This post will explore a simple question: has the definition of ‘professional author’ changed since the beginning of the ebook era?
I’ve been waylaid by a nasty virus the last few weeks, and in my weakened state, I’ve had time to ponder my place in the publishing world. I’ve been a published indie author for about 15 months. Even though I’ve had short fiction published for cold hard cash since 2001, I’ve still considered myself a newbie. And at the very beginning of my publishing journey in this new ebook era, I considered myself a vanity-published author. Swallowing my pride, I’d labeled myself this derogatory term mainly for reasons of insecurity. I’d chosen to bypass the system that I’d been seriously trying to crack for a decade. On top of that, I’d been writing for ten years before I sold my first story. After two decades, I found myself with my tail between my legs, sidestepping the gatekeepers who thought my work unworthy of public consumption.
Twenty years of rejection can have a negative impact on an author’s self-esteem. But twenty years of rejection also has a way of shaping an author. If an author can still keep plugging along after so long of so little recognition, his or her craft will undoubtedly grow and evolve. This author will develop the proverbial ‘authorial voice.’
After twenty years, I also finally fully understand that the existence of professionalism in publishing far preceded the existence of the Big 6 or the pricey small press market that has developed over the last 30 years. For decades, authors worked hard to crack these professional markets. And once they achieved this goal, they received a small piece of the pie, a pittance in comparison to the whole of the publishing bounty. In hindsight, authors made a living long before the so-called traditional system of professional publishing. Before the Big 6 became the Big 6, many authors were able to carve out a living, sometimes solely by selling short stories to magazines and newspapers. In other words, publishing undergoes change over time. And now, as technology encroaches on our lives in sometimes insidious ways, publishing has undergone perhaps the most dramatic change since Gutenberg.
This change, the advent of the ebook revolution, has altered the definition of a professional author. A professional author is no longer confined to the Big 6 and the upper echelon of small press publishers. I haven’t thought it through long enough to come up with a new definition of professionalism, but I know that there is a new distinction between vanity and independent professional publishing. Vanity publishing is indie publishing that doesn’t pass the eye test. The books look like they are vanity published. They are poorly formatted, have low-quality covers, and if they are lucky enough to garner reviews from readers, these reviews are riddled with references to shoddy editing and inane plots. These books are pretenders, pale imitations of the high-quality products that readers so eager seek.
But there is a new layer of professional authors who are carving out their own territory in this new Wild West era of publishing. I now consider myself one of these new professionals. If you don’t know me from the next indie author, you might be asking yourself why I believe I can state such a claim. Well, first of all, my books pass the eye test. My covers are solid, professional-looking covers. My reviews have been almost unanimously glowing, with few if any comments about formatting or editing issues. But most importantly, I’m finally starting to make some real money with my stories. February was the first month in which I earned more money with my writing than at my day job. March won’t be as robust, but it’s really starting to add up over time.
So, you might be asking yourself, “How does money make you a professional author?”
Well, on the one hand, I could say that in most cases, earning money defines professionalism.
To put it in perspective, I’ve far exceeded the advances I would’ve gotten if I would’ve sold my novels to either the small press or lower-tier paperback publishers. And I’ve accomplished this within 15 months of my first indie release. Paperback advances are for contracts that last from 5-7 years. Most books never earn the author more than the advance. As I see it, I have 3-5 more years of earnings per book before those supposed professional contracts would’ve expired. My titles would’ve been relegated to limbo for years, most likely already pulled from bookstore shelves. I’m no longer insecure about my place in the publishing world; I travel a path of my own creation.
So, in conclusion, in this new era of publishing, an author can set his or her own trajectory, and professionalism is now defined by the author, not a publisher. In this new era, authors are no longer bound to the constraints of a system rigged to syphon money away from the story’s creator. I’ve set my own trajectory, and while I’m not saying I will never take a traditional publishing deal, I would have to think long and hard about it.