Jane Friedman is someone who needs little introduction, and as an authority on the future of media and publishing, she is certainly high up on our list of brains to pick.
In addition to speaking 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.
It’s no surprise that we are deeply honored to have had a chance to exchange words with her and hear opinions about the future of the publishing industry from a true insider.
Jane teaches full-time as an e-media and writing professor at the University of Cincinnati, and also serves as a contributing editor for Writer’s Digest, where she once served as publisher and strategic leader. 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).
CQ: Well Jane, first of all we want to thank you for joining us for this chat. It’s a great opportunity and I hope it helps your message reach the many literary folks in need.
CQ: You’ve been elbows deep in writing and social media, gaining a lot of experience, and that experience allowed you to use those very same tools that got you here to actually help your fellow writers. We at CuriosityQuills.com think that’s awesome because it’s what we’re all about, too. So, considering that blogging and independent journalism are evolving to the point where printed media is starting to pale in comparison, how do you see the field transforming in the next few years?
In many cases traditional media might use social media and blogs to amplify their message, but online media sometimes does a better job customizing, personalizing or hitting a particular need in the audience that maybe the traditional media outlets aren’t able to serve because they’re focused on a mass message, not a niche message.
There’s also the question of sustaining the business model for traditional media or traditional journalism. There are outlets like the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal and other major magazines whose job it is to turn a profit, and that business model is in danger because of decreased advertising, and not having the same attention from the public like they used to enjoy because there are so many other options now, many of them free.
Will journalism in the future – and all writing in general – be paid for by advertising or by the people who are consuming it or by some other means? It’s a challenge. One of the best thinkers on this topic, Jeff Jarvis of BuzzMachine.com, has forward-thinking and controversial ideas.
CQ: That’s really an interesting resource we’ll need to check out ourselves. We can see a lot more crowdsourcing being used to make this media machine work.
CQ: So it sounds like picking the right audience for your message, like you said, is more important than the content itself. Let’s fast-forward straight to Google+, because this is something I believe is relevant to the question of picking the right audience for your content. You know all about the “Circles” feature, and we’ve been seeing a lot of media outlets setting up shop there (some getting banned!) and actually starting to put their message out to the audience. Is this something that you feel is going to be useful to the media industry and actually getting a sort of mainline straight to the right audience?
Most problems these days, from the user or the reader perspective (rather than the people who are broadcasting), most of the problems or pinch points we are encountering have to do with all this pain in filtering and trying to declutter the stream. So, in that respect, when I look at what’s coming in through Facebook vs. Google+, I kind of have the same problem! There’s still a big filtering issue. Certainly I can filter things by circle but there’s still a lot of content to sort through.
And I think Google+ is, in fact, even harder to sort through than Facebook. So until it solves this issue, I don’t know if it’s better quite yet. It’s certainly favorable in terms of the integration of G+ into other google services that make it kind of a special case, but just ignoring that for a minute, it’s still a beta service, and it’s too soon to say what’s going to happen.
As far as Facebook is concerned, I think a lot of people miss the point that you can put people into groups there, too. I did that and I filtered things based on groups, just like G+ does with circles. It just isn’t a widely used or as friendly feature on Facebook.
CQ: So it sounds like this can actually work against the content provider – if everyone filters too much, your message would not be able to reach your audience.
CQ: Like animated cat GIFs.
CQ: One of the most interesting comments we read was from an indie author, John Locke, who published several hit e-books. This one in particular, “How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months“, is about making it as an e-author. One of the points he was making was how important it is to turn your blog posts, tweets, and social networking comments into something personal that your audience can relate to. He cited an example from his own blog post about his mother and a football coach, an experience which found answer with the readers. Do you think the social communication that is now happening is aiding or hurting the ability to do this?
On the other hand, he was doing things that were authentic. So I think even though online media and social media can present this opportunity for a lot of noise and meaningless messages, those who are able to approach this in a more personal way are the ones who win out. It can’t be done without a strategy behind it – but not everyone hits on the right strategy at first. They tend to burn out before they get it right.
CQ: Burning out could happen even faster, the more social networks one must field at the same time. You have now Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, Google +, and a bunch of other sites that people feel they need to participate on. How do you rectify that?
So, hopefully what you’re looking at is a way of bringing these three things together: your strengths, your work’s qualities, your audience’s inclinations and needs. Where those match up the best is where you need to be active, but it tends to be a little bit different for each person, so it takes some trial and error because you may not know right away what’s really going to hit that sweet spot.
Over time you gain more experience and try more experiments, and you narrow it down to what is going to work best for you. I encourage experimentation, and you have to approach it as a bit of a playful game or else you’ll drive yourself crazy. New services and tools will keep cropping up, but you should have one or two things that are your bread and butter, your tried and true tools that you know will pay off for you. It may take a little while to figure out what those are.
For example, for me, it’s my blog and Twitter. I can rely on those to pay off for me again and again and again, but for other people it’s something like Goodreads, and a romance message board. So it really depends on your audience.
CQ: And it sounds like a lot more responsibilities are falling to the lap of individual authors: finding their specific audience, actually picking what works, and advertising in social media. It’s almost like each author is becoming his or her own little publishing house. How do you feel this is affecting the role of the traditional publisher?
With that said, the publisher can still offer a few things that might be desirable. One of them is some kind of a quality control process. Actually, “quality control” is not the right word – more like “quality enhancement” process, where you are working with an editor and a team of people who are really experienced and have a sixth sense for what works in a book package. It’s really valuable to have that kind of experience on your side especially if you’re totally new to publishing, and you don’t know how books are best packaged or edited. So publishers still lend considerable strengths in this regard.
I think the other area is that there are some publishers who have very advanced knowledge of specific niches. There are publishers who specialize in science fiction and fantasy, or mystery, or niche non-fiction areas like fine arts or graphic design, and they may have really excellent market penetration to those audiences that far exceed that of bookstore placements. They may have partnerships with certain publications or retailers, and they may have a direct marketing list with a million names, for instance. This is true of the company I just left, F&W Media, which had a database of 3 million names and people tagged by specialty area.
So if you’re an author partnering with a publisher with this sort of direct marketing capability, that is very powerful. The question becomes, after you’ve established yourself as an author with a publisher, after a certain point you’re going to be visible, you’re going to be a known quantity to all of your readers, and at what point do you no longer need the publisher to reach customers or help you with the quality? I have no idea how that’s going to shake out, but we are seeing traditional authors who are starting to self-publish themselves, or perhaps partner with Amazon, because they’re just going to make more money that way.
CQ: And yet some self-published authors are moving away towards traditional publishers, such as Amanda Hocking, and I know John Locke is also being approached, so it’s becoming more fluid.
CQ: Very interesting. Actually, I completely agree with what you said as far as quality enhancement that publishers bring to novels because these are the problems that a lot of indie authors are facing: lack of good editing, lack of good graphic design, and a lot of readers are facing the problem of having to sort through the throngs of poorly edited, poorly designed books, and actually having to find the little nugget of gold. This is something that indie publishers are going to be a big help with, actual firms that are designed from the ground up to serve indie authors. How do you feel about that? Is this a viable line of business, to emulate online what legacy publishers are doing for print, to help their stable or writers make themselves heard?
CQ: That’s us!
What Amazon is doing also makes a lot of sense to me. They started as an e-retailer, and now they have this amazing reach to a customer base, and so they’re starting to publish books, which is a brilliant move and it’s been in the works for a long time. Authors who partner with Amazon are getting a powerful direct marketing play. Notifications about your book are e-mailed to whoever Amazon identifies as most likely to purchase it. Such partnerships are particularly interesting to me.
I don’t know that indie publishers mimicking the legacy model makes much sense unless they bring something else to the table, like real expertise or advantage in producing, let’s say, mobile apps, or reaching a particular region in the world, or having a specialization in translation – there has to be something, I think, that they add to the package that would persuade someone to partner with them.
CQ: In addition to that, do you feel that the publishers – whether traditional or indie (I guess specially indie) – have a responsibility to serve as gatekeepers for the increasing throngs of new authors?
So if the indie publishing name carries that kind of weight, the same way that an editor’s name might, that says, “We’ve curated these books because they mean something, and our name means something – it means you’ll be getting this kind of experience” - then it makes sense.
I can think of a few independent publishers who’ve been around for quite a long time, and can evoke that kind of instant feeling. McSweeney’s is one – a very well-known recognized indepedendent publisher in the United States. There aren’t many like that, and it’s tough to imagine a total publishing unknown starting up an indie press today, and having that kind of cache, unless they are somehow known to readers.
At the end of the day that’s what matters, that readers recognize the name and think – “Hey, I gotta have that because I’m going to get the great experience I’m looking for.” To some extent, it’s about branding.
CQ: From what we’ve seen among readers and authors, in the traditional media, the author has much more weight than the publisher and the editor, especially when it comes to normal everyday readers. Having a Penguin on your book or the logo of Simon & Schuster, or some other big name publisher, doesn’t really mean much to people. What it sounds like is the indie press is going to have to actually become as visible to the readers as the authors themselves.
But if you look at some of the smaller presses like McSweeney’s, Milkweed, Graywolf, Poisoned Pen – some of these presses are known for very specific sensibilities. And I think there are some editors in New York publishing that are known for certain types of books or have a certain sensibility, but have never stepped out before and claimed it.
I actually wrote a blog post about a year ago wondering if editors could be the saviors of New York publishing, because so often they work behind the scenes and no one knows about the work they do, but they do have a sensibility. Their tastes are reflected when you put all the books they’ve acquired together. But that’s not how the business works – the editors aren’t public in that way. But they could be, and it could mean something to readers, but no one has tried that yet, to my knowledge.
CQ: Interesting, it seems that everybody’s role is changing – authors, publishers, and everyone in between. You mentioned that “we cant keep chasing bestsellers” in one of your blog posts. Does that mean that generally with the increased amount of titles being published, being a bestseller is becoming less meaningful?
The pressures on the publishing industry today are such that print runs are shrinking due to greater e-book sales, and books aren’t kept around for as long on the backlist, because it’s very expensive to warehouse and reprint when sales are slow or below a certain threshhold.
New York publishers acquire books they believe can turn a profit in the first year, because they’re owned by conglomerates that analyze quarterly profits. So they need to be able to produce results quickly, and no one is really willing to say, “Well, we’ll see big money from this in 3 years or 5 years”—even though it might produce more money in the long run than acquiring titles that burn out quickly.
There are all sorts of problems that the traditional book model has that need to be sorted out in the digital age, but for the individual author, if they’re seeking commercial success, they can’t just think of it in terms of “I’m going to write a bestseller”, but rather “I’m going to write a book for this particular audience.”
Paradoxically, going after a specific niche, or where there’s a gap in the market, is far more effective than trying to go after everyone at once. So individual authors, especially those not partnered up with a publisher, they need to be very focused on a specific target audience. If bestsellerdom is what they are after, it usually happens after a long time of focused marketing that snowballs.
CQ: It sounds like the publishers themselves are having their own unique challenges right now. Which side you think is having more fun, the publishers or the people getting published?
People who are entrepreneurial and have some of their own wherewithal and tools to put into the game, I think those people are happiest because they’re not upset about what they are not getting and not upset about the change and adaptation that everyone is going through. It’s the big philosophical question for me, this idea of publishing favoring the more business-y, self-promoting, marketing type of author, what does that mean for the future of writing and literature, if those are the only people who get noticed?
I wonder who in the future will be supporting literature that can’t be effectively marketed and promoted – not all books have a sales-ey spin to them. That’s really a philosophical conversation, and I have no idea what happens.
Margaret Atwood had a really interesting keynote at Tools of Change this past year where she talked about this challenge, and who is going to “provide the cheese sanwiches” for authors to eat while they work on the next great American novel. It’s a relevant question, and no one really knows how to answer it.
CQ: It almost sounds like authors need someone with business acumen to take them under their wing.
CQ: Jane, we deeply appreciate the time that you have given us!