Monday, July 7, 2008

Jane Friedman: Editorial Director, F+W Publications

Today I am thrilled to share an interview with Jane Friedman. No, not that Jane Friedman. This Jane is Editorial Director at F+W Publications in Cincinnati, and also a fellow graduate of the University of Evansville. She's already had phenomenal career success and has a lot of interesting and valuable insights.

In undergrad, were you a composition major or a literature major? How did what you learned in college help you get into publishing?

I was a creative writing major (BFA), which is a somewhat uncommon degree. I took a combination of creative writing and literature courses, and had nearly complete independence in choosing what I studied. It wasn’t my coursework that was particularly helpful in my career, but rather my practical experience on the university newspaper and literary journal, as well as community publications work. It was also amazingly helpful to be schooled in AP style (which I did learn as part of a copyediting course through the journalism department).

Who were your favorite and most influential professors at UE and what did you get from them that helped you propel your career?

I was lucky enough to have two professors with connections to prominent people in publishing, Dr. William Baer and Margaret McMullan. Both of these professors were involved in publishing in one way or another, and Dr. Baer’s connection to someone at F+W Publications resulted in me securing a valuable internship between my junior and senior years at UE. Also, both professors were actively publishing their own work or others’ work, so they had significant practical experience, and offered very grounded and career-oriented advice to students. Based on what I’ve heard from other people’s experiences, particularly in MFA programs (or in just your basic English major program), this type of mentoring can be rare or neglected.

Tell us about your work on the Evansville Review. How did you get involved with the publication and how valuable was that experience?

The year before I became its editor, the journal was called the University of Evansville Literary Review, and it published only work from the UE community. At that time, I served as a volunteer reader of submissions. Every year, a new editor is chosen by a university publications board, and I was happily selected in spring 1996 to serve as the 1997 edition editor (I ran unopposed, so not a tough battle). Dr. Baer served as the journal’s adviser, and he and I talked about raising the profile of the journal by soliciting submissions from the public, rather than limiting it to the university. So we decided to change the journal’s name to the Evansville Review, and we ran an advertisement in the AWP Chronicle. From that point on, the dynamics of the publication changed tremendously; the staff become much more formalized (I hired a Poetry Editor, Fiction Editor, etc.), we designed a streamlined process for reviewing submissions, and we met on a weekly basis throughout the year. I learned a lot about how to build a team, the quirks of a nonprofit journal, and also just how much unpublished material is out there in the world!

Why did you decide to go to grad school and what did you study? How has it helped your career?

I started working at F+W Publications immediately after undergrad, even though I had wanted to attend graduate school instead. (I was strongly considering Emerson’s program in publishing at the time.) So it was always in the back of my mind that I would return to school once I was financially able to do so. However, rather than leave F+W entirely, I remained part-time while earning my master’s in English from Xavier University because a few key things fell into place: (1) It was across the street from the F+W offices at that time. (2) F+W was flexible with my hours. (3) I secured a graduate assistantship at the XU Writing Center that covered all my costs. The degree has been irrelevant to my publishing career, but I’ve put it to use by serving as an adjunct in composition at the University of Cincinnati, and teaching is something I do enjoy, so I’m glad I have it. It probably does give me a little extra credibility with some of our authors (particularly in the Writer’s Digest line), but still, the degree was more of a personal thing than a professional thing.

How did you get your first publishing job?

A few months before I graduated from UE, I e-mailed the editorial director who supervised my summer internship at F+W, and asked him for a job. Miraculously and generously, he said yes. (I can’t see that happening in the current publishing climate, at least not at F+W.)

At F+W, you went from managing a magazine to managing books. Was that a difficult transition?

Not at all, though I suspect my experience is unique. F+W is more like a media company that parcels out its content in different formats and packages, across a variety of niche audiences (in my case, writers). So I worked for Writer’s Digest magazine for a while, then moved to Writer’s Digest Books, which is really the same kind of game, with a lot of the same players. It also helped that I had previous experience in the book division before moving to Writer’s Digest magazine. But F+W editors often move between the magazine and book division successfully.

You've risen to the role of editorial director and yet you are still relatively young (at least compared to me!). What factors contributed to your amazingly successful career progression so far?

There’s that old saying that luck is where opportunity meets preparedness, and that has proven particularly true in my career progression at F+W. Within the past five years, I’ve advanced because I was the most natural person to take on the responsibility, plus there’s an element of making it up as you go along. If you go back 5 or 10 years, you wouldn’t find anyone in my role; I haven’t really replaced someone as much as I’ve nurtured a multi-faceted team that’s responsible for many types of products. Aside from pure circumstance (and sticking around one company for a long time!), I’d say my flexibility, passion for publishing, and desire to push boundaries has been integral.

What is your job description and what are you responsible for?

I’m responsible for the vision, strategy, and performance of multiple book imprints at F+W, including Writer’s Digest Books (15-20 new titles each year), Writer’s Market annuals (10 new titles each year), HOW Books (15 new titles each year), TOW Books (still evolving), and, to a lesser extent, Betterway Sports and what remains of the Story Press imprint. Day to day, I direct and support the staff who do the hands-on acquisitions, development, and editing/design of our titles, and of course I deliver reports and assessments to the people above me (or partnered with me). I feel like my job description changes month by month, given all the technological advances in media and publishing. Right now, I spend a great deal of time on the digitization and online efforts for all of my imprints, as well as on communication with our niche audiences, through my blog and other sites. I’m also becoming an active partner with our conference division, in an effort to launch a new event for writers.

What do you look for when you hire people (skills, experience, personality traits)? Do you find it difficult to find qualified people outside the east coast "hub" of publishing?

Yes, it is difficult to find qualified people, especially since Cincinnati is not exactly a cultural hotspot (yet), and F+W salaries rarely entice someone to relocate. What usually happens is we hire relatively young people, with little to no publishing experience, who demonstrate some kind of passion or sensibility for publishing and/or for the subject area in question. Then we groom them to advance into positions of greater responsibility. If I look at my staff, this is a very accurate description of how all of us came through the door and have landed in our current roles; there isn’t a single person who came to us from the coast (though some people have left for the coast!).

How many editors are on your team? How many titles do you produce a year?

There are seven editors on my team and three designers. We also have three data-entry assistants for the Market Books area. We produce about 50 books every year in my area alone.

Here's your chance to plug some books. What's new at F+W?

I’ll mention some of our most innovative books in 2008 that give a sense of the diversity of our list:

  • Kawaii Not by Meghan Murphy (HOW Books), a collection of charming cartoons on perforated pages, so you can share them with friends.

  • The Serfitt & Cloye Gift Catalog by Bob Woodiwiss (TOW Books), a parody of upscale gift catalogs, with wonderful illustrations; coming out later this fall and one of my favorites this year (maybe because I did the editing).

  • Alone With All That Could Happen by David Jauss (Writer’s Digest Books), perhaps the most sophisticated fiction-writing instruction guide we’ve ever published; should impress even the writing-instruction naysayers!

  • Chicken a la King and the Buffalo Wing by Steven Gilbar (Writer’s Digest Books), a gifty reference (with recipe cards!) of how certain foods got their names from people or places. Coming out this fall.

  • Written on the City: Graffiti Messages Worldwide by Josh Kamler and Axel Albin (HOW Books), a book of photographs of text-based graffiti. Striking and lovely, also coming out this fall.

Do you get tired of living in the shadow of "the other Jane Friedman"?

Quite the contrary! I adore having a doppelganger, considering how admirable and forward-thinking TOJF is. When she exited HarperCollins just last month, I received a few misdirected e-mails wishing TOJF all the best, and one of them referred to her as “El Jefe.” Could I really ask for anything more?

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