Stop worrying about how to keep your job

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

At the Digital Book World Conference held in New York earlier this month, one presenter made a comment that I think is a guiding light to everyone engaged in the publishing industry. “Stop worrying about how to keep your job and start asking yourself how you can help people.”

Although Tim O’Reilly, the presenter, was speaking to industry insiders (publishers, editors, agents, etc.), his statement struck me as applicable to authors as well. If you regularly read what publishing prognosticators forecast for the future, any sensible person would be scared spitless about how to obtain a contract or build a writing career. According to various forecasters, we can expect:  Barnes and Noble to die, which will effectively render our country bookstore-less; Amazon will become so dominant in book sales that no other outlet will be worth giving a second glance; ever steeper challenges will confront new writers to be noticed among the tsunami of self-published books; the big publishers will buy each other up until only two remain, creating a severe shortage of traditional publishing slots in which to fit manuscripts, etc.

It’s a daunting list, right?

That’s why O’Reilly’s advice is important for us to consider. Ultimately, what he was getting at in his comment is the need for us to take risks. If you decide what to write next based only on the criterion that you want to assure obtaining a contract, then you’ve abandoned concern over whether what you’re doing will help others. O’Reilly is calling on us to concentrate on helping others. We’re talking about more than being nice, we’re talking about being generous.

What does that mean? I think about one of our agency’s clients who decided to help a high school student write a manuscript about a unique plan she created to campaign for a year to raise awareness about human trafficking. The high school student had no money to pay the writer, but the writer chose to use her abilities to help extend a message she believed in. So she took a financial risk–not because she could afford to but because she believed she couldn’t afford not to–to collaborate on that project.

The same others-centric principle applies to those who work at a publisher’s or who agent books. If the marketing director at a publishing house stops worrying about her job, abandons the boilerplate marketing plan, and tries innovative ways to market each book that focuses on its audience, that’s someone who has freed herself from fear of job loss. If the publisher stops focusing only on one safe segment of readers but instead makes a conscious decision to serve a growing but under-served audience as well, he’s stopped letting job preservation dictate his actions. If an agent stops worrying about literary agencies being expendable in an era of self-publishing and concentrates on meeting clients’ urgent needs for help in navigating a complex publishing terrain, that agent need not fear turning irrelevant.

Bottomline: Stop focusing on job preservation and start thinking about what you can do to help people.

In what ways do you see writers concentrating on keeping their jobs?

What kinds of behavior might a writer indulge in that would focus him or her on helping people?

What do you wish publishing personnel or agents would do that focused on others rather than job protection?

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If you concentrated on helping people, how would your job change? Click to tweet.

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35 Comments

  • As any author, the best way I can help my readers is to pen my very best work. As a children’s author, I can help others (teachers and homeschoolers) by providing information about how a particular book might support a given learning standard. Whether a Bible story, a devotion, or a work of fiction, the child-reader is learning.

  • Great post, Janet, and good reminder. It’s so easy to keep my eyes focused on writing, writing, writing. Recently, I’ve been challenged to look around me more and see how I can bless others with a small gesture of kindness.

    I have an author-friend who encourages and mentors aspiring novelists via phone calls, brainstorming sessions and speaking gentle words of truth to them. I don’t know how many people she reaches out to, but it’s been an inspiration to see her in action. I hope to be more like her as I grow in writing craft.

  • Good reminder, Janet. I think that any time we take our eyes off of ourselves and our own needs, and focus them on someone else, we will be blessed. It’s a great motivator for writing too. If we write for others instead of just for ourselves, we will have that extra boost of motivation (at least, I do!).

  • Great post – but the first couple of paragraphs…yes, a writing career looks pretty hopeless sometimes.

    I do write to help others, and to communicate a message of hope and faith. It’s not to feed my ego, or because I ‘have’ to say anything, and will simply explode if I don’t.

    But that communication can’t be one-sided. If it becomes impossible to get a word in edgewise in the flood of media, it may not be worth continuing.

    The key is to effectively make the world a better place, to help others. If we invest thousands of hours and a large part of our hearts into projects that have little chance to see the light of day, are we really helping others?

    Or are we fooling ourselves?

    Yes, it’s important to take risks, to reach out, to think outside the box, but with the implied fragmentation of the publishing market, the potential financial benefits will be fragmented as well, at least at the ‘outreach’ level. Writing as a career may no longer be possible in this arena.

    Personally, I think the prognostications are overstated.

    1. There will be bookstores

    2. There will be major publishers – more than one or two

    3. People like to read, and will continue to buy books. Books have a tactile advantage over tablets and readers that can’t be overcome.

    4. It’s worth doing. The right words in the right book can change, or save a life.

    And I think I’ll be keeping my writing job, because the only one who can fire me – is me,

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Andrew, I agree that predictions of the future are overstated, but there’s no denying that the industry is the most consolidated I’ve seen in my decades of being part of it, and those who work at publishing houses know that hundreds of their colleagues lost jobs in the economic downturn. I recall seeing the number of 500 at one point–and that was before the downsizing was over. So having that recent experience in your mind can affect how hard you work to preserve your job.
      You are quite right that only you can fire you, but if you can’t find a distribution system for your work, you can decide to quit–not that I’m suggesting that as something that makes sense for you or anyone else. It’s up to each individual in light of his/her circumstances. In the meantime, not holding on so tightly that we can’t see how to help others is the surest way to end our association with publishing.

  • Janet, I was just reading Edie Melson’s blog this morning about making your social media presence about others and not sharing anything about yourself. It’s an excellent point that parallels yours, and one I could do better with. There are many bloggers and writers I could help, even with my limited reach.

    • Meghan, I do think that sharing about ourselves has its place though. Many times others are drawn to us by commonalities, or maybe we are able to more eloquently state that which they feel too overwhelmed to verbalize. Camaraderie and trust surface, and relationship begins.

      If we’re willing to share our struggles along with our successes, authenticity is established, and I think that’s attractive to our prospective readers.

    • Also Meghan, I think you’ve done a great job of finding this balance on your blog.

  • If only I had a job to not worry about! But jobless or no, I can still be generous. Thanks Janet.

  • Great point.
    It’s like watching American Idol, and hearing wannabes talk about how they want to be famous and have vast audiences listening to them [and their glory...] But so rarely do they say they want to inspire, uplift, encourage, or bless others with their music.

    Tim O’Reilly spoke a truth I need to hear over and over again, especially as a Christian author. Thanks for the reminder.

    Lord, grant me the honor of being used by you to bless others.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      I appreciate the American Idol analogy. How refreshing to hear someone sincerely saying they wanted to use music to uplift others.
      I knew O’Reilly’s statement would ring true for you because it’s so much the heart of who you are.

  • Angela Mills says:

    I try to use my writer’s brain to encourage people. Once I lamented that I couldn’t draw like my brother can and my Dad remarked, “But you have the gift of making people feel special!” I knew he was referring to the cards and scrapbooks I’ve written over the years and his comment meant a lot to me. And yes, I was an adult when this happened :)

    I know there’s bigger, global ways to help, but sometimes a thoughtful, kind letter does wonders to make someone’s day and I’m sure there’s a ripple effect!

    I also have a file FULL of helpful articles and ebooks that have helped me grow as a believer, writer, mom, wife, and homemaker and they were all free! And then there’s blogs like this one, where I’ve learned everything from tax info to strengthening my writing to an inside look at the industry. Writers seem to be some of the most helpful kind of people out there :)

  • I’m on the board of my local ACFW chapter, and we’re shifting our focus this year as we better grasp the dynamic of our group, and seek to meet their needs.

    Majority of those who attend are at the beginning stages of their writing careers. Our meetings provide an ideal environment to encourage confidence building as well as discus realistic expectations of the publishing industry. My favorite part is rejoicing with those who’ve experienced successes, big or small. Then there’s the bittersweet task of commiserating over rejections, and eating chocolate together. :-)

    In regards to my future readers, I’m trying to make more pointed efforts to blog to and bless them. The honesty and compassion that flow from this blog are attributes I’d like to emulate.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Jenni, what are writer friends for if not to nibble on chocolate with you when rejections arrive?
      Thanks for your comment about our blog. We strive to provide helpful insight but also to be authentic about the challenges facing everyone in publishing.

  • Anne Love says:

    The first writer’s conference I ever attended, I had one of those divine appointment moments when the lady next to me seemed to speak right from the mouth of God. Her words were simple and plain, uncomplicated, but anointed. In that moment, she served me, and I was dumbfounded. It takes a dedicated heart, a fine tuned spiritual ear to bless others in a setting like that. This year at conference, my writing goal was to step closer to obtaining an agent. But my spiritual goal was to listen, and see who God wanted to bless through me. Because, I will never forget the impact that one listening servant had on me. And if I never get an agent, never publish, it won’t be for naught. I still have my ACFW prayer card on my writing desk. I’ve been assigned the task of praying for supernatural release of strength for all those at the conference and those at home–I still pray. In fact, today some leaders are traveling through terrible weather to meet and plan ACFW. Just think of all the lives touched by the industry, and think of all the divine work accomplished because of prayers. It’s SO ENERGIZING to me! :)

  • I was recently told by a very wise lady that even though my topic wasn’t new, I might be the only person who could share my message in a way the reader could hear it. Understanding our God given ability, purpose and uniqueness is a good way for me to stop worrying about the “job” and focusing on meeting the needs of those I serve. Thanks for the reminder!

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Knowing that where we are in our writing journey is perfect in God’s eyes relieves a lot of pressure, anxiety and jealousy. But we are prone to take our eyes off of that truth.

  • That’s just the truth. I have a sister who is generous “to a fault.” Or at least I would have called it that. She’d give her last dime away, and used to always have people living with her family who were in dire straights. She is now struggling financially due to some predatory lending practices (let me tell you there is a story in that!!!) But I KNOW she will be okay. Why? Because she has a support system around her of people dying to pay her back for the things she’s done for them. She is blessed and she knows it!

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Connie, I have a friend with a similar bent. If she sees someone in need, she jumps in to meet it, no holds barred. When she was in a dire situation a few years ago, folks clambered to help her because she was so beloved. Hm, I do believe we’ve now moved onto the parable about reaping and sowing.

  • Amanda Dykes says:

    I love this, Janet. So like Jesus’ conversation with Peter– “Feed My Sheep.” Thank you for the reminder!

  • Peter DeHaan says:

    Janet, thank you for helping us!

  • For me as a writer the key is to hone my sense of my mission. Signing a contract and selling books are not the actual goal. Helping Christians grow in spiritual depth and passion and wisdom — that’s the goal of my writing. If I can remember with every day’s writing that I want to help people grow in discipleship, community, and mission then crucial steps like contracts and marketing stay in perspective.

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