Amateur vs Pro, Part III

MCMMonday, January 26, 2009

(note: parts I and II were in my head)

I am not sure if I want to be a professional writer. It's a side issue (since I'm so busy writing), but one that constantly nags at the back of my brain like a jar full of angry honeybees that keep getting shaken by mean-spirited kids.

Erm. Yes.

The question I struggle with is this: "what defines a professional?" Dictionarily speaking, it's generally something like: "A person who earns his living from a specified activity" [ironically, from Wiktionary]. It's probably not perfect, but it's a good place to start.

Do I make my living writing? Well, in a broad sense, yes: I earn my living writing a TV show. But really, I'm looking at the question of my books, and whether I'm considered a professional author. As has been pointed out by various people (usually in unfriendly tones), I am not a professional author because I am not published by an established publishing house. So actually, the definition of professional is more like "A person who earns his living from a specified activity under the supervision of an established player". Which makes sense. It's a club, and you have to join, otherwise just ANYONE could go calling themselves a pro.

So the question (which I dealt with in part II of this series) is whether I should try and get published by someplace like Random House or the like. I investigated it briefly (using my meagre cred in the TV world to see if someone knew someone that knew a literary agent), contemplating a life of advances, hurried deadlines and book tours. Two things happened: first, it took forever for anyone to get back to me, and secondly, I looked at the publishing industry, and got cold feet.

This is how book publishing works (from what I gather): author pitches book. Book gets optioned by publisher, who pays author a chunk of money called an "advance" to write the book. Author writes the book, and after a few months (or years), the book is released. Author earns tiny pennies on every copy sold, largely never earns enough to cover the cost of their advance, and is either given another book deal or is thrown into the trash to wither and die. I would assume the trash bin is quite full at this point, but then again Jeffrey Archer is still writing...

In my opinion, this system is horribly broken. It's not sustainable for the authors, for the publishers, and probably not for the readers either. So I decided (and I realize this sounds very high-and-mighty) that I didn't want to help perpetuate a failing business model, even if it did stand to earn me some cash in the short term. That's what TV writing is for. I want my books to be important. Or something.

So I set out to create my own publishing company, which would work more efficiently by embracing new technologies and business models, and hopefully do some GOOD while trying to monetize verbage. I am proud to be a not-really-professional, in the same way that I used to be proud to be a freelance web developer: this ain't the easy route, kids... those of us that do this, we're INSANE! And we're comin' for ya! Look out!


But still, the question is whether I'm an amateur or not. Talking to publishing folks, they assure me that, since I still am not working under the auspices of the established hierarchy, I am most certainly an amateur. It doesn't matter that "The Pig and the Box" has already been read far more times than the average book (even some best-sellers)... I didn't get an advance for it, so I'm just a very lucky amateur.

Bah, says I. Humbug!

I don't have a big issue with being an "amateur" except for the baggage the word carries. And since I'm also apparently not a "professional", I am forced to adopt my own terminology, which I will use with reckless abandon until someone coins a better term: I am an authoring specialist. Fancier than an amateur, and quite possibly more qualified than a professional. I take this categorization very seriously, and I will tell you why...

Ideally, becoming established in your chosen field takes a certain amount of talent and a certain amount of hard work. More often than not, it also requires you to know the right people, and shake the right hands. That, at its core, is utter nonsense. These are not gatekeepers of quality, they are simply networking roadblocks, and it skews the pool of (here I go sounding bitter) "professionals" towards the half-talented-but-very-personable. One of the chief failings of Digg of late is how it mimics this dynamic, so stories doesn't rise on merit, but on the social undercurrents of certain top submitters. It's the antithesis of the internet revolution, and it's also a bit stinky.

Through my TV work, I know the people with whom I should be shaking hands to get ahead. I could probably transmute "RollBots" and the Pig book into a publishing deal and forget this ever happened. But if I do that, I'm ignoring the underlying problem: there are many talented people in this world that DON'T know the right people, and they would be suffering in obscurity while I'm sipping fancy mango cocktails by the pool of my sprawling 50-room mansion. I'd love that mansion, but I've suffered in obscurity myself, and I want to try and fix that problem first.

1889 Books is in alpha right now. The kinks need to be worked out, but I am taking meticulous notes about how it all comes together. What works, what fails... it'll all be recorded. When the bugs are worked out, I will be releasing the business model like an open source project, so that other authoring specialists can pick it up and make their own fortunes doing what they love. It will probably cost a lot, and involve a lot of false starts, but when I'm done, I think there will be a viable alternative to being a "professional" writer. A clear path for a talented amateur to take, rather than sending out fifty letters to literary agents who probably don't read half.

Wow, I got all manifesto-ey there, didn't I?

At any rate, that's where I'm heading. I am going to purposely avoid being a professional author, and now you know why. Stick around, if for no other reason than to watch me scramble to make it work!

[incidentally, the runners-up for the non-professional term were: novel developer and writing architect.]

Edit to add: If you have any ideas about how to run 1889 Books more efficiently than I seem to be doing, please feel free to tell me. The biggest obstacle is the issue of reviews and marketing. Most reviewers won't touch a non-pro book, and marketing depends on word-of-mouth, which is hard to ignite most of the time. So postulations in that area would be greatly appreciated.

All content released under a Creative Commons BY-NC license except the contents of "TV" section, which belong to their respective owners.