So, you think you’re a writer?

          A writer is someone who writes. Seems easy doesn’t it? But, at what stage do writers become professionals? Not so easy. Is it when they write their first article, story, novel, or book? Or is it tied to publication? And if it’s tied to publication, what kind of publication? Does publication in magazines count? What about online magazines? Does it have to be a book? And what about e-books? Do you have to be published by one of the Big Six to be recognised as a professional author? In my opinion that would be a bit restrictive. So, should this be extended to other publishing houses who are not part of the Big Six? And what about the multiplicity of independent publishers (Indies) that are springing up?
          I started to wonder about this after chatting to the membership secretary of the CWA (Crime Writers Association) who indicated that the number of self published e-book authors who were applying for membership was increasing. This resulted in the CWA having difficulties convincing self published authors they were not eligible unless published traditionally by a mainstream publisher. Self published authors often argued that their e-books were successful with multiple downloads, and therefore could not understand why they should not be eligible. However, the problem for the CWA is how to differentiate between quality e-books and those of lesser quality. Their main concern is to ensure that quality is retained in the books published by the authors they accept.
          Of course this reflects back to the situation where anyone can publish a book electronically through Amazon, Smashwords, and others like them. And it has to be admitted, that not all e-books meet the standards required by mainstream publishers, although I would argue that there are many which do.
          Many self published authors, although not all, are now seeking entry to the professional organisations which support writers. Organisations such as the Society of Authors, the CWA (Crime Writers Association), the RNA (Romantic Novelists Association), and others. Considering my conversation with the membership secretary of the CWA, it would appear that some of these organisations are struggling with the concept of indie publishing, never mind indie authors.
          It seemed to me that the professional organisations had reached a stalemate, which was why I was so pleased to see the recent Guardian article titled “Traditional publishing is ‘no longer fair or sustainable,’ says the Society of Authors”. This article argues that figures from a recent ALCS (Authors Licensing & Collecting Society) survey shows that authors’ earnings are decreasing and have fallen by 29% since 2005. The Society of Authors states that publishers, retailers and agents are all now taking a larger slice of the profit when a book is sold, and that while “authors’ earnings are going down generally, those of publishers are increasing.” The survey indicates that self-publishing is becoming an increasingly attractive option for writers and they found that just over 25% of writers had published something themselves, and that 86% of those who had self published said they would do so again. The article is well worth reading in its entirety and I would suggest you make the time to do so.
Society of Authors Chief Executive, Nicola Soloman
          Now, the main reason I like this article was because of the statement by the Society of Authors that they include self published writers among their members if they have sold 300 copies of a single title in print form, or 500 copies in e-book form, within a 12 month period. They further state that most writers would “still prefer a traditional publishing deal but the terms publishers are demanding are no longer fair or sustainable”.
          Of course, there is another option, and that is ALLi (The Alliance of Independent Authors), this is the professional organisation for Indies. There is, of course, an annual subscription fee, but this is no different from the other professional organisations who all require subscriptions.
          I’ll sign off by saying please read the Guardian article I found it extremely interesting.

Chris Longmuir


Lee said…
So sales make you a writer...leaves me out, I fear. Which is fine, because it leaves me free to speak my mind without worrying about criticism, image, or yes indeed, sales.
Chris Longmuir said…
Depends how you look at it Lee. As far as I'm concerned you're a writer if you write, irrespective of the quality of that writing. However, the professional organisations are struggling with the concept of the indie writer and how to separate the good stuff from the dross. Some of them are taking the view that by accepting indie authors they are risking their reputation and their status.
Mari Biella said…
It's interesting to see how things are changing, given the internet and indie/self-publishing. There's a sense in which I can understand the CWA's reluctance to admit self-published authors - the quality of self-published books is, of course, variable. But given the changing landscape of publishing, I don't see how they can go on avoiding it, either. It will be interesting to see what happens next...

I share Lee's concern, though - you can't measure a writer's worth solely in terms of their sales, surely?
Very interesting issue, Chris, which I think needs discussion and debate. On balance, I think the SoA's approach is a good one - and I've found them to be very supportive of members who are indie publishing or hybrid. You can become an 'associate member' if you only have a desire to write and an interest in the craft of writing itself. It isn't very expensive, and if you then go on to be published, or embark on serious self publishing with demonstrable sales, you can become a full member, which gives you more access to some of the professional advice on offer. I'd lay bets that the majority of the members aren't published by the Big Five. I don't think these organisations should be judging a writer's 'worth' in the sense of good or bad, at all. But if they want some control over membership and see themselves as professional organisations then sales are perhaps the only possible measurement - not of some abstract and subjective idea of 'worth' - but of professionalism itself - the idea that you're doing this as a business as well as for the joy of writing. The difficulty some of these organisations seem to have is with the idea that reader choice is now more important than the historical gatekeepers. They are still working to an old model. If somebody has sold 10,000 copies of an eBook, are they more or less 'professional' than somebody who has sold 600 copies of a finely crafted and intensively edited literary novel? For the writer who is not doing this as a business, none of this matters, but then why would such a writer want to join in the first place? There are plenty of organisations, groups, conferences and events where writers who want to write for fun or for the love of it alone can get together with other writers for mutual support and advice. But I do think the big organisations such as the RNA, and the CWA are going to have to change or be left behind.
Lydia Bennet said…
Yes the option of sales as opposed to published status is a possible way forward but arguably it's not at all a sign of professionalism - business of all kinds sometimes make a loss, they are still businesses, and people who write for a fun hobby might suddenly get a big seller out of the blue. Perhaps people who are self-employed, sole trader, businesses as writers, regardless of sales or income. Also, if any publisher including the small indie ones (quite rightly) can make you eligible, do they check what or who the publisher is? Nowadays it's quite easy to publish your own books and make them seem/look published. But yes this debate will have to go on as the old rules are left behind.
JO said…
I'm beginning to think that one of the problems lies in professional writers (by which I mean writers who make some money, though not necessarily enough to live on) needing to be good at much more than writing wonderful stories. They need to understand markets and marketing, negotiate the whims of modern technology etc. There may be some wonderful story-tellers who languish down the wretched amazon rankings simply because the whole marketing performance is not what they want to do.
That's true, Jo, but surely it was ever thus? And I think Valerie is right as well. Perhaps we're getting to the stage where being a business might be the criterion. I know people who have suddenly had a book that sells well or an enticing offer from a publisher and most of them rush to join the SoA. But even being traditionally published means that you have to engage with marketing. It was the same fifteen or twenty years ago - we just didn't have the possibility to do much for ourselves. I don't think anyone - except for people who genuinely don't care about selling or publishing, and that's fine - can expect to just write. Although there's some evidence, especially in certain popular genres, that simply carrying on writing and publishing may influence sales more than anything else. This is one of the interesting changes in mindset between indies and small publishers on the one hand, and the Big Five on the other. They are still hooked on the big splash at the beginning and the slow slide into the remainder pile for all but the favoured few. Indies and smaller publishers make money out of backlist. Once the big boys realise that fully, (and genuinely start to engage with it) nobody will ever get a rights reversion out of them. But I think they would have to stop trying to overprice eBooks to prop up paper first.
Chris Longmuir said…
I suppose the problem is around what makes a writer professional. Accountants, doctors, even social workers have their professional organisations for which they require to obtain the necessary qualifications. But how can that be compared to writers. What qualifications can a writer acquire? Oh, I know there are creative writing courses but honestly, does that make someone a professional writer? It seems to me the only way a writer can be judged - apart from the traditional published route - is connected to what the reader thinks, and that is linked to sales. I do like the stance the Society of Authors is taking. It shows they are grasping the nettle (cliche alert!)
julia jones said…
Did you discover the CWA criteria in the end? I'm assuming you're a member -- ?
Lee said…
Lydia, though you make a good point about successful businesses which make losses (Amazon, anyone?) - sometimes huge losses - you have to remember that sales i.e. revenue and profits are not identical.

I do understand the problem for professional organisations, though it's pretty much irrelevant to my work and my nature.
Chris Longmuir said…
CWA are currently sticking to traditionally published authors only, and they check out the publishers if they haven't heard of them! When I joined it was a toss up whether I would say Birlinn or Polygon, because although I was published by Polygon they were part of the Birlinn publishing company. So I put Birlinn, and they queried it because they hadn't heard of Birlinn, but as soon as I said Polygon that was okay because they knew Polygon! So you can imagine the problem all this progress is making for them!
Chris, I'm gobsmacked! They queried Birlinn? Don't they - like - have the internet?

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