A Professional is as a Professional Does

I’ve met many young authors who believe that being a professional writer is a title, something that is awarded for achieving a tangible benchmark of success. While I sympathize with the “if I just do this one thing, I’ll be a real writer and everything” attitude, I have found that life is rarely that simple.

For one, where would you set the threshold? While I agree that signing with an agent or selling a manuscript to a publishing house are both significant accomplishments and important to a traditional career, I don’t think that either truly encapsulates the whole of what it is to “be a professional.” After all, you can be a successful indie author without ever doing either. In point of fact, SFWA recently had to change its membership rules to acknowledge this very truth.

So then, does making money off your writing make you a professional? Receive your first royalty check, and boom, you are in. This criteria again raises the question of where to set the bar. Is a $0.35 check enough, or do you have to make a living? What of the authors who hit it big with their first work and then never publish again? I wouldn’t say that they are professional writers.
Since we can’t seem to define a threshold of success that makes a pro, let’s instead look what makes a professional different from a hobbyist. I think it is largely a matter of the attitude with which the artist approaches their work.

A professional is reliable, delivering a high quality product, as ordered, and on time. A professional makes the time to sit in front of their keyboard even when they don’t feel inspired to write. A professional comports themselves with dignity and respect, and dare I say kindness, especially when the other person really deserves a tongue lashing. While still simplistic, I think this definition captures the core of the issue.

Looked at from this point of view, professionalism is a matter of the behaviors that support commercial success rather than the success itself. In so doing, it fits the traditionally and indie published author equally. I’d even go as far as saying that it could apply to young author struggling to break in to the industry.

In the time since I took my first steps as an author I’ve learned that professionalism matters. I have, more than once, put an indie or small press book back on the purchasing table because it was poorly designed or bound. I’ve stopped supporting authors I once looked up to because of how they treated others at conventions or online. Conversely, I’ve come to respect authors who handle bad situations with grace and integrity. While breaking in requires a significant portion of luck on top of years of hard work, my attitudes, behaviors, and choices are entirely within my control. Ultimately, I choose wither I act as a professional or a hobbyist.


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