audience — for example, Computer Literacy and Stacey’s in Silicon Valley, Softpro and Quantum in Massachusetts. There used to be a few dozen such stores in the USA. Now there are none. Is this what the future looks like for all bookstores?

Yes and no. You’ve just identified, in your question, one community that will probably never have bookstores dedicated to it again: computer geeks. Why? This is an audience that gets books and information online now. See O’Reilly’s Safari store.

So, the answer, in part, depends on demographics. All those specialized stores for cookbooks, children’s books, mystery, or romance? I think those stores will stick around for as long as a good businessperson is at the helm—someone who knows their customer base and knows how to market to their community.

My fantasy is that specialized, community-based stores (with books as a component) will become popular.

But chain bookstores will continue in some form (but not at today’s numbers) as entertainment and diversion, as part of mass shopping complexes, where people can browse magazines/books and have a coffee or dessert, perhaps wait to catch a show. But I think everyone in the industry can agree: chain stores have seen their heyday.

Q: We hear so much these days that whether you’re a self-publisher or backed by the biggest publishing house, you have to be your own publicist. What percentage of one’s writing life — in terms of time and in terms of mental energy, should one budget to such activities?

Yes, true, you have to be your own publicist, unless you have the means to hire someone to assist—which I recommend putting your advance toward, if you have one, especially for your first published book. This goes for traditionally published authors, too.

What percentage of your writing life should you dedicate? That’s a torturous question to answer. Why? It’s a much larger percentage than what “real” writers find acceptable. Because “real” writers don’t market and promote, right? Their work is supposed to speak for itself, sell itself, and be supported by angels called editors and agents (and whoever else works at the publishing house).

Most “real” writers don’t care about sales and marketing until they realize they can’t get their next book deal, or can’t get a reasonable advance, or can’t achieve whatever that next goal is.

OK, but back to percentages: Writers breaking in today should probably spend half their “writing” time on activities that build their readership or community. This might actually still involve writing (e.g., blog posts or reviews), and be quality time that helps the final book or product—but remember “real” writers don’t think this way. Writing is supposed to be a solitary endeavor that is productive and uninterrupted, and produces real “art.”

To some extent, I agree. You need focus and dedication to produce a great work. But everyone has to wrestle with a tremendous trade-off: The less time you spend marketing and publicizing (and I don’t mean in a “shill” way, but as far as putting yourself out there), the lower sales you’ll have, and the less successful you’ll be on a monetary level. (And artists don’t care about money, right?)

Of course, if you’re recognized by all the important folks as a total kick-ass genius, and other people do all the marketing and promotion work for you, you could get a pass. Good luck with that. [ed: thanks!/jrs]

Q: In your blogs, tweets, webinars, and so forth, you seem to address the mechanics of publishing and marketing as much you do the craft of writing. Which do you more enjoy writing about—writing or publishing (getting published)?

I feel like I know everything there is to know about getting published, yet it can be a subject of enormous complexity and debate, even though it is deceptively simple. (Write something remarkable and target the right market.) So, I could talk days and days and days about the business of getting published, and there’s tremendous enjoyment in that mastery.

I also enjoy theorizing and the perverse punditry about where publishing is headed, e.g., digitization and the e-book revolution, etc. (Go figure, why else would I be doing this interview?)

Now, the craft of writing? To me, this is something far more instinctual and slippery to talk about. To teach or speak of writing in a way that actually helps people improve their craft is incredibly difficult. While I believe writing to be very craft-based, something that can be learned, it is also without rules and parameters that can be applied in a sure-fire manner. There are always exceptions. There is tremendous subtlety. I don’t have the credentials or personal experience to talk about it the same way as I do the business of publishing, but certainly after reading thousands of “bad” manuscripts and stories, I can say with certainty where beginning writers go wrong again and again and again. And this should be a lesson to all writers: Join critique groups and read lots of bad writing—you will improve.

Showing people where they’re ineffective and “bad” is easy. Showing them how to get it right is hard.

Q: Mark Coker, founder of the ebook distributor Smashwords, said that writers should participate in forums “wherever your ebook is sold” — for example, Amazon, the Apple store, Barnes & Noble.com, and so forth. You’ve blogged about maintaining a presence on book recommending sites like Goodreads and Librarything. That could easily add up to twenty or so discussion sites that I should be participating on. Is that realistic? If I decide to only participate on a few sites, how should I choose which ones?

Nope, totally not realistic.

Some authors who e-publish their work will stick one distribution site, e.g., Scribd or Kindle, so that they can better focus their efforts, and send readers to one place for reviews. See this Q&A I did with Ransom Stephens for more on this. This seems wise, at least initially, though you need to be very smart about which platform or site you choose—it needs to be one that’s going to appeal to your primary readership, and/or not confuse them. Once you have a wider following, of course you want to make your book available on any and all platforms.

Still, though, I can’t imagine participating on every single site or community where your book might be available, no matter what stage you’re at.

Here are Jane’s Simple Rules for Forum Participation:

  1. Don’t do anything without having a hub or homepage where you want people to visit, to find out more about your work and sign up for news/updates. You should be capturing the e-mails of your fans or readers (people who willingly sign up for updates—not spam).
  2. More than 500 million people use Facebook and spend more time on that site than Google. You should understand what it means to be visible there to your readers. I don’t mean selling on Facebook, but being visible and interacting like a real person, not a marketer. Gretchen Rubin sets a good example for authors to follow.
  3. If your target readership is active on Twitter, that’s 3rd priority. If you can’t get comfortable with it (and getting comfortable might take months), then give it a pass. Before you do, though, you should know that some bloggers’ No. 1 source of referral traffic is Twitter.
  4. If you’re selling your work primarily on Kindle, or if your work is available on Amazon, then you should be doing everything possible to optimize what’s happening on your Amazon page. It helps to read up on strategies that have worked for others.
  5. GoodReads is climbing in importance. So that’s next on the list for anyone writing a work of interest to avid book readers.
  6. If your work is highly targeted in a genre or niche, then you should know the most active community for that genre/niche. That may be deserving of 2nd or 3rd place on this list. Only you can know what this site is, as someone who ought to be an active member of that community.
  7. This is not related to forums per se, but guest posting for popular bloggers who appeal to your target readership should be part of your outreach strategy when you have a specific book to promote. Copyblogger has an excellent post to help you understand how.

Q: It seems to me that for the last century or so literary culture has been driven by tastemakers based in New York or California. Writer’s Digest and Jane Friedman are based in Cincinnati. Do you think that your geographic location gives you a different perspective on writing and/or publishing?

I recall someone making fun of New York publishers for favoring books that focus on young, disaffected Brooklyners who want to write books or work in publishing.

I also remember talking with agent Donald Maass, and mentioning that the best-selling book series of all time for F+W was The Art of Painting Animals on Rocks . The series has sold more than 1 million copies over the years. He couldn’t believe it. Frankly, I can’t believe it either.

But I digress—I guess rock painting isn’t about literary culture. All the same, I’d say that being based out of Cincinnati, and being a Midwesterner, makes me very empathetic toward the legion of writers in the heartland trying to get noticed by people on the coasts. There’s a reason Chicken Soup for the Soul had to first be subsidy published and sold out of the back of a car before the industry woke up to the fact lots of people love sentimental, heartwarming stories.

Q: Do you have a model for a successful e-book author, or does each successful person find their own path? Are certain genres (cookbooks, romances, car repair manuals, gay porn, vampires and boy wizards) more likely than others to produce success?

I’m trying to uncover that model, in some ways, through Q&As with e-book authors on my Writer’s Digest blog, There Are No Rules . (Note to readers of this interview: Drop me a line if you deserve to be featured.)[ed: ME! ME! Please consider line dropped./jrs]

If there are any models that seem to reliably work, based on my professional experience and via anecdote, here they are:

  • Have a superb e-mail network of friends, colleagues, and others
    who will be not only interested in your book, but also willing to
    spread word to their own networks.
  • Speak to or teach large groups frequently, and/or get on a lecture
    circuit.
  • Have a blog with a significant following (usually takes at least
    18-24 months of consistently good content; you shouldn’t really be
    shilling any products), plus a ready roster of popular bloggers
    who would be happy for you to guest post.

It’s much easier to gain traction with nonfiction because it’s easier to find your audience, and get people to pay money for some kind of benefit or promise (rather than the questionable value of narrative entertainment by an unproven author). With novelists, it can be easier if you’re writing within a genre that has a solid online community and following (like YA).

Q: Assume for sake of discussion that I’ve written a novel that is in fact excellent & I’ve decided to publish it myself. What should I do now? Should I even bother with printed books? If I do printed books, should I risk doing a run on a traditional offset printer, or should I just stick with el-cheapo Print on Demand?

Unless you have hard evidence that your readers are clamoring for a print edition (or will not buy an e-book), I think it’s smarter to release an e-edition first, and see if you can build demand for the print edition. (Your readers will let you know, believe me.) If you have any money to invest, then spend it on an eye-catching, professionally designed cover, as well as professional conversion services to ensure that your e-book looks top notch on whatever device it’s available on.

If and when you decide to make a print edition available, I see no reason for a traditional offset print run unless you’ll be selling or distributing large quantities at events, or otherwise expect bulk orders. Also, if your readers are buying primarily online, then print-on-demand is the most efficient and cost-effective option.

With print-on-demand, there’s not really a noticeable quality difference for readers if you choose a well-known service. The big problem, if there is one, is that print-on-demand technology will increase your unit price and result in a higher cost for the reader, and/or a lower profit for you. So you do need to be cautious. Read this excellent post from David Carnoy on self-publishing, which touches on pricing strategy.

Remember, even traditional publishers use print-on-demand technology. Sometimes I think writers confuse “print-on-demand” with “vanity publishing.” Print-on-demand is a technology, not a value judgment.

Q: What do you think of the current copyright and intellectual property regime in the USA and elsewhere? What’s your opinion of ACTA? DMCA? Are they helping or hindering artists and creators and the public at large?

My beliefs align with those of Cory Doctorow, who speaks far more intelligently on the issue than I can. Read his Locus article from 2008 , or hear him speak in this talk from June 2010.

[ed: Cory Doctorow was interviewed by John Sundman & Gary Gray of Wetmachine a few years ago. Find links to the three parts of the podcast, with written summaries, here./jrs]

Q: I’ve written a novel and two novellas, and I’m working on another novel. I used to write for magazines and “magazine-style” websites like Salon.com, but I’ve stopped doing that because the payoff seems so small. Am I making a mistake? Should I be writing short pieces to “get my name out there”?

There are many ways to get your name out there aside from writing short pieces. You have to focus on what’s fulfilling and best integrates with the whole of your career. If you’re writing for Salon, or HuffPo, or whatever the flavor du jour is, and it feels like a waste of time, stop.

On the other hand, I do advocate doing whatever gets your name out there—and that can be done in a million different ways. It can involve photos, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, guest blog posts, an interview series, book reviews—the only limit is your imagination. Some say you need to keep topics and interests tightly aligned, but I wouldn’t hard-engineer it. The goal is to appear consistently, over time, in people’s (online/offline) visual field. And by people, I mean readers, industry professionals, other writers. You want to be seemingly everywhere at once. This actually isn’t that hard to accomplish; there can be an effortlessness to it, if you enjoy what you do, and see it as play, and pick the right channels that play to your strengths.

Sorry if that sounds mystical, but the moment this work gets distasteful, boring, or tedious, you’re doing it wrong.

It’s also possible to totally remove yourself from all things online, and be ever-present in your neighborhood, community, or region, and be successful on that level. Some people are masters at offline networking, and this can also play in your favor. It’s highly individual, which is why it’s so difficult to give advice that works for everyone. Check out this diagram by Bud Caddell. It really says it all.

Q: You have a BFA in writing from the University of Evansville, and you’ve written fiction in the past. Are you working on any big “creative writing” projects (novel, memoir, screenplay, anthology, etc)?

I have big ideas, but they remain a secret for now (she says mysteriously).

But I have zero interest in writing fiction. I always think of the David Gray lyric: “I don’t want no other distractions / there’s too much here to see.”

Q: You’ve been at Writer’s Digest for quite a while now. What do you know now that you didn’t know when you started? How has Writer’s Digest (the mag, the conferences, the whole business) changed during your tenure there?

This is a book-worthy topic, but I’ll keep this brief:

  • First and foremost (and quickly), I learned that publishing is a
    business.
  • Second, I learned that most authors and freelancers think they’re
    professionals, but very few act like one. There’s truth in what
    editor Daniel Menaker says, that editors are like therapists. This isn’t a bad thing, though. It’s how we can still know for sure we’re working with art (or with heart, ha!).
  • Third, anyone in it for the money is crazy. This applies to people
    working on either the inside or the outside of the industry.

When I arrived at F+W Media in 1998, Writer’s Digest was operated in silos. The book line was operated and led separately from the magazine, which was operated separately from online education, which was operated separately from competitions, and so on.

When F+W reorganized itself into communities in 2008, Writer’s Digest started operating holistically, as a brand, under one publisher and community leader, which is the position I just left behind. It was a brilliant and innovative move by F+W that finally recognized that people are interested in solutions to their problems, and it is inefficient to market to a “magazine customer” or a “book customer” or an “online customer.” These are all the same person, and there should be an integrated strategy that tracks and offers exactly the content the person is interested in, regardless of platform or medium.

F+W, as well as Writer’s Digest, is much more online-driven, and e-commerce driven, than it was even just a couple years ago. You can see the shift on a monthly basis—how revenue and profits shift away from traditional channels and platforms to online sources. It’s dramatic.

Q: Do you have any favorite author that you’ve discovered through your work at Writer’s Digest that you’d like to give a shout-out to?

John Warner (Fondling Your Muse ), and all the TOW Books authors that we worked with—Kate Hahn, Sarah Walker, Wendy Molyneux, Jason Roeder, Bob Woodiwiss. They never received the recognition and awards they richly deserved. That’s another thing I learned from working at F+W Media: top-shelf, sophisticated humor is a tough sell in the mainstream trade.

About John Sundman

Profile photo of John Sundman
I have self-published three cyberpunkish novels since 1999 -- Acts of the Apostles, Cheap Complex Devices, and The Pains -- all of which are available in one form or another for free download under creative commons license. I've sold about 6,000 printed books, and the free versions have been downloaded 20k+ times. I've recently also made various other ebook versions of my books available for sale -- so my free books are competing with my for-sale books in both print and electronic form. Hoping to share with y'all a few lessons I've learned, and also, of course, to learn from the community.

5 comments

  1. Profile wp-user-avatar wp-user-avatar-45 alignnone photo of kathleen shoop

    What a fantastic interview/Q&A! I met Jane at Pennwriters a few years back and it’s so great to see she’s still out there helping everyone who needs/wants it!! I’ve made the decision to self-publish so I’ll be visiting your site (and Jane’s) regularly. Thanks for being there.

  2. Profile wp-user-avatar wp-user-avatar-45 alignnone photo of Stephanie Zia

    Fantastic interview. Thank you for putting the online promotion strategy into perspective – 50/50 writing/promotion sounds about right.

  3. Profile wp-user-avatar wp-user-avatar-45 alignnone photo of Blaze McRob

    Jane makes so many good points in this interview. Her realism is very refreshing. Like it or not, the industry is changing and writers have to adjust. For those willing to take the steps that Jane proposes, the future is rosy. As Jane says, the money might not be great, but by viewing publishing as a business, we shouldn’t lose our shirts. I love reading Jane’s comments on THERE ARE NO RULES. Always delightful. Thank you for your time, Jane.

  4. Hello Jane & John – thanks for this amazing post. Almost like getting a really fast MBA on the writing industry. (I like to call it writing rather than publishing.) I appreciate the succinctness with which Jane recommends what to do and where to concentrate effort. I think writers should examine their personal business model – how they develop, produce, market, sell and distribute to readers – and build a strategy for their work much as a small business would do. Good writing alone isn’t enough IF you want to reach a large group of readers whether fiction or non-fiction.

    Jane points out many elements of this business model. I realize that it’s not usually cool to mention one’s own blog, however, I’ve been doing some posts on the business of writing which might be of interest to you and others. You can find them at http://www.onewritersvoice.com . Would love to hear feedback.

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