Monday, March 10, 2014

If you publish your writing, you're an author

Whenever I watch TV  shows like Downton Abbey, or movies like The Remains of the Day, stories that centre around servants in a thankfully extinct era, I am always struck by the attitudes of the servant class — the way that they reinforce their own subjugation, partly because it allows them to abuse those lower on the social hierarchy than themselves. 

Does it matter whether you're a professional or am amateur, as long as you want to see the sky?
Image from Wikipedia Commons

I think the same sentiment is behind a recent blog post by Michael Kozlowski on his Good E-reader blog, "Self-publishers should not be called authors." Kozlowski called for a clear definition of “author.” 

The post raises questions, but not the questions that the author wanted to. Kozlowski wants to start a debate among the “publishing industry,” defining what an indie author is.
The question I ask is "Why?" 

Why do we need a definition of a professional writer versus an authentic author, versus a self-published author?

Let's look at this from the audience's point of view. As a reader myself, when I buy a book, I want an engaging story about characters I can believe in, if not identify with. I want a tale that rings true, that satisfies my desire for a story and that answers the questions it asks. 

From this point of view, the author's credentials, whether self-applied or bestowed by an external authority, do not matter.

"Indie author," "self-published author," "commercially published author" and so on are only labels that anyone can attach to the cover of book.

What about someone who sets up a business, and registers it, which publishes the business owner's book? Is that self-published or commercially published? Does that change if the same business publishes books by other authors?

Kozlowski's proposition is that there is a minimum for writers to be able to call themselves authors  —  he suggest that a writer should have to make a minimum amount of money to be able to call him/herself a professional author.

There are two problems with this idea. First, what is the standard? Is $1000 enough, too little or too much? How do we determine the threshold? Based on what? Is the standard universal, or should there be different standards for writers of fiction and non-fiction, or for writers of different genres?

The second problem is, who's going to enforce this? Who will determine the standard, apply it, and sanction violators? And what would the sanction be?

A solution in search of a problem

If there were some kind of professional standard for "author," it stands to reason that would come with a designation; a writer who achieves the standard of earning, say, $1000 from writing in a year would get to append "PW" after his or her name. 

"Scott Bury, PW." Nope. Don't like it one bit. 
Some professions have formal, strictly enforced designations: medicine, engineering and law, for example. These exist to protect the public, particularly those who pay for their services. There are many reasons for this protection, among them: 
  • poor professional decisions and practices can have catastrophic consequences
  • the professional acumen of the professional is not readily apparent to those not schooled in those disciplines.

Neither of these conditions occur with writers. Reading a book by an  untrained, unskilled writer may disappoint you, but that consequence answers the second reason for a professional designation — bad writing is obvious.

It's also subjective. Some people enjoy reading Michael Ondaatje, others like Stephenie Meyer. But reading either of them, or any other book, won't kill anyone and it's highly unlikely to land them in jail. At least, in this country.

Sure, there are a lot of bad books on the market, and with the e-book explosion, there are more than ever. But independent authors have no monopoly on bad writing. The commercial publishing industry, yes, the Big Five, have been responsible for publishing real stinkers for centuries.

And this is the crux of the problem, which even Kozlowski missed: commercial success or sales, are not the same as quality. Selling a minimum number of copies does not mean a book is any good.

At risk of coming across as a right-winger, I say: let the free market decide. Lower the barriers to entry (done — thank you, Amazon, Smashwords and all the other tools that allow individual writers to publish e-books) and let readers make their own choices. As for Michael Kozlowski and people like him, I say: may your biggest problem be choosing a good book to read.
Image by ginnerobot, licensed under Creative Commons.

To everyone else, I say: if you sell your writing, you're a professional writer. Your sales will indicate how well you connect with an audience.

Don't let anyone else tell you what you are.


  1. Here, here. I'm a self published author. I hope people buy my books and enjoy them. I hope people read my blog ( and enjoy that. I spend much of my time writing. I may not sell vast numbers of books but I am still a writer and an author.

  2. Why do people feel the need to label each other? Who cares how we get published? In the end, the readers determine if a book is a success by reading it. If you read the free excerpt before you buy the book, you'll know whether it's a stinker or not. Don't buy it if you don't like it.
    Great post!

  3. Well said! That said, sometimes its good to further define it, as I did for this piece.
    For the purposes of that piece, I defined it as earning the bulk of a living through writing, and the focus of the article is VOLUME. how do we write continually and with quality/volume? It's a matter of degree here.