Jane Friedman talks about the business of being a writer

Jane Friedman has more than twenty years of experience in the publishing industry and formerly worked for Writer’s Digest and the Virginia Quarterly Review. Her newest book is The Business of Being a Writer.

CMOS: What is the business of being a writer?

JF: To start, it’s understanding the business principles that underpin the publishing industry—particularly the sector that interests you most, whether that’s print books, magazines, literary journals, children’s literature, self-publishing, etc. Most forms of publishing are undergoing some form of transformation, and it benefits a writer to understand how and why those transformations are happening, and how it affects their ability to get published or get paid.

More importantly, it’s figuring out your business model as a working writer, which is likely to evolve over time, as your career grows and demands on your time change. It doesn’t matter if you only pursue your writing as something that doesn’t pay well, and your intention is to hold a day job. That’s as valid a business model as any other. So I help writers become more self-aware about the choices they’re making.

CMOS: Can you give an example of a question writers should ask themselves if they write “just for fun” and don’t expect to make money?

JF: If someone is writing “just for fun,” I take that to mean they don’t care if they get published or not—and may not even send their work out for consideration. But if you do want to get published, that’s a business proposition. You have to start asking yourself questions like: Who is your ideal reader? What publications or publishers serve that reader or readership? Do you have to revise or re-envision what you’re writing to get your work accepted by editors? What do you want to accomplish by making your work public (by publishing)?

CMOS: When does it make sense for a writer to self-publish?

JF: In the “old” days, before e-books existed, the only time it made sense to self-publish was when you were already running a business, and the books somehow fit into that business. You were a speaker and you sold books at the back of the room, or your book was this eccentric thing that reached a niche audience that only you knew about. Of course there were always the family histories, memoirs, and other works that I often call “legacy” works that were best suited for self-publishing.

Today, it can make sense for many types of writers self-publish, especially those writing genre fiction for adults. A significant percentage of the genre fiction market is driven by Amazon and e-book sales, and some entrepreneurial and savvy authors are better at playing that game than traditional publishers are.

Anyone who can reach their audience directly through online means (e.g., blogging and social media) has the potential to be successful at self-publishing. The larger question is: Is it the best choice for one’s goals or for a particular project? You have to choose your path for the right reason, at the right time. This requires that self-awareness I referenced before, and not being blinded by prestige-seeking behaviors that don’t align with your goals.

CMOS: With so many people publishing their own work, is it harder than ever for a writer to get noticed?

JF: What’s most difficult is that the strategies and tools for getting noticed keep shifting, and this greatly frustrates authors, and I include myself in that. But I consider all writers capable of adapting and innovating in their careers, at any stage, if they can just get out of their own way and avoid self-defeating thoughts about marketing and self-promotion.

A lot of the difficulty is psychological, of wanting your work to rise to the top based on its merits, and that’s great when it happens, but most work has to be pushed to the top. Once we can be honest about the work required—and that we’re responsible for our work, not someone else—the better position we’re in. In other words, stop complaining and instead think creatively and imaginatively about how you’re going to work the system for your own artistic and business goals.

I consider all writers capable of adapting and innovating in their careers, at any stage, if they can just get out of their own way and avoid self-defeating thoughts about marketing and self-promotion.”

CMOS: Some writers struggle with technology or are tired of being constantly online. What advice do you have for them?

JF: I find that most writers can be their own worst enemy here: they know exactly the activities that drain their energy, distract them, or make them feel worse, but they can’t stop doing them. The first step is to recognize what’s making you feel tired or what’s exacerbating the struggle. Is it related to the political environment? Is it related to who you’re seeing in your feed? Are you getting jealous about other writers’ successes and suffering from status anxiety? Get really specific about what’s aggravating you. Then take every step possible to eliminate such dynamics from your time online. It may mean you eliminate entire social networks from your daily life, and that’s fine. For every 1 really valuable activity we participate in online, there are probably ten that ought to be discarded.

But we’re really bad at the discarding, maybe because we have fear of missing out or we think we’ll hurt someone’s feelings or someone told us “we have to be on X network.” Nonsense. First and foremost, you have to be happy to show up if you’re going to be effective.

You can also just decide you’ll have a writing life that shuns tech and online life. But whatever business model you choose needs to take this into account and be adjusted accordingly. Most writers will not be as successful in their marketing and promotion efforts without some kind of online engagement.

A lot of the difficulty is psychological, of wanting your work to rise to the top based on its merits, and that’s great when it happens, but most work has to be pushed to the top.”

CMOS: In your book, you say that for some writers, social media activities “may be inseparable from their creative pursuits.” How is that?

JF: Social media, at heart, is a writing and publishing endeavor, albeit an informal one: You have to write something (a status update, a tweet) or craft an image that engages your audience. Some writers are able to use social media in a way that sharpens their creative writing skills because of the challenge it presents—communicating in a limited space where there’s scant attention. It can be easy to see this as a race to the bottom where the most over-the-top, provocative updates get the most attention. But for thoughtful writers—who tend to have thoughtful audiences—it can be a way of practicing or experimenting with voice and sharing elements of their work. Rather than social media presenting an intrusion into the creative process, it can complement and inform it. Romantic myths of authorship—that we must isolate ourselves to produce meaningful work and keep our “fragile” self private—are just that. Myths.

Find Jane Friedman at JaneFriedman.com, as well as Twitter (@JaneFriedman) and Facebook.

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Photos by (top) Carrie Coleman; (bottom) Gail Werner.