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Who is a “professional author” and are they any different from a writer?

Back in June, I wrote a post in response to a column — and I use that word loosely — claiming that indies and small press published authors were destroying the publishing industry. To be specific, the fellow I was responding to contended that those of us who weren’t going the traditional route and paying our dues by trying to find an agent and then get a contract with a legacy publisher were destroying literature. Well, guess what? He’s at it again and I just can’t sit back and not respond yet again.

Michael Kozlowski is “the editor in chief” (that is exactly how it appears on the site, not editor-in-chief) of Good eReader. His latest words of wisdom (yes, my tongue is firmly planted in my cheek) is titled “Self-Publishers Should Not Be Called Authors”. According to him, “I think a line needs to be drawn in the sand so that we know who is the real deal.” The real deal, you see, is the distinction between who is a writer and who is an author. So yes, my children, you can only be a author (I supposed that is said with your nose in the air and a sense of entitlement surrounding you) if you have a “real” publisher. It doesn’t matter how much money you make or how many books you’ve written. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m not being fair to Kowzlowski. So let’s look closer at what he has to say.

“Just because its easy to upload your written word, so that it can be downloaded to another machine does not make you an author, any more than me buying a stethoscope allows me to be called a doctor.” Sigh. Here’s a classic example of comparing apples to oranges. Unless, of course, he’s saying that you have to go to years and years of college and have mountains of student loan debt in order to be au author. His next example, the difference between being a singer and a “professional” singer makes a bit more sense. Maybe he’s just saying that you need to be a pro in order to qualify for that wonderful title of “author”.

(Right here, I’ll stop and admit that one thing that often cues a reader into whether or not someone is a new writer — or author — and who hasn’t gotten a legacy publishing contract is how the person identifies himself on social media. John Smith, author on Facebook quite often means someone who is newly published, quite often as an indie. I urge people not to use this sort of tag because it does make it look like you are a newbie and that doesn’t necessarily serve you well.)

“There is a stark contrast between being a writer and being a professional author. Many indie writers who publish a title or two on Amazon or Smashwords normally think otherwise. They wear the title as an author as a badge of honor.”

What is the contrast and how is he defining a professional author? He still hasn’t really told us anything except a professional author can’t be an indie. Hmmmm. It is starting to look like money and not necessarily quality of work is what he is looking at. My other issue with the above quote is that he says “many indie writers” think otherwise. How does he know? What sources is he using? If we are to take him seriously, shouldn’t he give us facts to back up his comments?

He does point out that some writers organizations such as RWA and Published Authors Network have now expanded their “pro” levels to include indies but that the indies have to make more than a traditionally published author to be recognized as a “professional author”. According to Kozlowski, this is because it is easier to earn money as an indie than it is as a traditionally published author. The problem with that statement is that it oversimplifies the issue. It isn’t “easier” to earn more money as an indie. The fact of the matter is, as an indie, you receive more of the cover price — much more — than you do as a traditionally published author. You don’t have a publisher who is keeping something like 65% or more of the cover price for themselves. Nor do you have an agent taking 15% – 20% of what you get paid. So, if you are putting a monetary requirement on traditionally published authors for members as “pros”, it is only fair to require an indie to perform at an equivalent sales level.

It all basically comes down to this, according to Kozlowski: If you can earn your living from your writing, you are a professional author, anyone else is just a plain old writer.

That sound you just heard was the sound of innumerable heads of people who have met the “pro” requirements for their respective writers’ organizations, who have had multiple traditional publishing contracts exploding because they aren’t, according to Kozlowski, professional authors. Why, you ask. Because they don’t make their living from writing.

Here is where Kozlowski falls into the trap so many people who aren’t part of the industry do. He seems to think if you have a contract, or several contracts, with a traditional publisher, you must live the life of Castle or other fictitious authors we see on TV. He ignores the fact that most books never earn out their advances. He ignores the fact that each subsequent print run is then lessened based on the sell-through of the previous book and that, in turn, lowers the advance for the author. Instead, he thinks only the best sellers should be “professional authors” — and that ignores the fact that many best sellers, if they are honest with you, will also admit that their advances aren’t what they used to be.

No where in his post does he address quality of writing, quality of editing, formatting or cover design. It is, yet again, an attack on indies. When he is called on it in the comments, he attacks back. He ignores the comments that do try to engage in a debate with him. In fact, if you really want to know what his opinion about indies, all indies, happens to be, this one comment pretty much tells all — “Real Authors are ones that make money from their books, anyone can submit a word doc, a real author lives from their book sales.”

Or then there is this comment, “When you can’t find fault with a valued statement you have to attack the author, typical of you indie idiots.”

Or this, “I wish we could just cull 90% of indie writers and use them for bio-fuel.”

This is from a man who keeps claiming that the only way to help indie authors is to standardize terminology. Well, I have a standard for him. A “professional” author is someone who takes pride in his work, who does everything possible to make sure he puts out the best product possible and who continues to try to hone his craft, all the while getting paid for it. He doesn’t have to belong to any particular organization nor does he have to have a traditional publishing contract. He doesn’t have to write any particular genre nor does he have to follow in the footsteps of any author before him. He has to write. He has to follow what is going on in the industry and adapt as the industry adapts. No, he doesn’t have to be making his living from writing but he does have to be making money from it. As he publishes more and more work, he should see that money increase. He has to look at writing as his job and treat it as such, even if it is his second “job”.

But then, that’s just my opinion as an indie and small press published author who does qualify for RWA PAN  (pro level) members but not SFWA because they have yet to recognize indie and small press work.

24 Comments
  1. Back when I was much more involved in aviation than I am today, a professional pilot meant 1) someone who got paid to fly, and 2) someone who put a great deal of effort and time into keeping their skills and knowledge sharp so they could be the best pilot possible. Some of those professional pilots never flew more than a hundred miles from home, but they were/are professional in their attitude and sense of responsibility. So a professional author/writer is someone who hones their craft, who tries to improve, and who is serious about their writing, no matter if they ever get paid in anything more than compliments. But I’m one of those dumb indies, so what do I know?

    March 11, 2014
  2. The guy is a click-bait troll, far as I can tell. Check his other articles. Ignore him (even if the blogosphere can’t seem to).

    March 11, 2014
  3. Yea– as Karen said, the guy looks like a troll and is trying to get clicks by shock. When I was learning meanings professional (elementary school) meant you get paid and amateur meant you didn’t. It doesn’t mean whether the activity before professional means that you live off of the earnings. I really hate how people take words and twist them around so that the meaning becomes obscure although it gives me loopholes to exploit– The guy can’t do it so he castigates those who can.

    March 11, 2014
  4. Karen, the problem is so many of these opinions are widespread among the public.
    Mind you, I guess I’m real (how velveteen of me) because I have made “a living” (about 1/3 to 1/4 what hour household needs, but enough for me if I were single and frugal and about what I’d get as a college instructor, at the level I could be hired for) for years. So, “professional” in traditional means “write very fast. Write everything.” I bet you he’d scream at that too 😉

    March 11, 2014
    • Our household. Not hour household. As happened, my husband was on phone to me when I typed that, asking if I’d changed the time on the kitchen clock yet… 😛

      March 11, 2014
  5. Jim McCoy #

    Ok, so paraphrasing your Mr Kozlowski: “You aren’t a real author till I say you are.”

    Nice. No arrogance there.

    March 11, 2014
  6. I think all of us (either consciously or unconsciously) seek standards against which to compare ourselves — and others. The higher or more difficult the standards, the fewer in number will be capable of meeting or exceeding them. An elite forms, and from that, an elitist attitude: we are the ordained, the chosen, the special, the selected, the anointed, etc.

    What’s happened in the last ten years (with publishing) is that people formerly on the bottom of the barrel (self published authors) have not only managed to find alternative paths around the standards of the former elite (trad pub) they have (in some instances) managed to achieve levels of fame and fortune most trad pub elite will never touch, no matter how hard they try.

    Thus the trad pub elite are in something of a panic, as their formerly structured world with its familiar tiers (castes?) gets up-ended, and shaken vigorously. Being trad published is no longer the iron-clad proof of competency or legitimacy it once was. Likewise (removed from the collective shadow of the vanity presses) self pub is no longer an instant hallmark of someone who just couldn’t cut it.

    There are tons of midlist writers fleeing trad pub and flocking to self pub, and there are also exclusively self pub authors making money (sometimes, a lot of money) outside of traditional conduits.

    How, then, in this Wild, Wild West of publishing, can the true gunslingers set themselves apart from the upstarts and poseurs?

    March 11, 2014
    • We need to figure out who has stars upon thars, or we’ll never know who’s proper to invite to our marshmallow roasts.

      March 11, 2014
      • Synova #

        +1

        🙂

        March 11, 2014
  7. My fans consider me a Twuu Author. I don’t really care what anyone else thinks.

    March 11, 2014
  8. robfornow #

    Strange site. Other columnists on the site seem to try to provide some good information for their readers; today’s lead was how writers cons and workshops were moving from the “How to get an agent” to “How to write a best seller.” Just the opposite of “THE editor in chief.:
    His- not so much. He went on a rant about Hugh Howey recently. Smear- “Self Publisher” (His emphasis) Hugh Howey- blag, blag, blag.
    Yet, from the advertizing on the site, you would think that self publishing pays his salary. I didn’t see any other ads.
    I think that he is a part of the ‘relevancy advocates.’ Tor keeps its midlist in line with Tor policy and editors, probably so do the others. But us wild mavericks kick over the fences and can’t be corralled, therefore, we must be put down and ridiculed, less we become respected and heard.

    March 11, 2014
  9. Did he really say this?

    “I wish we could just cull 90% of indie writers and use them for bio-fuel.”

    Please send a link. I need to be absolutely sure he’s earned a place on the special list.

    March 11, 2014
    • He did. It’s in the comments to the link posted above.

      March 11, 2014
  10. Synova #

    I’m gonna go back and read the whole post but I wanted to say… a writer is someone who writes… an author is someone who has written… a professional is someone who gets paid.

    I’m distinguishing “writer” and “author”, which are often interchangeable by the test… I am a writer because I write (the verb)… and “Who is the author of this novel?” defining “author” in relationship to an object.

    March 11, 2014
  11. That’s utterly appalling. It’s bad enough we would take edible food and convert in to energy, but people?!? How progressive. (audible groan) If it wasn’t about killing, they wouldn’t have to give it pretty names that invoke ‘people’ and ‘community.’ The saddest part is, I’m sure he believes it, at least a little bit.

    March 11, 2014
  12. Synova #

    The word “professional” and “profession” are sort of mushy. I’ll stand by my claim that “professional” simply means “gets paid.” People who do not get paid can also “be professional” in their approach but I think it’s more at description of attitude toward an endeavor. “I’m a professional pilot” really doesn’t mean “I have a private pilot’s licence that I approach in a professional manner.” There’s an implication of seriousness, but it’s a different part of speech describing attitudes, …or something.

    I agree that it’s not probably a good idea to start announcing yourself as “Julie Pascal, Author” to total strangers the moment you complete a manuscript and put it online. Even though it’s sort of true.

    March 11, 2014
    • Tully #

      Bingo. A pro writer is one who gets paid. Not necessarily enough to make a “good living” at it. (Remember the motto of the MWA.)

      March 11, 2014
  13. Holly #

    ‘Get Paid’ is always the definition I use for professional with my music students. One can be both a student and a professional at the same time. In fact, any true professional will continue to study whatever it is they do. If one is getting paid and one wishes to continue getting paid, one had best behave professionally as well.
    As far as when one ought to tag oneself as ‘author’ or ‘musician’, I would say it’s a matter of judgement, but it ought to be fairly close to when money begins to come in. After all, using the label for oneself indicates to others that if they are so inclined, there is something to seek out and spend money on.

    March 11, 2014
  14. robfornow #

    “I agree that it’s not probably a good idea to start announcing yourself as “Julie Pascal, Author” to total strangers the moment you complete a manuscript and put it online. Even though it’s sort of true.”

    That’s why I’m planning on a pen name. I don’t want ‘author’ I want “That weird biker character at the end of the block with his vineyard and loud motorcycle.” identity, it’s much more cool.

    March 11, 2014
  15. My definition has always been ‘making a serious effort to earn a living by writing, with that writing as the existing (or intended) principal work and principal financial input’. Some hobbyists can write great books, and I am glad they do, but they don’t face the same constraints as professional authors. My other contention is that for reading to progress it needs adequate good supply, and you can only have that if being a professional author is viable.

    I must say I can’t see the ‘professional organizations’ like ha ha SFWA where most of the office bearers and 90% of the members fail to fit the above, wanting higher incomes for indies – it seems more-or-less like a runner saying oh I have a self-inflicted injury. I shot myself in foot. YOU can’t race unless you let me shoot you in both feet first. The new trad-pub _chose_ to accept the conditions set by trad publishing. Why should they be eligible at a fraction of the earnings? I must excuse SFWA from this hypocrisy as they they just solve the problem by keeping the indies out completely ;-/.

    March 11, 2014
  16. To paraphrase from another august profession: “A kill’s a kill.” If you’re earning money and haven’t been on the wrong end of a successful fatwa, then I’d say one is professional.

    March 11, 2014
  17. Robin Munn #

    So yes, my children, you can only be a author (I supposed that is said with your nose in the air and a sense of entitlement surrounding you) if you have a “real” publisher.

    I believe the entitled, nose-in-the-air version would be pronounced “au-TEUR”, with the hoitiest, toitiest pseudo-French accent you can manage.

    March 11, 2014
  18. Thank you for this. Someone has to stick up for indie authors.

    March 11, 2014
  19. bearcat #

    I guess the current dictionary definition (and possibly not so current definitions) of professional= makes money at it. I was always taught and believed that professional= earns a living at it. You could be an excellent engineer with all sorts of degrees and a accolades, not to mention a license, but if you made your living trading stocks, not engineering, I didn’t consider you a ‘professional’ engineer. A somewhat mushier definition I would use on a case by case basis, if you earned a significant amount of your income (particularly if I thought it was enough to marginally live on if you tightened your belt enough, say 15K/year) I would probably consider you a professional, even if another significant portion of your income came from another source.

    March 13, 2014

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