Who's Listening to You? (AWP Thoughts)

While delivering a session at the Writer’s Digest Conference (read this very kind & generous recap from George Davis!), I mentioned a few ways that writers can waste their time:

  • By not submitting your best work to commercial publishers or agents
  • By publishing your work digitally when your audience wants print (or vice versa)
  • By self-publishing when no one is listening

Since that weekend, I’ve been digging deeper into these ideas, and am developing an article for Writer’s Digest on when and how revise your publication strategy.

And now, being at AWP, many other ideas are bubbling to the surface. Here are a few thoughts sticking in my mind that I’ll address soon (in one venue or another!):

  • Traditionally, a significant obstacle for literary publishing has been the cost of print publication. Digital tech now changes that dramatically and offers advantages—for emerging writers to get their start, and for established
    writers to experiment with things they haven’t done before.

    Yet even for the literary world, everyone is still trying to figure out where the revenue with digital is.

    I do wonder if we might be entering an era when we can’t expect to find revenue with certain types of work/publications—or at certain stages of authors’ careers.

In a recent interview, Francis Ford Coppola said, “You have to remember that
it’s only a few hundred years, if that much, that artists are working
with money. Artists never got money. Artists had a patron … as we
enter into a new age, maybe art will be free. … Who says artists have to make money?”

  • Technology now allows for affordable & amazing multimedia collaborations, and it takes us back to roots of oral storytelling, and literature’s relationship with oral storytelling.

    Many people in publishing are getting very excited about this kind of innovation. And I’ve been offering exhortations here on this blog (and at events): Experiment. Think beyond the book. Stop seeing the book as the end-all, be-all. It’s one facet of a career, not the goal.

    But I’ve also realized I have to be more measured in my advice. Maybe it’s not OK to jump right in. Maybe it’s best to know (at least) what you want to say—as Christina Katz would advise!—and to ask: Who is listening here? Or how will I connect with the people who will listen?

    It’s OK to experiment. But be honest with yourself about what you envision happening once you’ve finished the experiment. Where do you want, expect, or hope to be? Just because you used a new tool, or thought outside the box, doesn’t mean the readers will come.

(Pictured above: Nath Jones & me at AWP!)

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6 thoughts on “Who's Listening to You? (AWP Thoughts)

  1. Jane Friedman

    @David – I sympathize with what you’re saying. But a quick note: I’d hate to reduce all advice about marketing/promotion to gimmickry. Just because some people do things poorly doesn’t mean that everyone is doing them poorly, or that they shouldn’t be done/attempted at all.

    I must agree that getting obsessed with metrics/analytics is not going to create a better story, though it might help you understand what about your work actually appeals to people, and help you better focus your energies.

    That aside: As you know, you can’t apply a checkbox mentality to any of this, or suddenly uncover the "secret" combination to Amazon bestseller success. Writers who are asking for that checklist/secret combination are the ones caught up in the gimmickry (and may even "hate" marketing in the end). That’s because they’re seeing marketing as something separate and dirty from them, rather than as something that’s integrated into their message, or what they’re doing, from the very start.

    Forget about putting the lipstick on the pig. Everyone’s looking for the warmth & intelligence, and it is essential to the long path we’re all on. Use your imagination/creativity, use your voice/strengths (armed with a little data) to reach more people in more efficient ways, or to create things that are wonderfully shareable within a community.

  2. David mark brown

    As a relative newcomer trying to make enough scratch to actually say I write for a living, this conversation is central to my hopes an,d dreams. On the one hand it is great to think that I can "do it on my own." That I can put in the time, energy, talent, networking, marketing and push out a product, and if readers love it I’ll get paid for it.
    On the other hand there is a lot of talk out there that feels like so much fart gas, gimicky methods to make things go viral or jump to the top of the amazon charts. I get caught up in the "hit" count on my website and blog using keywords that will bring me traffic. But none of this is about the story.
    I don’t long for the old days of paper, but I do sometimes wonder if I can pimp my wares without losing my soul.
    So far it seems that warm, intelligent writers are still winning the day, and spam bots are held at bay. Hopefully this trend will continue as we figure the future.

  3. M.G. Piety

    I’ve published two books, one with Oxford and one with Baylor. I just got a contract for my third book with a wonderful small publisher, Gegensatz Press. My experience looking for a publisher prompted me to write a post on my own blog that I thought would be of interest to readers of this blog. The URL is:


    That will take you to the main blog page. After you get there, just click on the "read more" link. Let me know what you think!

  4. Steven M Moore

    Hi Jane!
    I like your title better than the contents. The title refers to what art is all about–it’s not about the money, necessarily, although a few writers do very well at their trade. Even for them, and especially for me, it’s about the readers. I like to read fascinating stories and always have–I try to write stories that I would like to read as a reader. While I can work in a vacuum, it’s much more interesting to have readers that will react to and/or be inspired by my writing. I have a lot of stories in me and I would like to get them out there so people can enjoy them. So perhaps your question should be: Who’s reading you?
    Take care…

  5. claire

    Who said artists need to make money? Well, to live… to eat… all that jazz. The move from a single patron to a wider patron (mass audience) isn’t quite the same as a move from being paid in some way for work to not being paid.

  6. Porter Anderson

    It seems clear that technologically powered potentials have arrived ahead of lot of many authors’ hearts, Jane, which still resonate to the traditional (and all but gone) concepts of publishing. It’s something like the way William Gibson writes about jet lag in "Pattern Recognition" (http://ow.ly/3QecW) — the mortal soul needs time to catch up to the body.

    And the transition is complicated by the current lack of ready models. We spend a lot more time at this point saying, "The sky’s the limit" than we do saying, "so you can make this and create that and combine these people’s talents to produce those types of outcomes," etc.

    It’s like Sartre’s classic fear of freedom because it comes with responsibility. New flexibilities in publishing "beyond the book" carry the requirement to envision, experiment, hypothesize, choose, implement-it-yourself. About ten minutes after you start thinking about it, the nostalgia kicks right in for those "good old days" when you were handed THE way things were done, and none of those pesky, scary choices.

    So good for you and Christina Katz, Dan Blank, Bethanne Patrick, Caleb Ross, Tanya Egan Gibson, Kevin Smokler, Al Katkowsky, Andy Hunter, Kate Travers and others here with us at AWP for pushing us down the road … kicking and screaming … and wait a minute, what was that about not making money? 🙂