Who Has Authority Online? An Interview With Jane Friedman

Today I have the great pleasure and honor to share with you an interview between me and Jane Friedman, former managing editor and current contributing editor to Writer’s Digest. I won’t get too much into her background, because we cover that in the interview, but I do want to say that Friedman’s blog, There Are No Rules, was the first writers blog I really got into when I first started blogging. Jane’s blog is always a fabulous and useful well of information and advice. So, it is a special pleasure for me today to feature a woman who has been such a great encourager and motivator for me in my writing career so far.

The focus of our interview, as you will see, is on finding reliable authorities online–a topic that I’m sure will be helpful to all of us as we navigate this increasingly complex and multilayered online world.

The Interview

Ollin: First of all, thank you so much for doing this interview. It’s a special honor to have such a well-known authority in the writing world visiting the C2C today.

Jane: A pleasure, I appreciate the invitation!

Ollin: So let’s get right to it: since this interview is all about figuring out who has authority online, I don’t think I can get away without asking you this question first: what do you think makes you an authority in the online writing community?

Jane: Several things.

  1. I’ve spent 15 years working in the traditional publishing community, across many different mediums, including books, magazines, newspapers, literary journals, websites/blogs, and social media.
  2. I’ve spoken at more than 200 events, including some high-profile gigs such as BookExpo America, South by Southwest, Aspen Summer Words, and the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. I also served as a literature panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts due to my expertise in new media.
  3. I was publisher of Writer’s Digest, the No. 1 source for writing advice and instruction, which has been around nearly 100 years. I still serve as a contributing editor and teach for their online education program.
  4. My full-time job is teaching writing and new media tools/techniques at the university level. 

Ollin: I think it would be helpful for my readers to first define the term “authority.” How would you define the term in the context of the online writing community, and what qualifies someone to call themselves an “authority” in their field? 

Jane: Authority comes in a variety of forms, and we each have different values that can lead us to disagree on who an “authority” might be. Given that there’s nothing to stop someone from dubbing themselves an “authority,” you have to look for these other factors.

  • Industry relationships and/or recognition. Do other people in the industry acknowledge this person’s expertise? Is this person clearly associated with and having conversations with people and organizations you know and respect? Do they come recommended by well-known figures in writing and publishing?
  • Experience. This is a tricky one, because some people with a TON of experience can also give misleading or bad advice, due to bias or simply to protect their interests. Also, since it’s a time of tremendous change in the industry, experience can sometimes be a disadvantage! Nevertheless, it’s wise to question someone who’s been in the game a very short time.
  • Commercial success. Sometimes this speaks louder than anything else. It’s why JA Konrath or Amanda Hocking have become such visible authorities on self-publishing through Kindle. But there are other forms of success beyond sales. Again, it all depends on what you value.
  • Social currency. This can take the form of customer or reader testimonials, blurbs, reviews, number of followers/friends, etc. Whenever we see a large crowd of people gathered, we figure there must be a good reason for it. Sometimes there is, sometimes there isn’t. I have 100,000 followers on Twitter, but that doesn’t make me an authority—and that’s why I didn’t cite it in my list above.
  • Traditional media coverage. It’s very powerful when you can say that a well-known media outlet like the New York Times, CNN, or Atlantic Monthly has referenced you as an authority. Same goes for whenever a traditional publisher vouches for your work and invests money in it.

Ollin: What are some signs that serve as great proof that someone has the authority they say they do?

Jane: Look for a combination of the factors above. Beyond that, if you’re looking for solid writing and publishing advice (particularly when it comes to craft), the person dispensing the advice should probably be (1) someone who has succeeded in the way you want to succeed, OR (2) someone who is acting as a curator or medium through which they deliver the best advice of others who have succeeded.

As a final step, ask: Is this person trying too hard to convince me or sell me on her authority? What does she have to gain if I believe her? Question the hard sell. The best authorities are not begging to be acknowledged as such.

Note that I’ve covered this topic from a different angle at Writer Unboxed, which might be of interest to your readers: How to Avoid Being Fooled By Bad Writing Advice

Ollin: For beginning writers, the online writing community can be very confusing and hard to navigate.  What signs should writers look out for if they suspect that a person or organization online may not have as much authority as they say they do—or really have no authority at all?

Jane: Couldn’t agree more, it is hard to navigate! After years in the industry and working online, I have an excellent sixth sense for who and what to trust.

Here are a few guidelines.

  1. Always follow the money. How does this person or organization make their living? Are you comfortable with how they go about this? It’s not wrong for an authority or a service to charge money, but look for conflicts of interest as well as agendas. If a promise is too good to be true, it is.
  2. Look for recommendations from industry insiders who aren’t charging writers for a living. I am asked frequently to consult or edit on a wide range of projects, but I have a full-time job, so I can’t accept such work. However, I know trustworthy people who can help, and I make those recommendations whenever asked. Try to ask someone least likely to have an agenda (or a profit motive) who they would look to for the best advice or assistance.
  3. Avoid services that promise to get your work read or noticed by agents and editors. These are usually the biggest scams. There is no site, service or person who can genuinely promise to get you a book deal or an agent. They may be able to help improve your work or your pitch—which will then increase your chances of publication—but there’s no shortcut to getting published. It’s very hard work.
  4. Look for strong relationships and track record for marketers, publicists, and PR firms. When it comes to getting professional help for book marketing and publicity, look for evidence they’ve run other successful campaigns and produced results that mirror what you’d like to achieve. PR is all about relationships, and you should ensure the firm or individual you’re hiring has those relationships in place.

For other types of advice or assistance, always look at the track record of results and length of experience, particularly when it comes to social media and new forms of technology. A red flag ought to be raised on anyone entering the industry right at the moment of change, specifically those who charge writers for services. They might be opportunists with very little to offer.

Ollin: Can you recommend organizations, books, websites, or other methods that can assist writers in finding people online who have the authority to offer them legitimate advice and assistance?

Every year, Writer’s Digest magazine offers a round-up, “101 Best Websites for Writers.” This is a valuable guide to start with.

Another excellent method is looking at contributors at industry insider sites—you’ll find leads on valuable authorities, blogs, articles, and organizations. A few that I follow are PublishersMarketplace (requires subscription fee, but worth it for the education on publishing), Digital Book World, and Publishing Perspectives. Also popular and trustworthy: ShelfAwareness and O’Reilly.

For bloggers who offer great perspectives, and consistently mention reliable sources: Mike Shatzkin, Dan Blank, Guy Gonzalez, and Writer Beware.

Ollin: Here’s a life question: I came to the realization that you’re probably one of the most hard-working writers I’ve ever encountered. I remember reading a post of yours long ago about making personal sacrifices in order to make more time for your writing career.  I took that advice:  I cut my TV and movie consumption by nearly 90%, for instance, to make more time for my writing career.  Making those kinds of sacrifices is what has made me so successful.

But my question is this: how do you stop yourself from going too far with sacrificing for your writing career? At one point do you let yourself just take a break from sacrificing—and start living life?

Jane: I’m definitely smiling as I read this question, since I tend to believe I’m about the laziest person around!

But, yes, I am productive, or appear productive, and that’s because I’m very lucky in life to (1) not make any distinction between my work and my play (2) not have any serious obligations outside of my own inclinations to work-play.

Of course I have a few close and meaningful relationships that have little to do with my online/work persona and activities. But I have no family obligations or children, or any “work” that I’d consider drudgery-obligatory.

Answering the question more directly: When is it time for any person to limit their sacrifice?

I warn against making big sacrifices when it comes to your everyday happiness because you think, once you reach your writing goals, you will finally be satisfied or fulfilled.

That said, I err on the side of telling people to put their own passions first, and to hell with activities pursued only out of guilt or obligation. Life’s too short. Do what makes you happy in life, not what others are telling you to do.

Ollin: Any last words of encouragement or inspiration you can give my readers as they pursue their writing dreams?

Jane: Everyone fails. That’s not the important part. What’s important is what you do next. Are you learning? Are you growing? Is your experience making your heart grow bigger? Anyone who is frustrated with change in the industry, or with how they are being treated by agents/editors, needs to remember these words from Joseph Campbell: “Is the system going to flatten you out and deny you your humanity, or are you going to be able to make use of the system to the attainment of human purposes?”

Ollin: Thank you so much Jane.

Jane Friedman is a recognized authority on the future of media and publishing. She has been a speaker at South by Southwest, BookExpo America, and the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, and her work and leadership has been cited by Publishers Weekly, GalleyCat, PBS, The Huffington Post, Digital Book World, and Mr. Media. She was recently called on to serve as a panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts, to review 2011 grants in literature.

Since 2008, Jane has offered advice for writers at her award-winning blog, There Are No Rules, which receives 55,000 visits every month. She is currently an assistant professor of e-media at the University of Cincinnati, and continues to act as a contributor editor for Writer’s Digest, where she long served as a strategic business leader. Friend her on Facebook, follow her on Twitter, or find out more at JaneFriedman.com.

Do you have any follow-up questions for Jane? If so, please share your thoughts with us in the comments below and Jane will do her best to answer them! 

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22 comments on “Who Has Authority Online? An Interview With Jane Friedman

  1. Ollin says:

    Thanks so much for doing this interview Jane! This interview is a goldmine of useful information. Thanks for bringing me and my readers some useful, quality advice.

  2. Thank you, Ollin! If anyone has follow-up questions, I’ll do my best to answer here.

  3. Christina says:

    Thank you Jane and Ollin for such a helpful interview! I love There Are No Rules because it gives practical insight on social media in a way that makes it less intimidating.

  4. Wonderful! Jane always has such great (and inspiring) advice! I’m going to pass around that last paragraph…! Thanks for the great interview.

  5. Great post, thanks to Ollin and to Jane for such an inspiring post.

    I found this sentence very empowering “Do what makes you happy in life, not what others are telling you to do.” and I wonder if I could ask Jane her opinion on social media?

    Is it a MUST for a writer nowadays? I ask because it is something I struggle with, and at times, I’ve wanted to just forget about blogging, or Facebook or Twitter because my true passion lies in the writing of stories and there are writers out there, such as Ollin, for example, who are much better at being inspiring to others.

      • Ollin says:

        You know, I never thought of that Alannah, because I love blogging and social media very much. I feel like blogging is also part of my calling, but I can see that if you hate it all that being a blogger is just not going to work for you.

        Maybe your strategy might be to bring together a small group of beginning novelists in your genre just to support each other and not necessarily for the purpose of building a platform?

        I guess if you hate it like the plague, then you should probably ditch it altogether.

        • Hey Ollin, great advice by the way. At this time, I haven’t got the passion to really try to build my blog into something that others follow. It’s amusing, but originally, I started just like you, wanting to discuss my novel’s progress but along the way, I found I did not want to talk about a lot of things, and then, I realised that I only enjoyed writing the ocassional personal post or short story. I have plans to write about my favourite places in London, throwing in some history along the way, but all of these things take time, and I rather put that time into my novel, so for the time being, I am happiest reading inspiring blogs like yours instead, and ocassionally writing in mine 🙂

      • Great post Jane, thanks for the link, it is a bit of a relief to read, and I understand the bit about trying to find something you’re passionate about so you can enjoy social media…haven’t found that bit yet, but who knows…thanks again.

  6. toniahouston says:

    Thank you, both. Jane, I happened upon you when I heard your interview on “The Best People We Know”…so I went from there, and now am a member of the WU FB community, where I was encouraged to start my own blog, begin building my own ‘platform’. There are so many resources for new writers. I have several posts by Jane saved to my favorites, as I work on my first ms and begin to send out query letters, etc, I find them useful references! Ollin-great interview, props to you!
    My question: is there a book or online resource either one of you would most suggest for the editing process? The query letter? Thank you for your time!

    • Ollin says:

      I recommend http://www.victoriamixon.com for the editing process. Victoria also wrote a fabulous book “The Art and Craft of Fiction” that I think is a must read for writers editing their book. As far as querying I’m not sure. Jane, what do you think?

      • For a book on editing, I highly recommend Self-Editing for Fiction Writers and The First Five Pages. For queries: The Writer’s Digest Guide to Query Letters

  7. clarbojahn says:

    Thank you, Ollin for hosting Jane’s interview. I love her blog “there are no rules”. I often browse all the posts and come out feeling better about the art and the business of writing.

  8. Bob Mayer says:

    On target. I always look to see what the street cred of the author is before evaluating what they have to say. One issue I have is the hoopla over Locke selling a million ebooks. Certainly it’s a notable achievement and I give him all the credit for thinking of the tactic and exploiting it. But we tend to mistake copies sold with money made and the two don’t equate. Selling a million ebooks at .99 is equal to selling 166,000 at $2.99 (a 6 to 1 ratio based on royalty). I sold 65,000 ebooks last month priced between $2.99 and $4.99 (with two priced at .99 among 40 titles).
    One thing I find funny is all the social media gurus at things like Digital Book World pontificating about how to use it, then I check their twitter accounts and they have 200 followers and follow about the same and tweet once a week. So if they’re not using it, how can they talk about it?
    I was in NY last week for Thrillerfest and walked my agent through my experience in self-publishing. See was very enthusiastic and happy for my success. But my impression talking to agents, editors and industry experts was that none of them really could see the full spectrum from writing the book to the book on the reader’s kindle. They all were experts on pieces and parts, but the big picture eludes most of them as it does people in most large organizations.

  9. Lynne Spreen says:

    Two warnings for readers (and thanks Jane and Ollin for this post):
    1. I’ve noticed a new kind of website which the owners create to make money from advertising. (Cool new business model if your customers don’t notice). The owners invite bloggers, who are paid only in terms of perceived value to their platform, to publish regular posts. The bloggers also interact with each other and commenters, creating a “community.” This pulls in eyeballs (potential customers), creating value for the owner in terms of ad dollars. There are many such websites catering to niches such as the middle-aged and Boomer demographic. If you’re blogging for fun, great, but if your time is very limited, don’t waste it on low-profile sites, and know that this is the model you’re participating in, so you can make good decisions.
    2. To know whether the site is low or high-profile (ie is it going to pay off in terms of platforming), run it by Google PostRank. You can tell if the site is getting the eyeballs or not.
    Best wishes!

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