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Episode XVI: Serendipity

Published 6/3/15
In this installment, I speak with Jane Friedman. Topics include building a digital presence, serendipity, querying 15 years ago vs. now, agents vs. self-publishing, crowdfunding, the future of publishing & more.

I’m here with Jane Friedman, Renaissance woman of digital publishing. Like a few of the guests we’ve had on, Jane does it all: speaker, professor, consultant, writer, editor, publisher and more. Her Twitter bio boasts that she helps “authors make the best decisions for their careers”. I’ll grill you on that in one moment. First things first: let’s bridge the digital divide: where are you and what do you see?

I'm in my sunny home office in Charlottesville, VA. The cat is napping behind me. I don't see much other than my computer screens and the tops of neighbor's houses.

I'm glad I have your undivided attention then. If you can help authors make the best decisions of their careers, I’m going to assume you can prevent them from making the worst decisions of their careers. What are some common mistakes you see authors make?

Everyone's in such a damn rush. I'm unwilling to blame it on instant-gratification culture (that's too easy), but there's a real lack of patience. Patience to make a piece of writing better, patience to research agents-editors-outlets, patience to network, patience to get comfortable with social media.

Also, many people are confused about the role of social media or other online activity (e.g., blogging). They put it before the writing or the message. Let's be clear: the work comes first, in 90% of cases. (Sometimes the blogging is the creative work. Sometimes the social media can be the creative work, too.) But for writers who want to write traditional things (books, essays, etc), you build off the work itself.

That's very fair, very straightforward advice. We’ve seen some writers land monumental debut deals without a Twitter, others who have a gargantuan presence, but with little success, and everything in between. How crucial is a digital presence in building a successful career as a writer?

It's critical for the writer who has their eye on the big picture, who really wants that career as a writer and would like it to be as central as possible, who would like it to "pay." You can disregard your digital presence and still write and publish, but you may be quite limited, challenged, or frustrated on growing the business. There are exceptions, of course. Some people are simply very privileged or well-connected. That has always helped people—since the time of patronage.

In your mind, how much of the advantages of a digital presence has to do with readers seeing you, and how much of it has to do with professionals seeing you?

Both. As an editor, I made assignments and signed authors for book deals who were putting their work out there. One really good example is John Warner of McSweeney's—we launched a years-long relationship based on a single blog post he wrote that I read. 

Speaking for myself, as a writer, my blog and online visibility is largely responsible for allowing me to go full-time freelance with nary a bump in the road, as far as transitioning away from a salaried day job. (I've doubled my salary in less than year!) That simply wouldn't have been possible if it weren't for my online activity.

I'm saying simply too much. I think it's because so many people have scary, negative warnings surrounding all of this. It's not a straight A-B line -- all of this stuff connected with "online presence" or platform. So much serendipity. But at my stage of the game, much of it feels effortless. Not a brag as much as an encouragement that I think it can happen for others, too.

Fair. Let’s transition to the first step in getting publishing (much of the time). Many writers find the querying process one of the hardest parts of building a career. How has finding an agent changed since when you started in the industry, 15 years ago? 

15 years ago, paper submissions dominated. Now email queries are the norm. I don't think this has necessarily had a favorable impact on writers. It's so easy to delete these queries, or just pay attention to a few lines. All context of a professional query presentation gets stripped away.

Again, serendipity. 

But the good news is that there's SO much more up-to-date, helpful information on what agents are looking for, e.g., #MSWL (a hashtag to track what agents are currently looking for, Manuscript Wish List).

Do you think this sort of instant feedback loop has altered what writers are writing?

Not that much. Agents/editors on conference panels say the same thing to writers who ask about trends, or what's selling. "Write what YOU want to write." That will always be sound advice.

The worn example: Nobody was shopping for boarding school fantasy middle-grade/YA when Rowling was writing Harry Potter.

Very, very true. Now, to boil an incredibly difficult, complex question down: what's the key difference between a writer who's better off going to agent route, and one going to the indie/self-pub route?

Personality. But first: I would say most first-time authors (especially novelists) should try the traditional path, especially if they believe they have a commercial project on their hands—something that's potentially going to interest a New York house.

Someone trying to publish on their own with zero experience or background in what the publishing process is like — that person is going to make a lot of mistakes, and so many end up disappointed in the results.

However, authors with a backlist, authors who have direct reach to readers or their audience, authors who've been around the block: often they can do just as well on their own, especially if they have resources they can trust (a good editor or designer, etc). Nonfiction authors can also more easily go the self-pub route, depending on the topic. Still, I think the personality of the author, and if they're an entrepreneurial sort, is a large determining factor.

Some authors are not cut out for self-pub. Not because they aren't smart enough. But they may have a partner with high value (an agent, traditional publishing editor, etc) that they can't imagine publishing without.

Something common (and commonly questioned) in any artistic industry (and a lot of others), is how far crowdfunding can take you. How bright is the future of crowdfunding in publishing? Obviously it’s going to help a certain type of writer and be useless for another type.

I think it will continue to represent a small number of publishing projects. I know there are some start-ups focused on the crowdfunding model, but to me it's a real niche space. To me it sits squarely under entrepreneurial models that aren't a good fit for a good number of authors—especially those who are unpublished and don't yet have a clear brand or readership.

So you think an already established readership is crucial for getting a publishing project off the ground? Seems difficult (or impossible) to prove the worth of a piece without, you know, making it.

Well, if you're going to successfully crowdfund, yes, It boils down to a mathematical formula, discussed here:

Maybe the people who donate are readers, maybe not—but you need some kind of reach to the people who will support you. If you're not crowdfunding, you don't necessarily have to prove your readership, though for any commercial nonfiction publishing project—something you'd pitch to an agent or New York house, you do in fact have to prove the readership exists (via a book proposal, ultimately a business plan). Publishing is a business where each book entails financial risk. Of course, some publishers are nonprofits, but let's assume you and the publisher at least need to cover your costs. You better know who the book is targeting.

Let’s cut back to your comment about big New York houses for a moment. Publishing through them is desirable for many reasons. How do you think that experience for writers has changed in the last 10, 20, 50 years?

Surprisingly little has changed, aside from the consolidation in the business, which creates fewer houses for agents/authors to approach with a work. You do hear more complaining nowadays that publishers aren't holding up their end of the bargain on marketing and promoting. The funny thing is, I'm not sure they ever did better previously—it was just more straightforward to market and promote a book when everyone did their shopping in very specific places (e.g., independent and chain bookstores). Nowadays, it's harder to market books and reach the same people you did before through a front-of-store display for instance. So authors feel like publishers are failing them when publishers have always been rather crap at reaching readers to begin with.

It seems publishing houses can bring the money, but authors have to bring the legwork. Fair?

Define "money". Haha.

Peter McCarthy, someone with a long history in publishing—who's now a marketing consultant to publishers and authors—has said that other marketers in consumer industries laugh when they see the budgets publishers have for books.

Publishing houses are masters at physical, retail distribution. They do that very well. They're also critical for worldwide branding and marketing (e.g., translations, releasing a book across many territories/countries). They also help create the right conditions for traditional media coverage or mass media coverage. That's their strength. What would we call that? Admin and logistics? Pipeline gurus.

I guess placement on physical shelves is half the battle. Getting written up and reviewed is also important, and having the name of the publisher can get you there too.


Some interviewees like this next part, some don’t. I want to play mystic for a moment. Can you come up with, or have you considered, a way of publishing that doesn’t exist in any form today, but may come to be in the future (i.e. predicting “crowdfunding” 10 years ago)?

There are a few ideas that interest me, but I'm not sure they don't exist right now—just not fully realized.

I'll take it.

1. Community-driven writing and publishing. Look at Wattpad. I'm fascinated by how young writers are basically learning to write in front of an audience, maturing as storytellers, building a readership in the process, and then getting picked up by publishers. It's still a minuscule number of authors we're talking about (some would say they're outliers), but the collaborative nature of what's happening there is exciting and feels to me more natural than writers hiding away in their Enlightenment Garret of Genius, and coming forth with a new work to bestow unto the world.

2. O'Reilly has been working on seamless tools to produce content that can then be pushed into print book form, ebook form, and other forms. It still feels like we're in the dark ages at most traditional publishing houses, where you have a separate production process for every format or edition, and a fairly complicated, error-prone process. When that becomes more streamlined, when better technology is in place, I wonder how that might affect the production of work, and the creative process itself. You see glimmerings in little tools here and there, but nothing holistic yet.

3. More specifically, related to the literary journal/publishing world, I really admire the model of Nautilus, which just won a Nat'l Magazine Award. Basically, they put out content online on a regular basis, then package it up into print form. "Members" (rather than subscribers) get cool things and surprises. This is a model I tried to push at VQR, but no one agreed with me. Membership or community models that go beyond "let's sell you some writing as this print artifact" will need to be employed if literary publications are going to survive.

These are all great examples. We're nearing the end of the time, so I'll take last call on comments. Anything you'd want to tell a burgeoning writer?

If you look at the history of authorship, it's authors who've been the innovators, who've changed business models or methods of sustaining their careers. It's the publishers whose models haven't budged. Writers too often are afraid to experiment or think beyond the norms of the literary culture they're swimming in. Get past the conventional thinking and value judgments surrounding digital media, and make the tools your own.

Thanks for your time Jane, and your words.

Thanks, Andrew. It's been a pleasure.