What has changed in the publishing industry over the last few years? What can authors learn from the DOJ vs PRH court case? How can mid-list authors thrive in uncertain times? Jane Friedman talks about these things and more.
In the intro, USA Today list is on indefinite hiatus [US News]; Paid for bestseller list; Recommended books; My scallop shell custom ornamental break; A Midwinter Sacrifice; The Author’s Mindset Podcast; What do you do if your book isn’t selling? [Rachael Herron]; My Pilgrimage Kickstarter pre-launch page; History Quill Writer’s Conference;
Get 33% off my ebooks, audiobooks and courses for the rest of 2022. Use coupon 2022 at checkout at CreativePennBooks.com (ebooks and audio, not print), and/or TheCreativePenn.com/learn for courses. Valid until the end of 2022.
This podcast is sponsored by Kobo Writing Life, which helps authors self-publish and reach readers in global markets through the Kobo eco-system. You can also subscribe to the Kobo Writing Life podcast for interviews with successful indie authors.
Jane Friedman is the author of The Business of Being a Writer, as well as other nonfiction books. She’s also an award-winning publishing commentator, writer, editor, professional speaker and teacher.
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript is below.
- How the pandemic and increasing online sales have changed traditional publishing
- Thoughts on the DOJ vs PRH legal case (lots more at Publishers Weekly)
- Why backlist sales are so important
- The struggles of the mid-list author
- Key book publishing paths (updated)
- How acquisitions affect authors
- Why marketing is important however you choose to publish
- Tips for using a paid newsletter as part of your author business
- What to watch out for in the coming year
You can find Jane at JaneFriedman.com
Image generated by Joanna Penn on Midjourney.
Transcript of Interview with Jane Friedman
Joanna: Jane Friedman is the author of The Business of Being a Writer, as well as other nonfiction books. She’s also an award-winning publishing commentator, writer, editor, professional speaker, and teacher. So welcome back to the show, Jane.
Jane: Thank you. I’m so delighted to be back.
Joanna: So you were last on the show in 2018. Seems like a different world. For those who don’t know you —
Tell us a bit more about you and how you got into writing and publishing.
Jane: Well, it’s been a lifelong endeavor. I was a creative writing major in college, and I went straight into a publishing job right out of college. It was a midsize commercial publisher. I stayed for about 12 years.
And then I had a brief detour into teaching at university level where I was teaching writing. And then I went back into publishing, and now I’m full-time freelance. So I write a newsletter, I host classes, and I go to publishing conferences. So it’s all been kind of one long, unbroken focus on writing and publishing.
Joanna: And we’re going to come back to The Hot Sheet in a minute. But I wanted to talk to you, I mean, you do just fantastic commentary on the publishing industry. And you’ve seen so many different things. But I wanted your reflections, I guess, on the last couple of years.
How has the pandemic and increasing online sales changed the more traditional publishing industry?
Because I feel like indies, like myself, we were already doing everything online. But I feel like the pandemic has really shifted traditional. So what are your thoughts on that?
Jane: Yes, I mean, first of all, the pandemic was great for traditional publishing, generally. I mean, there are supply chain issues, of course, which are still affecting everyone. But print book sales were up 9% in 2021, and for a mature industry that is astonishing. And they’re still doing pretty well in 2022. Comparatively, I think they’re down maybe 5% versus last year, which is still great. It’s above where we were in 2019.
Something interesting that happened too, is that Bookshop.org and independent bookstores are in a better position — Bookshop being the online retailer that competes against Amazon. They’re very flexible, they’re more focused on the things that only they can do well, and they’re benefiting from people who want to consume more conscientiously. I think the Bookshop founder said ‘virtuous shopping’, a virtuous alternative to Amazon is what he was hoping for. And they have, they’ve succeeded.
There’s now a UK version of Bookshop. I think there might be one in Spain. So, yeah, I think the pandemic really helped the launch of that because they were established in January 2020, having no idea what was about to happen.
The other thing that was very positive, for novelists in particular, is that adult fiction sales came back after many years of decline. So at first, it was believed this was driven by comfort reads. But now I would say it’s probably more TikTok driven. Sales are also more backlist oriented. Part of that is the shift to online sales, but TikTok is also, again, driving some of that.
And I think the other piece of good news for maybe all, well, I think it’s good news for all authors, is that The Big 5 aren’t actually selling as much combined as everyone else. So I do see that it’s a very diverse market. And I know we’ll talk about some concerns about the market a little later. But I think generally, books have done really well the past few years, no matter where you’re sitting in the industry.
Joanna: So you mentioned The Big 5 there, and one of the things I really wanted to talk to you about is what’s shocked the publishing industry, or a lot of authors anyway. In September 2022 —
The US Department of Justice took Penguin Random House to court over the potential acquisition of Simon and Schuster.
And the proceedings of the trial brought to light a lot of surprising things, or perhaps only surprising to authors and people who didn’t know much about the industry. So I wanted to hear what were some of the things that stood out for you because you did a ton of commentary around this.
Jane: Yes, so the things that shocked the average person and even a lot of authors, frankly, that have been in the industry a while, the big CEOs of these enormous companies saying they don’t know what will sell. You know, portraying the industry as just a lot of random bets.
People have casually said that for many, many years that it’s a ‘throw it against the wall and see what sticks’ sort of industry.
But I guess there was this assumption that if you put a big CEO on the stand, and you ask them questions under oath, that they would show more business acumen than they did. So I think that was very shocking to people and discouraging. Like, they were denying they had any responsibility over what books would do well.
I think the other reality that was thrown into stark relief, is that most books aren’t getting a lot of marketing investment.
Unless there are already clear indicators after the book releases that it’s going to do well, then the publisher will funnel more support toward it. But unless the book is getting one of these really big advances, there is just a lot of waiting and seeing, rather than proactive marketing and promotion.
The other thing that came out is that — and again, if you study the industry closely like I do, this was not a surprise, but I think for the general public, it was shocking — that most books don’t earn out their advances. And publishers knowingly pay more to get the books they want, knowing the advance won’t earn out, rather than negotiate on anything else.
They don’t want to give up their eBook rights, their audiobook rights, they don’t want to really mess around with the royalty rates. They are really just paying a lot more upfront to run their business. And obviously, only The Big 5 are able to play that sort of game, the smaller publishers can’t. And that’s part of what the trial was about.
So what we saw is that it’s a really small percentage of winners that drive profitability for The Big 5.
And sometimes they know what those are going to be, or they’re paying larger advances thinking that they know what the winners will be, but more often than not, it’s the surprises. It’s the things that they maybe paid a more modest advance, and then it just shocked everyone how well it performed. And it was portrayed is almost out of your hands.
It was the Penguin Random House CEO who made the most, I think, quote-worthy comments, where he was just like,
“Publishing is random. That’s why we’re called Random House.”
And I mean, he’s said that line a lot at industry conferences, but again, to say it on the stand under oath, I think was just surprising for folks.
Joanna: Yeah, I didn’t know that. I hadn’t heard that before. And I guess we had assumed that the name didn’t mean that word, like we didn’t think that. Maybe it was, I didn’t know, someone’s name or something. To hear that coming from the CEO, it’s discouraging in a way if you want to get a traditional publishing deal.
But to me, I actually felt like, you know what, if the CEO with all the power and all the money thinks that it’s random, then as independent authors where we’re just one person on their own, then that’s actually encouraging.
Because it explains why — like, I’ve got 35 books now, and most of my income comes from a handful of them. And, obviously, every single one I thought was going to sell, but it’s only a few. So I mean, what encouragement can we take from this?
What encouragement can independent authors take from this?
Jane: I think exactly what you said, that it is, in fact, a pretty level playing field, especially considering you can be distributed in all the same places online as a Big 5. You can’t necessarily tell the difference between a Big 5 title and a self-published title when you’re shopping online.
I saw a good number of small presses, independent presses who were watching the coverage saying, “Wow, The Big 5 have the same problems that I have. They don’t have any secret sauce. They have more money, that’s what they do have. But they don’t necessarily have any better instincts.” So I think this is the encouragement that any small publisher or author can take, that there is some equity in the playing field.
And the fact that Penguin Random House, it was revealed when those two big companies, Penguin and Random House, when they merged, I think this was around 2012, the trial showed that over the last 10 years, they’ve lost market share, rather than gain it. So the merger did nothing to help them in the market. And part of their motivation for acquiring Simon and Schuster was, in fact, to make sure that they retain the market share by buying a big list.
So I’m sure your listeners have seen this happen over the last 10 years, there’s a lot of acquisitions happening and a lot of purchasing of backlists happening because —
A bigger and bigger percentage of sales are backlist sales.
So I think this also speaks to the indie author experience, which is that as you build up a fuller list, once you get beyond the first title, the third title, the fifth title, that’s kind of the engine that often runs a stable business, then you just keep adding more books onto that. That’s the model.
Joanna: Yes. And I think when Michael Anderle and Craig Martelle started 20BooksTo50K, for some people that’s scary. Like 20 books is a lot of books for a lot of people. But that model, I think it kind of holds true, actually.
Jane: It really does.
Joanna: And I think it still holds true. But the other one, just from The Hot Sheet, on August the 31st, 2022, so your newsletter was about how many books sell.
“Out of the 58,000 trade titles published per year, half of those titles sell fewer than one dozen books.”
So again, people listening, I think a lot of indie authors think, “Oh, my goodness, I only sold 50 books this month,” or whatever. But again, that might be better than a ton of traditionally published authors.
Jane: Yes. That particular statistic got shared all over social media and it raised people’s hackles. Like some people thought, it can’t be true, that must be a distortion.
And I was just so tickled when someone from NPD BookScan, which is the US business that tracks book sales, mainly print, but they also look at eBook sales and audio as well.
So they actually confirmed, okay, so it might not be quite as bad as that figure that was cited at the trial, they couldn’t figure out where that number came from. But when they crunched the numbers, they saw that it was about, I want to say 25% of titles don’t sell more than a dozen copies. So like it was big enough that you could feel like what was cited at the trial was like, okay, yes. There are a lot of books that just don’t perform.
Joanna: And as you say, if the publishing house doesn’t put money into marketing, or effort, which costs money because everyone has their time as well, then it doesn’t go anywhere.
And that’s, again, the same truth for an indie author. You can put your book up online and no one’s going to buy it. Everyone has to do marketing. And I feel like — we’ve been bashing on about this for a long time, haven’t we, Jane?! Why is it that some people still don’t believe it? I mean, it’s kind of crazy.
I also want to ask you about this, so traditionally published editors and people who work for a company, they don’t get paid based on the success of a book, right? So an agent will, as in they’ll get a percentage of the advance, but even then, their future money is not based on the success of that book.
And certainly, if you earn a salary from a publishing house, your salary is not dependent on the success of a book. And so, is that part of the problem, in a way?
As long as you acquire books and publish books, the sales side is almost completely separate?
Whereas for an indie author, like myself, I have to make sure my books sell, otherwise, I can’t pay my mortgage or whatever.
Jane: Right. Yes, so agents are entirely driven by the advance. I’m not going to say they don’t care about the royalties, but they know the statistics that we discussed, that most books don’t earn out the advance. So they’re very focused on that. And they don’t play any role in the marketing and promotion and publicity of books. And so that leaves you with the editors and the people inside the house.
They’re looking at so many different titles at once, and they’re trying to make an entire season of books pass muster on a profitability level. And they know that it’s probably going to be one or two titles that bring everything home. So as long as they can do that, they’re not likely to lose their job.
But certainly editors and others, I’m sure there are people who have been laid off or fired or otherwise sidelined because they’re not known for picking at least a few decent winners in a year. But it’s true that I think it would probably be considered crass or not entirely appropriate to measure an editor’s merit on sales alone.
Joanna: It’s that brilliant discussion on “quality” in inverted commas, which we’ve been having for a very long time, where some books might be considered quality but don’t sell very much, and vice versa.
But let’s get back to that court case, because as we record this, we’ve just had the news that Paramount, who owns Simon and Schuster, won’t support the appeal. So Penguin Random House were going to take this judgment to appeal. So now it’s unlikely to go ahead.
Now, of course, we can only discuss hypotheticals. We do not know. But given other publishers have expressed interest, as well as KKR, which is an investment firm which own things like medical devices and stuff like that. So what are your thoughts?
Is it better if a publishing house buys Simon & Schuster, another publishing house? Or is it better if a different kind of company does it?
And how could this affect authors? Because I believe you’ve been through this, haven’t you, when you worked for Writer’s Digest?
Jane: Yes. So I worked for a publisher called F&W Publications, which owned Writer’s Digest. And they changed hands at least three times while I worked for them, always going to a different private equity or financial buyer, like a KKR, as you mentioned.
And there are pros and cons, both ways. I mean, I personally having been through the private equity nightmare, I kind of think the grass is greener on the other side. I feel like I would rather be purchased by a publisher.
Now, it’s possible that that could still happen for Simon and Schuster because there are other Big 5 companies that are interested in buying it. And the judge, in her ruling, explicitly stated, “I can envision another publisher buying Simon and Schuster,” as almost as if to encourage HarperCollins or Hachette to come in and make their offer. I am not entirely sure if they did make an offer. I think HarperCollins definitely did, but it wasn’t as rich as the Penguin Random House offer.
Simon and Schuster is doing really well right now. So there’s still an attractive acquisition, but I guess there’s the problem of interest rates are higher so it might be more highly leveraged at this point.
Back to the pros and cons. If another publisher absorbs Simon and Schuster, you’re going to have the so-called redundancies. So there will likely be some sort of layoffs, imprints may merge or reconfigure, and generally agents and authors don’t like that.
If private equity were to step in, then what you get is cost-cutting, typically. They’re trying to squeeze, squeeze, squeeze more profit. If it’s not a publisher who’s buying, what I would be looking for is, does this appear to be a long-term investment? Or are they looking to turn it around in a few years and squeeze that profit out in those few years? So, to me, it doesn’t look great either way.
I mean, certainly if Penguin Random House had won, there would have been layoffs of one kind or another. There would have been imprint reconfigurations.
But there were people who were, let’s say less critical of consolidation, I think did feel that Penguin Random House might make the best home for Simon and Schuster, just because there is the sense that they have better marketing and promotion, better systems, that would bring some discipline to Simon and Schuster, that maybe it doesn’t have right now. Whether those problems get resolved under a private equity sort of buyer, who knows? So, we’ll see.
Joanna: So for people listening, if authors are with a Simon and Schuster imprint, or I mean, to be honest, any company can be bought or sold. And a lot of the current publishing contracts, the IP will stay with the company, like they don’t have an automatic reversion clause that says, “Once this is sold, you can have it back.”
Because of course, the valuation of the intellectual property is what makes the company so valuable. You can understand that from the publishing company perspective.
For an author who might be part of that imprint, what are the things that might happen, regardless of who buys them?
Jane: There could be some orphaned books, there could be authors who lose their editors. And so then you end up in this really horrible situation. I mean, it’s bad enough when you have a publisher who’s not investing a lot in marketing and promotion, but usually, at least you have your editor who’s your champion inside the house, advocating on some level for attention.
But if your editor leaves, you’re just really up the creek, and you may not have interest in your next book if that editor departs.
So it could be really bad news for those who lose either their editor or the imprint that they’re publishing under. Usually, it’s a small percentage, it just depends on how much change is enacted by the new owner.
Joanna: And I would suggest that authors in that situation would talk to their agents. Also have a look at your contract, like what does your contract actually say about a situation like this? Because I know some people in Writer’s Digest, who have been published there, who got their rights back or were given a choice.
Of course, some authors just would prefer to have a publisher, but others wanted to go indie. So there might be some choices at that point. So take control, I think would probably be a tip. But —
You also had a great focus piece in The Hot Sheet on the challenges of the mid-list author.
So apart from the upheaval in the industry, what are some of those other challenges and your recommendations for authors?
Jane: Well, earlier I mentioned an effect of the pandemic is increasing backlist sales, although this was a trend that was happening over the last 10 years, and the pandemic just sped it up. So this is where every new author or every new title is just competing against this growing catalogue of existing titles. Older titles are more discoverable than ever.
I think The Big 5 publishers, in particular, seem to be struggling with launching new authors, and then also maintaining enthusiasm, excitement and media coverage for their midlist authors who, you know, their next book may not necessarily be what we would call like breakout material, but it’s still another really good solid book.
It’s really hard now, with fewer media outlets where books are reliably reviewed or covered. It’s just really hard to get any sort of attention. And usually, the outlets that are left, they focus on books that are going to get the biggest conversation going, like the Mike Pence memoir that’s recently come out.
The other thing is that publishers can’t pay for placement in physical bookstores anymore, not at Barnes and Noble anyway, which is still the biggest chain in the US. So where do they have to run to?
They have fewer newspapers, magazines, traditional media outlets, they can’t pay to have their key titles on display across the country. They have recently been stymied by changes in Facebook ads, it’s become a little more difficult.
Joanna: Haven’t we all?
Jane: Yes. And Amazon obviously holds a lot of the cards in terms of visibility, and publishers don’t have the same data or insights or direct-to-consumer power as Amazon.
Now that said, some of them are really getting better at the direct-to-reader, building email lists, doing better on social, some are getting active on TikTok.
But if a midlist author hasn’t been doing their own direct-to-reader marketing, like having a decent website, building an email list, engaging with readers somewhere online, finding ways to spread the word without the publishers help, they’re in a very vulnerable position.
I find that some of the authors who just get caught where their publishers basically dropped them, they end up with Amazon publishing. Not self-publishing, but going to one of those imprints because Amazon can reach the readers and boost them in a way that they haven’t been boosted before.
So the other thing is that publishers, and I can say this having worked for one and seeing this firsthand, they are very perverse at how they fill in budget gaps. You know, rather than trying to sell more of what they have, or focusing on what succeeding, they’ll just publish more books, new books, in the hopes of finding something that sticks. It’s really, you know, quite lazy when you think of it, but it’s the easiest solution to just put another title in the season. So that obviously hurts midlist authors as well.
Joanna: I’ve got to take that criticism for independent authors too, though, which is a lot of the time, we would much rather just write another book than try and figure out how to sell the book that isn’t selling very well. And I’ll put myself in that camp just as much as anyone else.
But it’s interesting, I mean, you’ve had a wonderful chart on your website, Key Book Publishing Paths, I’ll link to it in the show notes. Oh my goodness, has that changed?!
I mean, your writing is getting smaller and smaller because there are so many paths to publication now. And we might have come across as a little negative, I want to say, in this discussion so far, but can you just outline some of the choices? Because I feel like choices are incredible for creatives these days, those who want to look at their choices.
So is that traditional publishing old school model — I mean, obviously, it’s not dead —
But what are the choices that authors have? And who do they suit, I guess?
Jane: One thing that’s been fascinating to me is some of the opportunities that agents can offer authors. Now, obviously, this assumes that you’ve been able to secure an agent, and you don’t have to have one to access these opportunities, but there are a lot of work for hire opportunities in TV, film, entertainment, novelizations of movies and TV shows, video games. And I think most writers aren’t even aware these opportunities exist because they are a little bit under the radar, and you would have to like kind of already be in that community to know about it.
Then I also find that agents are helping authors with negotiating app-driven adaptations of their work. So for instance, Wattpad Webtoon just launched a new app called Yonder, which serializes backlist titles from publishers, or you could do a new, original exclusive for Yonder, as you might for Kindle Vella.
And I’ve always been very fascinated by the rise of these online literature apps, whether it’s Wattpad, Webtoon, Tapas, Radish, now Yonder, because I see young people in a very diverse global audience engaging with those apps. And they’re very sticky, so people tend to be very loyal, and they’re reading maybe 30 minutes a day through these apps.
So I see authors, you know, it helps if you have an agent because some of these contracts are a bit funny. So it helps to have an agent’s eye on them. But authors too, and indie authors as well, have been working with these apps, I think, in very unique and innovative ways.
The other thing that’s not on that Key Book Publishing Paths chart, but probably should be, is just the rise of audio storytelling, audio first storytelling. So when you look at how Spotify, Storytel, Audible, and there are other companies, they’re all really fiercely competing for the audio listener.
And we’re also seeing some blurring of the lines between podcast-based storytelling and then audiobooks. So there have also been a lot of opportunities in that sector, whether you have an agent or not, to sell your fiction.
There’s also this increased interest from, this is really from authors who are dropped by their traditional publishers, there’s increased interest in hybrids and what they do.
But it’s just a varied — I have to throw up the red flag. It’s a very mixed situation because so many different companies might call themselves a hybrid, but they’re not really giving you the benefits of a hybrid in the sense that you can get that traditional publishing experience with distribution into bookstores and libraries.
But I do see a lot of traditional authors deciding, look, rather than struggle further with traditional publishing, I’m just going to work with this other company and pay for what I need.
Joanna: Or authors who do a sort of combination of everything. I mean, Colleen Hoover has to be the biggest example, given that she started out self-publishing, and, in fact, I think she still does some books as an indie. She’s got, I think, three different publishers as well, now.
Obviously, she’s surfing TikTok, and has sold more books than the Bible, I think, this this year, which is just kind of crazy. [NY Times.] And she’s a classic example of someone who’s just using multiple ways to market and multiple ways to reach people, using traditional publishing to reach more readers. A bit like James Patterson, basically ‘my own imprint’ and ‘my own business.’ So is this literally what authors have to have now?
Is there room for the author who does not want to do any marketing? Is that path still possible in traditional?
Jane: Oh boy, it’s really hard. I mean, I think that there are a handful of authors who have been very astute early on in, let’s say, developing a Patreon, and they’re able to get a small circle of supporters there to help fund their ongoing work.
I’m thinking right now of Monica Byrne, who’s a literary author who probably, you know, for most people in her position, there’s no hope of making a living on book sales alone. So she knows she has to fill in the gaps with something else and she does it through Patreon.
So is she actively marketing and promoting that? Maybe not, but she has these really key windows of opportunity, like when a book releases or if she gets a really good critical review, to really make sure that people know, “Look, my work depends on you supporting it. Now is the time to join my Patreon.”
So even if you’re not doing active marketing and promoting, you need to be thinking business model in terms of who, how, where are you going to get the support that you need.
Brandon Sanderson is another one in that same circle as Colleen Hoover, where he now is credited with the most successful Kickstarter in history. $42 million he raised for, I think it was three books.
Joanna: Four books.
Jane: Four books that he wrote, I have to assume over the pandemic, that he did not give to his publisher, Tor. Now, fascinating, Tor is going to release those books in a print edition hardcover. They’re not doing the eBook or the audio because I presume Sanderson will not grant them those rights.
So I’m like all for this, but he’s also something of — I don’t want to necessarily say an outlier — but not just any author can go and have a $40 million Kickstarter. So he worked toward that over many years.
Joanna: For sure. But what’s interesting is Kickstarter, Patreon, a lot of people earning a couple of $1,000 for a release. And given the numbers we quoted earlier about what you can get potentially, with a book, I think the model might work.
This year I did my first sell direct first. I sold direct only for a month, and then only after I’d done all my direct sales, then I put the book up on Amazon, Kobo, Apple, print, all of that.
And next year, I’m going to double that. I’m going to do a Kickstarter, followed by a direct month on my Shopify store, and again, only then put it up everywhere else.
So essentially taking the biggest bite of the cherry, where I pay the lowest percentage to other people, before then releasing it. And like, that’s the model Sanderson did there. But still putting it everywhere, just putting it everywhere much later on.
[This is the Creator Economy model, see my course for more details.]
So, I mean, I just want to ask you about that too, though, because what really annoys me about some of these traditional media studies is that they don’t see any of this stuff. They are comparing traditional book sales on, say, Amazon, with independent authors.
But they don’t see things like KU Borrows, they don’t see direct sales, or Kickstarter, or Patreon, or subscription models. They don’t see this. So is it that they don’t see it? Or are they deliberately ignoring this other market?
Jane: I think so much of it is, well, anecdotal, and not tracked by the industry sources they’re paying attention to, whether that’s AAP or NPD BookScan, or whatever. And I think there’s recognition that the creator economy, if one accepts that term, that this is very active, that authors are using it, that it’s affecting every single industry, not just books.
I think they recognize that, but I’m not quite sure how much they understand especially when you just look at digital sales, how much of the pie has migrated over to independent authors.
It was very recently that the head of Kobo, Michael Tamblyn, talked about how independent authors represent a whole other Penguin Random House for that company in terms of sales. [You can watch the entire conversation from Frankfurt Book Fair 2022 here.]
And, to me, no surprise, because I’ve been observing this segment of the industry for so long. But again, when you state that out in public to the average person, their mind is blown. And it seems like we shouldn’t be having that same conversation anymore. It is a little frustrating to keep having that conversation.
Joanna: It’s been over a decade we’ve been talking about this!
Jane: It is a curious thing. And certainly I do think there are publishers who are very strong, like in romance, or in other genre fiction areas. I think they know and understand, but no one wants to talk about self-publishing eating their lunch. So it’s, you know — I can understand.
Joanna: I predict we’re going to see studies saying that traditional publishing is taking back market share in these areas. But what’s actually happening is those sales have gone direct, or they’re on subscription models, or they’re just not measurable.
But let’s come back to business models. You are a nonfiction author. And it’s really important for nonfiction authors, and very more lucrative, in fact, to have these multiple streams of income.
And one of your revenue streams is The Hot Sheet, which is a fantastic paid newsletter for authors and publishers, which I subscribe to, and I highly recommend to people listening that you subscribe to The Hot Sheet. It’s great.
So I wanted to ask you, as this is something I’m considering, I mean, I’ve had an email list since 2008. When I got started was when I started my newsletter. But it’s not been paid, and I have considered doing a paid newsletter.
What are your tips for those writers who might want to add a paid newsletter to their business?
And also, why didn’t you use Substack?
Jane: Well, that’s the easy question to answer. Substack wasn’t around when I launched Hot Sheet. Now, if I were starting today, it would make a ton of sense to go there first. Now that I have my own system set up, it makes no sense to switch and give up 10% of my proceeds because my costs are super low.
So there is a point at which if you get really successful on Substack, you will probably want to move over to your own turf. But I think Substack is very attractive when you’re starting out because they have a built-in recommendation system, and they’re trying to build this community around the people who write there, and so you can really benefit from the cross-promotional opportunities.
That aside, before you even think about going there, whether it’s on Substack or something else, you have to think about what you already do for free that can act as lead generation to that newsletter.
And Joanna, you’ve got so many things, like I don’t think this will be an issue for you. But you have to get people aware of what you do, and then you kind of level them up into paying over time.
So there might be a free version of the newsletter, that’s like the dead easy option, and it’s what most people do. It’s not terribly imaginative or creative, but it can work. If you have a blog, or a podcast, or you have social media activity, you need something that indicates the value you provide. And then if people are really motivated to get more of it, hopefully, they will pay for the newsletter.
Okay, but here’s the trap that I think people fall into. Sometimes the paid newsletter is just more of the same.
People are so pressed for time, they don’t necessarily want more, sometimes they actually want less.
So you have to consider what holds value for the person who would pay. Sometimes it’s actually as simple as they just want to support you. Other times they want the ability to interact and comment. And this is where Substack is very useful because you can restrict commenting or other features just to people who pay.
So you have to have, first, a real understanding of who it is you’re trying to attract and what’s going to be motivating for them.
I think where this gets really challenging for fiction authors. I’ve seen some people try to serialize in newsletter format or in email format. I don’t know that it really works that well. Despite, what is it, Dracula, that’s been so popular on Substack. Despite that, I think if you’re just an unknown person without a classic, I think it can be tough. And I would probably be looking more at apps where people go to read stories, whether that’s Vella, or Yonder, or Wattpad, or whatever.
For nonfiction, folks, I mean, the only limit is really your imagination. And I’ve seen people use all sorts of strategies, whether it’s you have to pay to interact, or you have to pay to be able to ask a question and have it addressed. You have to pay if you want access to the monthly roundtable or whatever. So you do have to think about it. I would encourage not just more, but different.
Joanna: Well, it’s interesting, I mean, your Hot Sheet, it’s so much work. You do it every two weeks. I can’t imagine you doing it any more often than that because you put a lot of work into it. And I guess that is the question. It’s money for time, which is if you stopped doing that, we’d stop paying, basically.
So it is really dependent on you, as a curator, as a creative, because you do a lot of longer articles. And I know how much information you consume. I mean, I do the same. We both do look at similar things. But your in-depth information, I always read the whole of your email, I mean, because it’s so good.
And that’s what holds me back, and the question for most authors is, would I be better off writing? As Kristine Kathryn Rusch says, and what she means is, would I be better off writing another book?
What do you think in terms of that money-for-time equation? And what type of personality does a paid newsletter suit?
Because it’s a very different way of writing, isn’t it?
Jane: It is. My particular newsletter, The Hot Sheet, is very transactional in the way that you expressed. Like, if I stopped doing it, people will stop paying. They’re not paying it just out of good feelings for me, they’re expecting a benefit.
Now, I have seen some paid newsletters and some paid efforts that are, in fact, more about support. I want to support what this person’s mission is or what they’re attempting to do in the community. And in those cases, people will be very forgiving.
But I modeled The Hot Sheet on, I’m on a schedule, I promise to deliver something every two weeks, and it’s going to be meaningful and worth your time. And I don’t expect you to pay me if I don’t deliver.
Now, the good thing about The Hot Sheet is that it’s scalable. So the more people I get, then obviously the more profitable it is.
It doesn’t take me any more time to write for 2000 than 200, so that’s the good news. But I have seen a lot of instances of burnout because the newsletter ends up being this thing on top of everything else. Maybe it’s because it’s the new shiny and you’re thinking, oh, well, you’re influenced by trends and influencers who are talking about this.
I mean, I pursued it before it was quite so sexy or trendy, and I really like the churn of it. Like, the worst thing for me is actually writing a book because requires this really long-term focus and effort. And I don’t like going back over things again and again and again.
So The Hot Sheet really suits me as a writer because it’s so compressed. It’s very deadline oriented. And once I’m done, it’s on to the next thing.
So maybe that can help some writers think about, if you do want a transactional newsletter, do you like that high churn? And if not, maybe think instead about a Patreon or something where it might be a little bit more about community support, and you’re not locked into some sort of delivery schedule.
Joanna: Thank you. That’s actually really helped me. I’ve really been debating whether to do something on the AI side for creativity because that’s something I like and because I have so much more information than I can share on this podcast that I pick up every weekend.
Because it changes so fast, I thought, well, maybe that would suit more of a newsletter model. But some of the things you’ve said there really got me thinking, and I know people listening will think that’s really useful.
But I do want to talk about the future because you and I do share an interest in it. And in fact, we’ve known each other more than a decade, right? We met on Twitter, probably 2009, or something like that. So we’ve seen things come true, I guess.
The rise of self-publishing, the rise of podcasting, I mean, we’ve seen a lot of things happen that we have commentated on and often picked up in advance.
So I am definitely more techno-optimist than you, being quite bullish on things where you’re more skeptical. And I think that’s a personality difference, let alone anything else.
What do you see coming in the next few years — a decade is probably too far — but what do you think are interesting trends?
Jane: Well, artificial intelligence is just getting more amazing by the second. I mean, just in the last year, the strides made in AI-generated text, AI-generated art, AI-narration, like it has all just skyrocketed. Especially on the narration, I don’t think I would have expected the voices to become as good as fast as they have.
And I think we’re going to see many more publishers, especially the smaller ones, academic ones, using synthetic voices to get into the audio market in a bigger way. And I think it’s going to hugely benefit self-publishing authors, as well, who can’t afford the production of a professional narrator.
I don’t think the professional narrators will be out of work whatsoever, they have plenty of work from traditional publishers. This is going to help get those smaller titles that don’t justify the investment broaden their reach by getting into audio.
The AI writing thing, I was probably more of a skeptic a few years ago. But seeing, again, just the development and the sophistication that’s occurring, it’s interesting. Again, I don’t think writers are threatened. I think that we still care, as readers, about a person who’s written this story. I mean, I could maybe be very provincial in this view, but I don’t know that we want to read stories by AI. I guess we’ll see.
I can see AI helping with brainstorming and doing things that are on the more tedious side that we might not want to do ourselves, helping when we’re stuck. So that’s also a really interesting way to think about what AI might do to the future of writing and publishing.
What else? Well, I should pause there and see if there’s a direction you want to go with that I haven’t mentioned.
Joanna: Yes, and obviously I’ve been talking about AI for a while. But even I am surprised by how far some of this is going. And again, as we record this, there are rumors of GPT-4, which is the next iteration of a generative text model, which will be, I think, will be very, very interesting.
And again, like you, I don’t believe that an AI, is going to 100% write a novel. I don’t even know if it will ever be like that, certainly not in our lifetime.
I think what’s interesting is the percentage. If you have 100% human on one end and 100% AI on the other end, where will the slider go? How much is AI generated? And how much is human-directed?
That is the tension. And I don’t think traditional publishers, again, have thought about this and what that means.
I mean, I’ve been advocating for a sort of data licensing model, where authors with works in copyright will get paid for licensing their books to these large models. And that might be what happens after some of the lawsuits that are going to be coming through. I mean, I don’t think AI development will stop. What I would like to see is this kind of recompense for creators for training the models.
I think that’s a super interesting area, and perhaps the most important in terms of tools, because you know, you and I are recording this over Zoom, which didn’t exist when we first met.
There’s so much technology that has enabled the business models of today.
That is what I see for the next decade, is all these new tools, all these new places, all these new ways to connect, all the new ways to create.
I see in a decade’s time that things will be as different in 2032, as you and I here in 2022, things were so different a decade ago. It will be that much change.
Jane: Yes. Hearing you talk about this, there are a few other things that I’m keeping an eye on.
So one of them is, you mentioned, traditional publishers may not really be paying much attention. I really wonder what happens when like someone feeds the entirety of some famous authors backlist into an AI and they start generating new stories by that author, what are the courts going to say about that? I’m very curious to see what happens. Like if you pile all of Stephen King into an AI, can it generate a feasible Stephen King story out of it?
I’ve also noticed Google is getting smarter about filtering out anything that’s AI generated or like ranking it lower. So I’ve had questions about if I think AI will destroy the blogging community or just short-form writing of any kind. And I don’t think so, at least not yet. Especially for blogs, I think this also applies to podcasts, we’re reading or we’re consuming to get someone’s particular lens on the world, their perspective or attitude or voice. And so far, I’m not entirely — well, I haven’t seen GPT-4 yet, but I haven’t seen AI create that lens or voice that can be very compelling for people.
And then the last thing, on the audio side, I am very curious to see how long Audible can hold out against AI-narrated books, which they currently don’t allow. So when they start allowing them, I think that’s going to be a huge deal.
Joanna: Just to come back on that. The Stephen King load up all his books and then generate one —
My thinking is that traditional publishers own the biggest data set.
So you and I can both think of an imprint, a particular romance imprint, that has had contracts — we don’t need to mention any names — but contracts where authors pretty much wrote to a specific market, and it was very prescribed. And in any kind of dataset, that kind of data would be very valuable.
So I almost see the traditional publishers themselves, if they grasp this, could utilize their backlist and these tools to generate books. And I mean, how different is that than the ghostwriters writing in the names of dead authors, which we see all the time? So that would be one thing.
The other thing on that Google finding AI-generated work, that annoys me so much because Google have their own AI-generating tools. And so it really kind of annoys me that they’re doing that. But also, again, it’s about this, if you just generate an article, and I’ve been using Lex. Have you seen Lex.Page?
[Update: We recorded this before the release of ChatGPT which is far superior, so if you want to check anything out, check out ChatGPT!]
Jane: I don’t think I have.
Joanna: It’s really good. It’s super, super good. And I just put in ‘seven tips for new authors’ or something like that, and it wrote a whole article, but I could with just one click. And I was like, okay, that’s actually pretty good. But I would need to change it, I would add my own voice to it.
So again, it’s about first draft writing, it’s not a finished product. And I don’t see how Google could tell if I then changed bits and bobs. It’s like you upload a new edition of a book, and it has to be like 20% different or something to warrant being a new addition. So again, all of these things, I think are not 100% this or 100% that. They’re all kind of on the way.
Then coming back on Audible, I think they have a very strong narrator community right now. But again, as you say, at some point, it will tip over, and then I think they will have a tool, like Google auto narration, there’ll be some kind of ACX audio tool, and as you say, it will kind of takeoff everywhere. And that’s what Spotify are going to introduce as well, I believe. That is a rumor, but that’s what I’ve heard.
So again, is it just a case, for authors listening, is it just a case of if you have the rights to your IP, take advantage of the tools in order to just keep surfing this wave of change?
Jane: Yes, absolutely. You might instinctively resist, I think it’s in our nature to resist change.
Just try and be open to what the tools can enable you to do.
Joanna: So this is going out at the end of 2022. And as we look forward into 2023, I’m interested, Jane, after you’ve been doing this just as long as me, we’ve both been in this industry for so long — What are you up to in 2023? What have you got going on?
Jane: Well, conferences are starting to come back, I think cautiously. And so I do expect to be getting around a little bit more. I’ll be at Digital Book World in January, which is returning to New York City for the first time in quite a while. And Digital Book World, I have like, a really long history with because it was actually my publishing company that I worked for that started it while I was still there. So it’s been kind of interesting to watch it evolve over the years.
I like going to that conference, especially in January, because it helps me understand what’s happening on the edges of media and publishing. The guy who organizes it, Bradley Metrock, does not follow a traditional publishing sort of program, he is really reaching into every corner of technology. So I think it helps keep your perspective fresh to not always be going to the book-focused conferences.
But what else do I have going on? I mean, I’m going to continue what I’ve always been doing, which is offering classes and doing the newsletter. I am, as far as news items, I am looking to see who the next buyer is, or that steps up, for Simon and Schuster.
It’ll be interesting to see what happens with TikTok because it’s been so important to lifting traditional publishing sales. And I mean, you and I have both been around long enough to see how things come and go. Will the TikTok effect lessen? Will there be — I don’t know, sometimes things go sour when everyone sees what’s working, and then everyone jumps on. Things get overcrowded or the system gets manipulated in some way. So I’m just really curious to see if the positive vibes stick around with TikTok.
And of course, in the US, every time I bring it up, someone says, “Well, it’s owned by China, how can you even suggest using it?” So there are also these privacy and concerns that come into play. And people actually still expect the US government might push it to be sold off, or I don’t really understand the legal ramifications of that. But here we are.
Joanna: Yes. Well as ever, I mean, what’s so funny like with your blog, and your newsletter now and this podcast, we keep doing this because stuff keeps happening. It never stops. Like the moment I think, “oh, things are getting a bit stagnant,” then things kind of change again. That’s what keeps us interested.
So tell people where can they find you and The Hot Sheet and everything you do online.
Jane: The best place to go is JaneFriedman.com. That links to everything that I do, the newsletters, the classes, the conferences and so on.
Joanna: Brilliant. Thanks so much for your time, Jane. That was great.
Jane: Thank you.
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Author: Joanna Penn