Jane Friedman will be the keynote speaker at Publish Now: Find Your Path to Publication, on June 13, a day-long seminar that will explore different ways to get your work into the hands of readers. The event will take place at The Writer’s Center. For a complete schedule and early bird registration, visit www.writer.org/publishnow.
By Jane Friedman
As much as my own career has revolved around the reading, writing and publishing of books, the book can, in fact, have limitations.
Stating this is close to sacrilege in some circles, and not just for those who work in publishing. For hundreds of years now, the book has been the primary vehicle to share knowledge and authority. To some extent, it still is.
But there’s another history of the book that isn’t often acknowledged, and that’s its history as a business. The book was one of the very first products that was mass marketed and sold. And today, with hundreds of thousands of books published every year, books are dramatically overproduced in the hopes of producing profit or launching a career. Very few reach the level of shaping culture or influencing ideas.
In the name of sharing ideas, telling stories, or wielding influence, authoring a book is only one tool or method available to us today, and not always the best. We now have the best speakers and thinkers lecturing through video and online courses, reporting through multimedia websites and blogs, and offering professionally produced podcasts—just to mention a few mediums that weren’t available to most of us even twenty years ago.
It is possible to thrill at a beautifully written passage that fundamentally shifts how we see ourselves and the world, and at the same time acknowledge that the physical form of the book, as well as the ebook, doesn’t always fit into the multi-faceted digital network we’re immersed in on a daily basis.
This is why I try to help writers think beyond the book. Consider the story or message you wish to share, rather than focusing on the container. There has been so much aspirational focus on writing and publishing a book without consideration of the many other ways we can write, publish, and share ideas in the digital age.
I’m not saying that the book is dead. However, the way the book has traditionally been sold and distributed will die. By the end of 2012, nearly half of U.S. book sales—that includes both print and digital books—were happening through online retailers. As most people know, online retail is dominated by Amazon.
While many people talk about whether the percentage of ebook sales is growing or not, it’s in fact more important to keep tabs on where the majority of sales are happening, regardless of format. This directly affects how books are discovered, and puts more power into the hands of tech giants. These companies have far more data and insight into book consumption and readers than the publishers themselves.
It’s also important to separate the future of the print book, or even the book itself, from the future of writing, reading, and literacy. Many people value long-form reading and the experience of deep immersion in a book. But the number of heavy readers who avidly consume books has always been a minority of the total population. Most studies show that we read as much as we ever did—but what, where, and how we’re reading is changing.
For a long time to come—for at least as long as the printing press revolutionized all aspects of society—we’ll experience a revolution in how we find, use, and share stories and information. On the most practical level, authors who understand when and how a book is needed or valuable for their audience will have a leg up on the competition.
This is particularly important to understand because, by some accounts, we now live in a time of universal authorship, where anyone and everyone writes for public consumption. While that might not mean writing a book for publication, it includes things such as commenting, blogging, posting updates on social media, and being active in online communities. Everyone now has the same tools to distribute their work, and it requires virtually no technical expertise or investment to do so. You simply click the publish button, and your words are available to the world.
Every decision you make as a writer has to be made with this bigger picture in mind—of how a particular book, article, blog post, or social media effort attracts a certain type of reader, and how you expect to funnel that reader to the next experience if they enjoy your work.
Try to focus on the why of what you’re doing. What is it you stand for that’s bigger than the specific book or story you want to publish? 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 stories and sharing information.
Jane Friedman has more than 15 years of experience in the book and magazine publishing industry, with expertise in digital media and the future of authorship. She speaks around the world at events such as BookExpo America, Frankfurt Book Fair, and Digital Book World, and has keynoted writing conferences such as The Muse & The Marketplace. She currently teaches publishing at the University of Virginia. For more, visit janefriedman.com.