by Dr Dallas John Baker
The debate around what constitutes a professional author has been going on for a long time but has heated up considerably since the self-publishing boom of the last decade or so. Recent figures from the 2017 Author Earnings Report show that Self-published books make up a quarter to a third of all eBook sales in the USA, UK, Australia and Canada. In the pages of journals and newspapers, in blogs and online forums, in book clubs and on writers’ festival pub crawls, the debate rages. The question has become quite divisive, especially among writers themselves. On one side of the debate are the ‘traditionally’ published authors and on the other the ‘self-published’ or independents. For the most part, it is the traditionally published authors who are considered the professionals. But what makes a professional author? Is an author a professional merely because they’ve been published the traditional way? Or is an author a professional because they make money from their writing? Or because they are good at what they do? The debate has demonstrated one thing quite clearly, an author cannot be considered a professional just because they claim they are. Some external acknowledgement is necessary. This begs the question: what external acknowledgement really matters? Is it acknowledgement from critics, other writers, readers, educators or from commercial success that matters most?
To start at the beginning, the definition of professional, taken from any reputable dictionary, has three meanings:
- a professional is someone who is competent, skilful, or assured in their occupation;
- a professional is someone who is highly qualified in their occupation;
- a professional is someone who is paid for their occupation, as opposed to an amateur who is not paid.
In most occupations, it is arguably the first two that matter most. Surgeons are considered professionals primarily because they are qualified and skilled, not because they are paid. To illustrate this point, to suggest that doctors volunteering for Médecins Sans Frontières are not professional is ludicrous. If anything, to selflessly give of oneself and one’s skills without compensation is an attribute of the best kind of healer. Likewise, an accountant needs the appropriate training and skill to be considered a professional. In most professions, it is the training, qualifications and skill that are the determining factors, not the pay check.
For some reason, the definition of professional shifts when talking about those in creative occupations. Many believe that to be considered a professional author, their primary income needs to come from writing. By these standards the majority of our literary greats, both living and dead, would not be considered professional. It’s an established fact that the greater majority of writers, both traditionally published and independents, cannot earn a decent living from their writing. Recent research by Professor Jen Webb of the University of Canberra and others shows that Australian writers are experiencing hard times. A stark illustration of this is found in the fact that traditionally published Australian author Richard Flannigan considered taking up a job in mining to make ends meet before winning the Man Booker prize. Having said this, data from the United States show that income for independent or self-published authors has grown steadily over the last few years while the income of authors published by the Big Five publishing mega-corporations has plummeted. A survey by Digital Book World found that hybrid authors, those who are both traditionally and self-published, earn the most money. On this level, writers who embrace self-publishing are gaining ground, but this fact is given little weight in the debate about which authors are the true professionals.
When it comes to writing, the definition of professional has evolved over recent years, and in direct response to the self-publishing boom, to mean someone who is traditionally published no matter what they earn or what they write. The logic behind this emphasis is based on the idea that a traditionally published author has convinced the publishing gatekeepers that their work is worthy of publication, and therefore must be of a high standard. The idea that authors are only professional if they’re published by commercially-driven book companies is a bit of a dubious claim. It benefits only those making the claim, the publishing houses themselves and their stables of writers. Apart from that, this idea is blown out of the water by the undeniable fact that traditional publishing companies’ record on quality is contestable. After all, it was a traditional publishing company that deemed Fifty Shades of Grey worthy of publication, likewise the Twilight series and the astoundingly formulaic novels of the likes of Wilbur Smith and James Patterson – the latter doesn’t even write his own books. Add to this the fact that large publishing houses spend very little time and money on developing a manuscript (editing) before publication, shifting that expense to authors, and the claim for quality dissipates like a wisp of cloud in a strengthening breeze.
In another piece, I argued that the idea that publishing houses confer legitimacy by recognising good writing is undermined by the fact that many respected and loved writers were self-published, such as Walt Whitman, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Marcel Proust and others. More recently, best-selling traditionally published writers such as Stephen King, Harry Bingham, Jamie McGuire, Lindsay McKenna and Kylie Chan, among many others, have dipped their toes in the self-publishing pool after achieving success through the traditional publishing route. More to the point, recent research from Macquarie University shows that 65% of self-published Australian writers have also been traditionally published. In an article for Publishers Weekly, Jennifer McCartney wrote: ‘The assumption that authors only use self-publishing until they can secure a traditional deal bears out less and less.’ Self-publishing is not a last resort, it is often the publishing model of choice for many writers. Reasons for authors making this choice range from the creative to the economic and political. Many authors want to maintain creative control of their work, others want a higher royalty than offered by traditional publishing houses, and some authors object to the increasingly corporatized multi-national nature of traditional publishing.
The same research mentioned above shows that only 15% of self-published authors are exclusively self-published. This indicates that the division between self-published and traditionally published authors, in Australia at least, is largely a fiction; they are basically the same cohort. This imaginary division between independent and traditionally published authors is created, for the most part, by publishing companies, whose business model is threatened by the success of self-publishing.
If professional authors cannot be defined by how much money they make or how they are published, then how can they be defined? Suw Charman-Anderson argues, in an article in Forbes magazine, that:
‘…our conception of “professional” has to focus solely on product and conduct. Is the book professionally written and produced? Is the author conducting themselves in a respectful, professional manner? Everything else is a nonsense.’
Charman-Anderson’s first point, about the quality of the product, is hard to dispute. Certainly, this is what critics and readers care about. No-one wants to read a badly written, badly produced book and writers, no matter which side of this divide they’re positioned, want to write well and want their books to be of high quality. It seems then the matter of who is a professional author comes down to that elusive thing, quality. But quality is very difficult to judge, given the highly subjective nature of our experience of a work of writing. The old adage, One man’s meat is another man’s poison, meaning things liked or enjoyed by one person may be distasteful to another, has endured through the ages for a reason. Though many among us recognise the works of Jane Austen as pure genius, some seriously dislike them. A book can deeply move one person, and leave another cold. There are many books that are loathed as much as they are loved. Millions can love the same book that the critics pan, and a book praised by critics can be ignored or dismissed by readers.
In every other profession the surest way to determine quality beyond subjectively judging the work itself is to look to experience, training and qualifications. This seems a dry and dull way to assess the quality of a creative professional, but it is a proven one in many fields of endeavour. It stands up in writing as well. Authors, both traditionally published and self-published, are a highly educated bunch. Further research from Macquarie University shows that in Australia 19.3% of traditionally published authors have degree qualifications. For independent or self-published authors, the figure is higher at 25.4%. One study in the UK showed that self-published authors there were even more highly educated, with 32% having an undergraduate degree and 44% a postgraduate degree. This suggests that, in terms of degree qualifications at least, self-published authors have earned the right to be described as professionals. The majority of these highly educated self-published authors have also been published by traditional publishing houses, adding experience of the commercial publishing world to their formal qualifications.
Gender is likely one of the reasons why self-published or independent authors are stigmatised and seen as less professional than traditionally published ones. Research from the UK suggests that most self-published writers are women (65%). Traditional publishing on the other hand has a male bias and is often perceived as a male domain, as the Vida and Stella counts demonstrate.
So what is the answer, who are the true professionals of the writing business? The answer is that the question itself is misleading. Given that self-published authors and traditionally published authors are, 65% of them at least, the same group, it makes little sense to claim that one or the other is more professional. It is also clear that self-publishing is most often a choice, not a last resort for writers unable to get a traditional deal. As with many things in this rapidly evolving, fragmented world we live in, the lines between the two camps are so blurred that they are no longer very meaningful. One thing is clear though, to label all independent or self-published authors as amateurs is as erroneous as it is ill-informed.
Author bio: Dr Dallas John Baker is a Senior Lecturer in writing, editing and publishing at the School of Arts and Communication at the University of Southern Queensland. He has published dozens of scholarly articles and creative works, including, under the pen name D.J. McPhee, three fantasy fiction novels: Waycaller (2016), Keysong (2017) and Oracle (forthcoming 2017). Dallas has also published a number of short scripts in various respected journals. He is special issues editor of TEXT: Journal of Writing and Writing Courses, the peak journal for the Creative Writing discipline in Australia. He is Co-Editor of Recovering History through Fact and Fiction: Forgotten Lives (forthcoming, Cambridge Scholars Press). He is Convenor of the Scriptwriting as Research Symposium and Director of Black Phoenix Publishing Collective. Dallas’ study and research intersect with a number of disciplines: creative writing, scriptwriting, publishing and cultural studies. His current research interests are writing for performance, publishing and ‘self-making’ in cultural practices such as creative writing, reading and theatre.