Book Review: The Business of Being a Writer

The Business of Being a Writer, by Jane FriedmanIf you want to make a living as a writer, I urge to read Jane Friedman’s new book, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press, 2018).

But be warned: this book is not for everyone. It is for those writers who are willing to compromise – to write “words that sell,” to invest their time pitching ideas, networking, and building an audience. If for you writing is a sacred thing, an art and a vocation, then you may want to honour that by earning a living in some other way.

Jane wrote this book because she noticed that hundreds of students are graduating from MFA programs every year without knowing how to turn their writing into a living. These programs tend to focus on the craft, on helping students find their voice and hopefully publish their first book. Once that happens, students may be led believe, their identity and livelihood will magically snap into place.

To the writers’ dream Jane offers a frank, but cautiously optimistic, reality check. As a consultant, editor, blogger, and instructor with twenty years of experience in the publishing industry, she writes with depth and authority on every aspect of the business. It’s possible to make a living by writing books, she says, but most authors will have to cultivate multiple income streams, maybe by combining freelance writing, working in public relations, writing online content, teaching, or editing.

It remains possible to make a decent living from writing if you’re willing to pay attention to how the business works, devise a business model tailored to your goals, and adapt as needed.
– Jane Friedman

Jane offers her own career as an example. In her first two years as a freelancer, she had nine sources of income. The more profitable jobs, like teaching and consulting, supported the less profitable jobs like writing. And for Jane, writing has not been profitable. For a decade, she gave her knowledge away for free on her top-ranking blog, (She still regards blogging as “the number-one marketing tool” for authors in it for the long haul.)

Jane calls this mix of revenue a “business model.” Every writer, she says, should dump the “starving artist mindset” and adopt a business model. A business model is fluid: you keep tweaking it to do more of what you want to do and less of what you don’t want to do. For example, Jane wants to do less consulting and more writing, and so she has launched a subscription newsletter, The Hot Sheet, and has written this book.

In writing this book, though, Jane was highly strategic – as she advises her readers to be. She chose to publish with Chicago University Press because it has a visible brand in its massive Chicago Manual of Style – the go-to style guide for book publishers in North America. Jane’s book is positioned as part of the press’s Writing, Editing, and Publishing series.

And Jane specifically targets the adult education market with tips for writing instructors on “using this guide in the classroom.” Having done her research, she knows that the Association of Writers & Writing Programs represents over 500 writing programs and 50,000 members in the United States. Her book comes with supplemental materials like examples of query letters and book proposals.

The Business of Being a Writer is organized into five parts. Part 1 explores ways to make a living. Part 2 explains how the publishing industry works, with chapters on trade book publishing, magazines, digital media, and literary publishing. Part 3 takes writers through the steps involved getting published, such as researching agents and publishers, and writing queries and proposals. Although the focus is on books, this section also looks at publishing short stories, personal essays, and poetry, and alternatives like blogging and self-publishing. Part 4 delves into building a platform and social media presence, and Part 5 elaborates on nine revenue streams that can supplement creative or literary writing.

Jane anticipates some pushback from writers who bristle at building a “brand,” launching themselves from a “platform,” or spending energy on marketing, and she meets that resistance head-on. She insists that writers – not agents, publishers, editors, or publicists – are responsible for their own success, and gives them the know-how to make that happen.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Business of Being a Writer

  1. Hi Jane, I was planning to email you the link, but I’m not surprised given your presence online that you’ve already found it! Thank you for taking the time to comment. I wish you every success with the book.


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