Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

18.16: Deep Dive: Publishing is Hard, by DongWon Song

Publishing is hard.

Also, Publishing is Hard is a newsletter from DongWon Song. They launched it in 2019 as an outlet for their experiences in the publishing industry.

In this episode we explore this outlet, and grill DongWon about their process.

Liner Notes: “What’s In a Name” is a good place to start with Publishing is Hard.
The Sci-Comm community Howard mentioned is huge, and you can find a small piece of it at @scicommclub on Twitter.

Credits: Your hosts for this episode were Mary Robinette Kowal, DongWon Song, Erin Roberts, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler. It was produced by Emma Reynolds, recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.


Your two-part assignment:
First, subscribe to a newsletter from someone whose work you admire.
Second, subscribe to a newsletter they subscribe to. Alternatively, subscribe to a newsletter recommended to you by a friend.

Thing of the week: Friends at the Tablean actual-play podcast

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Where do you get your ideas? Whatever I’m dealing with in my day-to-day job. Issues in my inbox, what people are talking about in social media, huge kerfluffles in publishing. Who are you writing for? In theory, for other people in the industry. In practice, mostly writers.  How do you decide how much of yourself to mix in? For me, making it personal is important. How do you decide what to write about? Not a schedule, not a plan. A burr under my saddle. Do you have a file of draft essays, a boneyard? About 2 months ago, I deleted all of them. What does running the newsletter do for you or your career? It’s a brand building exercise. But when you change, how does that match the brand you established? The newsletter is a living document, and I am too. Having editors who are friends helps the agent and his clients.

[Season 18, Episode 16]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.

[DongWon] Deep Dive: Publishing is Hard, by DongWon Song.

[Erin] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[DongWon] I’m DongWon.

[Erin] I’m Erin.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[DongWon] So this week, it’s my turn for the deep dive. I’m not a writer, necessarily, like everyone else on this podcast. I’m on the industry side, as we talked about before. So there is a little bit of like a… What do we talk about in my case? How do we do this?


[DongWon] I realized that I thought it might be interesting to dig into a newsletter that I run. In 2019, I started a newsletter at that point on Substack that was about my experiences in publishing. It’s in part instructive about how the business of publishing works, but really, it’s through the lens of here’s how I experience it, here’s how I think about it, here’s how I talk about it. So I’ve been doing that on and off for the past several years… Way longer than I realized. I thought I’d been doing it two years, but 2019 is not two years ago.


[DongWon] So I wanted to have it featured on the podcast for us to talk a little bit as a way to understand how I think about publishing, what perspective I’m bringing to the pod, and really kind of dig into some of the tricky issues that I like to tackle there.

[Howard] A couple of things. DongWon, when we do these deep dives, often we put your feet to the fire…


[Howard] And ask you how you did things. Also, when you say I’m not a writer like these other people, after having read several installments of Publishing is Hard, you’re a writer.

[Dan] Yeah, I was going to say the same thing.

[Howard] You’re absolutely a writer.

[Dan] Maybe not an author, but a very good writer.

[Mary Robinette] Again, we’re going to totally digress on this. The reason I’m digressing on this is because I know that we have listeners out there who are nonfiction writers, and I want to remind them that they are writers, just like DongWon is a writer. It doesn’t have to be fiction to be writing. And your pub…

[DongWon] I will back up and say I’m not a novelist and I don’t write books.

[Chuckles and laughter]

[Howard] Fair enough.

[DongWon] Because I completely agree with everything… What everybody’s saying. I will say I am a writer in this regard, which was… Having to go back and read things I had published several years ago was truly agonizing and I do not understand how you all do this on a regular basis.

[Howard] See, that brings me to the third part of this tripartite thing of mine, which is, now that we’ve established that you are one of us as a writer, the first question I have to ask you is where do you get your ideas?


[DongWon] Suffering and trauma, Howard. Yeah, I mean, I get the con… The ideas for what I want to talk about basically by whatever it is I’m thinking about in what I’m dealing with in my day-to-day job. Right? So what issues are coming up in my inbox, what am I seeing people talk about in social media, what huge kerfuffles are happening in publishing that’s… And Publishers Weekly this week. All those things are things that I start thinking about, and then… Often what happens is I’ll see a bad take, I’ll see somebody interpret something that somebody said as part of a testimony or as part of an article, and I’ll be like, “Wait. People don’t understand this the way that I understand it. Writers are seeing things happening in the industry and they don’t have my 17, 18 years of experience of working inside the sausage factory. Are there things that I can explain about this? Are there ways I can illuminate some of what the logic behind what looks like an crazy decision is, and how people might approach it in a way that makes life a little bit more navigable for those of us in the industry, for those of us participating from the other side as writers and people looking to get published?” So…

[Mary Robinette] One of the things that you just said is a question that I’m curious about. You talked about seeing a hot take, and going, “Well, that’s hot…”


[Mary Robinette] When you’re writing, who are you writing for? Are you writing for writers? For the young up and comers, or are you writing for fellow industry peers to be like, “Hey. Folks. Trying to get your…” Or does it depend?

[DongWon] The conceit of the newsletter is that I’m writing for other people in the industry. The conceit is this isn’t a newsletter for writers, it is a newsletter for people in publishing, people who are looking to talk about publishing. In practice, I know most of who’s reading it are writers. Even though, every time I poll, I get lots of emails from friends in the industry or colleagues or whatever. I think it really does resonate with people who work in publishing. But I also recognize that that’s a very tiny population. Therefore, most of the people reading it are people who want to be published, who are either people who have books out or are aspiring published authors, whatever it happens to be. So there’s a little bit of a trick that I have to pull that I’m writing for other peers when I think about it, but then I also need to adjust what I’m saying so that it lands for people who aren’t in the industry in the same way, and therefore may not have all the same… I don’t know, internal defenses and understandings of how the business works. Because one of the things I want to do is make publishing legible to people who aren’t in it, and one of the ways it’s illegible is that it’s a tough business. We talk about things that are very important to people, about their art, about their craft, in ways that can be very blunt and are fundamentally about profit and money because publishing is a business. Right? So finding ways to talk about those things without unduly traumatizing my audience or discouraging people. The last thing I want people to do is read this and feel like, “Oh, I can’t succeed then. I can’t publish. I shouldn’t be trying to do this.” That’s my worst-case scenario. So how do I talk about difficult experiences in a way that has enough accessibility and empathy for the audience that I can sort of navigate that balance? So it’s an ongoing conversation in my head. It’s a very very very good question.

[Mary Robinette] That seems like that’s a very applicable thing, then, to write for one audience and then edit to broaden it.

[DongWon] Exactly. I think that’s the thing that a lot of people can incorporate into their process. Right? So my first drafts often I have to be like, “Oh. I can’t say that. That’s too harsh. That’s an inside thought.” Right? How do I edit that to be for a broad audience?

[Howard] There’s an entire group of writers, communicators, out there facing the same problem and that’s the sci-comm community, where they are writing from the standpoint of scientists, but trying to write to everybody else.

[DongWon] Exactly.

[Howard] They need to make it understandable, but they need to not dumb it down. They need to deliver the bad climate news, but they need to not send us into a panic and make us not care anymore. It’s a fine line to walk.

[DongWon] It is. It’s like it’s a very flattering comparison to make.


[DongWon] I think on that note, let’s pause for our thing of the week.

[DongWon] So, the thing of the week this week is actually another podcast. It’s a podcast called Friends at the Table. It’s an actual play role-playing podcast that is one of my very favorite things on the Internet. The previous season of this, I think, I broadly declared on Twitter that it was my favorite piece of media that year, and I still stand by that. They just launched a new season of the podcast called Palisades. That’s a science fiction story about a planet under attack by sort of invading forces. It’s a story that is about revolution, it’s a story about resistance, and it’s a story about giant robots. It is some of the most intricate fascinating world building I’ve ever seen with fantastic improvisational play. I cannot recommend Friends at the Table highly enough. Now is a great time to jump in as they just launched their new season.

[Erin] I have a question.

[DongWon] Great.

[Erin] About Publishing is Hard. Which is that one of the things that I love about it is how much personality and like personal story you weave in there. So you’re doing the… Talking about the industry, but you’re also talking about yourself. I’m wondering how you decide how much of yourself to kind of put in there. You know what I mean? What to share with us when you’re sharing all this other information?

[DongWon] Yeah. It’s a tricky question. I think, for me, making it personal is very important. We’ll talk about this more in a future episode, but I don’t want to be someone standing on a hill didacticly telling you, “This is how publishing should be. This is the only way to succeed. This is my 10 rules for success.” That’s not the kind of thing I’m trying to do. So, for me, rooting it in my own subjectivity, rooting it in my experience, feels really important to me. Right? So what I want to be doing is telling personal stories. I’m going to tell you about stuff I went through, but that’s complicated because I can’t talk about client stuff in a direct way. Right? I can’t expose whatever’s going on with the particular writers I work with, a lot of that is confidential. Also, my job as a literary agent is always to be hyping out my clients. Right? So you don’t want to necessarily air people’s dirty business. Right? So, it’s a delicate balancing act. I am often talking about personal experiences, but I’ll have to be a little vague or allude or blend a few things into one scenario. So I try to make sure that the emotional core of it is very personal and very honest, while having to elide some actual details and be a little slippery about what actually is what. Because I never want things to be mapped from one thing I write about to a situation that affected somebody else.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. I find that a lot of times when talking about issues is that if you can depersonalize it or decouple it as you say from a specific incident that it becomes easier for people to apply it. At the same time, the more specific you are, the easier it is for people to internalize it because we learn from stories.

[Dan] So, this leads into another question I had, which is, take us behind the scenes a little bit. How do you decide what are the things that you want to write? Do you have a schedule? Do you just have some burr under your saddle that eventually turns into an essay? How do these topics get formed?

[DongWon] Anyone who has subscribed to my newsletter is very aware that it is a very irregular event. I’m not on a regular schedule. It’s not monthly, it’s not weekly. There are gaps between when I publish things. That is somewhat deliberate. But it’s because I don’t have a schedule, I don’t have a plan. What I’m looking for is when do I get a burr under my saddle, I think that’s it exactly. When does something gets stuck in my head in a way of like, “Oh, wait, I have something to say about this.” Sometimes that’s I watch a TV show, and they did a cool thing and I want to talk about that thing. Sometimes that’s somebody’s having a fight on Twitter and I’m like, “I have thoughts about that, but I’m going to let that cool off a bit before I share my thoughts because I don’t want to contribute to the discourse, but I do have insights that I think might be helpful to people, hopefully.” So, it’s kind of all over the place. I’m not much of an advanced planner when it comes to the newsletter. I like to go a little bit more off-the-cuff than that. But… Yeah.

[Howard] Do you have a file of draft essays, a boneyard of things where like, “Oh. Now I’m ready to finish this essay, and I will release it to the world.”

[DongWon] I did and then about two months ago, I went through and deleted all of them because I looked at all of them and I was like, “I don’t want to talk about any of these anymore.”


[DongWon] The moment had passed for me. Right?

[Howard] A piece of me just died inside. You deleted your boneyard. I think those are words.

[DongWon] They are words, but there’s always more words, and there’s always more ideas. Right? I think that’s one thing that… I encourage people to save their stuff. Go back to what’s in the chest. Go back and see what’s in that desk drawer. But also, don’t be afraid of throwing stuff out. You will have more ideas. More stuff will happen. Even as I was trying to pick out newsletters for us to talk about for the podcast, I was going through some of it… I don’t necessarily agree with everything I said before. I was surprised, actually, by how much… I was like, “Oh, I still vibe with this.” I still stand by what I said then, even if I would change a couple of things here and there. But an idea that I had for a newsletter eight months ago that I was like, “Oh, not interested enough to finish this.” I’m happy to let that go by the wayside. Maybe something similar will occur to me again six months from now, and I’ll do it then.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. I find that that’s true for me with a lot of things, that there’s the… The person who started that, that original thing, is not the same person that is sitting down to write it.

[DongWon] Exactly.

[Mary Robinette] It’s… Unless I have a new spin on something… I used to blog every day and talk about stuff, and I would bank things. Where I’d like write several things in a day. I don’t understand how I did that. A. But, also, frequently I would come back to something and be like, “I don’t… I have no connection to this.” That was a different person who wrote it.

[DongWon] Yeah. I mean, sometimes I think, Oh, maybe I’d have more subscribers, maybe I’d grow the audience more, those kinds of things, if I did have that bank of more regular content to tap into. But it’s also just not the kind of project I’m doing. I’m doing this as much for my own interest in amusement as for anything else. There is a paid tier to the newsletter, but all the content is free. Anyone can read any of the issues. The paid thing is almost more of a tip jar. Like, do you like what I’m doing? Do you want to support it? I started doing twit streams and bringing guests on. Those guests are paid roles. That’s kind of what the subscribers go to, is just making it so that it’s worth it for me to spend time on this and to bring in some guests and things like that. But, for me, because it’s free, I feel comfortable posting stuff when I want to post stuff. When it feels relevant to me.

[Dan] I want to dig into this a little bit. Let’s talk about what you think the newsletter has done for you. Clearly, it’s a thing that seems primarily designed to give back a little bit. You love the industry, you love working in it. You want to talk about it, you want to help people out. But at the same time, a really common piece of advice we hear is, “Authors, get a newsletter.” You’re not exactly in that position. But, what are the ways in which you think running this newsletter has benefited you or your career?

[DongWon] It’s a brand building exercise for me. It… The revenue from it is nice, it’s a little bonus. The educational component has a lot of emotional investment in it. The professional reasons for doing it are is it does build my brand. Writers get to see this is how I do business, this is how I think, this is how I think about the industry. Does that make sense to me? Does that seem like someone I want to work with? Right? It’s a way for writers to sort of audition me a little bit before working with me. If they like my ethics, if they like my perspectives, if they like my view of how to be in the business. That’s very important to me. It’s also marketing for me towards publishers. Right? So a lot of editors read my newsletter. I hear from them, I get lovely messages from them, and those are people who want to work with me. Who… They think of me positively when one of my manuscripts lands in their inbox. So it sets me up in a number of ways, it lets me have a brand in a way that was more sustainable and clearer and more fun to do than Twitter was. I mean, Twitter is a mess in a lot of ways. So the newsletter let me talk about things at length in ways that let me be much more clear about who I am and what I stand for.

[Erin] This brings me back to something that both you and Mary Robinette said earlier, which is that you change as a person, and what you believe changes. So if part of it is branding yourself, how do you like square that with the fact that you may be a different person now than the brand that you established maybe a year ago or two or three years ago?

[DongWon] I mean, like, I literally have a different gender than when I started bus… The newsletter.


[DongWon] Like, somebody will be going, “I don’t use that pronoun anymore. What’s that doing there?” Like, yeah, I’ve changed a lot. I certainly… I don’t have the perspective in this business that I did when I started, much less five years ago, much less probably last year. It’s a business that evolves. Publishing is so slow in certain ways, but how we see content, how we see our roles in it, what are… I mean, I have a lot of thoughts about workers rights in the industry. HarperCollins had that massive strike last year, which concluded positively. They got a lot of what they wanted. Like, that has absolutely informed my thoughts about like how do we resolve a lot of the issues in publishing, in the industry. It’s like, “Well, I was pro-union before, but, boy am I pro-union now in terms of publishing workers, in terms of young editors and assistance and people coming up.” How much better with this industry be if we had stronger labor rights and relations? Right? I’m not sure all of my publisher friends would like to hear that from me…


[DongWon] Especially those in more senior positions. But our thoughts and things do evolve. It was interesting to go back into the archive and see what I still stand by and what I didn’t. But I think it’s a living… The thing about a newsletter is it’s a living document. It’s not I wrote this and this was my opinion and it’s calcified in a certain way. I hope people can see that and understand that. I haven’t really gone through and pruned old things I don’t necessarily stand by anymore. But there’s nothing in there where I was like, “Wow, I said… I was way out of pocket on that one.” But it’s subtler than that, I think.

[Dan] I would say in a lot of ways the brand you are building here is less about the specific insights and more about your style of thinking and analyzing things. The way in which you present things rather than the specifics that you present.

[DongWon] Yeah.

[Mary Robinette] I also love them because the newsletter sounds like you. Like, the one we were reading specifically for this… I saw you give that keynote speech.

[DongWon] Right.

[Mary Robinette] I’m like, “Oh, yeah. No, this is exactly your rhythm and inflections.” Then, subsequent ones I’m like, “Oh. Yeah. No, this is like sitting down to have a conversation.”

[DongWon] My newsletters are profoundly ungrammatical, which is funny. I use repetition a lot in them, stylistically. It’s because that is how I talk, especially when I’m lecturing, especially when I’m like speaking in front of a crowd or even on the pod or whatever. So, yeah, it’s nice to hear that it is reflective of how I think and talk so much.

[Howard] I want to circle back to something you said earlier which… At risk of unduly waiting this, this might be a good point on which to close. That is that when you said you have friends who are editors who read this and who like what you say. If you are a writer, you want an agent who is friends with a lot of editors. Because what you are paying the agent for is to put your work in front of as many editors as possible in as positive a light as possible. To put it in front of the right editors. That is… I mean, that’s the bread-and-butter of the job that you really do. The fact that this newsletter is getting you more attention from editors is good for your clients, present and future.

[DongWon] Well, one thing is I used to be on that side of the table. I was an editor at a big five house. I have a lot of understanding and empathy of what they go through. So I think my newsletter’s a little bit of framing that as well. I want to be clear, though, that there are other ways to be an agent. Right? There’s a mode of agenting that is much more antagonistic and much more hostile to the publisher. Right? They get projects because they’re big projects, because they’re big agents. It’s a different way of interacting. It’s much more old-school, quite frankly. It can also be really effective. It’s not how I do business. It’s not just who I am as a person. So part of me doing the newsletter is making clear this is my approach. Not that I think other approaches are wrong. It’s not how I want to do things. But, yeah, again, it’s really a way for me to express to the world, whether that’s writers, whether that’s my peers, whether that’s people I want to work with, who I am as a person and how I want to be doing business. So, thank you for taking the time with me to dive into talking about how publishing is hard.

[DongWon] Dan, I believe you have our homework?

[Dan] Yeah. We have, actually, a two-part homework for you today, dear listener. We want you to subscribe to a couple of newsletters. They’re a very valuable thing, they’re common in the industry. We want you to seek out to with the following criteria. Number one, find a creator that you really like who has a newsletter and subscribe to it. Number two, possibly and maybe ideally with that same creator, find a newsletter that person subscribes to, and subscribe to it as well. Because then you get a sense not only of what they are putting out into the world, but what they are absorbing. What the creators you love our reading and interacting with.

[Mary Robinette] In the next episode of Writing Excuses, we’ll talk about branding, personal identity, and why Dolly Parton can never have a bad day. Until then, you’re out of excuses. Now go write.