The Business of Being a Writer (Jane Friedman’s book, and the actual thing…!)

The Business of Being a Writer (Jane Friedman’s book, and the actual thing…!)

by TWC Founder/Director Judith Lindbergh

As TWC’s writers and their works mature, more and more of you are submitting for publication.  We cheer you on and share your hopes and dreams, as well as rejection letters, hard decisions about self-publishing, embarking on yet another draft, revising your query for the 75th time.  Our lengthening list of acceptances and awards is a tribute to your persistence as well as talent and hard work. There’s nothing more thrilling than changing “writer” to “author” when you describe yourselves.  Trust us, we know!

But the more we dive into the weeds of publishing, the more I’ve been recommending Jane Friedman‘s new book, The Business of Being a Writer.  Beyond any advice we at TWC can give, you need a true publishing guru like Friedman to fill in the blanks and tell it like it is.  Her credits include publisher and editorial director at Writer’s Digest, co-founder of The Hot Sheet, and columnist for Publishers Weekly.  She’s shared her expertise with NPR, PBS, CBS, The Washington Post, the National Press Club… the list goes on.  Any writer who hasn’t discovered her blog has missed an essential tool in their professional toolkit.  And her book combines tough-love truths with how-to-survive advice for any writer trying to get a toe-hold in publishing today.

Perhaps it’s telling that Friedman addresses “brand building” up front.  It’s a concept that makes most writers shiver, but she explains its imperative in this noisy, overcrowded world—“To publish is easy; to get attention is hard.” Then she gives clear options for each of us to consider: ways to build relationships online and off, discussing “literary citizenship” and social media, as well as other methods to reach out and connect that leave us still feeling human and whole, rather than like hawkers desperately shilling our unwanted wares. 

There’s plenty of nitty gritty about how the publishing industry works, the impact of Amazon on the literary marketplace, and the differences between traditional and self-publishing.  She gives pros and cons for each approach, as well as a candid sidebar entitled “What’s the Publisher for Then?” which lays out the facts for each of us to consider on our own terms. Friedman encourages every writer to decide what they want out of a publishing experience, and to do what’s necessary to satisfy that need.

Friedman lays out in plain numbers how much (or little) and author can expect to earn from their books, quoting John Steinbeck: “The profession of book writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business.” She emphasizes that achieving decent sales means “almost no one can expect to ‘just write’ and leave the marketing and promotion to the publisher,” then explains in clear, instructional language just what we each can—must—do to promote and sell our work.

She also clearly defines the value of all our writing efforts, including those that might not pay.  Whether our goal is to drive sales of a new novel or simply build a relationship with a (potential) audience, defining the intangible objectives means that we writers need to play the long game and not expect that every 500 words we gracefully string together will grace our bank accounts as well.

There’s tons of straightforward advice and step-by-step instructions on how to write queries, book proposals, “the dreaded synopsis” and much else that every writer should know, plus all manner of ways writers can make money writing.  There are chapters on traditional freelance writing (publishing in magazines, newspapers, trade publications, etc.), online and digital media, blogging, and more, along with assessments of the opportunities and challenges of each.

Friedman pays candid attention to the way almost all of us cobble together a living, including a table breaking down her own sources of business income for the first two years after she’d become a full-time freelancer. Spoiler: her book sales and writing provided a pitiful contribution compared to other sources of income. But that’s about the norm for most writers, as the existence of The Writers Circle—Michelle’s and my “day job”—itself proves.

Perhaps the key takeaway from her entire book is to keep reasonable expectations and a clear eye on the difference between being able to call oneself a writer and actually making a living at it. The former is not impossible; the latter, well….  Even those of us who’ve been traditionally (and even repeatedly) published often can’t make that claim.

But along with the tough-love is plenty of encouragement and practical suggestions about how to make the writing business work. I’m already taking some of her branding ideas to heart as I prepare to send the latest draft of my new novel to my agent.  With any luck, I’ll be using Jane’s advice to build an audience for that book and others to come.  So you’ll be hearing more from me – and Michelle – about our own writing very soon!

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