We spoke to publishing expert Jane Friedman about her vast experience with digital media strategy, her views on the publishing industry, her work with writers and The Hot Sheet, her new publishing newsletter for authors.
1. You began your career in book publishing at a critical point in time when many media companies were making the transition from print to digital. How did you navigate the change, or what changes did you see happening?
I had the good fortune to begin my career at F+W Publications (now F+W), a company that was uniquely positioned to be successful during the digital transition. It’s an enthusiast publisher, with very deep knowledge of its audience. Think of companies like Rodale or Hay House—how much they connect with the reader or consumer. F+W is the same. Also, it’s not just a book publisher. The company in terms of staff and income—at the time I started—was about half magazines and half books; it was also deeply involved in direct-to-consumer book clubs and correspondence courses.
This put me in the right mindset to take advantage of digital media for two reasons. First, I didn’t prioritize any one medium over another; I was more focused on solving problems for readers. The company was very disciplined in that way—we conducted market research all year long through focus groups, surveys, and field trips. And second, I immediately saw the advantage of social media to connect immediately and better with our readership. Digital media was just the obvious evolution of what we were already doing: providing great content in whatever way that our readers wanted it.
2. You work with writers directly and indirectly through your online and physical courses, and your book Publishing 101 shares salient insights from your experience of growing audiences and sustaining a writing career. What is the most important thing for an author to know before embarking on such a journey?
That you need to be committed for the long haul. It makes me sad when I hear writers basically say, well, if I can’t get someone to validate what I’m doing, or pay me to continue within a certain timeframe, then I’ll move on to something else.
On the other hand, if you’re willing to give up that easily—if you need external validation to continue—then yes, go do something else.
3. After being asked to predict the future of publishing so many times, you wrote a satirical e-book called The Future of Publishing: Enigma Variations, in which you propose 14 hypothetical futures for the publishing world. The book includes a future where traditional publishers fade away as tech companies take over the book industry, allowing anybody to publish anything. In a ‘why-can’t-I-find-anything-good-to-read’ dystopia, hope presents itself in the form of former publishing employees, who emerge in new companies and small presses. Do you think that traditional publishing and new routes to market rely on each other to some extent for the development and sharing of old expertise and new ideas?
Totally. While the traditional publishing and indie publishing sides of the market are often seen as at odds, they’re part of a single ecosystem that needs each other and relies on each other. Some independent authors would have you believe that publishers are unnecessary and dying out, but no. There will always be a role for publishers to play, although that role will certainly change, and the relationship or contracts between authors and publishers will change, too.
4. What would you suggest the best route to market is for a newbie author vs. one with experience being traditionally or self-published?
Most new authors I meet could benefit greatly from being shepherded or mentored by a traditional publisher—to understand how the game gets played (both poorly and expertly) before giving it a try on their own. Experienced authors are in a much better position to choose strategically, for each project, which partners are the best partners. While much depends on the strengths and assets of a particular author when deciding how to publish, it’s just as necessary to assess the goals of the project—and if a traditional publisher is best suited to help the author meet those goals.
5. How would you compare publishing in the UK to the US?
I don’t have a good answer to this question, but I know who I’d ask: my colleague Porter Anderson, who lives in the US and works for The Bookseller. He probably spends equal time in both worlds, whereas most of what I see is US based.
That said, within the last year, I’ve seen the most interesting new imprints coming out of the UK—such as Canelo and Fahrenheit Press—and I also have my eye on innovative marketing efforts led by Sam Missingham at Harpercollins UK.
6. What do you enjoy about your role within publishing?
I enjoy my freedom to advise writers without any agenda to sell them on one path over another; I recently started The Hot Sheet (http://hotsheetpub.com) as part of that mission. And speaking more personally, I greatly value my own creative freedom, that ability to strategically partner that I mentioned earlier. I can write and publish my own work on my own schedule, and also partner on long-term creative projects with companies like The Great Courses (for my 24-lecture series on How to Publish Your Book) or University of Chicago Press (for a new book for writers coming in 2017).