When Jane Friedman left the helm of Writers Digest after more than 10 years with the $10 million dollar brand, we all wondered what would come next. Over the last three years, the “other Jane Friedman” — as she calls herself in self-deprecating moments — has positioned herself as a trusted guide for authors seeking support, equipment, and inspiration as they seek to excel in both the craft of writing and business of publishing. Author advocate, educator, consultant, creative sherpa, cheerleader, and much more, Jane also serves as the digital editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review. Most recently, she launched Scratch Magazine, along with partner Manjula Martin, a quarterly magazine that “publishes smart, useful stories about the intersection of writing and money, for writers of all genres and trades… …investigating the nuances of writers’ relationships to money, work, and publishing.”
It was that line — “the intersection of writing and money” — that caught my attention and prompted the interview below, wherein Jane, in her customary blend of earnestness and realism, shares her vision for the new magazine, her hopes for authors working today, and her belief that quality has to fight its way to the top.
Jason Allen Ashlock: Give us the quick pitch for Scratch. Who’s it for, what’s it do?
Jane Friedman: Scratch is for journalists, authors, students, and anyone else who expects to earn some kind of money from their writing life. We offer insight into the current publishing marketplace as well as stories of how others are surviving, thriving, or making hard choices about their writing career, and how it impacts them personally.
JAA: Earning money from the writing life’s never been easy. Do you think it’s harder now than at previously times in recent publishing history? Mainstream press attention’s been devoted to the break-out stars in self-publishing, the occasional monster hit from the big houses. What about the rest of us who write–is it still possible for us to do it for both fun and profit?
JF: I think it’s tougher for journalists, particularly people who try to make a full-time living by freelancing for mainstream newspapers and magazines. As we all know, print advertising dollars have shrunk, and so have editorial budgets and pages; publications have closed. As far as book authors, I think it depends on the genre or category. For the smart mid-list author of genre fiction, I’d say earning a living is easier. If you established your audience over 5-10 years with a traditional publisher, you can now make a decent living by self-publishing your work and getting your backlist available digitally.
JAA: Why a new magazine, and why now?
JF: There’s more confusion than ever in the industry—so much is changing around the business of publishing and authorship. There’s also more advice than ever, and it’s hard to know who to trust. We hope to bring some transparency and clarity to what’s happening out there, and help writers smartly navigate it.
JAA: That confusion–or some of it–seems to be born out of the simple fact that there are now so many more people engaged in acts of publishing than ever before. The industry’s always been confusing, right? It’s just that now it’s opened up enough that millions are curious about it in a way they might not have been before. That curiosity is getting monetized very quickly: every major publishing conference has added author education programming alongside its industry best practices offerings. What do you think we’re getting right and wrong about author education at this moment?
JF: Yes, it’s always been confusing to an outsider, but now the number of decisions an author faces would be challenging even to someone with industry experience. For instance, let’s say you’re interested in self-publishing. Do you choose print, digital, or both? Which platform or technology do you use to create it? Who do you hire to help you? How much should you expect to spend? Which retailers are most important? Should you go exclusive with Amazon? How should you price it? Should you give it away? Should you serialize to gain traction first? Which social media platforms are best for you? What do you do about negative reviews? Many of these questions didn’t really exist prior to the digitization of the industry.
But you’re right—the number of authors keeps increasing, and it’s not going to slow down. Publishing is not much harder than pushing a button; the barrier is lower than it’s ever been. The challenging question is: how do you make a living from it? The answer is far from clear. Maybe it’s never been clear!
What we’re getting right about author education: the increasing acceptance and inclusion of all paths to publication in educational programming, without two “classes” of authors, and the increasing hands-on opportunities for authors to learn about tools and technology that will empower them. What we’re getting wrong usually amounts to one-rule-fits-all-advice, with little room for the individual author to scope out his own path based on his strengths and the unique qualities of his work. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had to tell authors, “No, you don’t have to use [XYZ social media platform] if you don’t like it.”
What we’re getting right about author education: the increasing acceptance and inclusion of all paths to publication
JAA: You used to run a little rag called Writers Digest. What’s different about running a mag now versus 5 years ago?
JF: It’s more difficult to turn a profit on a magazine, whether print or digital. People expect they can get quality information for free, and the magazine package (or experience) isn’t as valuable as it once was. People cherry pick a lot, rather than committing to single publications or outlets. I suspect that if and when Scratch becomes sustainable for the long term, it will be a result of additional content and services we develop, not subscription revenue.
JAA: So you’re saying that when you envisioned Scratch, it was built to be extensible? What’s an extension you’re looking forward to trying out?
JF: Yes, I think it is extensible, let’s call it “Scratch Media.” We might offer online education, paid newsletters, content or course licensing to writing programs, and live events. I’d really like to crack the paid e-newsletter market. Maybe that’s because I’ve always loved e-mail as a content delivery mechanism and I think it’s too often overlooked as a potential money-maker—so I’d like to experiment!
JAA: Do you think the magazine experience can be adapted to the fragmented attention of a fragmented audience in such as way as to regain some of its value as a package?
JF: I really don’t know. The idealist in me says, “People want a trusted filter in this space.” If Scratch is recognized by subscribers as something that delivers quality content you can’t find anywhere else, and also saves them time (because we’re acting as that filter), that’s probably key.
JAA: What’s exciting you most about the changes taking place in publishing right now?
JF: That you don’t have to wait for someone to validate you before trying something new. You can reach your readers directly and experiment with how to deliver your story or content. There are so many new tools, services and distribution methods, with very low or no start-up costs, that your only limitation is your imagination—plus your time and energy, of course.
…so many new tools, services and distribution methods, with very low or no start-up costs, that your only limitation is your imagination…
JAA: Are you watching an author or an author collective or a small digital house that inspires you and that you think is doing some things right?
JF: I admire LL Barkat at Tweetspeak Poetry, for doing something new and different in the poetry space that I haven’t really seen tried elsewhere. To try and earn a living, or a pull a profit, from a poetry-based brand? That’s bold. Barkat has a lot of ways she’s making it work, which include a digital publishing arm, a paid newsletter, and of course online content. It’s fun to watch, and of course I hope it pays off in the long term.
JAA: What worries you, or causes concern, about those changes?
JF: Because all the gates are open, and so many people are experimenting, it’s tough to break through the noise. Plus there’s not enough time to consume all the great stuff that exists. I don’t believe quality rises to the top—it fights its way there, then it fights to stay there amidst other distractions.
JAA: You ask a pretty big question in the About section of Scratch: ”Is any of this financially sustainable? Should we expect it to be?” Do you have a working hypothesis? How are you thinking about this question at the moment?
JF: I think it’s sustainable if you focus on the why of what you’re doing, and that you stand for something greater than the specific product or service you’re providing. People gravitate toward communities or brands or people that deeply resonate with them, that lend meaning and identity, or that align with their needs or values. I know that writers hate thinking of themselves as brands, but if they can at least see themselves as a unique voice, with a unique position or perspective on the world, that can help create a plan or strategy that encompasses many possible models for creating content and services, particularly models that connect directly with readers, and go beyond the traditional pitch-and-publish gatekeeper model.
JAA: How do you see yourself personally, as you go about all of this activity? What’s the Jane Friedman brand?
JF: Ha! When I attend events, or sit on panels, among agents, editors, and authors, I tend to see myself as an author advocate, someone who is primarily concerned with giving creative people the best possible chance at success—by offering sound information, insight and transparency into the industry.
But there is another facet that I try to bring to the table wherever I go. For a while, I used a tagline at my site: “being human at electric speed.” I don’t think it means anything to most people (which is why I took it down), but for me, it means accepting and experimenting with all types of media and technology, while knowing how to keep things “real” in the end—not getting too serious about it all. If it starts being a drag, then it’s time to change course.