A disjointed ramble about professionalism

What makes a professional?

In the sports world, an amateur is an athlete who does not get paid for his or her efforts.  Turning pro and getting paid forecloses certain other competitions for that athlete.  For example, Mallory Burdette, a tennis player at Stanford, made it to the third round of the US Open this year, but in order to retain her amateur status and the ability to return to school and play on her college team, she gave up the $65,000 check she would otherwise have earned.

In many areas, what makes a profession is strictly defined and policed by a governing body.  Lawyers don’t just decide one day that they’ll hang out a shingle; state bar associations (or other bodies – the name varies) determine who may practice law within their jurisdiction, what their minimum qualifications must be and what type of continuing professional development is required to maintain status and proclaim oneself a licensed lawyer.

The AMA and state medical boards do the same thing, more or less, for doctors and physicians generally and for those who declare themselves specialists.  Many other careers include similar licensure and professional development standards:  accountants, social workers, nurses, architects, etc.  In academia, the publish or perish atmosphere combined with tenure track competition gives impetus to continued professional development.

What makes a writer or author a professional?  There’s no apparent governing body for those desiring to make their livings selling fiction or writing the next Great American Novel.   No one to measure professional development or create a benchmark by which want-to-be authors may measure their progress.  Well, there’s the Authors’ Guild, but I’m not sure exactly what it does.  The ABA is interested in selling books, not the people who write them.  Same for publishers.  RWA is a niche organization that makes little distinction between published and unpublished writers, and is entirely voluntary.

An understanding of grammar, the mechanics of language, the proper use of punctuation and correct spelling – these are basic building blocks of a writer’s craft.  Yes, any and all of them may be discarded, but only by masters of the craft.  It doesn’t seem as if any of the writers’ organizations or other professional associations related to publishing pay significant attention to the foundation of the craft (the industry?).  Instead they are much more focused on the other end of the publishing process – the place where money is exchanged.  On one hand, that’s understandable:  money is where the squabbles arise, and there’s never enough of it to suit anyone.  On the other hand, the foundation or source of the money (work that readers are willing to pay for) is being ignored.

Does the mere fact of being paid for a book make an author a professional?  Can a writer who has not sold, either to a traditional publisher or via self-publishing still be considered a professional?

As a reader and in the absence of any single organized governing body that manages the “profession”, I fall back on money as being the line dividing amateurs and professionals when it comes to writing.  If an author is asking me to pay for his or her writing, the subtext of that contract of sale is that the work has been professionally produced.  It strikes me as being deceptive for a publisher (self or traditional) to fail to include one of the standard steps of creating a polished product, editing, because it is too hard or too expensive or takes too much time.

Let me back up.  Long ago and far away, I sold words.  By that I mean that I wrote various documents for clients.  And before I sent drafts of those documents out, I let them sit overnight whenever possible and then read them with fresh eyes.  And then two other people in my office read them.  And then the documents were sent to the client.  The client didn’t pay per word or per page and my work seldom ended up any sort of book or binder, but the clients were paying for me to be accurate and to communicate clearly.  Failure to do so could have significant consequences for the client, or it could be embarrassing and irritating for me, damaging the client relationship.  Either way, in exchange for the agreed upon fee, the client expected that the documents I drafted for him/her would be 1) correct and 2) my best efforts and 3) appropriate for the situation.  Not sloppy or without craft and care.

When a writer publishes a book, whether it is through a NY publisher or through Amazon’s self-publishing unit, the publication, letting that book loose on the public, sends a message that this book is complete in and of itself.  It is the best product the publisher could provide.  It is the final version, polished to the author’s best efforts, and is worth the money being paid by the reader.  (Final isn’t necessarily perfect, but it’s not a first draft either.)

I understand the pressure on writers of popular fiction is immense – write more, write faster, have a web presence, do your own marketing, on and on and on.

At the same time, readers have ever more choices for entertainment.  Ultimately, reading fiction is entertainment.  And if the books readers buy don’t live up to their standards, they’ll eventually stop buying those books, and instead spend their entertainment budget on other things:  music, movies, games, what have you.

I’ve lost the plot here:  I’m not sure where I’m going with this, other than to say I don’t understand why authors & publishers think fiction should be exempt from readers’ expectations of professional quality work in exchange for their money.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “A disjointed ramble about professionalism

  1. This is awesome. I’ve been thinking about the professionalism aspect too. I appreciate that the creative fields should not have gatekeepers the way our fields do. It would inhibit innovation and we don’t really need to be protected from mediocre sculpture the way we do from mediocre cardiac surgery or inexperienced legal representation.

    But why do newbie writers have so much trouble with the idea that putting something out for commercial consumption (and usually with a $$ price attached to it), requires that it meet a certain level of competence? As I said to someone on Twitter, I feel as if all those people taking creative writing classes at the Learning Annex decided they’d just sell their drafts on Amazon (or through bad small presses) instead.

    If I received a dollar for every self-pubbed author I’ve read who seems to think that editing is optional, I could buy a LOT of Agency-priced books.

    • I thought about the art vs. trade (for lack of a better description) while I was writing, and the protective aspect. Being a cynic, I’ve always thought the protective aspect was not just for potential customers but also for protecting the standards of each industry or profession.

      Years ago, when Amazon was still an infant and long before self-publishing was a viable option, a colleague observed to me that everyone thought they could write. At the time, I laughed.

      In many ways, I feel like the easy availability of self-publishing and the spotlighted success of a few authors has encouraged people who otherwise would not necessarily consider writing as a profession to try on the writer hat. And to them, it’s not an art or even a craft, just a job that requires little skill or training.

  2. Pingback: Stumbling Over Chaos :: Linkity after a long week

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