Have you thought about “the business of being a writer”? Publishing expert Jane Friedman has! In fact, her book of that title was recently published by University of Chicago Press.
Yes, writing is a creative pursuit. Yet, being a successful writer requires learning about the industry, understanding how you can support yourself financially within this field and developing a business plan to succeed. In The Business of Being a Writer, Jane Friedman offers her 20 years of experience within the publishing industry to teach writers basic—and crucial—business principles. Jane covers both general principles and those specific to the field of writing.
Here, Jane discusses how, with the right business perspective and strategies, you can gain long-term success as a writer.
The Business of Being a Writer
Lisa: What initially inspired you to write The Business of Being a Writer?
Jane: After years of interacting with emerging writers—particularly those who’d spent a lot of money on creative writing degrees—it became clear few were ever told how to make a living from writing or that their school loan debt would be a significant hurdle to making that living.
So if you are a writer looking for the business education you feel you never received, I hope this book provides the missing piece. While I try to be encouraging, and want writers to feel capable and well informed, I don’t sugarcoat the hard realities of the business. When you decide to pursue a writing career, you’ll experience frustration, again and again, and not just in the form of rejection letters. But it helps to know what’s coming and that your experience is normal.
Writers who are properly educated about the industry typically feel less bitterness and resentment toward editors, agents, and other professionals. They are less likely to see themselves as victimized and less likely to be taken advantage of. It’s the writers who lack education on how the business works who are more vulnerable to finding themselves in bad situations.
Lisa: Yes, The Business of Being a Writer, above all, empowers authors to master their own destiny!
What problems do you see The Business of Being a Writer solving for your readers?
Jane: It offers guidance on how to get a book published (how to write queries, synopses, proposals), a milestone that remains foundational to most creative writing careers. But because very few people can make a living solely by writing and publishing books, it goes further, showing why this one pursuit should not constitute one’s entire business model. Earnings can come as well from other sectors of publishing, other activities that involve writing and the types of skills one picks up as a writer.
Online media and journalism, for example, now play a significant role in even fiction writers’ careers, so the book spends considerable time on skills and business models important to the digital media realm. When combining these skills with the entrepreneurial attitude and knowledge the book teaches, a writer will be better prepared to piece together a writing life that is satisfying and sustainable.
The Process: Research, Writing, and Publishing
Lisa: How long did it take from initial idea to published book?
Jane: About three years. I wrote and submitted a proposal in late spring 2015. The book was contracted in fall 2015. I wrote the book during 2016 and it went through editing, production, and design in 2017. It released in March 2018. The schedule was lengthy in part because I worked with The University of Chicago Press, so there were two peer review periods that each added a couple months or more to the process.
Lisa: Did you think from the get-go that you wanted a university publisher so that the book would be likely used in MFA programs and other writing programs? My guess is that most writing programs don’t really teach much about the business of writing and making a living as a writer. This book fills a huge gap in that market.
Jane: Yes, I knew from the moment I started the proposal that I wanted the book to be found and used by creative writing students, and ultimately my hope is that professors will adopt it for classroom use. That’s why I worked with The University of Chicago Press. They were key to the book being taken seriously by the creative writing community at universities. Plus they have a specific series on writing, editing, and publishing that is already popular and well-known by writing programs.
Lisa: You cover a broad range of types of writing and publishing—trade books, magazines, online and literary publishing and you offer some very specific data about what writers can expect to earn in different circumstances, such as on sales of hardcover, paperback and ebooks. How many hours of research were required?
Jane: I’m fortunate in that I’ve worked in each of these fields myself, going back to 1996. I had my first taste of the business when I was the editor in chief of both my university newspaper and literary journal and was responsible for those budgets and staffs. I began working at a commercial publishing house right out of college, one that was diverse in its offerings—magazines, books, book clubs, conferences, e-commerce, online education, competitions, and more.
Over the years, I’ve attended and spoken at countless industry events, like BookExpo America and Frankfurt Book Fair, as well as a dozen or more writing conferences each year—listening to agents, editors, and authors of every background discuss the business. And of course I read books and magazine articles about where the industry is headed. So, this book represents a synthesis of everything I’ve picked up over my 20-year career, from authorities in the field as well as my own lived experience as a writer. (I’ve made a full-time living as a freelancer since 2014.)
You’re a Writer, Now Become an Entrepreneur
Lisa: You have four chapters on writers as entrepreneurs. It seems that if a writer wants to make a living in this profession, it helps to be entrepreneurial. Do you come across many writers who are not entrepreneurial? What kind of advice do you give them?
Jane: In the literary community, business concerns can be seen to negatively affect the art and craft. Furthermore, the belief is that if you’re truly talented, then the business will take care of itself. It’s that old “cream rises to the top” philosophy.
Even if you don’t believe that, it’s a mark of status not to be burdened with marketing concerns.That once you become successful or revered, you need not “lower” yourself in terms of having a website, social media presence, and so on. It’s true that once you achieve a certain level of success, these things can become less important, as you have all the visibility you might ever need or want—you’re in high demand! But emerging writers today are foolish if they think they can just sit back and wait for success to arrive simply by producing great work.
My advice for such writers is that they can ignore the business as long as they don’t expect to make a living from their writing. If they intend to support themselves from their art, then they need to give some thought to what business model will be sustainable for them and suit their personality.
Lisa: Do you find many writers don’t realize they are entrepreneurs, but take to it?
Jane: I think the word “entrepreneur” has started to carry a negative meaning for some in the writing community. They think of a person who is more focused on sales and marketing (or the business) than the intrinsic value or art of what they’re doing.
If we set the term aside, and focus on balancing art and business to ensure a sustainable living, most people are open to that. And they can see that being more strategic about how and what they publish, and when, produces more career momentum and good opportunities to make more money and reach more readers.
Lisa: I personally find it a bit sad that entrepreneur has negative connotations in literary circles. Though you are right—in some circles it does. In other circles it’s the ultimate in empowerment. Doing something you love, having great flexibility in doing it, the opportunity for full creativity in how you make money, collaborating with other entrepreneurs in exciting ways, no one telling you what to do. My sister, who is a teacher, called it “a brave thing” to be an entrepreneur. So, I do hope we can reclaim the beauty of the word “entrepreneur” as writers. However, if people get caught up in semantics, offering them a new lens is important. Thank you for doing that.
Quick Tip: Pitching Your Book
Lisa: My readers are especially interested in writing and publishing nonfiction trade books, often prescriptive books. The Business of Being a Writer is full of information they’ll find useful; could you highlight just a few tips for them?
Jane: When pitching your nonfiction book, it’s critical to focus on the needs of the reader and not yourself. I see a lot of proposals that get caught up in the content of the book itself, which seems logical. But a successful nonfiction book isn’t only about great content. It’s about filling a need in the market or solving an urgent problem for a particular reader.
Always think through three questions when writing your proposal or pitching your book: (1) So what? Why this book now? What’s the urgency? Why is it relevant and needed among so many other titles on the same topic? (2) Who cares? Who is the specific target audience that’s going to love this book? (If your book tries to be for everyone, it’ll be for no one.) (3) Who are you? Why are you the best person to write this book? What gives you authority and credibility with the audience, and how are you visible to that audience currently?
Lisa: Thanks. I love that your tips are questions to ask oneself. Asking the right questions offers such a valuable way to make good decisions from the start. Plus, these specific questions are spot on, of course!
The Technical Side: Websites, SEO, and Social Media
Lisa: The Business of Being a Writer gets into the nitty gritty—what to put on an author website, what a writer needs to know about SEO. Do you get some resistance to the technical aspects from writers you work with? If so, how do you help them get over that?
Jane: There’s a lot of anxiety, yes. When I talk tech during any session, someone will inevitably ask, “Can I just hire someone to do this?” Yes and no. You can partner with professionals to do some of the heavy lifting. They can help to get a baseline website established, to polish your design/visuals, to help get your social media accounts in order and show you the ropes.
But ultimately, with most things online or tech oriented, the important part is showing up, consistently, and putting in the small bits of effort that lead to opportunities over the long term. You can’t be calling up your kids or grandkids or paying the consultant every time you open up Twitter, need to write a blog post, or want a decent visual for Facebook.
If people are resistant, I tell them to think small. Tackle one little thing at a time: take a full three months to figure out Twitter and nothing else. Take a year to slowly develop your website, through incremental improvements, as you learn what you’re doing. If you’re patient with yourself and not demanding overnight results, you can reduce the overwhelm and learn these things. It takes some practice. A sense of humor also helps.
Lisa: Such important advice—to tackle one thing at a time. It can get overwhelming so quickly. For an author who’s timid about social media and/or time constrained, it’s important to take the long view.
Were you concerned about how some information can change so fast (such as the information about social media)? How did you deal with the dynamic nature of social media and the potential for things to change? How did it effect what you decided to include or not include?
Jane: Yes, it’s always a challenge to write anything about social media and digital media in general. I expect to be updating this book every five years or so partly because of that. However, I tried to avoid getting into the specifics of such networks or tools, and instead focused on the principles and strategies that apply regardless of how the tools change.
Lisa: People say social media has gotten harder to leverage for authors, with the “pay-to-play” nature of more platforms. What’s your take on this?
Jane: It’s frustrating, but also essential to understand from the outset that with social media, you never have control. You didn’t have control 10 years ago, and you don’t have control today. All you can control is how well you show up, make an impression, and engage with others.
The good news is that there are dozens more ways to do that now, today, despite the pay-for-play nature of the platforms, because they’re always rolling out new features. Not that long ago, Facebook groups didn’t really exist in a meaningful way. Now they provide a key avenue for engagement and it’s surprising that we ever got along without them!
So whenever a door closes, look for a window. Better yet, diversify your approach. Invest as much or more time in developing your work—it all starts with the work—and in connecting with people directly through your website, blog, email newsletter, in-person events, and so on. Think holistically and don’t stay caught up in “Oh no, Facebook is killing my reach again.”
Quick Tip: Building Your Platform
Lisa: I know it’s hard to speak in generalities without knowing a particular writer, but what do you see as some of the fastest and most fulfilling ways to grow one’s “author platform” if one is an expert in health, mental health or other areas of well-being (such as a life or leadership coach)?
Jane: Usually I recommend a combination of two things:
- Develop quality content through your own blog, YouTube channel, or podcast. Figure out the medium or channel where you best shine and/or where your target audience is most likely to show up and engage. Then deliver the goods, consistently. If you can, repurpose the content. (Create audio versions of blog posts, create transcripts of videos or podcasts, etc.) As part of that quality content, interview influencers or author or VIPs in the community.
- Become a regular contributor/guest somewhere that has a much better reach than you have currently. This can take a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to make happen. Especially if you’re a relative unknown or don’t have much credibility yet. But it can be like rocket fuel if you partner with the right brand or outlet who reaches your desired audience.
- Bonus round: Attend events where you can meet potential influencers, collaborators, and gatekeepers in your area. Start building relationships that will pay off down the road when you need help amplifying a message.
I’ve also seen these strategies you recommend pay off again and again with authors I work with—many of whom started with no platform. (Come to think of it, we all start with no platform, and go from there! Very few people are born with a platform.)
Lisa: What do you see as the most powerful strategies for a book launch for a prescriptive trade book?
Jane: An email newsletter list that you’ve built organically over time remains one of the most golden, proven ways to ensure a strong launch. You can use that list for basic marketing messages (pre-order, launch day, etc). You can also parcel out free bits of content from your book, do contests/giveaways, and offer pre-order incentives.
It can also be useful to offer a 30-day challenge that ties into your book’s content. Offer it as a blog series, free email drip course, or an Instagram sequence. Whatever delivery method makes sense for your target reader or platform. I’ve seen considerable success with authors creating Facebook groups where people take the challenge together and help each other accomplish their goals.
Lisa: Interesting that you recommend Facebook groups. I had been thinking that with all the uncertainty around Facebook—and how hard it is to reach readers without paying for advertising—it might not be as viable a space for authors, but I heard similar advice from Paige Velasquez from Zilker Media at the Harvard Medical School’s Publishing Course (#HarvardWriters2018) this year. She said that by inviting those who like your page into a more private group, you actually can reach those people in your community whenever you post in the group.
Behind the Scenes: Who to Hire
Lisa: When should an author consider hiring experts vs. DIY—or for what specific functions?
Jane: If you plan to do any kind of social media advertising, hire help. It’s not something you can do easily on your own without taking an online course, reading multiple books, and spending lots of time with. Plus you have to become a fabulous copywriter, ad designer, and A/B tester. For some books, advertising on Facebook or Amazon can be a winning strategy. But you can’t do it successfully on a whim. Hire an expert or a firm to help you.
It can also be essential to hire a publicist if you expect to crack into competitive media markets, like National Public Radio, major magazines and newspapers, or television. It’s not that an author can’t successfully pitch herself. But a publicist greases the wheels and brings relationships to the table to get to “yes” more easily. Plus that publicist will hopefully be honest and upfront with you about what’s required to get that “yes”. And they can help you with media training and clips if needed.
Lisa: Amen. I agree wholeheartedly. Thank you, Jane, for your thoughtful, generous and practical advice to our readers. And thank you for writing this much-needed book!
Jane Friedman has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry. She is the co-founder of The Hot Sheet, the essential publishing industry newsletter for authors, and is the former publisher of Writer’s Digest. In addition to being a columnist with Publishers Weekly and a professor with The Great Courses, Jane maintains an award-winning blog for writers at JaneFriedman.com. Her most recent book is The Business of Being a Writer.
Readers, do you have any questions or comments about writing? Share them here! If you enjoyed this interview, you may enjoy this interview on how to write a book proposal or one author’s lucrative publishing journey.
The book sounds excellent and one that’s so needed in today’s environment. I see that it will be relevant not only for writers with MFA’s who want to make a living as a writer but also for indie authors who work on their craft and love to write. I always value Jane’s perspective and I’m sure this will be an important book for all writers for years to come.
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