IT’S TELEVISION TUESDAY!!
The Business Of Being A Writer With Jane Friedman
You’re missing out if you haven’t picked up this book yet!
Have you ever had to go out of your way to get a window seat? Whether it be on a bus, train, car, or an airplane? Well if you did, there were definite benefits to the journey. So why do adults and children alike fight for the ever-sacred window seat? It’s not about the window itself, but the view that comes with it. The scenery and vista are the grand prize! Something well worth fighting for, so here it is.
Today we have a “window seat” experience with a very special person among both the publishing and writing community. Someone who hardly requires an introduction; who is widely respected for her knowledge, experience, generosity and expertise in multiple areas.
People are multi-faceted creatures with many sides that we may or may not be aware of. In the process this interview, I was ecstatic to see various sides of Jane I hadn’t seen before. Splendid indeed!
Here’s a little more about Jane, which is just the tip of the iceberg. If you’d like the full iceberg experience please visit her about page on her blog. Her resume could very easily saturate an entire blog post.
Don’t miss Publishing 101!
I’ve heard of some famous Friedmans in Cincinnati and beyond, are you related to them?
I wish I knew, but probably not.
You write poetry! Do you still write poetry? I was so elated to see “Jane’s Embarrassing College Poetry” on Amazon. I think we largely know you in the publishing realm, but not so much as a writer, or even a reader.
I haven’t written poetry since I left graduate school in the early 2000s—I became consumed with my career in the publishing industry.
Now that I’m my own boss, and my business is doing well, I have a chance to steal back some personal time. So what do I write? I don’t know. Staying busy with my career (perhaps a “shadow career” to use a term from Steven Pressfield) has been an excellent way to avoid confronting the most fearful step of all—seriously devoting myself to my own writing.
Jane writes poetry! YES. I almost fell out of my chair when I saw your poetry book on Amazon. I’ve included the first poem for proof.
LYING IN BED
The little things that keep us up at night-
a drip drip coming from the kitchen sink;
the entrancing glow of the streets and soft moonlight;
the heater rattling on, clink by clink.
Two thrown-off sheets and sweat above my lip,
the windows open, breezes blowing in.
Both hands and fingers grasping the air,no grip,
but shadows touch the walls, acting the twin.
The curse of overactive minds I know,
for the art of sleeping well is lost on me,
when I remember your leaving years ago
and sleep away from where I thought I’d be.
Then you laugh someplace and mention my small name.
I wake to hear you; nothing is the same.
I read somewhere where you said, “I probably read more than anyone on the planet”…and I wanted to get a window into your THAT experience. I’m assuming this is academic reading. Can you bring us into this experience, and what exactly you’re looking for?
I think what you’re remembering is a line from Publishing 101, where I discuss having read more writing advice than anyone else on the planet. That’s a result of working for Writer’s Digest, the No. 1 publisher of writing advice books in the world. We released several dozen books every year while I worked there—in addition to the monthly magazine—and not only did I read the majority of what we published, but I had to keep up on the competing books as well.
These days, most of my reading is related to the business of the publishing industry and the evolution and future of the media. I have moments of existential angst where I ask myself, “Did I really choose this? How did I end up here?” But I don’t think the answer matters; it’s where I am, and there’s satisfaction in the mastery I’ve attained. However, it does matter what I do next: is this an obsession I want to keep feeding?
In recent years I’ve become interested in reading histories. Maybe reading too many trend pieces and hot takes has resulted in a desire for a deeper understanding of cyclical change and behavioral patterns. I want to get beyond either/or, reductionist thinking and instead investigate better questions to ask and how certain frameworks affect the questions and answers we come up with. Unfortunately, nuanced thinking isn’t known to drive traffic or buzz.
Epic indeed. I enjoyed what you said about the “evolution and future of the media” as it relates the business of publishing. Definitely a hot topic!
The Hot Flame of Publishing
What kind of books do you read for pleasure?
Almost always nonfiction. One of my recent favorite reads was What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly. I’m currently working through From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun and will soon finish Status Anxietyby Alain de Botton. I’m looking forward to reading Virginia Heffernan’s newest book on the internet. To fall asleep I read Wikipedia entries on my phone.
I’m also a devoted subscriber to The New Yorker; that’s my coffee-and-toast reading in the morning. I haven’t missed an issue since 1998.
Nice. I hear you–Can’t miss that coffee time. The apocalypse can wait…Give me my coffee first. I’m all over the place with reading habits, but reading a lot about personality traits. I saw that you’re INFP! Woo-hoo! I’m ENFP, so we’re in the same neighborhood.
Who are your favorite authors and why?
I don’t really have favorite authors, but if I had to choose one, Alain de Botton. Reading his books are like eating a nutritious doughnut.
Nutritious doughnuts, now that’s something they could genetically modify. Haven’t heard of Alain de Botton, I’ll have to check him out.
Here’s my one publishing question based on the most recent Hot Sheet [http://hotsheetpub.com] newsletter. Can you briefly touch on the deeper market factors affecting the income of writers today? (See excerpt below)
“Publishers share the frustration of the author community that it is increasingly difficult for authors to make a decent living from their writing. However, we locate the principal source of this problem not in the contractual relations between publisher and author but in deeper market factors. With margins being squeezed across the whole supply chain, books facing increasing stiff competition from other media and entertainment sectors for consumers’ time, and there simply being more writers … the reasons for the decline in average author income are wide and varied.”
Well, here’s the thing—my partner on The Hot Sheet wrote this particular item, and while you can find evidence to support this view, I don’t buy into the popular myth that it’s increasingly difficult for authors to make a decent living from their writing. It has always been difficult.
That said, perhaps one of the best times to be a writer was during the 19th century. Literacy dramatically increased, and the number of magazines exploded, in addition to the number of books published annually. But despite it being something of a golden age, one author complained to a US congressional committee that he did not know any author who made a living by writing literary work. He said that of all the learned professions, “Literature is the most poorly paid.” The truth is that many writers’ careers are gifted into existence by their birth, by privilege, by marriage.
Authors sometimes lay the blame for their economic situation on the publisher, and it has always been thus. Going back to ancient Rome, authors have been accusing their publishers of greed. But such accusations almost always betray ignorance about how the industry works.
In the digital era, it’s becoming more common to lay the blame for authors’ suffering on the tech companies, such as Google. The Authors Guild in particular has expended all kinds of resource on trying to argue before the US courts that Google essentially steals money out of the pockets of authors and publishers. There’s an oft-repeated and oft-misunderstood saying that “information wants to be free,” which the Authors Guild says creates a sense of entitlement among readers, or that it creates an expectation that writers shouldn’t be paid. I don’t think this is true at all. However, what’s valuable to us, or what is worth paying for, has changed. Analyst Ben Thompson explains the value shift very well in his post about the the Smiling Curve [https://stratechery.com/2014/publishers-smiling-curve/]. Clay Shirky too has written at length about how publishing has been turned into a “button”—publishing is the new literacy, meaning that anyone can publish, it doesn’t require professional experience any longer. We live in an era of universal authorship where everyone has the ability for self-expression and distribution of that expression. Not all of that expression will be high quality (a lot of it will be crap), but I don’t place a value judgment on that; it’s a fact of digital life and we can’t go back to some previous era. And if you could go back to a previous era, you would simply find the same complaints in the culture: that too much crap is being published. It dates back to Gutenberg, these “problems” we have with both quality and quantity of material being published.
Authors can make a decent living from their writing if they’re willing to pay attention to how the business works, figure out a business model that works for them, and adapt as needed. Too many authors and authors’ organizations want to preserve a system that doesn’t work with new forms of publishing, distribution, and media.
This is great info. I think I’ll start calling you Jedi Jane.
Your Twitter profile has the following statement: “A writer who believes art and business can happily co-exist.” Can you give us a little marriage counseling, those of us who are not looking forward to this union?
Another one of the harmful assumptions of “serious” writers is that art and business are antithetical to one another. This belief is so ingrained that no one questions it any longer. Before writers even have a single word published—before they’ve encountered any aspect of the business of their art—they presume that they are bad at business or that business concerns will pollute their efforts. There’s absolutely no openness to the possibility that the business side can be just as imaginative and interesting as the artistic process itself. And of course businesses excel when they employ people who have kept their artistic side alive, who can bring imagination and innovation to their work.
To be sure, business can and does ask for compromises—but that’s not always to the detriment of art. A bit of friction, some kind of barrier—a net on the tennis court!—is healthy. There’s a wonderful book Make Money Make Art by Elizabeth Hyde Stephens that looks at this dynamic using the framework of Jim Henson’s career. He started off in advertising, and found ways to pursue his art in commercial settings. He used those commercial opportunities to hone his craft and support later artistic projects. Dana Gioia is another example of someone who sees how art and business can inform each other—a poet who has an MBA and worked as a corporate executive. And Alain de Botton is yet another; although I don’t think I’ve heard or read him on this topic, it’s clear that he has an integrative approach. Just look at his venture, The School of Life, and how it’s a business manifestation of the ideas you find in his books. It’s genius. What if he said, “Oh no, getting involved in a business is beneath me, it is crass. I need to focus on my writing.” Thank God he is not that boring.
Thanks, I needed to hear that. I’m glad you’re pointing the misconceptions that many of us have ingrained us already. I guess this is the part where we ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after!. Hey, my grandparents were married for 60+ years! And that’s really saying something.
Tell us about your upcoming book!
There are thousands of students in creative writing programs who study the art and the craft, but receive very little or no guidance on what to do once they’ve graduated. They don’t know how the publishing business works and their expectations can be wildly out of line with reality. Even worse, they can even be conditioned—because of everything I’ve described above—to feel bitter and resentful toward editors, agents, and the industry, to feel victimized. This doesn’t help anyone and it has to stop.
My book, The Business of Being a Writer, is meant to provide that missing education—what it means to make a living as a writer, and how to understand the business well enough to advance your writing career, without relying on luck or magical thinking. It’s slated for release in Fall 2017 from the University of Chicago Press.
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