What is a Professional Writer?

On New Year’s Day, I talked, via Skype, with a good friend who lives thousands of miles away.  Skype video calls freak me out.  They excite me.  They amaze me.  When my friend asked me what I’d be doing the next day, I replied that I’d be back at work.

“Work?  You mean, you got a job?!  That’s great!  What is it?”

I gave him a wry, you’ve-got-to-be-kidding look, and immediately knew what I’d meant by work.

“Ah!  Yes.  Your work is your writing.  What’s a job then?”

I explained that a job is what a writer does to pay the bills, especially if the writing isn’t bringing in enough income, which most writers experience.  This conversation sparked thinking about how non-writers perceive writers.

The most common element of a non-writer’s definition for a writer is publication.  Now that I’m a published writer, I don’t receive the skeptical looks from non-writers that I used to.  My conversation with my friend sparked an idea, too: I consider myself a professional writer.  How would non-writers respond to me saying that instead of a writer, or a published writer?  Non-writer’s don’t ask if I’m professional or amateur.  I think for them, a published writer is a professional one.  But there are published writers who actually consider themselves to be hobbyists instead of professionals.

So, what is a professional writer?

For me, a professional writer approaches his writing as his life’s work, his vocation, as a profession.  With that comes regular working hours, dealing with outside vendors (agents, publishers, e-book publishers and adapters, office supplies stores, computer and accessories stores, etc.), setting up an office with the office equipment a writer needs, marketing and sales activities and booksellers, having business cards, business expenses and tax deductions, and quite a few of the headaches that accompany running a small business.  A professional writes not only for artistic fulfillment but to share and tell stories.  A professional also writes for money.

Money?!  But how can a professional writer be a true artist if he writes for money?

Think of the professional writer as a service provider.  The service provided is a provocative, beautiful and entertaining story.  As with any service provider, his services are worth something.  Often it’s whatever the market can bear (or a publisher and readership will pay).  It’s easier to publish for free than for money.  It’s easy to find those markets who devour your writing without paying for it (the internet, for example).  If you think of yourself as a professional, though, your services are worth hard cash (or substantial check), paid in a timely manner.

A professional writer produces a product also.  That product is a story, a book.  Inherent in that production is ownership of the unique way the professional writer told the story, including language and characters, plot and structure.  We call the product “intellectual property” for which the writer owns the copyright.  When a professional writer “sells” his book to a publisher to publish, what he’s really doing is licensing or leasing the copyrights that he owns to the publisher.  Why would the publisher be willing to do that?  Well, the publisher believes that she can make money off of publishing the writer’s book.  The licensing agreement (publishing contract) will include how much the publisher plans to pay the writer in terms of an advance and then ongoing royalties (percentage of sales).  Every time a reader buys a book, the publisher earns a percentage and the writer earns a percentage of the reader’s payment. The writer/publisher relationship tends to be a bit more complex, but that’s the basic idea.

Are you a professional or an amateur writer?


4 responses to “What is a Professional Writer?

  1. This sort of thing rang so true with me that it was actually the first thing I addressed on my blog. Anyone who thinks writing isn’t a job has never tried being a writer. I’m at University, and when my friends complain about their 3,000 word essays I just smile faintly…

    • Robbie, thanks for your comment. It’s good to hear from another writer that feels the same way I do. I must confess, though, that I still complain about 3K word essays! Especially on deadline. All the best!

  2. This is so great, thank you so much for this!

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