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Saturday, August 24, 2013

Professional Writer = No Day Job?

On a recent episode of the Functional Nerds podcast, Patrick Hester posited that based on the prefix "professional" in "professional writer," those writers who do not make a living as writers technically don't count as pros.  I'm paraphrasing, of course, so I recommend actually listening to the podcast here (the comment appears around the 30-minute mark).  The idea is not a new one.  It falls within the same discussions about who gets to call themselves "writers" or "authors," and who has to suck a bag of too-bads and accept that they don't get to use a fancy label.  And it's likewise tied into the longstanding discussions about the term "professional" within our field, most notably in the fact that what the SFWA considers a "professional" publication has very little to do with whether one actually makes a living as a published writer.

It's from that last line that I'd like to suggest that while it's perhaps accurate to apply "professional writer" only to those who make a living as writers, the material realities of the writing life
make such a determination numerically meaningless.  So few writers actually make a living as writers, and of those that do make a living as such, most of them do so via a variety of writing avenues.  A midlist author of science fiction novels, for example, may fill in the enormous gaps from fiction publications with freelance work (essays, editing, etc.).  The number of authors who actually get to live off a single form of writing (Stephen King, for example, or Neil Gaiman...) comprises such a small number of all published writers out there that using "professional writer" on them alone wouldn't really tell us anything other than "these are the authors who sell enough books to pay a mortgage."  Since a great deal of non-writer folks likewise wouldn't fall within the domain of a "professional" based on how well they do in a given field, I just don't see why the term provides any use value if we apply so selectively.

And that's perhaps the big problem here.  What the hell is a professional writer anyway?  Would Harper Lee count as a professional writer?  She only wrote one book:  To Kill a Mockingbird.  But it sells so many copies every year that I suspect she could live quite comfortably off the various royalties and rights purchases associated with it.  Is she a professional writer?  By the standard of financial value:  yes.  By any other standard of professionalism?  Nope.  Most uses of the term professional apply to those who actually participate in the production of a "thing."  A doctor who has a practice or works at a hospital is a professional.  A practicing lawyer is a professional.  An author who sells one book and nothing else?  Well...

I suppose all of this is essentially a reflection about the state of the field of authorship.  In other fields, one can become a professional by "doing," but in the world of writing, I'm not sure there's an easy measurement for "professional" and "not."  Harper Lee is probably a professional writer, but the standards by which her professionalism would be measured wouldn't apply to someone like, say, Tobias S. Buckell, who still splits his salary between fiction sales and freelance work (I'm not sure how true that is today, though; he used to do these in-depth analyses of his yearly salary, but he's been quite busy lately).  In Hester's assessment, the former is instantly a professional writer; the latter is not.  Why?  What makes the distinction here?  Money can't be the only valuable distinction between the two.  There have to be other factors, too; otherwise, what's the point of calling anyone a professional writer if all you need to do to become one is publish one book and sell millions of copies?

Any thoughts?

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  1. William Carlos William was a pediatrician. TS Eliot worked as a schoolteacher. Wallace Stevens was an insurance salesman. e.e. cummings worked for a time as an ambulance driver. Derek Walcott did a stint as a journalist. Adrienne Rich and Sylvia Plath taught college courses.

    Patrick Hester's definition of professional writer excludes poets pretty much globally.

    1. That's exactly what I was thinking. So many of the greatest writers in history had "day jobs." I think it's a myth to assume that authors *will* make a living as a writer. Most never will. The vast majority never will. That's just reality.

  2. I do think there's some level of minimum of production and actual sales that goes towards a person being legitimately pro. Some people say that as soon as you've been paid for something, no matter how big or small, that makes you "pro." For others, it's make that first pro-rate sale of at least 5 cents a word. That's where the distinction easily muddies. But if a writer hasn't made any sales whatsoever, hasn't finished a manuscript, or isn't producing regularly...then what distinguishes them on a professional level?

    It's also just as much the mentality the writer takes. Is the writer *trying* to build a professional career? Are they networking with other writers and publishing industry folks? Are they attending conventions and conferences, querying agents and editors? Are they marketing their self-published manuscript to boost exposure and sales?

    For me, since I am a full-time freelance writer, I have no qualms about labeling myself a "pro." Thing is, my long-term goal is to support myself fully through my fiction, but right now, it's mostly business content and marketing copy that pays the bills. The fiction side of it, while having been pursued longer, is slower to grow. But it's still my priority.

    1. I'm hesitant to apply "pro" to single, small sales, perhaps for the same reason that the SFWA doesn't define one as "pro" unless they've made a certain number of sales, etc. Yet, while saying that, I recognize that the line between not-pro and pro is really nebulous. How many sales do you have to make to become a pro? Do we factor in popularity? Can one be a professional writer and only publish in token markets? If they sell hundreds of stories, that's quite a lot, no?

      But I agree that if you haven't made any sales whatsoever, you're not technically a pro writer. You have to have at least one legitimate publication.

      Mentality may not matter as much. I mean, there are a lot of writers I'd consider to be "pros" who don't have an expectation of making living (or aren't working towards that). They like writing and publishing short fiction or novels. A great deal of short story writers, for example, know they won't make a living as a short story writer (you can't, these days). So they don't bother. They just write stories.

      Anywhoodles :) These are all great questions.

    2. Oh, I don't mean to say one small sale = pro. That's just the lower limit I've heard many ascribe to the term.

      Yes, so much about writing is subjective--even whether a not any particular book is "good" or not. "Professional," in itself, speaks to making it your career or a means of livelihood. It could also be looked at as one being active in a particular career track/profession. So whether writing is someone's sole means of livelihood or contributes partially to such, I think that'd notch them into the realm of the pro. In the same way that even if someone only has meager financial gains from their actual writing, but are active within the career field (more the mentality I was speaking to), that might also put them on a professional level.

      The thing about token markets is...why is that writer only publishing in those fields? Are the hundreds of stories they're writing, in all honesty, not that great of quality and only accepted by markets with lower standards? (not saying token markets automatically equal lower standards, here). They're certainly an *active* writer...but professionally, it would seem like they aren't actually pursuing a livelihood through their writing in that case. So there is a level of not just productivity, but also performance that is suggested in reaching a "professional" level. Almost the same as athletics. I could run in a ton of races, but I'd never call myself a professional athlete unless I was out to actually win those races, get sponsored, win prize money for placing, and make racing an actual significant part of my livelihood--contributing to my ability to then train further and perform better. This analogy breaks down sooner or later, but it's kinda where my mind goes in immediate comparison.

    3. Sorry I didn't get to this comment sooner. Just a few things in response to your questions and concerns:

      1) I don't think it's unfair to suggest that a lot of token markets are also havens for trunk stories (or stories the big guys won't take). That said, I don't think all of them are like that. Some publish some really wonderful stuff and would probably pay more if more people read and donated and what not. The market being what it is, sometimes great authors get relegated to obscure markets.

      2) I'm not convinced that one who publishes in token markets isn't interested in pursuing writing as a professional. I hesitate to identify "pro" with "making a living" or "pursuing the ability to make a living." In other fields, that's not a truism either. While pro football players do make a killing, they aren't identified as pro by their paychecks; rather, they are pros because they joined a pro league (of which there are several). In other professions, you might say that pay influences whether the term "pro" applies, but I don't think the writing world is one of them. Unlike athletics, in which one can become a pro by entering a certain stage or form of competition (a pro league, major competitions, etc.), writers don't exactly have that. After all, there's a huge difference between someone who publishes a book to a small fanbase and Neil Gaiman. However, just because the latter makes a killing as an author doesn't make him less professional than the other guy (or girl).

      Pro is such a stupid word. Let's just call rich authors Merps and everyone else Sprems. Problem solved.