Recently, I had two separate friends ask me to lend an editing eye and input towards some letters they had written. I was flattered, because the contents of the letters were immensely personal, and they trusted me enough to reveal that side of them, and also because they trusted me enough to catch any kinds of errors or to suggest an alteration to better the flow when reading it.
One of my friends said jokingly, “Because you’re a professional writer”. When I say jokingly, I don’t mean flippant; she wasn’t being sarcastic. I meant it in the sense that it wasn’t as serious as, say, someone commissioning me to write a speech or a business proposal. She meant it in a light-hearted manner, but she meant it.
I immediately shot back with a “Hardly.” Anyone can self-publish a novel with enough time and patience. Anyone can market themselves or talk non-stop about the project they’re working on and how far along they are. Anybody can fire up a blog and talk about their sex lives and their drinking problems.
I wasn’t published through a traditional publisher. You couldn’t get my books at a bookstore. I have to work 40+ hours in a retail job to survive. I can’t say the word autograph without hating myself. These are not things a professional has to worry about.
She said to me, “If you have used the money you made from the sale of your work to pay a bill, then you’re a professional.”
That… that kind of made sense. I wasn’t ready to fully commit to that mindset, but it got me thinking.
I have a friend (who is also my current roommate) that I’ve known for a long, long time and who I often disagree with but whom I always listen to because he’s an intelligent man who has lived through a lot… he told me once that he wouldn’t consider me a writer – and I shouldn’t call myself a writer – until I actually had something published.
I can get that, to a degree. There are a lot of people who claim to be writers who never get around to the writing part. Others start but never finish. My friend’s point was that the desire to write and even the act of writing do not in themselves inherently make one a writer. I think that mentality also detracts from people who write every day in any number of ways. If someone writes poetry and posts it to their blog or their Tumblr instead of an anthology or a bound collection, that doesn’t make them not a poet. They might be a shitty poet, but they’ve got the idea down and the content is posted.
All the same, I finished my first novel and self-published it through Amazon, and when I asked, frustrated, if that was good enough for me to call myself a writer, he shrugged and said, “Yep. Well done.”
So why, I wonder, do I feel vindicated by that, and yet when someone introduces me as their friend, a published writer, I hasten to correct with “self-published”. My books aren’t as professionally edited or as put together as books out of a big publishing house. They’re not available at the airport or even the Wal-Mart book bargain bin (did you know that’s a thing? It’s totally a thing).
But they are available for the Kindle and the Nook, and print-on-demand via Amazon. I have sold over 2,000 copies of my novels to people all across the United States, Canada, England and Ireland, to men and women from 18 years of age to 60, and received four and five stars across the board for my trouble. I’m no Best Seller. There are no blogs written about my books (beside my own, natch), but that’s something, isn’t it?
I reached out to another friend whose opinion I respect a lot and asked her opinion. She said, “It feels too important to call it a hobby. People pay money to read what you’ve slaved over. You’ve become a commodity, an item to satisfy a want or need. That’s professional.”
There’s a truth to that. If someone took oils to a canvas or pen to a paper, or piled up a bunch of trash that looks like two people kissing from the right angle, under the right light, or they fling paint at something (looking at you, Pollock), and someone purchases it to put in their home, you would call that creator an artist. It doesn’t need to be a lot of money (the term “starving artist” exists for a reason), but enough to help get by. Enough to pay a bill.
A lot of educators have a second job to help them get by, especially during the summer. I had an Advanced Placement European History teacher work at a supermarket while school was out, but I didn’t consider him a clerk. His focus, his passion, the thing he considered himself to be and spent most of his energy being was a teacher. He taught. He gave teachings to others and he got paid for it. I’m a writer. I write. I give the product of that writing to others, and I get paid for it, sometimes quite a bit.
There are a lot of published authors who take offense to the categorization of a self-published author as being in the same league as they are, or to be lumped in the same category, even. To be fair, like I said above, it is painfully easy to slap something together, draw up a cover (or don’t), write up a description of what it’s about (or don’t), set a price point and unleash it on the market via self-publication. This fucking sucks for me, because there are tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of books out there now to wade through. It’s easy to sink in and get lost amongst all of that, and the bulk of those works aren’t…very good…
Yet I don’t feel that the way the book is released should be an automatic detractor from its quality (even as, again, I am quick to correct people about my publication status). Hugh C. George’s Silo series, starting with Wool, is very good and got a lot of acclaim.
There are a lot of reasons to go the self-publication route, and just as many to go the (much harder) traditional route. I would honestly prefer the latter, but I haven’t been able to set aside the time and money to start really delving into agents and what publishing houses haven’t already turned me down. Self-publishing is quick, convenient and simple. It suits my needs, but only for now.
Still, the books sell. Not a lot, but they do. Does that make me professional? What doesn’t make me professional? Is it because I don’t have a degree in English? Is it because a recognizable name doesn’t circulate my books through stores?
More and more I’m starting to view self-publication as less like a loophole and more like a self-owned business. I own a copyright for the art I create. I profit off it and pay taxes on it. The quality of the work is dependent on how much time and effort I put into it, as is the case with a business.
I don’t know why I wrote this blog post. I’m certainly not trying to convince you that I’m the next great American novelist, deserving of acclaim and millions of dollars and a never-ending supply of high fives (though all of that would be nice). I would be content if you read my books and, if you liked them, told a friend. I think, though, that the words my friend said to me about what qualifies me as a “professional artist” gave me a lot to think about concerning the way I take the wind out of my own sails and downplay what I’ve accomplished.
I’m proud of my books. Why aren’t I proud of myself?
I am starting to take my writing schedule more seriously. I’m putting in 2,000 words or more a day, even after stressful shifts at my day job, even if it means staying up until six in the morning and getting four hours of sleep. I’m starting to feel less ashamed at being called a “self-published” anything as if that means I should be less respected as an artist when the basis of that respect depends on the work I crank out. It takes time, money and effort to find an agent and a traditional publisher. In the meantime, I’ve taken advantage of a process that allows my novels to get out there and be available to readers, and I’ve gained followers and, God bless, actual fans that will engage me on characters and motivations and scenes and the world I’ve created.
Am I fulfilled? Not really. Not entirely, I mean. I want writing to be my full time job. I want to write all day and have what I earn from that pay all of my bills, not just a phone bill or a storage unit bill. But am I a professional writer? Maybe, kinda. And that’s 200% more than I was before Waypoint went on sale. I could dig it.