BOOK REVIEW: The Business of Being a Writer, by Jane Friedman
Updated: Apr 18
If you want to make a living as a writer, you must read Jane Friedman’s book, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press, 2018). Friedman, an expert on the publishing industry in North America, believes that you can support yourself with your writing if you think like an entrepreneur. Her book explains how.
As a writer herself, Jane Friedman empathizes with the desire to make a decent living from words. And it’s possible, she says, if writers are willing to compromise. You might not be able to support yourself 100 percent from creative writing, but you can make a living if you "cultivate multiple income streams."
Friedman is a writer, consultant, editor, and instructor with twenty-five years of experience in the publishing industry. She wrote this book because she saw hundreds of students graduating from creative writing programs every year without knowing how to turn their writing into a living. These programs focus on craft, helping students find their voice and hopefully publish their first book. Once that happens, students seem to believe that their careers will magically take off.
The reality of rejection can be a brutal letdown.
The solution, Friedman proposes, is to put as much energy into the business of being a writer as the writing itself. She encourages authors to think strategically about how to make a “sustainable living” that is true to themselves and their work over the long term.
Friedman 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 Friedman, writing has not been profitable. For a decade, she gave her knowledge away for free on her top-ranking blog, janefriedman.com. She wanted to do less consulting and more writing, so she launched a subscription newsletter, The Hotsheet, and wrote this book.
The Business of Being a Writer is a hefty book (313 pages) organized into five parts:
First Steps – making a living as a writer
Understanding the Publishing Industry
The Writer as Entrepreneur
How Writers Make Money
The first three parts walk authors through all the options for publishing, and the last two develop a “business model” for writers—a multi-pronged approach to making money. The comprehensiveness of the book may appear daunting, but the headings, subheadings, lists, and textboxes make the content easy to digest.
In writing this book, Friedman was strategic—as she advises writers 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. Her book is positioned as part of the press’s Writing, Editing, and Publishing series.
And the book specifically targets writing instructors. Having done her research, Friedman knows that the Association of Writers & Writing Programs represents over 500 writing programs and 50,000 members in the United States. In the introduction, she offers tips for “using this guide in the classroom.” She also refers instructors and students to supplemental materials on the book website, businessofwriting.org.
In Part 1, along with practical information about pursuing an MFA and launching a career, I especially appreciated Friedman’s thoughts on literary citizenship.
“The thinking is that if one wants to build a life that’s sustained by the literary community, then one should be a good citizen of that community by promoting or bring attention to others’ work in some form. In other words, much of your public activity (online or off) should be other-focused, not centered on your own stuff.” --Jane Friedman
Literary citizenship describes what I’m trying to do. Although I don’t have anywhere near the reach of Jane Friedman, I think we can all contribute to what she calls “an abundance mindset” by writing and talking about books and writers.
In Part 2, Friedman 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 in 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, poetry, and alternatives like blogging and self-publishing.
Part 4 delves into building a platform and social media presence, and Part 5 expands on nine revenue streams aside from publishing creative or literary work:
• starting a freelance career
• freelance editing and related services like indexing, fact-checking, and translating
• creating a course and teaching online
• applying for prizes, grants, and fellowships
• crowdfunding and collecting donations
• offering paid memberships and subscriptions
• advertising and affiliate income
• getting a job with a publisher
• working in corporate communications
Jane anticipates some pushback from writers who bristle at building a “brand” or devoting significant energy to marketing, and she tackles 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.