FTCreative

Jane Friedman: Making A Living As A Writer

In 2015, The Guardian reported on a poll of 15,000 Brits who were asked to identify their dream jobs. Which job came in as most desirable of all?  ‘Author’, said 60% of respondents.
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The fantasy literary life is an appealing one indeed. Sitting about in one’s pyjamas, dreaming up new worlds, raking in Rowling money, then resting immortal on library shelves. The reality of the writing life is less magical for most. Helping writers negotiate these realities is the oft-cited Jane Friedman.
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A writer and editor herself, Friedman has had major roles at F+W Media, Writer’s Digest, the Virginia Quarterly Review, the University of Cincinnati and as founder of The Hot Sheet, an industry newsletter for authors. Now, she has written The Business of Being a Writer – a reference book for authors and those interested in publishing careers.
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We enjoyed interviewing Jane on the eve of the book’s release …
1. ‘My dream is to work full-time as a writer.’ You no doubt hear variants of this all the time. What are the first things you advise when people tell you that they want to dive into a writing career?
I’m exceedingly pragmatic, so if someone expresses this dream to me, I ask about their financial expectations. How much do you need to earn and how much do you expect to earn? How and why do you expect to be paid for what you’re writing? Are you prepared to compromise to earn money from your writing? Are you aware of how much the average author earns from publishing a book or article? And so on. It’s important to have realistic expectations and understand that it can take years to build up to a full-time living from writing alone, and that it often involves compromise. Few people have the patience and fortitude.
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2. How would you describe what you do for a living?
I help writers and others in the publishing industry better see and understand how to achieve their business goals. Sometimes the work can be a little bit like therapy. There is a lot of listening involved—listening to people explain their life stories and their dreams. Some people end up at my doorstep because they’re frustrated or confused about why things aren’t working the way they thought they would. No one is giving them the time or attention they think they deserve. So it’s important to acknowledge these feelings, and convey that whatever difficulties have been experienced, it’s entirely normal.
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 3. What inspired you to write The Business of Being a Writer? Why this book, why now?
I don’t believe that “cream rises to the top” in the writing world. Producing great writing alone is not a sustainable business model, either for individuals or publications. Yet some writing communities—especially literary ones—still promulgate the old mythologies (sometimes unwittingly) that art is polluted by business concerns.
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Some people may have the luxury or privilege of not thinking about earning money, finding readers, or doing the marketing. These might be writers who have rich family members, or other advantages. I didn’t have the advantage of money, but I did have the advantage of education and good mentors at my creative writing program. I learned early on that if I wanted to make a living from my writing, I’d have to learn to balance the art and the business.
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With this book, my deepest wish is for this message about art and business to reach writers early in their careers, so they can learn how to turn their passion for writing into a living wage. It’s becoming ever more urgent for writers to break out of the unproductive silence about what we earn and how the industry works. We have to be more transparent about what writing pays, and how it pays, and that it takes time and an informed strategy to make it pay.
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We may all hope that serious art speaks for itself, and once in a while that may work for the Franzens of the world, but it doesn’t work for most of us. I want writers to educate themselves on the business, and learn how to make the system work for them.
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4. Your first chapter is entitled: ‘Can you make a living as a writer?’ Without giving away all of your secrets, what are some of the more reliable ways to make a liveable wage writing full-time?
The time-honored way, for literary writers, is to teach at a creative writing program. Those opportunities aren’t as numerous as they once were, so it’s important that today’s emerging writers consider other opportunities outside of traditional university teaching. Editing, online-based teaching, copywriting, and social media marketing are common ways that writers supplement their income. Those who are more digitally savvy can use tools like Patreon or Kickstarter to get funding for their projects.
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5. What are some common mistakes you see early-career writers making?
It almost always relates to lack of patience—of expecting results too early, too soon, too fast. Not only does it take time to get good as a writer, it takes time for your visibility to grow. I don’t really believe in overnight successes, yet such stories (almost always misleading) are the ones that writers spread. They are almost always outliers. You can’t base your career on being on outlying success story. Great if it happens, but don’t count on it.
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The other mistake is getting caught in the prestige trap: of writing things or publishing in particular ways because you want to attain status. To some extent writers will always be status-seeking, ego-driven creatures, but at least be self-aware about it. Too many writers can’t keep their eyes on their own paper, and have goals that are too much influenced by what everyone else is doing.
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6. What do you think are the top 3 publishing realities/trends that all writers should know?
First, that word of mouth about writing and books is now predominantly driven through online channels, whether that’s social media, email newsletters, Amazon, etc.
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Second, because technology keeps shifting and evolving, book marketing and platform building keeps changing, too. This is going to be hugely frustrating for some writers—as it requires keeping yourself at least moderately educated about what’s happening in the industry—but it can’t be changed. It can only be managed.
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Finally, publishing is a business, and always has been. Great writing of course matters, but editors and agents ultimately look for great writing that sells.
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7. Person X has written a wonderful manuscript – say literary fiction – that has been vetted by a number of readers. This person doesn’t know anyone in the publishing industry. What should they do next?
Subscribe for a month to PublishersMarketplace.com and search the deals database for literary novels that have been sold by agents within the last couple years. Use that as a starting hit list for your pitch (your query letter); research the agents further via social media and their websites. Send the query or follow the submission guidelines and wait. You don’t have to know anyone in the publishing industry to get an agent or a book deal.
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8. What do you hope that your readers will gain by the time they have finished The Business of Being a Writer?
I hope they will have a clear understanding of how the business of publishing works—whether in books, magazines or online media—and have a starting idea of what kind of business model will support their writing career. Everyone’s business model will change and evolve, but I think not enough writers give enough deliberate thought and choice to how they will take their first steps to build that model, particularly in a way that’s sustainable and suits their personality.
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Written by Elizabeth Newton
www.creatorsvancouver.com
Photos:
1. Adolfo Félix
2. Laetitia Buscaylet
3. Simson Petrol
4.Eugenio Mazzone
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