The guru on how to get your book published 

Jane Friedman makes a living writing about writing. And she knows what you shouldn't do.

click to enlarge Jane Friedman
  • Jane Friedman
You may know Jane Friedman if you have ever browsed through The Great Courses. Hers are some of the highest rated, with titles like How to Get Your Book Published and Publishing 101. A Hoosier, Friedman has been writing and having her work steadily published since college. In 2006 she wrote her first non-fiction work that was a guide to writing. We spoke with her about some of the dos and don'ts when weeding through the press world.

NUVO: What are the biggest mistakes you see authors make starting out?

Jane Friedman:
I would say the biggest mistake by far is a lack of patience with the process. They send out maybe one query, and they haven't even researched who that query should go to. Maybe the query isn't even written that well in the first place, and they get frustrated really quickly and give up. And I would say, as of today, most people decide to self-publish and then they figure out that wasn't the right choice much later. There is usually a lack of patience with not just the publishing process like I just described. They will be frustrated with having to market their work and pitch their work, but some people pitch too soon. They haven't allowed themselves time as a writer to develop their craft.

NUVO: How have you seen book marketing change?

Friedman: Well I think there has always been a responsibility for the author to be a promoter of their work. Today, because of digital media, digital marketing and promotion, there are a lot of things that are incumbent on the author to do that in fact wouldn't even be appropriate for the publisher to do on their behalf. The publisher doesn't want to pretend to be you on Twitter or on Facebook. They don't want to be, in those cases, the owner of your website. These are brand properties that belong to the author and it's up to the author to cultivate them. These are things that span over ... an author's career. They are not specific to a single book ... So the author needs to be thinking abut developing those ... Not just for one book but very long term. Years really.

NUVO: How would you categorize the current state of publishing?

Friedman: Eh, schizophrenic. (Laughs.) Because there are so many more ways to publish a book than there ever was. It used to be that the path to getting published was pretty narrow, pretty fine, and you weren't going to work outside those boundaries. A few people could do it and a few exceptional case studies. But by and large the only way to be a successful published author was to go to a traditional publisher or find an agent and take as long as it might have taken for that book to find its readership. Today, self-publishing is generally conceived as just as legitimate a way, but I don't think it's any easier. I don't think it's the easier path than traditional publishing. I think you find about the same success rate on either side of the equation.

NUVO: What's the cost-benefit of self-publishing versus traditional? What are your personal thoughts and feelings toward it?

Friedman: I think for an author who has never had a traditional publishing experience, self-publishing can be very difficult and lonely. And it often fails, as far what the author's expectations are. They tend to have very inflated expectations for the book sales and the book's visibility. Even though it's technically ... very easy to put a self-published book out there, it's exceptionally hard to get anyone to give it any attention ... The self-publisher has to be much more entrepreneurial, they have to know their audience so much better. The really successfully self-publishing authors have a team working for them. They are not working in a vacuum. And they also have a lot of reader support — like street teams and data readers and huge email newsletter lists. Self-publishing is said now to not be a very accurate term — there is nothing "self" about it. It just means you are taking full responsibility for the success of that work.

NUVO: What is the cost-benefit of a traditional publisher?

Friedman: For a traditionally published author most of the money you are going to see is going to come in the form of the advance. There was a New York Times article, this was probably 10 years ago, that offered evidence that 70 percent of books didn't earn out, which would be from a big five system. I think that is still pretty accurate ... The advance could be a thousand dollars it could be a million dollars. Most books, I would say are in the four figures for a first time author who doesn't have a huge platform or on the national stage, you probably aren't going to do much better than $10,000 maybe $20,000, and there are a lot of variables ... the bottom line, when you look at the cost benefit analysis, you are making pennies per hour.

NUVO: That is so true. And even bigger authors could have one wildly successful piece then the next won't sell at all.

Friedman: That's true, and traditional publishers are doing this too. There is a lot more attention on series, once you can get a reader hooked into a series then you have more confidence that the next book in the series is going to do well. If you look at series that have been successful, books that have been out, like Veronica Ross' Divergent series, the Harry Potter series of course, the Hunger Games series, Diary of a Wimpy Kid series — especially in the YA market it can be filled with series — that helps. And self-published authors, those who tend to make the most money are series driven. That's not to say you can't make the same money with standalone books, you can. John Green, an Indiana author, publishes YA standalones. It helps if the author is producing work that is with the same readership each time. Some authors who switch it up a lot, change genres, they get bored, whatever the case might be. But if they keep switching audiences with each book, it makes it that much harder.

NUVO: What is it that still motivates you to write about writing? Especially in the context that you just described the publishing industry as a whole.

I would say there are a few motivations. One is that at this stage of the game I have a pretty full understanding of the issues, history, what writers need to hear. I understand the question behind the question that they are asking and where they might make mistakes. There is just an acquired wisdom and confidence in what comes with that and in how I consult. It's kind of in the zeitgeist right now; it's become more of an issue than it ever has been. This issue of how do writers make money, how do they succeed on the business side of their careers, how do they make writing a sustainable thing. I think part of why this has become such a big issue is that creative writing programs throughout the United States are producing graduates who don't know what to do with the skills that they have learned. Some of the skills they have learned cannot translate into what will pay them ... So part of this is my feeling that it is possible to make a living from your writing if you know where you can compromise, and you understand how the market works and you can make choices based on your understanding of the market. Writers aren't being educated about the industry in college, and it's kind of a controversial topic if they should be educated about the business. But I don't like that writers are ending up in debt for their degrees then they don't know how to make writing pay.


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Emily Taylor

Emily Taylor

Emily is the arts editor at NUVO, where she covers everything from visual art to comedy. In fact she is probably at a theater production right now. Before joining the ranks here, she worked for Indianapolis Monthly and Gannett. You can find her thoughts about Indy scattered throughout the NUVO arts section and... more

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