Apr 072010

As some of you no doubt know, I am an attorney. By this, I mean that I went to law school, graduated, passed the CA Bar exam, and worked as an attorney at a law firm for several years. That makes me an attorney. Pretty simple.

But I also write novels. I am an author. But, am I a “real” author? A “professional” author? What does that even mean?

It may surprise some people to know that only a tiny percentage of authors make a living solely by writing (obviously “make a living” is pretty vague). Most authors–yes, authors on the NY Times Bestseller List published by big publishers–teach on the side, have day jobs, freelance, or do other things to pay the bills. One estimate said that only 200 authors in the U.S. make a living solely from their writing. Let’s put that in perspective: there are 1,696 players in the NFL (32 teams x 53 players). And their minimum salary is $325,000 per year, much more than just “making a living.”

Hell, there must be more than 200 state lottery winners each year in the U.S., and they probably make at least $1 million. Better odds than writing.

So, what defines a “professional” writer? When can an author call himself a “professional”? Is it if he “makes a living” (is one of the 200)? Is published through a traditional publisher? Sells X number of books? Earns more than a certain dollar amount per year by writing? Has written more than a certain number of books?

Let’s say you get signed by a large publisher because it thinks your book will be profitable (not “good”–big difference). The standard first contract for an unknown author (i.e., not Sarah Palin, who doesn’t actually write–is she an author?) is a $5,000 advance and 8% of royalties after that. About 80% of books never make it to the “after that” stage–they don’t earn the author anything beyond the initial guaranteed $5,000. And publishers give most first-time authors very little or no publicity, no big display at Barnes & Noble, and if your books don’t sell well in the first month, they’re yanked from the shelves and they go out of print. You just made $5,000, on a book you probably spent at least a year on. Most authors spend that $5,000 trying to promote their own books.

Is that guy a professional author? What if I make $5,000 selling books on my own this year? Am I a professional?

The good news is that the game is changing. Readers are starting to get sick of much of the “traditionally-published” stuff, which is often formulaic and appealing to the lowest common denominator. Just as with indie music and movies, people are looking for new voices and books that the big publishing companies didn’t deem “marketable” enough to sell.

And now, with e-books, the self-publishing movement, and Amazon (the world’s largest bookseller), all those lines are being blurred. For very little money (and a whole lot of time), an author can format their own e-books and distribute them on Amazon’s virtual shelves right alongside Stephen King and Isaac Asimov. And, since print publishers are trying their best to kill e-books to protect their hardcover book sales, it gives little guys like me a chance.

  • So far in 2010, I’ve sold over 3,000 books (mostly e-books, and mostly through Amazon). Does that make me a “professional” author?
  • I’m completing my third novel, The Twiller, which should be out in a few months. Is that enough?
  • Stephen King said you’re a “professional” if your royalty check doesn’t bounce, and it pays the electric bill. My royalties this week already paid the electric bill for the month. But what about rent?
  • I made it to #1 on Amazon’s “Technothriller” best-seller list, and #479 overall in the Kindle Store (out of almost 500,000 e-books), which puts me above 99.9% of all e-book titles. Do I qualify?
  • And what about, you know, actually being a good writer? Does that even matter at all? I can name plenty of best-sellers that are horribly written, but their authors rake in the cash.

I actually don’t know the answer, and I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please leave a comment below. But I do know that I’m giving it a shot. More on that in my next post.

  One Response to “What Makes A “Professional”?”

Comments (1)
  1. If the great thinkers of our world only wrote because of royalty checks, we’d all probably still be picking rocks and eating dirt as people. A true “professional”, in my mind, is someone who’s passionate about their craft. Someone who’s not only good at what they do, but also internally motivated by the love of being in “the zone” when engaged in their art. As for the metrics that you’ve described in measuring the “professional” standard, they are flawed in the following respects: Professional via publication – publishers are profit-driven, not a good indicator of excellence; Professional through number in print – numbers can be altered with marketing and time (by this logic, the Bible, Kuran, and the Communist Manifesto are perhaps the most professional work ever written); Money – there are plenty of professional idiots out there with more money than deserved; Peer review – depends on the peer. Long story longer, follow your heart and share your gift with the world. As long as the civilized world stands, your words will be immortalized for posterity.

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