The Business of Being a Writer with Jane FriedmanJun 29, 2022
Jane Friedman is an icon in the publishing space. With over two decades of experience in the business, she is truly considered the world's leading expert on traditional publishing, self publishing and where the twain shall meet. She's the curator of The Hot Sheet, a biweekly paid newsletter, oversees a wildly popular blog and is also the author of The Business of Being a Writer.
In this episode, we discussed how important it is to know what you want your book to do for you, how to get bookstores interested in hosting you, the biggest changes in the publishing industry over the past year and so much more.
Anna David: Well, thank you so much for being here, Jane, I really appreciate it.
Jane Friedman: My pleasure.
Anna David: One thing, I have actually spoken about you on this show before and one of the conversations I recently had about you was with Elizabeth Lyons, and we were talking about how much we both love that you don't pick a side. You are really right there, you can't go well, Jane is very true. She's all for tradition but no, no, no, she's all for self publishing. So would you say that's accurate that you haven't picked aside?
Jane Friedman: Absolutely. And I am glad you have noticed that. I hope everybody notices that I like the 360 degree view. And I've experienced enough stories or met with enough authors that I know that there isn't like a right side to publishing paths. Everyone's position and needs are unique.
Anna David: Yeah, I love it. This is the quote from your said, I love it. “I've been working in book publishing since the 1990s, but my views are not from the 1990s.” So what would you say because it's changing so quickly, how would you say traditional publishing has changed the most in the past year? So right now we're recording this in June of 2022. What would you say is the most significant change in the past year?
Jane Friedman: The supply chain issues have gotten worse. I mean, they were bad a year ago. But I know it seems insane. But it's getting worse. And I think that a lot of publishers are struggling to get their printing time to get their paper and to do the things to have a normal publishing schedule. And I think it's just creating a lot of stress. So that's one piece. Another piece is labor issues. So there are a lot of people as we're coming out of the pandemic, knock on wood, that are reevaluating their priorities. And the pandemic has resulted in a wake up call for a lot of people about work life balance. And so we're seeing a lot of discussion about how to treat publishings workers. I have no idea where that's going to fall out. But we'll see what happens.
Anna David: And in terms of the supply chain issues, it almost feels like being in traditional publishing, it's more of a concern, because, you know, Amazon and print on demand those that, you know, they are just printing every night, right?
Jane Friedman: Right. So print on demand is a bit of a different animal, traditional publishers are using print on demand to fill in the gaps. But because of all of these supply chain crunches, prices are going up, it's probably going to result in higher book prices for everybody. Some people listening may have already noticed higher prices on books, and POD prices are going up too. So even self publishing authors are affected by this.
Anna David: But it's not really affecting the speed a little bit. I am noticing right now that Amazon KDP has had just kind of exquisite customer support for years. And now it's like sorry, there's a delay in there. There are no explanations. There's just excuses, which is unusual for such amazing tech support.
Jane Friedman: Yes, I see and hear a lot of varied experiences with Amazon, it's really hard to understand what's going on behind the scenes because one person will have a smooth problem-free experience and others are just banging their head against the wall. So yeah, it's hard to comment on Amazon's customer service given the variety of diversity of the experience.
Anna David: So one of the things that I have always felt very aligned with you on is this idea about writers and making a living there are these ideas like oh, I just, you know, we all think it's gonna be different for us. We all think it Yeah, yeah, no one can make a living, whatever, it's gonna be different for me. What do you think is the best way for a writer to make a living?
Jane Friedman: If it's your first book, the Living isn't likely to come from book sales alone. Now, you may have received a really ginormous advance, which might keep you afloat for a while. But I would say that most authors if they're making a living, it's through ancillary activities related to that book. So for nonfiction authors that could be speaking and consulting. Things that grow their business footprint. If it's fiction, it gets a little bit tougher. So usually, then you're getting into services where you're helping people with less experience. Come up the ladder, so you're providing editing services or marketing services, things that maybe you've become an expert for children's authors, classroom visits and speaking engagements can be very important and provide additional revenue. Some writers are great freelance writers, although some of those opportunities have been drying up just because of the state of the media and magazine industry.
Anna David: I'm interested in, so you really would say your main business is The Hot Sheet? And if so when did it become clear, this is my main business, everything else is adjunct?
Jane Friedman: It's probably about a third of my business. The bulk of my business is online education. So running one time webinars is where I earn most of my income. And then book sales would probably be less than 5%. At this point. Yeah. As far as where I recognized The Hot Sheet would become the size it is today. I mean, I think I knew all along, just because of my experience in the industry, that it could be basically the entirety of my business if I chose to focus on it to the exclusion of all else, but I like variety. I don't want to do just one thing. Yeah.
Anna David: Yeah. It's interesting, because it was my first introduction, it was, you know, before Substack existed, I was like, wait, you charge for a newsletter. And now it's become so commonplace. But I'm very intrigued by it. So it's, you know, anybody? Because it is everyone I know who reads it, it's if you open it right away, it's all these? How do you do it? How is it you and your husband work on it, you have a team that works on it, I know you have original reporting in it. So you have freelancers and all of that?
Jane Friedman: Most of the writing gets done by myself. So it's my writing, reporting and research, then I have a freelance copy editor who goes through all of the content, does the fact checking and style and you know, fixing grammatical errors. And then my husband who does work for me in the business, he does what I consider the production, which is you know, loading it all into the MailChimp system and then doing customer service. So you know, when people have deliverability issues, or we need to invoice someone, or people aren't, you know, whatever the issue is, for the reader, he's there to take care of it.
Anna David: And how are you finding all of those stories? Is it just your voraciousness in terms of researching them? You have Google Alerts, you're going to events? How are you doing it?
Jane Friedman: Well, it's somewhat incestuous, because I read a ton of newsletters to make my own newsletter, right? And, but, you know, I've been studying industry publications, you know, since the early 2000s. So I obviously subscribed to all of the main industry outlets like Publishers Weekly, the Bookseller's Shelf Awareness, Publishers Lunch, I could go on. But there are lots of others like publishing adjacent newsletters that are super helpful, and that I'm always scanning for bigger picture trends, like related to Substack, or to advertising, or serial reading and writing apps. So the publishing world is very multifaceted. Some people call it, you know, two dozen industries and one and so that always gives me a lot of fuel for the fire.
Anna David: So I'm curious, what would you call it? How would you define success for a book? I know it depends on the author, but what would you consider a, quote, successful book?
Jane Friedman: If it's my personal definition, what would success mean, for me publishing a book, it's going to raise my profile and more strongly identify me with a specific message or a specific audience that I want to be known by. So in my last book, The Business of Being a Writer, my goal was to strongly associate myself with writers interested in the business. And I would say by that measure, it's been a success. It's also been for the publisher of financial success. So there will be a second edition, which I happen to be working on now. Another one of my goals was to get to writers early in their journey. So I really wanted to see the book adopted by professors in MFA programs or undergraduate writing programs. And that's one of the reasons that I worked with the University of Chicago Press on that book, because they have the clout and the ability to get books into classrooms. So again, I would say check mark on that, because it is being used by those programs.
Anna David: Do you think a writer should go into a book knowing this is what success would look like for me?
Jane Friedman: Oh, yes. It just affects the writing and the development of the book to know why are you spending time doing this thing that is basically going to pay you pennies on the hour? Or maybe even like a percentage of a penny on the hour. So you have to really be clear and honest with yourself about what you would like to see happen. That's hopefully not related to sales, which you have no control over. To some extent, you have no control over it.
Anna David: And how could someone know if their idea is good or not?
Jane Friedman: I think it really goes back to your understanding of who you're writing for a lot of people are writing, not in a bad way for themselves, and they haven't really thought about, okay, who is the ideal reader for this? Whose life am I trying to change? Who am I speaking to, that really needs to hear this message or story or benefit from this information? And by either planning the book or writing the book with that person in mind, it helps avoid going too broad trying to include everyone or serve all audiences, which is a classic mistake. And just dig into the people that you think will be most likely to read it and the easiest for you to reach.
Anna David: It's so interesting, because I come from traditional publishing. Why did they ever say that? Why did that never come up in all those meanings? No one ever said that, six books. Do you know what I mean?
Jane Friedman: I do know what you mean. I mean, I think this is a problem primarily with the more literary and publishing or, especially in New York publishing, where there's a lot of respect for personalities and people's gut instinct. And there's this overriding myth, neither good nor bad, that no one knows what books are gonna sell. And they were just going to throw it all at the wall and see what sticks. And if you are making decisions by gut instinct, then yeah, that sort of thinking makes sense. But I actually started working at a publishing company that did market research. And it was my first responsibility, in my first year on the job to do that market research into certain segments. And we had book clubs where we could survey our members and say, which of these books do you want to buy next? And so that really disciplined me early that you can find out the answers to what people want, and you can develop books that have a waiting audience, but that is not normal for most of big publishing.
Anna David: Why do you think that they are so anti research?
Jane Friedman: I don't think typically, there haven't been departments devoted to it, you would have to actually hire and market research people. And again, there's this art commerce tension, you know, although I think that's changed a lot more in the last 10 to 20 years, especially with the advent of Amazon, which showed, oh, look, if you pay attention to some data and analytics, and you measure the audience, it has results. So I do think there are more people in marketing departments at big publishers today that are involved in marketing analytics, but still, that it's hard to change that culture.
Anna David: Yeah, I mean, and I think it's sort of like will they know those big hits, they're going to hit so big, if it's a JK Rowling or Brene Brown, or whatever it is, that they don't need to bother, because we're gonna, you know what I mean, we're going to be okay, in the end, like, even though we're going to lose money on on 99% of these. I mean, that's how it feels to me.
Jane Friedman: It can feel that way. And, it's really sad for the authors, you know, of those books, who aren't, you know, inevitably they're disappointed by performance. And they think their publisher could have done more, and maybe the publisher could have.
Anna David: Yeah, it's interesting now that I'm on this side of it. And I remember speaking to a publicist, and she told me what I always suspected, she had been an in-house published publicist at a big five publishing company. And she's like, you just kind of had to avoid those authors that you weren't doing anything for. Because what are you going to tell them? Like, you don't matter? But the author feels it. It's almost I don't know, I guess it's good. If someone had sent that to me, I would have been really upset. But since it really is, you know, each author is really in it for his or herself. What do you think? What do you think is the most crucial thing to do all authors need to have? Newsletter lists?
Jane Friedman: Well, it is like the number one most powerful sales and marketing tool hands down. There is nothing in my mind. That's a better asset to have that protects you from the changes happening. If your publisher drops you if your agent dies, if you know, whatever happens, you've still got that direct connection to your readers. I always hesitate to say, you know, you must and there is no other way, but it is one of the best insurance policies against change in the industry. And certainly we're seeing now with the growing privacy protections through social media or Apple. They're coming on Google too, that It makes those channels less effective, it makes the advertising less effective. And if you hear people inside publishing talking today, even at traditional publishers, they're trying to beef up what they call their first party data, which is their direct experience of selling to readers and that often through email, and not through their own website. And of course, Amazon's not sharing any data. So that's really incumbent on whether it's the author or publisher to figure out who those readers are, and reach them without depending on a third party.
Anna David: Even when people go, Well, emails dead, who opens email anymore? It's just simply not true?
Jane Friedman: It's not true.
Anna David: In terms of social media, you know, one of the most fascinating things and I know you definitely covered it, but was that New York Times story about a year ago that said, like, “Okay, here we go, if publishers had been, you know, really prioritizing social media, but Billie Eilish has millions of subscribers.” And she sold, I think it was under 60,000 copies, and Justin Timberlake, you know, over five years under 100,000 copies. So what is it with social media? Will you explain how it matters and how it doesn't matter?
Jane Friedman: Well, it is really like, big stories that you see in the New York Times that look at this issue, the one that you mentioned, is a particularly fascinating one, because I don't see any evidence that the publishers were actively collaborating with those celebrity authors to use their social media platform to help sell books. So if the author themselves haven't kind of brought people in, and you know, taking them along on the journey, and themselves being excited about the book and talking about it, of course, there's not going to be any sales of it. So the publisher just can't sit back and wait for the social media numbers to do their job. There has to be an actual engagement, surprise. The other thing that I think people miss about this distinction is that, for example, on TikTok, we have the book talk phenomenon, which is indeed selling tons of books. It's responsible for the bulk of fiction sales growth this year, and last year. But is it the author's themselves doing that? Not really, it's the influencers and other people who are just excited to talk about and recommend books. So social media, in that instance, does sell books, but it's because of community engagement and enthusiasm. It's not because the author amassed some enormous TikTok following, although I will say, there are some authors like Colleen Hoover, who are wonderful at using TikTok. And, you know, using it for engagement in order to boost visibility and boost sales, but you can't tell someone who's a debut author? Yeah, go get on TikTok. And that will ensure sales? It does not.
Anna David: I mean, that's the thing. I'll talk to people and they go, Well, I really need to focus on that. And it's true, but oh my God, it’s a day in day out slog, I do think it works. I think anyone who's listening, you know, you don't have to go like I had Tik ok up. Find your path, find your thing. Try to make it fun. That thing that makes you creative. When everything in you says this is sick, this is social media? Well, you're a creative find a way to make it fun is sort of where I stand with that. But you don't think writers have to be on social media?
Jane Friedman: I think you make your life increasingly difficult as an author if you don't use anything whatsoever. It's possible. I've seen authors do it. Yeah. But you're, I think you're making your life harder. And so it's not a path I recommend, unless you just feel like for whatever reason that it's just going to drain you and take away and the negatives are going to really outweigh the positives.
Anna David: How important do you think media attention is for an author?
Jane Friedman: It's increasingly hard to get because the number of media outlets covering books has diminished over time. And it's one of the number one things you're going to hear a publishing industry say is that media outlets don't cover books like they used to. Part of this has to do with the socio-political environment. Certain presidents who have been in office, climate change, gun violence, like there are a lot of things competing for people's attention, particularly right now when we feel like the world is on fire. And it also raises questions for writers themselves about why am I producing art or talking about my book, when there are these apparently very serious issues in the world today. But that doesn't directly answer your question. I'm just talking about how hard it is. But I think any marketer or publicist would tell you that right now, part of the game is just keeping visibility consistent over a long period of time. So to the extent that you can get some media hits, even if there's from a smaller outlet. That's to keep the ball rolling. The larger the number of impressions, the more likely you're going to get sales over time. It usually doesn't happen with the first impression unless we're talking about someone who already knows you. And has been waiting for your book to come out.
Anna David: But also seeing how your book relates to the news. And obviously, that's not always the case with fiction. It's not easy. But but with nonfiction, you know, there again, it's using your creativity to find a way like, well, how does the business of being a writer fit into what's what? That's what we figure out, we’re creative people?
Jane Friedman: Yes, you have to find those links between what people are talking about, what's in the Zeitgeist, and what's in your book.
Anna David: Do you think there's particular media hits that really moved the needle? Obviously, Terry Gross. But are there others? I mean, I know from personal experience, like being on Good Morning America, Today show that doesn't necessarily result in book sales.
Jane Friedman: That's correct. The big favorite right now is CBS Sunday Morning, because they actually give the author a good seven or 10 minutes to talk about the book. And so people like to have an opportunity to really kind of sink into who this author is and what they're concerned about. Whereas the other morning shows, I don't know how long those segments are, but they're really short. Other things, any sort of celebrity book club or influencer book club. So this includes Reese Witherspoon, Jenna Bush, retailer book clubs, the Barnes and Noble, they all have these pics, and those are all super helpful.
Anna David: Do you have any tips for getting attention from those celebrity book clubs?
Jane Friedman: I mean, unless you already have an existing connection, I don't know that I would recommend trying to knock on those doors. It's really something that's facilitated through your publisher.
Anna David: Yeah, yeah. Do you recommend book tours?
Jane Friedman: I think they can still be super useful, but you have to be strategic about it. And there's probably going to be some sort of hybrid tour from now on out. So you'll do some things online, because it's just not going to be worth the return on investment to fly out to the other end of the country. But I do think it's still super useful, especially in your region, to get media going to have that library or bookstore winery launch event because that allows the media to report on something interesting, and it's happening. So this goes back many years, often it was the bookstore event, it was used to get the local and regional media, it wasn't necessarily that the sales in the store was the point, it was the bigger impression that you were making in that media market. So those reasons to do events still exist. I think that I would encourage people to think about collaborating on these events, rather than being a solo author. Can you be in conversation with another author? Can there be a theme surrounding the event? So it's not just about you reading from a book, instead, you're analyzing a pertinent current events issue that your book ties into, as you mentioned earlier? That just makes the events more appealing and dynamic.
Anna David: And so in the two, would you recommend that somebody, because this is a conversation I have with people all the time, I just want to try traditional publishing first, do you think everybody who wants to be published traditionally should try first? And have NBP be a second option?
Jane Friedman: Yeah, if that's what you want, I would suggest trying it like the only thing you have to lose is your time and maybe a bit of your ego. Right? So you can set up a submissions process that you kind of knock out I would say in three months, I wouldn't like to wait forever and ever to get responses. I'd like to test the waters, see what responses you can get and give yourself a deadline to finish that process and then move on. I think it's really important not to get caught up in like this hamster wheel of submission where you kind of stopped for a while because you're feeling dejected. You think well, maybe I'd get this edited or there's a lot of hemming and hawing and doubt, which is totally normal. But I would say do not linger in that process, move through it, and then move on.
Anna David: So that's three months for an agent, and then maybe another three months, like if you don't get an agent in three months, move on and then give your agent three months to try to sell the book. If you get an agent?
Jane Friedman: The agent will offer realistic expectations there. So what I'm hearing right now is that it's taking editors longer to look at manuscripts and read them. So it could be that it takes longer than three months. It might be six months, but I would say you know, take your agent's guidance on that one, but if they can't sell it in a year, that's definitely what I would cut loose and consider another avenue.
Anna David: What do you see as today the advantages of having a traditional publisher?
Jane Friedman: Oh, boy, it depends so much on the publisher we're talking about. So for instance, Amazon publishing, which many people confuse with self publishing, it's not their traditional publishing operation that does 1000 titles a year, they're enormous, they have about two dozen imprints covering every category and genre. If you get a deal with Amazon publishing, you're probably going to have a small advance relative to like a big New York house, but you're gonna get the power of Amazon, putting your book in front of the people, it's pretty sure it's going people that they think are going to buy the book. They're probably going to put it in Amazon Prime, or it's going to be in Kindle Unlimited, and you're going to get huge exposure, that it would be very hard for like a big five publisher to get you. But you're in the Amazon ecosystem, you know, you're not in the bookstore ecosystem.
Now, if you're the sort of author who feels like oh, my God, this is the independent bookstore book, I think it's going to the bookstore, people are going to love this thing. And you can sometimes see exactly what titles are like that, because they're actually about bookstores. And those are just you can tell these are dead ringers for bookstore promotion. Anyway, if that's what you want, you kind of need a big five to help you do that, or at least a really strong, independent house like Grove Atlantic. So it really goes back to what you're looking for. Not that you have the choice of publisher there. But publishers are great at getting your book stocked and bricks and mortar. They can be really powerful at online marketing and promotion, if they have that direct to consumer list, which some do. So if they have an active publishing program in your genre, or category, you then also have the benefit of the relationships, I hope, of other authors in that imprint. And it helps build your network as well.
Anna David: Yeah, that's a very rosy look at it. I have a much easier time getting my books I published myself in bookstores than the traditionally published ones, because if you are publishing independently, you can make your book returnable, and my publisher didn't. So they don't want to or, anyway. Oh, Jane, you don't want to hear me? Just trust me. Oh, so what I was going to ask you is for somebody who doesn't have a book publisher behind them, how would you recommend making yourself attractive to a bookstore or a winery or wherever? Is it saying, you know, I loved your idea about making it a themed event? Is there anything else like that? Or how would you recommend people go around trying to secure those?
Jane Friedman: Well, it's gonna depend a little bit on the venue. So like bookstores, if they're going to order the book, for the event, it needs to, it needs to be available on certain terms from certain places. So like, we're not going to order your book from Amazon, if you've self published it strictly on Amazon. You have to have it available through Ingram and you need to choose the appropriate discount, which is 55%. So there are those like little technical logistical pieces, if you're dealing with book oriented venues that have certain expectations, aside from that, any venue is going to be looking at your ability to get turnout. And so you need to look for evidence that you can generate an audience for this venue, unless they're charging you and that's how they make their money. Right. So you have to show that oh, well, you know, at my last event, it's such a venue, we had so many people turnout, and we sold so many books. And so if you're totally new, though, and don't have that track record, then you could mention maybe that you have an email list of a certain size, or you're active on social media, or you're partnering with this person who does have a presence and is going to be marketing and promoting it. So essentially, what I'm saying is you have to give them an idea of how you're going to market and promote the event and show that you're not relying on the venue itself to gin up interest.
Anna David: And I didn't actually know that there were bookstores that you could possibly pay to have an event. That's a great idea if you're brand new.
Jane Friedman: Yeah, there are some venues where you can just pay them outright. All right.
Anna David: Well, this has been fantastic. Is there any final piece of advice you have for somebody who is sort of I know I want to write a book, but I'm not sure what to do. What final advice would you have for them?
Jane Friedman: Have patience with yourself in the process. I find that a lot of people are either if they're not paralyzed by self doubt, they're rushing or they expect things to happen more quickly than they actually do, especially in the publishing industry, which is notoriously slow, but writing itself is a slow process. So just give it the respect and attention it deserves and take some joy, I hope and the act of writing and revising because that's what it all boils down to is taking joy in the work.
Anna David: Okay, great. So Jane, if people want to find you what's the best way?
Jane Friedman: My website is Janefriedman.com. That points to everything that I do, whether it's the paid newsletter or the classes and events.
Anna David: Fantastic. Thank you so much, Jane. And thank you guys for listening