Everyone Wants to "Help" Writers. But Whose Help Do You Really Need?

You’ve probably heard the “Wild West” cliche more than once this year in reference to all the changes happening in the publishing industry.

For starters, there’s the Borders bankruptcy, the Amanda Hocking self-pub success story, the Eisler defection, and Amazon striking deals with New York houses for print distribution of their Encore titles.

(If you want to keep up with the rapid pace of change, subscribe to articles I read and find important enough to share.)

I’ve been working and observing the media industry since 1998. I’ve been directly helping writers since 2001. Never before have I seen so much activity, service, and business ideas focused on “helping” writers as during this period.

Why is everyone suddenly interested in helping?

  1. Lots of people do, in fact, need help.
  2. There’s lots of confusion.
  3. There’s some money to be made.

As far as reason #1, that’s always been the case. Beginning writers especially do need some help. We might not be talking brain surgery or rocket science, but succeeding in the media/publishing community requires as much work and learning as any other profession. Going it alone is almost impossible.

But when you combine reasons #2 and #3, it produces a lot of unnecessary “help” that writers don’t need, or that could waste their time.

Let’s get clear about what writers need to do, in order of priority.

  1. Read. It’s always part of your life and never goes away.
  2. Write. (Practice. Do the work.)
  3. Get meaningful feedback from trusted peers/writers and mentors/professionals.

After that, there is no one-size-fits-all path. People learn, improve, and get published in different ways. People also market and promote effectively in different ways.

Confusion results when you realize how much new tools and new technology are changing how information/stories (or “books”) get read, bought, sold, and shared. I hope everyone realizes that being a successful writer today—or tomorrow—looks very different than it did 10 years ago. (That’s why I hate the stories about how so-and-so bestselling author doesn’t interact online or use social media. I’m willing to bet they established their audience and made their name before industry transformation took hold.)

But back to the main point:

Before you decide you’re going to pay someone to help you—at any point in your writing, marketing, promotion, or publishing path—ask these questions.

(Also, treat your time and energy like money. Before you decide you’re going to invest your time and energy with any kind of writing community, figure out what the benefit is to you. Is it the best or smartest solution for you?)

1. Who’s behind it?
Do you trust who’s behind it? Are there specific names attached? Do they have experience that applies to what you’re trying to do? What’s the bias (if any) of the people behind the service?

2. What’s the business model?
How do they make money? Almost every service has to turn a profit, and there’s nothing wrong with that. For valuable or quality help that furthers our careers, we should be willing to pay.

But by uncovering the business model, you have some insight into what actions that business wants you to take (or, is biased toward you taking) to stay in business. (That means: Ignore all the marketing talk about “We help writers,” and instead see how they make money helping writers, so your eyes are wide open.)

I see too many services, businesses, and communities that are solutions looking for problems. That means someone wants to make money, and wants to help writers in a good way, but has a service that doesn’t really serve a purpose, or doesn’t really deliver a benefit to writers.

3. Is it transparent?
It’s to your advantage that we now live in an age where businesses are expected to be transparent and frank. So take a good look at the services you might want to pay for, or the websites where you spend your time. Are they upfront about what they do, what do they have a stake in, and how they make money? Are they upfront about how the work gets done? I favor the ones who have nothing to hide, as well as those with a point-of-view and distinctive personality.

4. Is it credible? Is it authoritative?

Sometimes this is tough for a new writer to evaluate. If you don’t know what distinguishes a trustworthy and experienced service provider from an inexperienced one, then at the very least, look for success stories that match  the kind of success you want. Look for testimonials and recommendations. Look for a  track record and history of achievement in the areas where you need help. (Someone who just got into the business within the last year might be an opportunist. Or they could just be a very intelligent but laid-off New York publishing employee.)

There are a lot of people and services that want to take your money, or your time and energy. Sometimes you get back exactly what you put in. And others will never be worth it.

Bottom line, always make sure you need the help before you pay for it. Do your research before committing. Get second and third opinions. And have your eyes wide open. It IS the Wild West out there.

P.S. I’m sure, in the comments, you might ask what sources CAN be trusted, without question? Some people might recommend major writers organizations, author guilds, and other nonprofits. But they have agendas, too!

So the answer is, given the strange and rapidly changing times we live in, there is no single or most trustworthy source. You have to decide whose perspective, agenda, and values align with your own.

I’m sorry, but there are no easy answers.

P.P.S. Who do I trust? I trust individuals. I trust people like Christina Katz, Dan Blank, Robert Brewer, and Guy Gonzalez.

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16 thoughts on “Everyone Wants to "Help" Writers. But Whose Help Do You Really Need?

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  3. Sandi Johnson

    I think you (Jane) and Irene have made some very valid points. Eyes wide open and common sense – pretty much the best strategy for any business venture – publishing included.

    I think the Wild West publishing environment today is exciting and terrifying all at once. When I look at it in terms of a business, however, it’s not so intimidating. (Good point, Irene!) I understand business far better than the subjectiveness of publishing’s previous, but now withering mystique. Today’s publishing industry (from a writer’s perspective) is less ‘Pick me! Pick me! Oh please, pick me!’ and more ‘What are my options?’ Pretty cool, in my eyes. I like the idea of being in control of my own writing destiny…although it’s still a terrifying proposition.

    My question, when looking at paid help type options, is always ‘what can you do for me that I can’t do for myself and would be willing to pay someone else to do instead?’ Being a consumate skeptic, the answer is most often ‘nothing, really.’

  4. Irene Vernardis

    Great points.

    I will just mention that authors should exercise common sense in their book related dealings, as with everything else in life. The thing is that many authors have not yet comprehended that writing is business and their books are products. That’s the first step one should take, understand writing as a business and thus, protect his/her business’ interests.

    Thank you for a very interesting post 🙂

  5. Robert Gordon

    Here is a thought. Freelancers and others compete to sell articles as a living, but most writers primarily want to write. Hobby writers soon realize making a profit, or at most a living, is about the same as expecting to win a lottery prize. So why shouldn’t a fiction author just keep on pumping out stories and after editing, rewriting and reediting until personally satisfied, have the work independently assessed and readied for publishing. The question that doesn’t seem to have an answer is whether there are reputable marketing firms interested in selling good manuscripts to the surging app market. The idea would require marketing digital books through a reasonable cost sharing arrangement with the author. Since publishers appear under duress to maintain traditional patterns are there people ready to develop new distribution models for books? Am I missing something or is the business model available to sell professionally written books too obvious?

  6. Jane Friedman

    @Anne – The right person to contact for book acquisitions is Kelly Messerly (Kelly.Messerly@fwmedia.com), the content strategy manager for Writer’s Digest.

    I still work for Writer’s Digest as a contributing editor, but I’m no longer publisher/editorial director, and have not been helping with acquisitions.

  7. D.G. Hudson

    Love your "nuggets of truth". Eyes wide open, and educating yourself are required to prevent future whining.

    I prefer to have mentoring rather than paying at this stage, and one of the writer’s associations I joined offers that. It’s short — about 6 weeks, but the one-on-one interaction will be what I’m searching for.

    Also, Jane, the advanced novel course at WD was great when I took that — it was worth the money (although I got some discounts). Stephen Mertz taught the course and offered advice I sorely needed.

    Thanks for letting us know the Wild West isn’t dead yet. I heard in Wisconsin that they want to have all residents carry arms? I mean the kind they had in the Wild West – I’m not sure what to think about that. Is that where all the cowboys went?

  8. Steven M Moore

    Hi Jane!
    What a great list of do’s and don’t’s! I wish I’d read this list some years back. I learned some lessons in a painful way…time and $$$$ wasted with little return.
    I learned many years ago that most people have an agenda. I also learned that (a) there’s nothing wrong with that as long as I know what it is, and (b) their agendas and my agendas work together. My hard lessons, where I violated one of your rules or these two, came because I didn’t know anything about marketing my books. I still don’t, but I’m a little more savvy about agendas.
    Right now I’m struggling with the concept of SEO. I’m more or less convinced it will drive more visitors to my website. I’m not convinced it will translate into more readers.
    Take care.

  9. Anne R. Allen

    This is such an important subject, Jane. I fear the next group to make money off the e-revolution will be the ones offering overpriced services for over-eager indie publishers. They’re all so sure they’ll follow in the footsteps of Konrath and Hocking. Yes, they do need help, but will they spend bunches only to sell a few 99 cent books? I fear most will.

    You are one of the voices I trust most in this business, so it’s a little scary to hear you don’t even trust the big writers organizations and guilds.

    I have an off topic question: Apparently you’re still listed as the contact editor for Writers Digest books submissions. But I thought I remembered that you resigned. A fellow writer is sure that I’m wrong. Can you solve the dispute? Who is now the contact editor at The Writers Digest Books branch of F+W?


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