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When does a writer become a professional?

5 July 2017

From The Bookseller:

At what point does a writer earn the right to declare they are A Writer without a self-deprecating smirk? When does a website of online fan fiction, run as a passion project, become part of The Publishing Industry? How many copies of your ebook do you have to sell before your mate, who sorted the cover, is A Bona Fide Book Designer?

The line between amateurs and professionals in the publishing world is increasingly blurry – and increasingly important to interrogate. As Dr Erika Fulop, a lecturer at Lancaster University who is studying the topic, told me: “we still live by the inherited dichotomy of amateur versus professional, despite a quickly changing literary ecosystem where its sense changes and its usefulness becomes questionable. It is important that we are aware of what would be best for us as authors, readers and critics. We have a role to play in what it becomes.”

. . . .

The first criteria mentioned when it came to defining the difference between amateur and professional was, unsurprisingly, cash. If you’re earning from your writing, then surely you’re a pro? But it quickly became clear that even this idea is fraught. The average earnings of a European author are £12,500 per year – a sum less than the UK’s full-time annual minimum wage. So if you can’t make a living off your earnings, are you really a pro?

The answer is, of course, yes. Throughout history, one-trick writers have always been incredibly rare beasts. With portfolio careers becoming the norm, people who make money from publishing – however little, in whatever medium – should not feel, just because they earn most of their crust from copywriting, shelf stacking or circus performing, that they are any less of an author than a white, middle-class, late-middle-aged man able to pursue his ‘vocation’ in a Highbury attic without the distraction of other, grubbier work. Yet there is still a surprising amount of shame around the truth that the career of a professional writer is necessarily diverse.

I’d argue, too, that you can certainly be professional without (yet) being paid. There’s an interesting parallel here with the startup world. In the tech industry, people who spend untold, unpaid hours labouring to bring their brilliant idea to the world are lauded as bold entrepreneurs, not sneered at as irresponsible amateurs. So aspiring writers looking to breed a bit of self-worth might do well to think of themselves as founders bootstrapping their own micro-startup.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller 

PG may be completely out of touch and entirely missing the point, but he wonders why intelligent people spend what is apparently a lot of time discussing possible answers to the question in the title of the OP and this post.

PG says writers can label themselves any way they want to and suggests a label is, first and foremost, a marketing tool for a writer.

To assist in your marketing, PG hereby awards each visitor to The Passive Voice the Grand Prize for keen perspicacity and unmatched acumen as evidenced by their presence here.



There, now you are a prize-winning author. Or a prize-winning individual.

Go tell the world.

The Business of Writing

39 Comments to “When does a writer become a professional?”

  1. Al the Great and Powerful

    Thanks, P.G., I feel so validated!
    I get paid to write, which is close enough for me.

    Thinking back to some spectacularly red-penned writing assignments I got back in school, I am pleasantly surprised that I get paid to write.

    But today I think I’m going to get paid to take my yearly HAZWOPER Refresher course instead…

    Al the Great and Powerful

  2. “The line between amateurs and professionals in the publishing world is increasingly blurry – and increasingly important to interrogate.”


    You can call me whatever/think whatever so long as it doesn’t interfere with me cashing the check.

  3. I have been seeing arguments online for years along the lines of ‘when can i call myself a writer?’ and it’s all silly.

    I could find plenty of people who would say an author who is big-5 published and making less than I do, is a professional, while I, indie/self-published, am an amateur. Again, even though I’m taking home more. Likewise, someone I know who ghost-wrote a book and got paid a decent amount of money for it, was told she wasn’t a real author because her name wasn’t on the by-line.

    People are crazy.

  4. Thanks for the prize, PG. Much appreciated.

    Turned pro 12/12/12.

    Occasionally sells to perfect strangers, who occasionally leave a review.

    Is learning an entirely different profession, advertising, to enhance the ‘occasionally’ part of that sentence. Will be a pro in that profession soon, she hopes.

    Kris Rusch keeps telling us indie writers need a lot of business skills. So be it.

  5. If you’re making a living from you’re writing, you’re obviously a professional.

    But lots of professional writers don’t make that kind of money, not by conventional standards of “making a living.” They still sell what they write, even if they’re making up the shortfall by working a regular job.

    There are people who wrote one or two novels that made little money for them personally, though they might be wildly successful in the marketplace. Can you be a “professional” with two sales in two decades? Or one hit and three books that sank without a trace?

    Personally, I’m not worried about labels. As various people have noted, the key factor is “and then you get paid.”

  6. A writer is one who writes! Right? 🙂

    Don’t need to take the definition any further.

    (So sorry to say that all this “author-centric” angst zips right past me without any impact…)

  7. The sentence immediately after “increasingly important to interrogate” states “its sense changes and its usefulness becomes questionable.”

    That didn’t last long. 🙂

  8. ROFL! Thanks for the award, PG!

    I doubt anybody cares if a writer is a professional except bored bloggers. The author him/herself already knows. 😀

  9. This is why I stay in my office all the time.

  10. T.S. Starkenberg

    Musicians are similar to writers in this way, are they not?

    The guy playing in the subway with a scraggly hat on the ground in front of him? He’s technically a musician. And if he’s getting a few quarters and dollar bills, he’s technically a professional.

    In writing, we are all that guy or gal, playing our tunes in the garage band and booking gigs at local bars on the weekends. The difference is that in the music industry, the rock stars aren’t actively spitting on the bands that are still coming up. No one in Aerosmith is telling the guy in the subway that he’s not a real musician.

  11. Call yourself whatever you want, whenever you want. Nobody cares.

  12. Some persons have paid for the (arguable) pleasure of reading what I have written. I have not been paid a lot — but the Federal Government and the governments of the State and City of New York did not decline their shares (quite the opposite, in fact: they were all rather insistent), so I guess that makes it official.

  13. I think it can be confusing because “professional” and “amateur” have both objective, literal meanings (professional: someone who writes for a living; amateur: someone who writes for the love of it–it actually comes from the Latin for “love”–and makes their living some other way), and subjective, value-judgment meanings (professional: someone whose work is of high quality and whose conduct is businesslike and dignified, as befitting one who writes for a living; amateur: someone whose work and/or conduct aren’t up to those standards).

    It’s similar to how C.S. Lewis once remarked that the word “gentleman” has lost its significance since it began to be used as a term of praise or approval, rather than an objective term meaning an upper-class, land-owning individual. It’s perfectly possible for a literal amateur writer to act “professionally”, and equally possible for a literal professional writer to act “amateurishly” (for example, by posting ugly rants or frothing-mouthed responses to bad reviews).

  14. It’s perfectly possible for a literal amateur writer to act “professionally”, and equally possible for a literal professional writer to act “amateurishly” (for example, by posting ugly rants or frothing-mouthed responses to bad reviews).

    Is there some reason to attribute that behavior to people who “write for the love of it?”

    Is that behavior unseen among those who “write for a living?”

    • Not at all. Which was the point I was trying to make.

      I don’t think anyone actually attributes bad behavior predominantly to those who write for the love of it–as one myself, I certainly don’t! However, I’ve often (as I’m sure we all have) heard such behavior described as “unprofessional”, which is using the term “professional” in the subjective sense. Obviously both good and bad behavior are seen in both “professional” and “amateur” writers in the objective sense. I think that most of us, while most likely amateurs in the objective sense, try to be professionals in the subjective sense.

      This just highlights the confusion that can come of having two equally-used definitions for the terms!

      • @Alice- But perhaps separating amateur and unprofessional? i don’t think those should be considered synonymous

  15. I’ve called myself a professional writer since my first book came out in 1975. Had the office, courier account, leased the first computer etc etc. Gave up the office years back and now work from home very happily. Never thought to label myself except as one who produces all kinds of words and never wanted to do anything else. That said, yesterday I was asked to officially open a wall, so the definition keeps widening. *polishes the PG Cup on sleeve* Now that’s an award!

  16. The question should actually be:

    At what point does a writer become a business person (and take themselves seriously as one)?

    Everything else is incidental.

    • At what point does a writer become a business person (and take themselves seriously as one)?

      If that happens, it’s a function of each individual person who writes. Some who write may want to pick that point for others who write, but there is no reason to pay any attention to them.

  17. Felix J. Torres

    It’s funny that the publishing establishment should obsess so much over a meaningless label.

    In pretty much every business or activity you’re a professional if somebody thinks enough of your efforts to pay you directly for them.

    That is all it means. No more, no less.
    Trying to attach other meanings is just elitist claptrap. And a waste of time that says more about the obsessives and their insecurities than about the targets of their scorn.

  18. Thank you, PG. Your award will certainly share pride of place on my office shelf, along with my (anticipated) “professional” trophies. Because, like them, it comes with nothing that is green and foldable (or round and clinkable, a much better description of my earnings to date).

    Now, I would like a Nobel Prize – that one comes with a nice chunk of change. But not very likely; I am neither a professional scientist nor a charismatic politician…

  19. “The first criteria mentioned …”


  20. Yeah, I’m totally including Passive Guy’s “Grand Prize for keen perspicacity and unmatched acumen – 2017” on my next Amazon listing. That way I can also include “Winner of Best Christmas Short Story – 1987” and it won’t look too lonely to have them separated by 30 years…

  21. This really isn’t a hard question to answer. Once someone pays you for what you do, you are a professional. I am a professional writer and a professional book coach. We can argue about just how good I am at both, but I’ve been paid for both, so that makes me a professional.

    Now, if only I could become a professional couch sitter…

  22. I’ve very recently begun taking my writing seriously. I crossed the line from amateur blogger to Writer when I was able to complete 50K words in the NaNoWriMo sprint last November.

    I’ve started referring to myself as a writer – not would-be, not amateur, on my blogs:




    (WARNING: the second blog above is political and VERY opinionated – don’t click on the link unless you know that your head won’t explode upon encountering a different POV).

  23. One would also have to define what a Amateur writer is.
    Anyone care to try?

    • Felix J. Torres

      How does an amateur writer differ from amateurs in other endeavors like photography, fine cuisine, astronomy? Even athletics, where most of the examples of peak humsn performance come from amateurs.

      I have a friend who is an amateur astronomy photographer. Last year, he discovered a supernova. None of the professionals whined about getting “aced”. Instead, they welcome his contributions.

  24. I’m reminded if the old Reagan joke when he was asked when a fetus became a human. As I recall his reply was ‘when it votes Republican’.

    I had seen a writing group that looked ‘interesting’ and was thinking of joining, but it seems they too have their own definition of ‘published’:



    You can join the ZZZZZZ Guild as a full member if you meet either of the following requirements:

    You’ve had one short story, poem, or novel-length work published in a paying qualifying market; or
    You’ve had two short stories or poems published in a non-paying qualifying market.

    By “qualifying market,” we mean a venue—magazine (print or online), convention program book, small or large press—that involves an editor who’s selected your story for publication via an open submission process, agented submissions, or solicitation. Self-published works, including works posted on personal websites or non-reviewed archive sites, can’t be considered for membership qualification.

    We’re looking into setting up membership criteria for self-published novels, likely based on net revenue for a single title over a certain period. If you’re interested in this, please join the ZZZZZZ Forums—which are open to everyone interested—where more information will be posted when it’s available.


    So they don’t believe indie/self-published is actually ‘published’ either. I was tempted to thank them for saving me from joining them. 😉

    • Which guild are you referring to?

      It can’t be The Authors Guild. I am a member and I got in solely on the basis of being a working blogger.

      • Nope, not any big AU/AG group, just a little one for a small nitch type writer – which made those ‘requirements’ all the stranger.

  25. I think the distinction between amateur and professional was more obvious in sports, you get paid to “perform” but that distinction was dropped a while back.
    You can consider yourself what you want, and I never mention this aspect. It is irrelevant. My signature says that I am: Author, Artist, Composer. That sounds pretentious. Am I all of those? Yes, and I pass my business card showing 13 published books, and some made it to #10 (paid) on Amazon. And if they want more proof check my book-trailers to see my art and music:
    I produced the goods therefore I am a professional. And I keep the money aw well.

  26. I’ve been published traditionally and independently. I have titles in the Library of Congress and on Amazon. For all that, I don’t think of myself as an author; I think of myself as a writer Writing is where everything in my professional life starts. The rest is just follow-up.

  27. Let each person who writes decide if he is a professional. Then the rest of us should respect that decision.

    Given all the other identities people are taking on for themselves, this one is no big deal.

    The fun will come when other writers insist someone is not a professional.

    After that we can take up who is a real writer, real author, serious author, serious writer, sincere author, sincere writer, rodeo clown, or guide dog.

    This is important stuff.

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