Featured Writer of the Week: Bronwyn Fryer
This week's featured writer is Bronwyn Fryer, a veteran writer and editor who collaborates with thought leaders to produce influential books. She has worked on more than a dozen books, including nearly all of the bestsellers by Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational; Gregerson, Dyer and Christiansen’s The Innovator’s DNA; Dr. Jonathan Quick’s The End of Epidemics; Hermania Ibarra’s Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader; and many others. Learn more about her on her website.
Tell us about your publishing journey. How did you begin writing, and how did you break into the industry? When did you know you could make a career out of it?
Oh my, that’s a long one. I was in a PhD program in the utterly useless Comparative (Competitive?) Literature program at UC Berkeley back in the early 1980s — this was the era of Jacques Derrida and Deconstruction — when I took a summer job at a small Silicon Valley software firm, translating their manuals. I eventually got into PR writing and wrote the first “corporate backgrounder” (the thing that goes in mailed, paper press kits — long before the Internet’s “about us” corporate sections) for a tiny 22-person startup called Oracle Corporation. I sat in Larry Ellison’s office and listened to that uber-sexist jerk pontificate about the radical thing called “relational databases.” Back then, it was like listening to Elon Musk talk about Neuralink.
I loathed corporate writing, so tried and failed at freelancing around the San Francisco Bay area until I found myself as an associate editor at PC World magazine. Technology journalism suited me much better than writing propaganda. To me, learning tech lingo was just another comparative language, like Spanish or French. I was good at translating tech speak — and back then it was very nerdy for laypeople. I wound up writing for everything from now-defunct tech magazines to a startup called Wired and eventually Newsweek. In 1999 I wrote more than 30 articles about Y2K. The sources were solid. But I feel personally responsible for spreading that panic. I suppose we’ll never know the degree to which it was grounded in reality.
One day in 1999 I got a call from a Boston-based headhunter who told me Harvard Business Review wanted a West Coast editor, and I grabbed at the chance. I knew the dot-com crash was coming; I was supporting my family, and HBR, with its sensible, old money, East Coast shoes, really didn’t understand the Valley at all. I spent nine years at HBR. That was the best career call I could possibly have made. HBR was the golden ring in business journalism; I not only got to work on really interesting pieces there, but I made contact with many, many important people.
By 2009 I felt tired and burnt out. HBR and the business world per se were no longer interesting to me despite the golden handcuffs, and I’d already been acquainted to life as a freelancer. When Dan Ariely’s opportunity came along to work on Predictably Irrational, I decided to leave and just work on books.
What special considerations are required for collaborating on a writing or thought leadership project?
Oh, so much. First of all, you have to know the subject area well. You can’t pretend to be a dilettante, so you need to prove that you have some fluency there. You must have people vouch for your work. Sadly, that first big gig is just like getting your first job — you have to have a connection. You might have to submit a sample of your work with them, even for free, just to convince them that you can do it.
For my part, I am old and long in the tooth and will no longer sacrifice my ethics for a buck, so I pretty much insist on loving the project idea and liking the author. Book projects are like a marriage, so I really listen to my instincts. I have accepted projects with authors I had reservations about to my dismay, and I will not do that again if I can help it. I mean, look at poor Tony Schwarz, who ghosted The Art of the Deal with Donald Trump. He will go to his grave regretting that. Ethics and feeling good about the work are infinitely more important than any possible money.
How do you know if an idea — yours or someone else's — is strong enough to work with? What factors might make you reject a potential client?
I’m 64 now and I want to do earthshaking, mindbending, gob-smacking stuff with brilliant, compassionate people. I reject fluffy vanity projects or things and, frankly, most business-oriented stuff now. Money is less important than reputation to me now, though I fully understand one has to pay the rent. (I once accepted some high-paying freelance work promoting fracking, and I will never forgive myself for that.) I reject any ideas that aren’t counterintuitive or new; I often give free counseling to people who want my opinion and tell them they should build their platform before thinking about a book.
I spent too many year as HBR and learned, after writing the same 10 articles over and over, there is very little that’s really new in the business world. Now I want to work with people who can really move and change our perspectives and alter our collective consciousness. The books I worked on with Dan Ariely did that, a book I worked on about how we’re affected by thinking about death in a behaviorial way, called The Worm at the Core, did that.
What does your writing routine look like? How do you stay productive and overcome blocks?
I get up, walk my dog with my husband or go to the gym, settle down around 10 or so and write until 4 or so. I take a lot of breaks. I do procrastinate, but I find I’m often very productive in the later afternoon and in the evening after dinner. I have occasionally hired excellent sub-ghosts/researchers when I am just too worn out to face the detailed stuff, and they save my bacon too. I may not make money on those projects but I am super strict about their work and I pay them generously. I live humbly in an old farmhouse in Vermont, so I don’t need to pay for a New York apartment with a cleaning service and a doorman.
What strategies do you focus on when cultivating your platform?
I’m so long in the tooth now I don’t need to do that. I turn down far more than I accept. I do thank my work at HBR for launching me that way.
If you could go back and change anything about your writing career, is there anything you would choose to do differently?
Don’t suck up. Make them want you. The more you charge, the more people respect you. Have your pride; don’t do just anything for a buck and remember that “the evil that men do lives after them.” Think about your principles when you accept a project. Again, look at poor Tony Schwartz. And I like to think that the Universe is planning on bringing me something better with the next project.
What's your best piece of advice for someone looking to be a full-time writer?
Blog like crazy. Get really good at what you do in your field of expertise.
What are you working on next?
If I told you I would have to kill you. Let’s just say my current crash client is very high level and very paranoid, and there would be blood on your hands and on my sheets.
Do you seek to establish yourself as a thought leader in your field? Pitch it to us below, and we'll work to match you with a writer like Bronwyn who can help you bring your vision to life.