Tuesday, December 6, 2011

An Interview with Jane Friedman, Former Publisher of Writer’s Digest and Query Critic Giveaway

By Sarah Whitney

Are you a writer baffled by social media?

Curious about the success stories you’ve heard about e-publishing, but wary about releasing your work online?

Or, are you a new writer, still struggling through revisions and rejection letters, frustrated because everyone has different advice about what’s going wrong with your manuscript?

I’m pleased to welcome our next featured conference speaker Jane Friedman. She can provide writers of all experience levels with the insider perspective that will help them make the most of their writing, editing and marketing time between now and the “Write Time! Write Place! Write Now!” Conference.

Jane Friedman is an authority on the future of media and publishing. She has spoken at more than 200 events since 2001, including South by Southwest, BookExpo America, and the Association of Writers and Writing Programs.

Her expertise has been featured by sources such as NPR’s Morning Edition, Publishers Weekly, GalleyCat, PBS, The Huffington Post, Digital Book World, and Mr. Media, and she was recently called on to serve as a panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts, to review 2011 grants in literature.

Jane has more than a decade of hands-on experience in using new media and technology to engage and grow both online and offline communities, and has been blogging for an audience of creative professionals since 2001. She blogged at Writer’s Digest for three years and now blogs at JaneFriedman.com. Her presence on Twitter (135,000+ followers) is often cited as a model for those seeking to use social media effectively.

Jane now teaches full-time as an e-media and writing professor at the University of Cincinnati, after leaving her post as publisher of Writer’s Digest. She is the author of The Future of Publishing: Enigma Variations (April 1, 2011), as well as the Beginning Writer’s Answer Book (Writer’s Digest, 2006).

Jane will teach two break-out sessions and a Sunday Workshop session during the upcoming 2012 Missouri Writers’ Guild conference. Her two breakout sessions are called, “The Impact of Google, Amazon, and Apple on Your Career” and “Evaluating Your First Page for Red Flags.” Her Sunday workshop session is a class on E-publishing. Attendees will learn what services are available to distribute their e-book, if and when they’re endangering the future potential of their work by making it available electronically, 3 essential factors that impact their e-book sales, how to price their work and more.

Sarah:  Jane, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to speak with us today. Writing and publishing can be a tough business, but as long as there are people like you who are willing to share their experiences and insights, then writers who want to put in the work to improve their craft, can hope to someday reach their writing goals.

Jane: Always happy to be of service! Thanks for featuring me.

Sarah: To get us started, you’ve accomplished so much during your career. Can you tell us about your beginning? How did you get into the publishing business?

Jane: Very simple, really. I landed a summer internship at a publishing house while I was still in college. After I graduated, that same publisher hired me full-time. And there I stayed for 12 years!

Sarah: Over the past decade or so, you’ve developed a career as a new media expert. Can you talk about what was your first experience with what’s now called with social media, and what makes you so passionate about it?

Jane: I joined MySpace sometime in 2005 or 2006, and actually found it juvenile and a waste of time. (The functionality and presentation was quite different from today’s social networks.) I didn’t spend much time on MySpace, though I did establish a page there for Writer’s Digest.

In late 2006, I read an article in The New Yorker about a new social network called Facebook that was primarily restricted to college students, but was opening to the general public. I was intrigued and signed up. If you’re my friend on Facebook, you can see the date I uploaded my first Facebook profile photo, December 16, 2006!

At the time, nobody I knew was on Facebook, and I rarely visited the site. Then it took off in my community around 2008-2009.

I had a similar experience with Twitter. I joined early, then became active when it had more widescale adoption.

Why am I passionate about social media? On the most basic level, it’s fun to use. It’s fun to share stuff with other people with whom you have ties, but might not communicate with otherwise. It’s fun to create a persona, too—to play around with how we construct our identities and convey a particular identity to the external world, and to different circles of friends. Endlessly fascinating.

I never started using social media thinking: I’m going to market, promote, and platform build! The very idea would’ve been foreign to me at the time. I was just enjoying myself, and using it to further extend what I already do: serve creative people.

You have to bring something of yourself (of your purpose) to social media tools for them to be effective in your life or career; the tool itself isn’t going to do the work for you. It’s not a magic wand. You bring the magic.

Sarah: You write a monthly post at Write Unboxed. In your September post “A Checklist for Marketing Your E-book,” you observed that sometimes writers seem to default to using social media to market their e-book, and then made the very good point that social media isn’t a marketing strategy, it’s a marketing tool. As you developed the post, you go in-depth about defining market strategies but didn’t say much more about social media. Could you elaborate on about what exactly makes social media – Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr – tools and not strategies?

Jane: They’re tools because they’re used in service of a greater purpose that you must determine.
In marketing (and in life!), it’s a well-known principle that you don’t start with the tactics; you start with the objectives.

For instance, an objective might be:

Create awareness that NOVEL X releases on 11/11/11 with the romance community.

Strategy: Spark relevant conversations about the themes of NOVEL X on specific romance Facebook pages.
Tactic: Have a weekly giveaway on XYZ Facebook pages based on responses to specific prompts tied to NOVEL X’s themes.

Let’s look further at the strategy: Build relevant conversations on specific romance Facebook pages. What if our research uncovers that there are no meaningful romance-related Facebook pages or communities? (This is strictly hypothetical.) Then Facebook is the wrong tool to accomplish our objective.

Or, let’s look at the tactic: Have a daily giveaway. What if research or experience tells us that Facebook users who are romance readers hate giveaways? Then we’ve chosen the wrong medium (or tool). Maybe giveaways are better suited to a specific blog instead. (Again, this is all hypothetical.)

To put a more personal perspective on this: What is Jane Friedman’s purpose on Facebook, Twitter or other social networks? To serve creative people by showing them how the industry is changing, and how technology and new media empowers them to find their audience or adapt their work to expand their audience. (And also to have fun.)

Every time I encounter a new tool, I consider how it creates a new opportunity, channel, or expression for that purpose. But it doesn’t make sense for me to use a particular tool if it’s not reaching my audience effectively, if no one is listening, or if I hate using it.

Sarah:  In your E-publishing Master Class, you expect to provide attendees an “unbiased, insider look at the e-book publishing scene” and when writers should do it. Would you give us a sneak peak about when an author might consider publishing an e-book?  Also, are there different considerations for a new writer versus someone who has already published a couple books through a smaller, independent press?

Jane: Independent e-book publishing is a smart option for authors who already have a direct reach to their readership. This reach may have been established through previous traditional publication, or through various elements of a professional platform (media appearances, popular website or blog, public speaking engagements, social media presence, and so on).

If you don’t yet have a direct reach to your audience, then before you jump into the e-publishing game, ask yourself: Can you easily identify your target audience? Do you know where to find them? 

Are you ready to invest the time and energy in answering these questions, then engaging with your audience for many weeks and months?

The interesting thing about e-book releases is that it often works the reverse of traditional publishing book releases. With a traditional publisher, you typically have your greatest sales success in the first 3-12 months of the book’s life. With an e-book, after 3-6 months, you’re probably just getting started. For that reason, it takes persistence. It makes no sense to try e-publishing if you’re not committed to seeing it through for at least 1 year, if not longer. It also tends to be a more effective option if you’re willing to stick with it for multiple books (or if you have multiple titles you can release).

Of course, e-publishing is also a great tool for experimenting, especially since the hard cost to do so is usually zero. Not everything has to be done for profit or gain. You can also play around, or use it as a marketing and promotion vehicle for other things you do.

Sarah: If you could pick one lesson students enrolled in your Intro to E-Media Writing class at the University of Cincinnati should take away from the course once final exams are over, what would it be?

Jane: It’s about showing up and doing the work, on a consistent basis, even if what you’re producing is crap. Do the work. Do the work. Do the work. No excuses. There’s no other way to improve, aside from getting the right feedback at the right time from the right person—which is often driven by chance! But that’s yet another reason to do the work consistently—to increase your chances of getting lucky.

Sarah: In your breakout session, “Evaluating Your First Page for Red Flags” you will be giving an insider’s perspective into the beginners’ mistakes that agents and editors look for within a manuscript’s beginning. As a beginning fiction writer, I have found myself obsessing for hours about comma placement, word choice, sentence structure and other details because of this fear. Could you tell me if there are any mistakes that beginning writers are allowed to make without getting their manuscript thrown into the recycle bin?

Jane: Let me allay your fears. Any agent or editor who rejects your work based solely on random surface-level concerns (stray punctuation errors or grammatical snafus), isn’t someone you want to work with. Great writing shines through stray surface-level errors—assuming those errors aren’t so numerous that they become distracting.

To be crystal clear: I’m not talking about the kind of bad grammar and punctuation that immediately reveals a writer who hasn’t even begun to master his craft. I’m talking about people who’ve probably been at work for years, and have the requisite skills to be a writer, but may not be flawless from a mechanical standpoint.

I’m a college writing professor who sees error-ridden work daily—but I can still spot fabulous voice, insightful observations, and provocative point of view through all those errors. Surface errors can be fixed. Boring stories can’t.

I do advocate purposeful wordsmithing and ruthlessness in cutting back flabby prose. But if writers think bad comma placement will result in rejection … well … agents and editors are just trying to scare you because they do receive a lot of crap that should’ve never crossed their desks. Their frustration with all that crap comes out when they admonish you on panels, “Submit only flawless work!” Of course they think they mean it, but they really don’t. They’re reacting to the incredibly bad stuff they receive—and are tired of receiving. I guarantee you they’ve accepted manuscripts that have errors in them. They were willing to overlook them because they kept turning the pages.

Sarah: While researching my questions for your interview, I came across this delightful interview with you about drinking. The last interview question is about why you drink. I would like to add a follow-up question, how does drinking impact your writing?

Jane: I rarely drink when I’m writing for a publication or for my own blog—or for a Q&A like this! On occasion, I may drink to loosen up for more personal types of writing, but even then, I follow these wise words from Ernest Hemingway: “Write drunk; edit sober.”

Sarah: Jane, what has been so great about writing these questions for you, is just how much I’ve learned along the way. Thank you for not only answering my questions here, but everything you’ve contributed to the writing community. I’m looking forward to meeting you this coming April.

For more information about Jane, I recommend checking out her web site www.janefriedman.com and following her on Twitter @Janefriedman. You can also find her monthly over at Writer Unboxed, which is a great writing resource. You can also subscribe to her Electronic Speed newsletter by clicking here.

If you haven’t registered for the “Write Time! Write Place! Write Now! Conference, click here to take advantage of our early registration rates. If you have, thank you and we’re looking forward to seeing you in April. With faculty members like Jane, agents like Ann Behar and authors like Claire Cook, it’s going to be one of our best conferences yet.

In the meantime, please comment below and tell us what you think of Jane’s interview or anything else on your mind. One lucky commenter will win a one-page query letter critic from Jane. Help spread the word through a Facebook post, Tweet or blog post and you’ll earn extra chances to win. Just let Tricia know when you comment. Post your comments by 12/ 13/2011.



  1. Great interview! Thank you so much for the insight into social media.

  2. Once again, another nice, informative interview. Thank you!

  3. I completely agree about a misplaced comma showing that you are a "bad writer." When I taught Comp. classes, I loved reading the thoughts in the paper, not scrutinizing over commas and dangling modifiers.

  4. Great questions about whether or not to consider an e-book. Sometimes, you hear the numbers of the successful authors who have published ebooks but you don't hear the backstory with it. Thanks for the guidance!

    margo@margodill (dot) com

  5. Thank you Sarah, and thank you Jane.

    I've appreciated Jane's insights for some time now and always learn something new.

  6. I'm already reading Writer Unboxed - this was a great interview!

    I've been hesitant to go the e-publishing route; maybe my instincts are on track?

  7. If I were the type of person who taped little pieces of paper with words of wisdom on my walls, Jane's quotes would flutter all around me.

    Thank you Jane, for your generous and supportive attitude toward writers who work to improve their skills.

    Julie Golden
    Vagilantes (pre-published novel)

  8. Thanks for this great interview and this great opportunity. I'm currently obsessing over the final draft of my manuscript and my query, trying to reconcile everyone's different opinions into one cohesive direction.

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  10. I'm glad everyone enjoyed the interview. Thanks for commenting! Good luck on winning the query letter critique. I know Jane will give valuable insight to whoever wins.

    Comments close on 12/13, so there's still time to enter if you haven't. Remember: comments, tweets, facebook posts and blogs posts give you more chances to win!

    @Kim - Isn't Writer Unboxed just great! I spend a whole evening reading the article on there.

    @Julie - What a great image. Several of her quotes are already fluttering around twitter. Head over and join the conversation - just search for the guild's Twitter account @MoWritersGuild

  11. @Kim - Hang in there! Just show up, like Jane said. :) You'll have it done before you know it. I'm glad Jane's interview was encouraging to you.

  12. Thanks for the interview, Jane and Sarah. I found the comments about Objective, Strategy and Tactics helpful.
    Donna v.

  13. Thanks as always, Jane, for putting things in perspective. Social media are tools,the means to an end (rather than the end itself). Great to have this reminder to keep us focused during the holidays!

  14. And for helping me stop obsessing about the "perfect" query letter!

  15. Yes, I enjoyed this interview and will share on Twitter and Facebook, which I joined for Redwood Writers, a branch of the California Writers Club. So thanks.

    My objective is to reach mystery readers 9 to 13 years old. Can and how do I do this with social media? And do readers this age own e-readers?

  16. Those of us are who are not techies need help with this stuff. (And we need help with our queries!)

  17. I've never posted a comment like this - not even sure how to do it! But I just wanted to say that I'm a recipient of Jane's electronic missives and am always filing away various articles, quotes, links and references for future use. And I'm amazed at all she knows about! I'm sure she finds a great deal of satisfaction in being able to offer us what she knows, but I hope she also has a satisfying personal life, because it looks like she spends a huge amount of time serving writers and readers. Many thanks, Jane.

  18. As always, Jane's advice is solid and logical. I fret over the perfection of my MS before I submit. For the first time, I really think it's good enough.

  19. You are so insightful. I've been fortunate enough to hear you speak in person, which is even better. The depth of knowledge you bring helps writers!

  20. Thanks so much for the interview. Social media has been like a wall I'm beating my head against lately. How, when, why? Jane is usually the first person to give me clarity on any of it.

    Let's see, I follow her on Writer Unboxed, on Being Human at Electric Speed, on Twitter and Google+. Perhaps that would constitute stalking. Hmmm.

    Truly, thank you for sharing so much valuable information, Jane. Thanks, Sarah, for the great interview.

  21. Thanks for the interview, I always find Jane's articles so insightful.

  22. I've never heard social media described as a tool rather than as a strategy before. I really appreciate that take on it, and will keep that in mind as I plan marketing for whenever I have a published novel in the future.

  23. Social media is about entertaining and connecting. It makes me nervous to consider using it for self-promotion. I see others do it incorrectly so often.

    Interesting interview.

  24. The thing I appreciate about your approach is applicable to all writers using social media. Look at the social media landscape and think about what's not being said, then talk about that. That's the definition of a thought leader and why you have the following you do. My own Twitter stream is filled with fun, wordplayers who delight me every day; to me, it's akin to a curation task to find good people around the world who think and challenge me to think harder. The platform building is important, but not the greatest reward of social media. 

    Confession re drinking: on occasion I've been know to have a glass of wine and tweet. Now I have an excuse; it makes me loose and lively per Jane Friedman. 

  25. Great article, and good advice with regards to the marketing of a book. As a marketing guy this is something that means a lot to me.

    You speaking at SXSW this year by any chance? I'm there so would come to your talk

  26. Thanks so much for the insider info. I use social media quite a bit, and if you do your homework, it can be your best friend. I would love to attend this conference for writers. Can't learn too much when it comes to your craft!!

  27. "Do the work. Do the work. Do the work." A great reminder that when it comes to writing challenges, the only way out is through. Thanks for the insights, Jane. Encouraging as always.

  28. Yes,"Do the work."

    Something I've understood, at last (no more guilt tripping myself about this), that even tech suave types do not always have the time to keep up with constant revamps and updates to software, ever expanding Web marketing options, and upgrades of social media sites.

    So once again, thanks Jane, and also to Sarah Whitney for this interview.

  29. Thank you for the great interview and awesome info, Sarah and Jane. I just learned a lot and heading over to check out the checklist, Writer Unboxed and more about marketing.

  30. Thanks for having a servant's heart, Jane! May you be blessed as you bless others!

  31. “Surface errors can be fixed. Boring stories can’t.” I love that statement. I fret over the mechanics. Nothing makes me cringe more than having a reader mention a typo. Thanks for the great advice.

  32. I stopped freaking out over punctuation and grammar when an editor told me my manuscript had to be finished, but not perfect. So, for me, finished comes first so I can see what I'm dealing with. As I go along, I'm keeping up to date on publishing by following Jane wherever I can find her.

  33. Jane, I'll follow you anywhere...and have to the best of my ability for two years. We met briefly in Muncie in '09 and still refer to your handouts from those workshops. I loved when you said agents and editors are looking for "spot fabulous voice, insightful observations, and provocative point of view." We all need to work to be the best writers we can be and to continue to clarify what we want to say. Where ever I find you blogging, I learn something new. So anyone reading this that doesn't follow you are missing out on information that could be the difference between success and failure in this challenging endeavor of getting published.

  34. Excellent, intelligent and interesting advice throughout. This alone worth gold to me: "Let me allay your fears. Any agent or editor who rejects your work based solely on random surface-level concerns (stray punctuation errors or grammatical snafus), isn’t someone you want to work with."

  35. Jane's stuff is always meaty (or robustly veggie, if you lean that way). And she is the first source I look for when trying, vain as the pursuit may be, to understand what's happening in publishing and new media. Thanks!

  36. Thanks for the interview & sharing your knowledge, Jane. I always find your ideas helpful for understanding the ever-changing world of publishing and social media. I agree, social media is loads of fun. However, the problem I'm struggling with is finding that balance between social media/blogging & my 'real' writing... I'm currently trying to tilt my priorities back where they belong...

  37. Hi, Sarah and Jane,
    As I venture into social media, this article was a good reminder to think about my objectives--especially as I put together my blog.
    I appreciate the tips.
    P.S. I tweeted the article... @LLWohlwend

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