Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Who are you calling an amateur?

by Sandra Parshall

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

With publishing in such turmoil, changing drastically at record speed (who would have thought anything in publishing could move quickly?), you might expect writers to band together to help each other steer clear of pitfalls. But no. The sniping continues. The words change, the targets shift, but it still comes down to “I’m making better choices than you are, I make more money than you do, so I’m a real writer, not an amateur like you.”

Not every writer takes that attitude. But it’s prevalent enough to be unpleasantly noticeable. 

Remember when self-publishing e-books for the Kindle caught on in a big way? Plenty of traditionally published authors regarded the self-published with disdain. Poor things – not good enough to snag a real publisher, forced to resort to a new form of vanity publishing. The reaction from the other side was equally harsh: It’s stupid to hand over total control and most of the profits to a dinosaur print publisher when you could keep it all for yourself. Now that we know e-books aren’t going to put a stake through print’s heart at dawn tomorrow, the shouting has died down a bit, but the toxic sentiments remain.

The occasional success story, like Amanda Hocking’s, hasn’t bolstered either side’s argument more than the other’s. On the one hand, Ms. Hocking’s sale of a million-plus downloads of her YA fantasy e-books proves success is possible in that medium. On the other hand, her jump to a New York publisher (for a $2 million advance) proves that within every e-book writer’s heart lurks the intense desire to be published in print by a respectable house. Or so some people say.

What I find sadly familiar in all this is the use of money as the measure of an author’s worth. Amanda Hocking was just another wannabe who couldn’t get an agent or a publisher to take her on – until she started making money, a lot of it, with e-books. Even the most disdainful traditionally published authors had to respect her success. And, wow, a $2 million print  contract with St. Martin’s! That clinched it. Ms. Hocking was suddenly acknowledged as a real writer. A professional.

Those $2 million contracts are scarce. In most years, not a single writer will receive an advance anywhere near that. Ms. Hocking had to prove she’d already attracted an enormous audience before a print publisher would pay a whopping amount for her work. Most advances are only a few thousand dollars. Some are considerably less. And print books are becoming harder to sell to readers. According to Nielsen BookScan, sales of adult hardcovers have dropped 8% so far this year, and mass market paperbacks have dropped 26%. That’s on top of drastic losses in the previous couple of years.

A lot of writers aren’t doing well financially. Some surveys suggest that half of all self-published writers make $500 or less per year from their work. The average income is said to be around $10,000, a figure that is skewed by the few big successes. But guess what? Plenty of traditionally published writers have similar earnings. The exact figures vary from survey to survey and year to year, but only a small fraction of writers – as few as 10% – make enough money to live on. The familiar warning still holds true: If you want to get rich quick, steer clear of writing as a career.

Yet some people cling to the idea that income is what distinguishes a real writer from an amateur. Recently I saw authors who aren’t making a living at writing described as “hobbyists” in a publication of a national writers’ organization. By this measure, 90% of all published writers are hobbyists producing “niche” books. I’m one of them. (See my guest blog for Buried Under Books  on the subject of so-called niche books.) I’m published regularly by a reputable traditional press, my books receive good reviews, but I’ll probably never make enough in royalties for anybody to live on. What does my low income say about the quality of my writing? Absolutely nothing, in my opinion. And yeah, I've become a little defensive on the subject.

I wish every writer could make a good living doing what he or she loves. I wish more people bought and read books and were willing to pay a fair price for them. I wish we had better ways for readers to find good but obscure writers, both traditionally published and e-published. And I wish writers themselves would stop using words like “hobbyist” to categorize other writers.

How do you define amateur and professional?

Have you discovered a small press or self-published author who deserves a wider readership? Tell us about him or her. Maybe you’ll help make a sale or two.


Sheila Connolly said...

Writers who have fought for a coveted niche with a large publisher know how grueling it can be to arrive there, and how many talented writers never do, for a wide range of reasons. Succeeding depends in large part on believing in yourself and your books. Writers who have turned to self-publishing or small presses possess that belief, and often it is justified.

Certainly Amazon et al. have made it easy for anyone to upload and sell a book. What I find missing most often is a good, critical editing. Writers are too close to their own books to be objective.

This may be a generational issue. Those of us who have come up through the ranks in the last decade or so still remember the way it used to be. For new writers, it's a different playing field, and I hope they take advantage of all the opportunities they have.

Steven M. Moore said...

I disagree. Editing doesn't a writer make. I will agree that many self-pubbed books could use some editing (I sweat blood doing my own editing and adhere faithfully to my lists of dos and don'ts because I can't afford a PRO editor), but editing and money made don't separate amateurs from pros. Time dedicated does. If you spend more than 20 hours per week writing AND send some of it out for public consumption, you're a pro. If you do this without a nodding acquaintance of the rules (POV, characterization, scene setting, etc), then you might be a bad pro.
I suppose it's a question of semantics: We often use the word pro to describe someone that is much better at what she does than the average person. Lawyers use pro to describe anyone making money off an activity, but then complicate things with legalese like pro bono. None of that helps to define a pro writer.
Maybe it's the number of books, but that's dangerous too. Harper Lee had one good book, but anyone who calls her amateur is crazy. Jane Austen wrote many books (all bad, in my opinion), but she was also a pro. Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote mostly dime novels, but he wrote profusely (and well enough that Star Wars plagiarized him).
These examples show why this topic can be debated until the Jeddi warriors come home.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

LOL. Steven's opinion of Jane Austen's books reminds me how one reader's taste in books may differ drastically from another's. Unfortunately, the IRS is the most dangerous offender in describing writing as a hobby if the writer isn't making money. Just saying.

Steven M. Moore said...

Hi Elizabeth,
Yeah, I don't like old Jane, but she's still a pro. As for the IRS, I've managed to make enough to cover most of my expenses, but maybe they just haven't found me yet. I don't think we should pay much attention to their definition except for tax purposes.
I neglected to comment on the idea that self-pubbing is still looked down upon. That's changing, but I've found it even in bookstores. One traditional marketing venue is a book signing or discussion in a bookstore and I have found them to be rather snooty. I've had better luck with coffee houses and public libraries. Maybe bookstores are too beholding to the Big Six publishers?
Take care,

Sandra Parshall said...

Steven, I'm with Poisoned Pen Press, a super-reputable midsize publisher, and I can't get into chain stores. Independents are more welcoming to writers with smaller presses.

Patti Brooks said...

In some circles, “amateur” has the connotation of playing at something. The activity the amateur is involved in is not necessary to the making of a living. An amateur is excused for making silly mistakes and perhaps walking away when the going gets tough. Many believe amateurs pursue an endeavor simply for the ego trip. Perhaps they want to say at the next cocktail party: “Yes, I am an author. I wrote a book.”

An English artist/sculptress friend of ours specializes in equine art. She has had a commission from the Queen to paint the portrait of the winner of England’s most prestigious horse race. She put together a short film called “The Artist’s Horse.” Her premise was that when professional equine artists of past centuries were commissioned to paint a horse, they portrayed, to the best of their ability, the horse in front of them. But, when that artist painted for the shear joy of creating something beautiful, (no payment, therefore, amateur???) they usually painted something very different and perhaps even more pleasing to the eye. (to this artist, that horse was the “artist’s horse.”)

I bring this up to say that amateur does not have to be a dirty word. When one creates for the shear joy of putting something wonderful on paper and will not be paid for their work, it certainly can be a wonderful creation. When one creates a story that will have to fit the guidelines/rules of a publisher, or that the reading public will spend good money on, the professional writer must create “within the box” that those who pay expect. Those “rules” can certainly cramp a writer’s style.

Sandra Parshall said...

You're right about that, Patti. If all we want to do is spill out words for our own pleasure, we should probably avoid trying to sell our writing -- so as not to spoil the pleasure of it with depressing business matters. If we're writing to sell, we have to produce a quality product that fills a need or desire in the marketplace.

I'm an amateur photographer, and I'm trying to get better at it and produce pictures I will be proud of. But I don't try to sell them. They're for me, and for my friends. The thought of trying to sell them makes me tired. I've been thinking of contributing some to the Commons, though, because I've found some wonderful photos there that I used (for free) in blogs and feel as if I should give something back..

Warren Bull said...

I prefer the definition of amateur as someone who does something for the love of doing it. Sandra I just got BLEEDING THROUGH and I can't wait to start it.

Lesley Diehl said...

I couldn't have said it better, Sandra and all the sniping I hear among authors with large publishers, those with small presses and the self-published is helping none of us. Nor are the antiquated rules from some of the professional writing organizations (I will not mention names.)

Anonymous said...

Sandy, I wish it was possible to give a copy of this to everyone writing today! A+ for you! Thelma Straw in Manhattan

Susan Oleksiw said...

I personally think it's sad when writers disappointed in their writing career start sniping at other writers. We're all in the same boat, moving from one house to another and hoping that our books and short stories will continue to find readers. Most careers have ups and downs, and it's good to remember that the writer we envy today may well be dropped by his or her publisher tomorrow. Lord knows, it's been happening enough over the last few years.

In my view a professional is someone who takes on a job and does it to the best of her ability, learning as much as possible, taking criticism and learning from it, working hard to improve. Writing is work, and now with the promotional side added on, it's even more work. But if you want to write and be a writer, this is what you do. I count myself lucky to have continued in this business (in crime fiction since 1988) for years, but I know that each year is a new challenge.

Lesley Diehl said...

Yup, one day at a time.

Julia Buckley said...

I've been traditionally published and I am self-published, as well. My self-published books, if I do say so myself, are impeccably edited (please buy them and read them if you'd like to prove me wrong). :)

I don't see publishing on Kindle as a way of giving up, and I don't perceive myself as less talented than some of my traditionally published friends (nor, I hope, do they see me this way).

What I do know is that, while traditional publishing would give me better in-store distribution, Kindle has put my books in the hands of people in several other countries, and a couple of those fans have either written to me or given me nice reviews, and that is a very special feeling--to know someone read and responded to your work. Fans don't only have to come out of traditional publishing.

Since I have two other jobs beyond writing, I certainly can't be called a full-time writer; however, I've been writing for 27 years, and at this point I feel I've earned "professional" status--but I guess, like anything, it's all in the definition.

Sandra Parshall said...

Julia, far more people have now read my first book in e-book form than in print -- THOUSANDS more. If I had something to self-publish as an e-book, I wouldn't hesitate. I think it's wonderful that this new market has opened up for writers.

Warren, I hope you enjoy BLEEDING THROUGH. I was delighted that you won the drawing.

Sally Carpenter said...

A good analogy would be the Olympics. The athletes are "amateurs" yet they train for hours daily, spend money for their training and make huge sacrifices just to a compete for a few minutes every four years. The accomplishments of these athletes are honored, yet an author is dismissed as "talentless" if her book isn't on the best seller list. Sales should not be an indication of skill.

SandyT said...

By googling professional vs amateur I have to confess I don’t agree with some of their descriptions. I consider myself a professional. I have been publishing since 1998, have 13 books, have quit my day job, enjoy what I’m doing. But one site’s description of an amateur is: Show up when you want vs every day (I’m retired and golf 3 to 4 times a week, not to mention all the wifey duties); commitment comes and goes (see comments about golf above); aren’t paid much for what you do (used to take profits and use them to produce more books but now the profit margin is much greater); you want immediate gratification (at my age, who wouldn’t?); fear deters us (who doesn’t live with doubts and fears?); any excuse is enough to pause (Jeffrey Deaver once gave a great speech reading his faux diary where he found every excuse to leave the computer from walking the dog to washing the car to making a trip to the grocery store).
I had always thought I left the petty pigeon-holing behind in middle and high school but unfortunately they are still around. And I always thought in terms of success vs professional. That’s why stores and businesses frame the first dollar that they ever made. I actually do have one of those hanging on my wall!

Steven M. Moore said...

I guess I should have been more forceful when I said I generally make enough money to cover my expenses. There are two points to add here: (1) I'm lucky because I don't need to make a living at writing, so I just need to cover my expenses; and (2) except for covering expenses, I'm just trying to generate readers in most anyway I can (what's a writer without readers?). The latter is difficult because I'm no marketing or PR genius (although I'm an old curmudgeon, I'm also an introvert). The other day I found copies of my books donated to the local public library dog-eared and tattered. That made me feel as good as selling the few books I've sold. (I took in some new copies for the library.) Maybe some read the books, liked what they saw, bought the books or others I've written--I don't care. It's just a good feeling to have readers.
Sandra, even small presses often require agents, recommendations, or what have you. Moreover, their response time is slow. I've jumped on the eBook bandwagon because (1) my expenses that I have to cover are low; and (2) the turn-around time for releasing the book to the public is short. With respect to the latter, I hope you all noted the "old" in "old curmudgeon." I might not have much time, I have many stories in me still, and my muses are a real band of banshees (I think they've discovered tasers), so I have to keep writing.
Great discussion, people!

Sally Carpenter said...

Just a note that not all small presses are slow. After the acquisitions editor submitted my mss. to the publisher of Oak Tree Press, my mss. was accepted in four days. The book was released six months later. If I email the publisher with a question I generally get a reply within 24 hours and sometimes instantly. A small has an advantage that it can move quickly without going through layers of management or having to consult the "corporate headquarters." Some small presses don't need agents but do expect a marketing plan and social media platform from a new author.

Melodie Campbell said...

Sandra, one of the things I have found in the crime world is that - dare I say it - quite often a man who writes crime is considered seriously, and a woman who writes crime is 'doing it as a hobby.'
There. I've said it. I didn't want it to be true, but I get that feeling more and more when I see who wins awards and who is reviewed in major newspapers.
We still need Sisters in Crime, for sure.

Steven M. Moore said...

Maybe it's because more men commit crimes? LOL. BTW, I'm an exception in two ways. First, I read many women authors and have reviewed their books, both mysteries and thrillers. Second, no one seems to take me seriously...yet. ;-) So far I've only written thrillers. My muses are always challenging me to write a mystery...wish I knew how.