Somebody Else Says: Jane Friedman at CCYW

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Yesterday, at the Capital City Young Writers conference, I heard Jane Friedman talk about publishing. Jane is a wonderful speaker, with enough energy and enthusiasm to keep the kids completely hooked in, as well as those of us non-kids who were–most likely–hoping for some golden drops of wisdom, some absolute, about the future of books.

And, of course, what Jane told us is that there is no absolute. Not today and, even if there is one down the line, nobody knows what it’s going to be. Not yet.

The cool thing was that Jane is excited, upbeat, about this. And it’s infectious. To her, it’s not scary or intimidating or worry-inspiring. It’s exhilarating and mind-whirling. It’s the amusement-park ride you want to be on.

I’m going to do my best to summarize a couple of Jane’s main points. Hopefully, if I get these wrong, she’ll stop by to correct me!

Basically, the old world order is crumbling. The power of the gatekeepers–the publishing companies–to direct readership is going away, and it’s being replaced by…us. I’ve been hearing this angle for a while now, and I’ve resisted it, because so many people come at this with a bitterness and an well-those-powermongers-deserve-it attitude, and I truly believe that publishing is NOT just made up of $-hungry greedyguts, but by many editors and book-readers who love what they’re doing and want to bring us stories we’ll like as much as they do. Really. Yesterday, Jane was able to make me see this change outside the let’s-get-revenge attitude, more as just a fact of the world, a wave that’s growing with every blog review, tweet about books, or entry at GoodReads that we each put out there. It’s just happening. And, really, those editors and book-readers are just trying to figure out what to do with it, about it, as much as we all are.

She talked about the complaint people make that all this self-publishing ease will do is put more “bad” books out there, and the worry people have about how they’ll filter through it and find the books they want to read, not to mention the thinking writers should be doing about how, once published, they’ll get their titles TO readers. They’re not going to come buy it at your website, folks, if they don’t know it’s there. Jane pointed us to this law:

 If you look up at the top end of the curve, this is the end we need to be aiming at to actually get our books read, not just published–WHETHER we publish traditionally or for ourselves. And you’ll see that the top end if narrower (don’t ask me to use mathematical-graphy terms, because that’s not going to happen), because this is the harder work to do, and fewer people will do it and get their books/sales up into that corner. It’s a goal, though! 🙂

Jane’s other big point is that we should not let ourselves be intimidated by the fact that nobody knows where this is all going. The title of her talk was (I think I’ve got this right), “We Are Experiencing Revolutionary Difficulties: Please Don’t Wait.” In other words, grab that merry-go-round ring, whichever one you’re looking at today and wondering about whether it’s worth reaching for. Don’t let fear or uncertainty stop you.

As usual, when I listen to Jane, I was thinking, Wow! That is so RIGHT. And then I was thinking, and how does this apply to me. What do I want to do with this information, this angle. I don’t actually have answers to those questions yet. Go figure. :)What I do know is that I think Jane’s absolutely on track with her attitude–that this is exciting, that we should open our ears and eyes and brains to everything that’s going on in Publishing today (yes, another item on your to-do list!), and that we should be ready, with knees bent and jumping muscles ready, to GO when we see the opportunity we want.

The best place I know to get this kind of info is Jane’s Writer’s Digest blog, There Are No Rules. If you’re not reading it yet, start. And maybe add this book she recommended to your reading pile: Here Comes Everybody, by Clay Shirky. I’m going to.

Enjoy the excitement, guys. It’s going to be here for a while!


  1. Shari says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Becky! “We Are Experiencing Revolutionary Difficulties: Please Don’t Wait” — ha! love that! Even if the evolution of publishing IS a bit scary, it’s truly exciting. May we all grab on and enjoy the ride!


  2. That’s a wonderful recap — clear, succinct, and accurate! Thank you so much.

    I’ll also reinforce my recommendation of Clay Shirky’s book, HERE COMES EVERYBODY. He discusses the Power Law at length (that image that Becky shows above), and his theories provide a wonderful way for us all to better understand (and succeed in) the new world order of writing and publishing.


  3. Jenn Hubbard says:

    Gatekeepers will not go away, they will just shift (maybe from publishers to reviewers, or from physical bookstores to online bookstores). When you look at the internet now, for example–there are millions of websites, but only a few of them get massive traffic. People could go anywhere on the internet, but a fairly small number of sites capture the largest number of eyes. Right now, there are hundreds of places to buy books online, but most people still head for Amazon.
    It will be the same when books are distributed online: most people will go to only a few places to get their shopping lists/recommendations. Very, very few people will wade through millions of book descriptions.
    And so the new competition/funneling will happen at those gates–wherever those gates turn out to be located.


    • beckylevine says:

      Jenn, I think you’re right, and I think this is very close to what Jane was saying–especially the bit about that fairly small number. And I think the big thing is that nobody knows where it will all settle out…yet, or when. Complicated, but interesting!


  4. Just curious- how old were the young writers listening to this and how did they react?


    • beckylevine says:

      Augusta, I think they were 12 or 13 and very quiet, but I think Jane caught them–if not with the actual material, with the idea of things changing and possibilities they could try out when they get to that point.


  5. Thanks for posting this recap, Becky! Verna and I were hither and yon yesterday and did not get to hear all of Jane’s session. This is an awesome summary!


    • beckylevine says:

      Thanks, Patricia. I BET you guys were running around–it was a wonderful conference, and you should both be incredibly pleased and proud. 🙂


  6. J. Nelson Leith says:

    Not sure exactly how this power curve — which seems to reward obsessive self-promoters rather than quality writers — answers the complaint about “bad books” saturating the pool.

    Just like in politics, where the loudest mouth is not always shouting the best policy, can we really expect that the guy who is always desperately shoving his book in someone’s face is really the best writer?

    I think before we simply shrug and accept this “may the best self-marketer win” approach, we should remind ourselves about the Dunning-Kruger effect. Not only is self-promotion not aligned with competence, it is usually in inverse proportion to it.


    • beckylevine says:

      I think the connection was that people worry that there books (with our assumption, of course, that they aren’t the bad ones!) won’t be found, because there are/will be so many books published. Jane’s point was that the filtering, rather than coming from the traditional gatekeepers, will be directed by the level of active engagement with the reader that an author achives. So that if you do (separte issue, I think) write & publish a great book, you also have to be working on this engagement to get your book “found.” Did I say it better this time? 🙂


  7. Thanks, Becky. It does seem like the kind of info that those of us who are in the business and over 13 would get very excited about!

    I read Jane’s blog and think she’s shared this before– it does make you think, doesn’t it.


    • beckylevine says:

      Jane talks about this kind of stuff on her blog a lot, but this was the first time I’d really heard her go over it in person, and something clicked, so I felt like sharing. 🙂


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