What Makes a Writer?
From the desk of DrewLine, America’s handsomest news desk:
I feel like every few weeks, someone in my twitter feed links a story decrying the sanctity of the term “writer” and how the self-publishing masses have horned in on a formerly exclusive and private club. Or, on occasion, I’ll see an article from the flip-viewpoint announcing the end of the hallowed publishing halls, and that everyone not going the indie route is on the path of the dinosaurs while piles of money burn around them.
Both of these are, 90% of the time, pointless/shitty writers who are hooking into a topic that is controversial in the writing community as a cheap-exploit for page-views. I barely even consider that last statement opinion; it’s what the default assumption should be anytime you read an article that only supports one frame-of-thought without any intellectual consideration of the opposite point. But I’m not here to talk about the shoddy standards we hold journalism to, I’m here to try and take a genuine look at both sides of the argument for what is a “writer” in the new digital age.
Let’s Start With The Definition
1: someone whose work is to write books, poems, stories, etc.
2: someone who has written something
Well, fuck, that seems to make things pretty clear-cut, doesn’t it? If you write, you’re a writer. Hot damn, I can cut out early on this thing and go have a beer. See ya!
…okay, so my producer is telling me that people aren’t actually debating about the term “writer” they’re using it as a stand-in for “author” “Professional-writer” and things of that nature. So, what we’re really talking about here is not who is a writer, but rather gets to say they’re a writer and not be labeled as a pretender to the title. I… suppose that makes sense. I mean, it’s not like we just let anyone who paints call themselves artist. (Off-camera whispering) Oh, no, wait, we totally do that.
Whatever, I’m not here to mock the debate as a whole, I’m here to help examine both sides of the argument. With like… a side of mockery. Right then, onto the first classification.
If You Make Your Living Doing It, You’re a Writer
This one seems straightforward enough. If it’s your job, then you’re a writer. I don’t think anyone is going to fight about that one. It’s an earned job title, just like plumber or CEO or dolphin puncher.
However, there is an area between “earning a living” and “making no money.” Of the writers I know personally, read the various bloggings of, and have casually conversed with, the vast majority of them work other jobs on top of their literary endeavors. So… do they not count? Is there a percentage of the income that has to come from their writing before they can claim the golden title? Maybe we keep it simple, over 50%. That seems good. Right then, if over half of your income comes from your books, then you’re a writer.
Aw, wait, shit. We can’t do this, because now we have to go back to our original analogy (earned job title, come on, try and stay with me) and it doesn’t hold up. If a handyman makes 30% of his cash from carpentry, 30% from plumbing, and 40% dancing at the all-male strip club (Shake it Enrique!), he fails to hit the established criteria to claim any of those titles. Despite the fact that he’s trained, skilled in, and able to fulfill the duties of any of them, he is neither a carpenter, a plumber, nor a stripper.
Okay, maybe assigning a percentage value to income in order to qualify for a title was a stupid idea. Let’s not get bogged down though. We’re at least agreed that when you make your whole income from it then you’re a writer, which only disqualifies all the fabulously successful writers who supplement their incomes by teaching, leading workshops, or giving speeches.
Yeah… this whole avenue might be kind of fucked. Let’s take income off the board for now, there are plenty of other ways to determine who in our field is deserving of the title of Writer (now capitalized for extra awesomeness).
If You’re Published, You’re a Writer
In, like, 2000, we could have all nodded our heads, come to a consensus, and gone home on this point. Sadly, time marches forward and now there are two kinds of books: Classic Publishing and Indie Publishing. For those who don’t know the difference (what compelled you to read this far? I mean, I’m glad you did, just wondering) I’ll provide quick definitions below.
Classic Publishing: Also known as Traditional, Old-School, and Velvet-Rope Publishing, this is the avenue where you send your manuscript to a publisher, or, more often, an agent who sends it to a publisher. They either accept or reject you, and if you’re accepted then your book is worked on (edits, cover-design, etc) and then released through their distribution channels. These usually include brick-and-mortar stores as well as e-books in the digital marketplaces.
Indie Publishing: Also known and Self, Amateur, and Digital Publishing, this is the avenue where the author owns the books through the entire process, either outsources or handles the various elements mentioned above to bring it to completion, then lists the book through digital marketplaces. Some will also have print versions created, often through Amazon’s CreateSpace. They see a greater percentage of royalties; however they have assumed all the risk in terms of cost and promotion.
That established, it hardly seems like these two industries should be at odds with one another, does it? One spreads risk out through an established company with experience, and one offers higher rewards coupled with higher risk. Each will appeal to different authors, or even the same authors on different projects, but neither is inherently wrong. It’s just a question of what works best for the book-in-question.
Ohhh, if only that were true.
See, there is a difference in Classic and Indie besides the marketing and royalty principles. In Classic Publishing, there is an element of exclusion. Publishers can tell you “No.” They can say that your work is a bad fit or, in some cases, just bad. That in itself isn’t a negative thing, these are established businesses and as such they are prone to putting money into investments they see as safe and recoverable. The problem is that when you have an industry saying “No” to some, they also say “Yes” to others. That creates a subset of writers who feel they’ve made it into the club, past the velvet rope and the bouncer. And, for a small but often vocal few, that means they now don’t want to be lumped into the same group as the masses they were just standing outside with.
Look, I get it. I really do. Getting published is hard, it is damn hard, and they want to bask in the glow of that accomplishment. I do not begrudge a single writer who made it to Classic Publishing that right. Take a victory lap, you earned it. Where things get problematic is when they decide that they didn’t just succeed at becoming a writer, they became the only kind of a writer that really counts.
That might have been a great mind-set initially; however Indie Publishing has been coming into its own over the past several years. With some books making it onto the New York Times Bestseller list, and ample folks finding it’s feasible to live off the demand for new literature, we’re seeing more and more Indie Publishing Writers becomes bigger and bigger. The velvet rope is starting to mean less every year as talented people decide they don't want shitty starter contracts from large companies with minimal interest in their books, they’d rather own the rights and bet on themselves.
Oh, but let’s be clear lest anyone think I’m blowing the “Indie Only” trumpet. Classic Publishing has a lot of fucking advantages. Marketing budgets, seasoned pros checking your manuscript, talented designers, and even publicists to get your stuff in front of the right people. It’s might not be the only club in town anymore, but it’s still a sweet-ass one.
Where were we anyway? You can’t realistically base Writer status off income, and there is still bickering about what counts as “published” so that’s a dead-end before it starts. Honestly, the more I look at this debate, the more I’m lead to one inevitable conclusion:
The Whole Debate Is Pointless
You know cares a lot about who is and isn’t a Writer? Writers, though fewer than people imagine, from various levels of publishing or self-confidence. You know who doesn’t give two wet fucks and a Popsicle stick about the difference between writer, professional writer, author, novelist, and crazy hobo scrawling in a binder?
Readers don’t give a shit, nor should they. All they care about is liking or disliking a book. If the book is good, they’ll tell their friends, leave good reviews, and maybe buy sequels. Whether it was made by a whole corporation or one dude in a basement, people reading the book will ultimately determine if it is received well or not. People will put out books, and it will be the quality of their work that ultimately defines their success, not whether others considered them worthy of the title of Writer. It simply doesn't matter, not in the real, free-market world. Those who care about the Writer title can squabble, in-fight, and draw lines in the sand all day, every day, and it will never mean a goddamned thing.
Want to be a writer? Go back and look at the definition we started with. Write. Create. Make something that wasn’t there before. Congratulations, you are now technically a writer. If you tell someone that and they start trying to stipulate with you, ignore them. That person is unhappy with their life, their art, or their inability to do what you did. Happy people don’t waste their time trying to tear others down; they encourage them to create more.
What is a Writer? Someone who writes. The rest is just silly details.