A Leanpub Backmatter Podcast Interview with Jane Friedman, Co-Founder of The Hot Sheet
Jane Friedman is a popular publishing industry consultant, speaker, lecturer, editor, and the author of Publishing 101: A First-Time Author’s Guide to Getting Published, Marketing and Promoting Your Book, and Building a Successful Career. Along with her colleague Porter Anderson, Jane is also the co-founder of The Hot Sheet, a leading publishing industry newsletter for authors.
In this interview, Leanpub co-founder Len Epp talks with Jane about her career, her interests, and her insights into the book publishing industry.
This interview was recorded on May 10, 2017.
This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.
A Note About the Leanpub Backmatter Podcast
This summer we split the old Leanpub podcast into two distinct podcasts: Frontmatter, which is a general interest podcast where you can listen to Leanpub authors talk with Leanpub co-founder Len Epp about their books and their areas of expertise, from data science to molecular biology, to the history of labor and management. And for those interested in the nitty-gritty of what it takes to be a successful self-published author, at the end of each episode Len asks the author about how they made their book and how they are spreading the word, and other publishing shop talk.
Our new Backmatter podcast is focused specifically on the publishing industry and its latest trends. In each episode Len intereviews a professional from the publishing world about their background and their insider’s perspective on what’s happening in the huge and evolving world of book publishing.
Len: Hi, this is Len Epp from Leanpub. And in this podcast, I’ll be interviewing Jane Friedman. To people in the publishing industry, I think it’s fair to say Jane needs no introduction.
But for everyone else, I’d just like to say a little bit about her. Jane is a publishing consultant, speaker, blogger, and general industry expert with over 20 years of experience in a variety of areas, and with a particular interest in digital media strategy. But with the range of her engagement with publishing — from writing and editing to teaching and marketing strategy — I hesitate to attach any particular label to her work.
Jane is the former publisher of Writer’s Digest, and co-founder — along with her colleague Porter Anderson — of The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors that gives valuable insight into the publishing industry, which can often seem quite opaque from the outside, especially for people new to the world of writing and publishing.
If you’re interested in Jane’s work, you can find articles by her at Publishers Weekly. You can check out her YouTube playlist, which I’ll provide links for. And you can buy her book, Publishing 101 on Amazon.
You can also get Jane’s in depth lecture series, How to Publish Your Book on either The Great Courses or The Great Courses Plus. I’ve actually watched the whole course, and I would say to anyone looking to publish a book through a conventional publisher for the first time, you owe it to yourself to watch it too.
In this interview, we’re going to talk about Jane’s career, and about various aspects of the publishing industry that I hope everyone listening will find informative, regardless of your level of knowledge of publishing. So thank you Jane, for being on this podcast.
Jane: My pleasure, Len. Thank you for having me.
Len: I like to start these interviews by asking people for their origin stories, to get a sense of each person’s experience and perspective, and I was wondering if you could talk about when you first became interested in writing, and how that carried you through to what I believe was your first job in the industry in Cincinnati?
Jane: I grew up in a very rural area. So about the number one thing to do was go to the library, read a book — and maybe write something or go play outdoors. So I feel like my attention was very much on schoolwork, and my mom liked to write and read at home. And so I feel like a lot of what I did was mimicking her behavior. My father was a calligrapher, so there was a lot of things to do with letters and reading as I was growing up.
It’s funny when people in publishing often talk about it being their passion, and I’m not going to say that writing and publishing is not my passion, but I feel like that’s what I was swimming in from a very young age, and it was very easy to just follow that through middle school and high school — getting mixed up in the yearbook and newspaper, and things like that. So I was pretty singular in my focus all the way through college — I went straight to a publishing internship, and I’ve never left the industry.
Len: I’m not actually sure how to pronounce the name of the company, it’s F+W Media, would you say?
Len: It’s really interesting — I saw in your bio that while you were there, you managed a transition from a print-based business, to one that was focused on digital products and media. I wanted to ask you about that experience, because even to this day, one senses in people — both in news publishing and in book publishing, whose experience predates the transition period — a powerful sense of loss and nostalgia, and even a persisting sense of crisis, as opposed to hope and excitement. I was wondering if you could talk about any resistance that you may have encountered in your work carrying out that transition, because it sounded like a really big responsibility.
Jane: It was a very unique time for the company; I should put the context around the company for those who may not be familiar with it. It’s often called an “enthusiast publisher” — that means it’s serving very particular interest areas. Think of any kind of hobby or craft — whether that’s woodworking, or photography, or fine art, or writing. There was a community of people dedicated to serving that audience.
So around the time that the company got sold off to a venture capitalist firm, that was about the time that I was heading up Writer’s Digest, and moving up the ladder. They really were pretty progressive and forward-thinking, and they saw that the way the company was structured made no sense for the future, because it was structured in such a way as to silo books from the magazines, to silo online courses from those other products. And so each of them would be managed differently from different people, who may or may not have communicated their plans. But they would be all serving the same person.
In the Writer’s Digest community, you had the book people, and the magazine people, and the online course people, and the market guide people, and the competitions people — and they were just in totally separate divisions. They didn’t have a common profit and loss statement, they didn’t collaborate. So I think the company reoriented itself so that it would focus all of its energies on serving the customer rather than thinking about, “Oh, we’re producing this book,” or, “We’re producing this magazine.” Instead it became, “We’re producing this content.” And it can be delivered in many different ways — it can be re-purposed, and repackaged, and whatever the case might have been.
So digital better allowed that to happenm because we had a direct line into the audience through social media, through websites, through search, through blogs. But we also had a direct-to-consumer business that helped get it off the ground, because we had a history of book clubs, and of course we had magazine subscriber lists. So I think the company had an advantage in the digital transition that I would say many traditional book publishers don’t have, because they don’t have that direct to consumer DNA that F+W has always had.
Len: I can see why, given that description. I was a bit surprised when you said it was acquired by a venture capital firm, but it sounds like it would have been a natural fit, given how sophisticated they were in their approach. And that was — you’re saying, in the sort of mid-2000's?
Jane: That’s right.
Len: On your website, you’re a self-described “late sleeping, bourbon drinking editor.” And while I’d love to talk to you about the first two parts of that description — because I more or less identify with them — I’d like to talk to you a little bit about your experience editing.
For any aspiring editors out there, for example, can you maybe talk about how you got your first gig and what that was like, and how you managed the facet of your career that when you’re maturing as an editor?
Jane: I feel like I’m the worst person to learn editing from, because I don’t necessarily think I learned in a way that’s writer-friendly. Let me explain that.
When I started working at F+W, I was often working with people who were experts in their craft, or their hobby, or their interest area — but they were not writers, ao they needed a lot of heavy assistance. I was even writing some parts of the books for the authors, because they could make the stuff, but they just did not want to write about it.
And then, when I moved over into doing Writer’s Digest-specific projects, I was mentored by an editor who had very much a kind of a “scorched earth” editing style, where she would just totally rip things apart, rewrite them, and then send it back to the writer to basically sign off on. And that doesn’t necessarily help writers develop their own voice, or help them improve or give them a chance to revise. But because all of my work was graded by her methods of, “Did I take the aggressive and right path to getting this piece in shape?” I just developed this very aggressive editing style.
I think in the type of editing I do today, which is mainly helping writers with submissions materials — things like queries and synopsis, proposals, and other business documents — I think that very aggressive stance still works, because many writers do not know what they’re doing. But I think when someone gives me a piece of creative writing, I have some really — I have aggressive tendencies that I have to really reign in. You probably weren’t expecting that story, but there it is.
Len: No, but it’s very interesting. And I have to say I’ve been the editor of a couple of student magazines and newspapers, and my editing style was naturally rather aggressive as well. So although on a certain level I’m surprised, on another level that’s where my instincts take me as well. And that included a little bit of literary creative writing, but mostly what we were aiming for was New York Review of Books-style essays, where someone’s reviewing a book perhaps, but really taking the opportunity to address an issue at a high level. And often that meant shaking the person up.
Because if it’s a student publication, they might be writing like they would for a student essay, trying to please a professor, and it’s like, “No, that’s actually not what you’re doing here. I want you to actually be yourself and be original. You’re not trying to please anybody; you’re trying to actually address the issue.”
On the subject of query letters and things like that, one of the really interesting things for me in your Great Courses course was the importance of etiquette, where at times it seemed strange that you would have to highlight things that seemed like common sense, and at other times you were describing sets of rules that seemed as byzantine and arbitrary as cricket, or courtly manners under the Sun King.
I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that? I mean, what is it about people who are aspiring authors that can lead them into behavior in that realm, where they wouldn’t walk into a store and get really demanding with the person they’re talking to or expect them to — “Hey drop everything you’re doing and do a bunch of work for me, please. And get back to me within a day.” I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that. What is it about aspiring authors that leads them down a path they might not otherwise follow in the rest of their life?
Jane: Well, I’m going to make some really broad generalizations that will not apply to every writer. There’s a certain category of aspiring author, particularly the person who has had a professional career, maybe they’re coming back to writing, which was their first love, like as they near retirement, or they have a chance at a second career. And often these people have held positions of authority or respect, like doctors, lawyers, people in investment banking for instance.
And when they face the publishing industry from the outside, and they’re trying to get attention for their work — and they can’t get a response. They’re sent cryptic rejections, no one will listen to them, they can’t pick up the phone and talk to a real person — they are very upset. Suddenly, all of this status that they have in the world means nothing. And I think it just really exacerbates the frustration, and also a lot of the vitriol that’s heaped on traditional publishing.
Sometimes I also think there’s a misunderstanding of what traditional publishing is. Sometimes I think people see it as, like, agents are providing you this service, or publishers are providing you with some service. But yes and no. I mean, they really do not want to hear from you for the most part. It’s like, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” Just because they’re inundated. There’s just so many people who want through the gates, and there’s only a small percentage who are going to get the deal or get representation.
Len: I remember being at a meeting with a bunch of small publishers in Montreal once. And I think the Editor in Chief — or I don’t know what you would call him — of Publishers Weekly was there. There was this one guy who was kind of lurking. And after this rather embarrassing display that was put on by the local publishers — who were basically, at the same time, kind of threatened and jealous that this American Publishers Weekly guy was in Montreal for the first time ever — this guy lurking in the back, after it was over, he was obviously angling to get the ear of this Publishers Weekly guy. And the lurker had this light in his eye, like you know what you see when someone is like, you know that they’re carrying out a strategy.
And what struck me about it, and the reason I remember it to this day, is that this guy was inhabiting a narrative, in which he was fighting to achieve some special status, that of published author — and perhaps there may have been even more of a mission behind it. But there was something about improving his status that was really important that was going on.
I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that. I mean, how do you, as an editor, deal with someone who is simultaneously sort of dreaming of becoming something bigger — and then gets cold water poured on them? Not only about the quality of their writing or even their thinking, but also the fact that — as you were hinting at — publishing is a business. And when a publisher publishes your book they’re making a decision to invest in you, as opposed to any of the other opportunities that they have to invest their time and money and attention in.
Jane: So the average person, they may have only written one book. They may actually not be a very avid reader. And they may not really understand a lot about what’s being currently published. They may have memories of what they’ve read and enjoyed as a younger person, but they may have very little awareness of the literary landscape. And so they’re writing into a vacuum, and they haven’t done anything that would help them understand where they’re at on the spectrum. They haven’t done anything to advance their professional knowledge of the field.
I’m always trying to get them to see that just as doctors need training or lawyers need training, writers go through a very long development process.
They’re just approaching it as a total innocent — thinking that just because they wrote this thing, it must have some value. And not even pursuing it as, “I need to develop my craft first.” Like, “Why can’t I just write a book the first time and have it be commercial, publishable quality?” So I think that — I’m always trying to get them to see that just as doctors need training or lawyers need training, writers go through a very long development process. The length of it is different for everyone, but we’re talking about years. And so if people aren’t invested in it for a years’ long duration, it’s — I don’t want to say, “Give up”, but why bother beating your head against the wall with this one book, especially if you don’t even think you’ll write another?
Len: Another one of the things that struck me about your Great Courses course was how naive I was, myself — even though I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about these kinds of things. Not so much in my knowledge, but in the way I emotionally related to what’s involved in publishing. I did kind of relate to it like it was — not that it can’t be or isn’t a romantic endeavor in a way, but that there is just a lot of really mundane reality. And time is a factor in it, and it takes a lot of time. And there’s just a lot of work. A lot of work. And because of that nature, it has to be something that you find inherently valuable as an activity to do.
Len: I mean, unless you’re Bill Clinton — and publishers are just going to make you a co-author with a very famous novelist because of who you are already — you’re going to have to do a lot of work to get there.
Switching gears a bit — I know you get asked all the time, and have been for years, about the future of publishing and that way back in 2011 you even wrote a satire about publishing futurism.
So I wanted to ask you about the past. You make the great point on your website that writers have been innovating since the Gutenberg era, and I was wondering if you could talk, perhaps, about one or two of the highlights of writers adapting and innovating in the history of book publishing that really stand out for you.
Jane: One of the examples I frequently point to is Samuel Johnson, who — he’s sometimes been called, at that point in time, like the new Magna Carta of the modern author. Because it was when things flipped, where the market was big enough that authors could sustain their careers based on sales. He was operating during a time when more and more books were being published. There was a growing literate class, and you could be a successful author just on bookstore sales.
Now, what’s interesting about that is, at the time, he was bucking the trend. Because it was considered more — I don’t want to say polite — but it was more customary for you to be paid for your work through some sort of patron, and you would dedicate your work to that patron and receive money. Or you were born into privilege, and you didn’t need money. So, there was something a bit crass there in that move, that he would just say, “Forget you, patron ‘whoever you are’. I can live on my book sales.”
But that flipped yet again, where, for instance it was Mark Twain who — his most successful book wasn’t sold through bookstores, but it was sold door to door — peddled, like a vacuum cleaner or something. And at the time, people kind of looked down their noses. Like, proper authors with proper books are sold in proper bookstores. They are not sold door-to-door like a vacuum, or some sort of weird smarmy cure or potion.
But that’s where he saw his greatest financial gain, in supporting that effort. And so whenever you find authors who are willing to step back and say, “This is how the model is going to work for me. This is what I know how to do. This is what I can sustain,” you find lots of interesting things happen if they’re willing to not let status anxiety take over their thinking in terms of how the book gets to the reader.
Len: That reminds me of another example, of Byron, who was perhaps the first celebrity — some people would say, in a way. And he was of the nobility, but also used scandal as a way to spread his own fame. And of course there’s figures like Dickens as well, who used serial publishing.
One of the lines that I like to use with people is — do you know why all those 19th century novels that you’re aware of are so big? It’s because many of them were published serially, and when you’ve got a hit on your hands, you might find your publisher asking you to expand your outline pretty dramatically. It’s like getting signed for new seasons of a television show.
Moving on to the present, on the subject of innovation, you published a blog post recently, that I think originally appeared in The Hot Sheet, about author marketing collectives. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about this idea, and how people are using both new and old technologies of getting together, in order to provide collective professional support and marketing.
Jane: The idea of a collective is not new, of course. Artists have been doing it across decades, if not centuries. But we just haven’t yet seen, maybe — a really formal, large group iteration of this. And so my blog post was looking at a group called The Tall Poppies, which is the biggest that I have yet seen, with a very formal — or the most formal I’ve seen — structure, and branding, and goal to reach people who read women’s fiction. You can see these things arising out of a genuine need of authors to have support when they launch their book that they’re not getting from their publisher. And that’s also hard to collect on a kind of ad-hoc basis if you’re self-publishing. So, to me, this is so needed.
And back in 2012, I actually gave a talk at an innovation summit in Berlin, where they wanted people to come up with what they thought was the idea that would help the industry innovate. And my idea was, publishers need to come up with author care departments, to help educate them on how to make their book sell better, and to help them collaborate with each other.
But you know, that was just considered, “Well why would a publisher have to do that?” They don’t have the time, the resources, the money. It’s the author’s responsibility to find their readers. So there are flaws in the idea. But on the other hand, even though authors have always, always complained about publisher support, I do feel like the need is more dire now with the pace of change, with all of the confusing messages out there. Even though you can get more help and do more collaborations with other authors, the misinformation about what works and doesn’t is just rampant. And so people just don’t know what to do. They struggle to know where to expend their energy.
Len: That’s a really interesting topic in a number of ways. One of which is that publishers might, themselves, be subject to misreading’s of what’s going on out there, and pursuing poor strategies themselves. So even if some of them were motivated to provide author care, it’s possible that they could lead authors down the wrong path, which would complicate things.
You talk in your book, in the beginning, about things being “slippery” — I think you used that image. The world of advice is so difficult in that particular industry, because what works for one person in one context, might not even work for that same person in another context or at another time. But at the same time, it’s one of these things where people feel like there ought to be an authoritative playlist out there of what to do. And that really can’t exist, because things aren’t that — they’re just not solid.
Len: And that’s another thing, talking about the work you have to do, is you do have to forge — no matter what, if you’re an author you have to, one way or another you’re forging your own path. And you need to be clear eyed about the advice that you’re offered along the way. And that reminds me of an experience I had in my life where I had a supervisor for my doctorate who was from, I would say, the last generation where you could simply be a brilliant student, be favored by the dons, go do your years in Glasgow, and then get a position at an Oxford college.
And she told me — here I am, a doctoral candidate in the early 2000’s — she’s like, “Oh yes. It’s so silly that doctoral candidates are going to conferences. They shouldn’t be doing that.” And that was like the worst advice you could possibly give. I promptly responded characteristically by saying, “Oh, that’s interesting you should say that, because I just got accepted to talk at another conference next month.” And she said, “Well I didn’t mean you.” But I bring up that personal anecdote because people in positions of power can often be — to put it offensively — anachronistic.
Jane: Yes, totally.
Len: But nonetheless, still in a position of high power.
I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how that is perhaps changing, or is that persisting? I mean, talking about the high level of the Big Five publishers. I know this is a very broad way of asking it, but are they adapting in your opinion? Or are they trying to stay in the past?
Jane: I do feel that they’re adapting. And I base that on the presentations that I hear at industry events, like Digital Book World, where you’ll hear the VP of marketing at one of the Big Five talk about this particular book that they launched successfully with a very digitally-driven campaign. They can do excellent forward-thinking campaigns when they devote the resources.
But the problem is — one title. At every type of session like that, someone always raises their hand at the end and asks, “So, how many titles per season did you do this for?” “Uh, just this one.” There are 30 others that just languished, because publishers haven’t figured out how to do that for every title in a way that would make sense from a profit-loss standpoint. So I don’t know what the answer is there, but I think they know what needs to be done. Or they can figure out what needs to be done, but they don’t have the bandwidth to do it. So that’s one issue.
You touched on how the anachronistic author — the author who jumped immediately to mind is Johnathan Franzen, someone who’s got so much weight, and clout, and standing, who a lot of people listen to — or maybe not. Maybe not so much anymore, where he formed and shaped his career during a very different time. And now he just basically calls any sort of digital interaction to be horrible, trite, beneath the serious writer. That type of thing.
There are lots of writers out there saying that sort of thing, particularly older writers. Not because they’re old, but because they got their start during a different time. I feel like there’s not a whole lot of flexibility or open-mindedness for the tools that are used now in a creative and imaginative way — not in a crass marketing and promotion way.
I feel like younger people are finding ways to write and publish that both respect their voice and their work, give them time for that work — but also help them build an audience for it. I’m think particularly of Wattpad right now, which gets — it’s totally criticized by a certain type of writer, but you can see that younger writers are very excited about it and it’s inspiring.
Len: I’m sure you could talk for a long time about the naiveté of the high-minded position, it sounds like. I avoided Jonathan Franzen since I first heard about him, because I could just tell.
I like to think of the example of Ulysses, where all the high-minded people treated it like trash. It took a book store to publish it, because no one else had the courage or the vision. And those would’ve been the people who were all comfortable, and had all had everything go tickety-boo.
The inheritance that we have of all of these revolutionary works, which are now treated with all that high-minded seriousness by the high-minded serious people — they’re totally naive about the position that they’re adopting.
The history of literature, quite frankly — I had a question I wanted to ask you about that. I watched on YouTube, an interview that you did with Joanna Penn last year. You talk about how The Hot Sheet is meant to deliver important information to writers. And you talk about — without invoking any of the head-butting that can happen within other groups, and as someone who follows publishing industry commentary, I know a little bit about that; I think to a lot of people, that might be a very strange notion, that there are these different groups of authors butting heads.
And for those who perhaps aren’t aware of the high and low drama that can take place in the publishing industry, and the talk that happens around it — even at conferences and panels and stuff like that — I was wondering if you could just give us a little bit of a sense of who these various author groups are, and how they go about butting heads?
Jane: Sure. There’s the traditional publishing author group, which has been around for many, many years, and who more or less consider their way to be the proper way to publish. The one that’s going to be most beneficial, has the most prestige. It’s tied into validation. It has the best professional product, best results.
And then you’ve got the self-published authors who — for years — and when I say years, let’s say throughout the 80s and the 90s and the early 00s — were frustrated at not being able to break through.
Finally now, got their chance to do so through digital publishing. And now we’re having success. And they are just totally like sticking it to the other side. They’re like, “Huh, see? See what we did? See? Someone does want to read our work, look, we can make money. You can keep your traditional publishing, and actually it’s going to die anyway.” There’s a little bit of that chip on their shoulder. Not all self-publishing authors, but a certain contingent — especially those who felt really put into an outsider position at some point in their career, where they weren’t given the recognition they thought they deserved.
The weird thing is that Amazon now plays a role in this strange way. It’s like you can do the Amazon litmus test with people to see which side of the fence they’re on. Do they like Amazon, or do they hate Amazon? It’s more common for someone in traditional publishing to be very skeptical and anxious, suspicious of everything Amazon does — partly for good reason. And then it’s very common on the indie side to be much more like, “Amazon’s awesome, look at what they’ve done for us” — not without recognition that Amazon can be a bully, and that they can change the terms at any minute, and you’re screwed. But it’s a much more, I would say, progressive view of Amazon’s business practices.
I don’t know if “progressive” is the right word, but it’s hard to find someone who can just look at both sides, and understand that — yes, Amazon wields great power. Sometimes it’s bad, sometimes it’s good, and rather than take a very moralistic, judgmental attitude — right now, you may have noticed, the news story right now is Amazon is pushing third-party sellers up on book buying pages. So they’re giving third party sellers the “buy book” button, instead of the new book being sold through Amazon through the publisher.
So the implication is, publishers and authors are losing money. So you start to see the two groups come out in force, the group that says, “Amazon’s always done this sort of thing, and they’ve always done third-party books — what’s the big problem?” And then you have the Authors Guild, another more traditional organization, saying, “This is a travesty and it must be stopped.” because they’re trying to protect the old model.
Len: Could you explain a little bit more about how that works? With what a third-party seller is, for example? My understanding of it is that authors can sell their books directly themselves, self-published publishers can make books available for sale, but then you can just be someone with books in your garage, and you can make them for sale on Amazon, and that’s a third-party seller.
Len: And would the third-party seller be selling the same books as the publisher? And that’s why elevating the third-party publisher in this way, is seen as a threat to the publishing houses proper?
Jane: Exactly. Normally the third-party sellers are selling used copies. Publishers didn’t like when that first happened — it’s been a long time, like 15 years — so normally, they’re just selling used [books]. But now third-party sellers get their hands on new copies — they’re only allowed to take the “buy” button, if they have the so-called new condition copy. And so publishers are wondering, “How do they get these new condition copies, if it’s not from us?”
And I think there are some bad actors, as Amazon called them — people who are selling used as new, and reaping the profits. But I think, as Amazon always does, they’ll clean up that activity pretty quickly.
Len: That reminds me, there’s this kind of micro-controversy — just to show how in the weeds this kind of thing [can be] — of advanced reading copies, I believe it is? So if you are a figure in the reviewing world, you can get advanced reading copies of books. And then some unscrupulous, or perhaps just thoughtless types go about selling those advanced reading copies.
Jane: Right. I think that as soon as we had online book sales take over much of the market, it suddenly made that kind of underground market of advance review copies and remainders and hurts and all of those things, it suddenly brought it more to the forefront, and more available to people to buy, rather than the new book. I think with publishers, a little bit of the burden is on them to be much more disciplined and procedural in how they handle those types of copies, making it very clear that they’re not new-condition copies, that they’re not to be resold, etc.
Len: Speaking of Amazon, I have a question that I wanted to ask you. I’m going to frame it in a particular way, which I don’t explicitly say this is not — I’m framing it this way, you’re not. That’s what I’m trying to say.
One of the interesting controversies in the world of book publishing and book selling that emerged in the last year and a half or so, is Amazon opening it’s own physical book stores. And I wanted to talk a little bit about the nature of the romanticism that often accompanies the discussion of buying and selling books.
My way into this is last year, a group of book stores in Chicago got together — and I don’t know if you saw this, but they issued a pretty extraordinary statement of protest after Amazon announced it was going to open a store in a Chicago neighborhood.
In the statement itself, there’s a complaint that — quote, “Amazon’s initial choice to sell books was largely for the purpose of collecting customer data,” end quote. And this is contrasted with how, quote, “Booksellers get to know their customers so that they are able to make personal recommendations,” end quote. And it struck me that — I mean, the statement is very carefully worded, but they’re obviously trying to get away with invoking collection of data, in order to bring along with it the connotation that comes with that of an invasion of your privacy.
And then they go on to say that, we do the most privacy-invasive-possible thing we could do, which is actually get to know you personally, and know all about you. That’s the service that we provide — much more invasive than anything Amazon could ever do. And at the end, there’s this weird sort of contradiction, where there say, “…customers are not just instruments for data collection to enable future sales.” Except that’s exactly what they’re doing. It’s just it’s a brain, not a computer, that’s getting to know you, in order to make recommendations to enable future sales.
And I just — I can’t resist — one of the people who’s quoted in this statement online, goes on to say that the traditional bookstore is quote, “A place where the customer isn’t part of a logarithm but is instead a friend and neighbor; a place where the selection is tailored to those customers and friends,” end quote. I mean, I have to make fun of this. The reason I am — impolitely — invoking this person’s mistaken representation of a logarithm with an algorithm, is that often there’s a willful and cynical and cruel misrepresentation of an ignorance about electricity-based technology that comes with the romanticism around books.
I was wondering — I mean, you don’t have to agree with anything I said, but what do you think about that? Where does that come from — this idea that somehow electricity and computers are anathema to knowledge, and reading?
Jane: We could have a very interesting philosophical conversation. I think so much of this is just driven by fear, anger at livelihoods being taken away, or something special about the community perhaps being stolen away? Publishing has been such a traditional business, at least from my perspective, and Amazon just breaks all of those traditions and has — I do sympathize. They have that kind of Silicon Valley quality of like, move fast and break things, without like any concern for any harm you might cause in the process, or the greater good. So I get it.
But when I see statements like the one you read, I just — it drives me crazy. It is not productive. I don’t think the bookstores gain anything by trying to do battle with Amazon on that level. I think they’re just speaking to a very small contingent of people who feel exactly the way they do. And that contingent is getting smaller. I think they’d be much better served to show how they are a real presence in the community, they support the community through events or through whatever it is that they do, and compete based on value that they provide that an online bookstore can’t. Or even that an Amazon store can’t.
I don’t feel like Amazon stores are suddenly going into displace indie bookstores. I don’t, I really don’t. I think there’s room for everyone here. I think they’re very different types of stores, and whether they’re different customers — I don’t know that Amazon bookstores have been around long enough for us to say. But I wish they would focus on something else, other than trying to make out Amazon to be some devil.
Len: To be somewhat fair, they, one of the main themes of their statement is that they provide this community-building stuff. But I’ve got to say, I guess I’m a bit of an iconoclast in this respect, but I was interviewing someone recently, Mirela Roncevic, about this. And she talked about how — I mean, I’ll probably not invoke the same example she used — but when she was growing up, you couldn’t find a book on divorce in the book store. And you probably couldn’t find a book on homosexuality in the book store. And if you went to your local community book store, and personally went to that personal book seller, who knows you and your parents, and your friends and your priest — and you asked for a book on divorce, word would get around.
I guess I’m getting a little bit emotional about it. But like this notion — you have to be the kind of person who just profoundly fits in in order to be so naive about knowledge and sharing and community — including locality. “The local is so great.” No, not necessarily. For some people, what are rails — they’d stand up, and they’re prison bars.
As someone says in this statement, “We know what the people of our towns and cities want to read.” To which my response is, “Fuck you. Really? You’re that presumptuous that you’re going to say you know what all the peoples of Chicago — you know what they want to read, and what they ought to be reading. No, no you don’t.” And I guess I’m going on a bit of my own direction here, but it’s just so striking to me that that aspect of the discussion around books is so rarely challenged. There’s nothing necessarily benevolent about your local bookstore.
Jane: I agree. I don’t find them of a higher moral quality. I tend to look at it from a very business perspective. Either they’re running a business that can compete, or they’re not. I don’t feel like they ought to be gifted into survival somehow. I mean, sure they need fair terms. Publishers I think can be helpful in their sustainability. But, we’re closer on that than further apart.
Len: Just to invoke another less emotional, but more business-side controversy. Recently — and I’m sure you’ve heard about this — the UK Publishers Association published an annual report that the media picked up on, in which the story essentially became, ebook sales are down, and print book sales are up. From one might call the usual suspects, the news was greeted with glee.
And, full disclosure, I mean I hate that cliché, but there it is — I wrote a pretty acerbic piece about this subject for TechCrunch back in 2015, already — where I invoked the idea of dark matter in the publishing universe, where the numbers that are reported often necessarily don’t include untracked ebook sales. But I’m nowhere near to the expert you are on this. And I was wondering, what’s your take on all of this?
Jane: It feels like revenge for all the stories that came out in 2010 or so about print dying. because I feel like, everyone’s so excited — all of the saviors of print, they’re so excited that the narrative is flipped. And yeah — the glee. But if you care about books and publishing, there should not be anything happy about this news. Because — and I don’t want to say it’s fake news — it sort of is. I will get to that in a minute.
But if all of the stats as presented are — if you take them at face value, and you don’t dig [into] what’s underneath that, it is not a good thing that publishers are seeing declining ebook sales. The uplift in print, at least in the US, is driven by Amazon’s discounting and its own increasing market share. The people who love print probably do not want to see Amazon just gaining more and more on both the print and the ebook side. It’s such a weird, perverse thing to take pleasure in these statistics.
But — okay — so here’s the truth about those statistics. It just cuts out a huge piece piece of the market, as you alluded to. It doesn’t cover the self-publishing activity. Amazon doesn’t release it’s numbers. So we don’t really have a good picture of how ebook sales are increasing, and all of the data we do have indicates that the major publisher share of digital is shrinking, as the more independent small press and Amazon share is growing.
Also I think the averages are very deceptive. So you’ll see the averages of like 25% ebook for the major five. But when you look at specific categories like fiction, it’s fully 50% — sometimes higher, depending on the category we’re talking about. The mainstream news stories on this, just — it’s another thing that drives me insane. I feel like I have to respond to them every single time and try and quash the myth that we’re somehow all nostalgic for print. We are not. No.
Len: That’s one of the themes of this podcast, is there are people who you can tell carry with them a sense of scarcity when it comes to knowledge. And there are people who’ve never — whether they actually experienced scarcity or not, don’t have a sense of it.
For me growing up, I grew up in a nice middle class family. We were by no means poor. But going to the bookstore was just like — pick one every two months, because they cost twenty bucks.
I remember the first thing I looked up when I first got on the internet was getting a copy of The Brothers Karamazov, which is perhaps the nerdiest thing you could do, except for the second thing I did, which was then look up Star Trek fan fiction. People who just want to read all of Dickens, they can just go to the Gutenberg Project — and bang, there it is.
You don’t need to be able to go anywhere. You don’t need to spend any money. You don’t need to have the local bookseller decide that they aren’t going to have a copy of Nicholas Nickleby on the shelf, as opposed to all the other things they could have there. And so, yeah — I mean, I’m with you on the perversity of people who set themselves up as being the guardians of high culture, then taking pleasure in a system that makes its money from scarcity, the inherent scarcity that comes with paper and space and money.
Of course, it’s wrapped up in other things too. Matthew Ingram had this great line about “a whiff of anti-digital schadenfreude.” I just love the words “whiff” and “schadenfreude” in the same sentence for some reason.
But one does get the sense, including in the news publishing industry, that something broke inside people when desktop publishing came around, and when computers came around.
I don’t mean to be insensitive — to threaten a lot livelihoods and lost traditions and lost patterns. But the other side of that coin is, you can carry around thousands of novels in your pocket. And that’s a great thing.
On the subject of the future, because you inevitably get asked about it, I’m going to do that too. I want to talk to you about something that is around in the publishing and self-publishing discourse, which is generally just expressed as the subject of data.
It’s really interesting to speculate, for example, about what Amazon’s up to with their physical book stores. They literally know where you live, and they know what you buy in real time. And so they can perhaps, as a giant corporation, they can perhaps use that kind of hyper-local, real-time data to identify trends and stock their bookstores accordingly.
But I guess my question for you is about the direct usefulness of data to self-published authors. There are entire startups out there that pitch to authors that data’s going to be a driver of success in the future. While I’m firmly convinced that what we’re speaking of generically as data, in some sense will of course be very useful for marketing companies and media companies, how important is this now, and how important is this going to be in the future, for the direct activity, the independent activity undertaken by a self-published author?
Jane: To me it seems really central to the whole game. It’s clear to me that Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple — they’re all trafficking and collecting as much data and knowledge about people as possible, in order to sell ads or services, products, trying to make a better pitch and refine it to appear just at the right time. I think the growing realization is that we’re all fighting for attention — all the media is fighting for attention. And rather than expect people to come to you, to your side or to what you’ve got, you have to show up in their line of sight, where they already are, whether that’s a search engine on Amazon or whatever it happens to be.
And so knowing how to do that means you have to start learning about who you’re trying to reach and what their behavior is like. I often talk about a marketer from Big Five publishing, Pete McCarthy, who started blogging on those topics some years back, and now runs a data start-up for publishing, called OptiQly. It’s all about having better data-based insights into how your books are ranking, scoring, and performing on Amazon, and how the Google search engine world looks at that page, and how it connects to everything that’s online. [It will be] very powerful once it comes out. I think it’s going to be an incredible tool for both publishers and authors.
But there’s always like two sides of this coin. There’s so much data out there, actually, that authors can tap into right now, it’s overwhelming. People don’t know how to sift through it. So I think one of the things we still need, that I don’t yet — I think these things are still developing, like dashboards and ways to interpret what information is out there — windows or a lens, a better perspective on how to use this information to improve your marketing.
Len: It’s really interesting. I tried a Facebook Ads campaign a little while ago, just testing the waters. And basically it goes, “Trust us. We’ve got the logarithms.” And it’s sort of curious — at the same time as people at that level are very motivated to represent themselves as masters of the dark arts and rocket surgeons who know things that you don’t, that also means that as the user of it, you’re put in a position where you kind of either have to bust that myth, or simply be passive.
I guess you’re suggesting that there is going to be a middle ground where a good company can service that dashboard to an author in a way where they can actually get enough information that they can use their own judgement, and understand a little bit about what’s going on, even though there’s inevitably going to be something sophisticated that they don’t quite get.
Jane: Right. You can see little signs of this through, like the ebook distributor Pronoun is trying to offer these types of databased insights saying, “Hey, you’re in these two categories, but have you thought about these others that might be more ideal?” I think these sorts of things are still at a very basic level, but I think they can level up pretty quickly.
Len: My last question for you is also about the future. You’ve got a book coming out next year from the University of Chicago Press, called The Business of Being a Writer, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that book, which I assume people can pre-order on Amazon?
Jane: It’s not quite ready for pre-order, mainly because I’m working with a university press, and they’re not terribly fast. To be fair, the book won’t release until March 2018, so it’s still a little early. But the book’s done, and it’s in production.
This book was born out a desire to see students in classrooms, whether undergrad or graduate, have a much better understanding of how the business of publishing works, and to give them realistic expectations for what their career will look like, and what compromises are going to be involved, and how writers make money, aside from just publishing books. I don’t think it’s talked about enough, especially in academic settings, in MFA programs about what it means post-degree to pursue a life as a writer. The practicalities are often pushed aside. Or it’s put on, “Oh, let’s have a Q&A with an agent or an editor,” or, “Oh yeah, you can do an internship at our literary journal that reaches 100 people.” You need something a little bit more empowering and realistic, if you actually do want to see writing be your full time gig. So the book is meant to help prepare writers for that.
Len: Thanks very much for taking the time to do this interview, and telling your own story. I really enjoyed it. And for your frank opinion as well.
Jane: I appreciated your views, very frank, passionate.