Web dev at the end of the world, from Hveragerði, Iceland

The splintered author

One of the major problems with yesterday’s blog post was my use of a derivative of the word ‘professional’ (or, ‘de-professionalised’ if you want my garbled, distorted, and modified to hell derivative).

That word, helpful and specific as it might seem at first glance, has a long history of being stretched, manipulated, and abused to suit people’s agendas. It has served very well those who have sought to be exclusionary and divisive.

It was quite possibly the worst term I could have used, except there aren’t that many alternatives with the meaning and history that fits.

So, instead, I’m going to describe very quickly the process that I’ve labeled as a ‘de-professionalisation’. That way, if you still disagree, you’ll at least know whether you disagree with my use of the term, my version of history, or my view of the present.

As I see it, there are today broadly five groups of people that take published writing seriously and consider it to be an essential component of their careers.

(I’m leaving out those lucky enough to happen on big bestsellers or blockbusters since those occur largely because of luck.)

First, the oldest.

1. The old writing profession—sucky but once viable

There seems to be the misconception running around that the famous and prominent literary fiction writers of the past are representative of the writing class. Dilettantes and academics who, maybe, published five novels in their entire lifetimes do not in any way represent a profession—no matter how you define the term.

Yes, the publishing establishment loves these people. Yes, they seem to be the only people mentioned in their version of history, but that’s because they’re the ones writing it.

If the publishing industry had at any point in time had to survive on the output of the people it has lauded, the entire field would have closed up shop within a day.

Instead they relied on professional writers.

That doesn’t mean that they were all full-time writers living the high life in New York. Every major population centre in the English language world had paying markets: magazines weren’t all run out of London or New York, newspapers were local, and the book publishing industry was considerably more diversified and spread. These markets also paid more for writing. Many of them paid more than modern markets do, even without correcting for inflation.

And here we come to what I meant by with ‘profession’: these writers were specialised and had a very specific role to play in the industry.

They weren’t supposed to run the business.

They weren’t supposed to do marketing.

Some of them edited, but most of them weren’t supposed to do that either.

They weren’t supposed to sort out the printing.

They weren’t supposed to take care of the payroll.

Their job was to write what the market wanted and deliver it on time. Which sounds very pedestrian and uninspired, which is exactly why the literary dilettantes liked to call them hacks.

It wasn’t a good job. Most people with the skill and education to write could get paid better elsewhere. It didn’t leave people with much in terms of pension or savings. As a career, it sucked but was viable.

All that began to change in the eighties (broadly speaking) when large corporations began to buy up publishers and the multinationals began to take over the market.

No matter what traditional publishers today say, it’s clear that with this change, the value they put on writing began to steadily decline, and that low value is exactly what created an opening for Amazon’s KDP in specific and self-publishing in general.

We still have a few of these authors running around. Some of them realise that the world has changed around them. Many of them don’t. They all owe their livelihoods to the fact that they entered the field and established their position either before the decline or in its early days.

Like many people occupying privileged positions, they don’t realise that their career paths aren’t open to anybody any more and chide later generations for being lazy.

2. The chattering amateurs

In yesterday’s post I said this here thing:

Publishing as an industry is just as well served by a class of chattering, attention-seeking amateurs as it was by the professional author.

Now, I had assumed that anybody who has been following the roster of authors coming out of traditional publishing would realise that with ‘amateurs’ I wasn’t talking about self-publishers. But self-publishers have been tarred with the amateur brush so often that it has turned into an anti-self-publishing code word of sorts.

When I say ‘chattering, attention-seeking amateurs’ I’m talking about the groups of people who have come to dominate traditional publishing’s author rosters: celebrities, micro-celebrities, bloggers, politicians, the independently wealthy, fan-fiction writers, punditry, and academics. None of these are professional writers in any reasonable sense. None of them have a serious expectation of turning authorship into a career. They are amateurs and they are, for the most part, doing it for the attention. Because they are dedicated attention-seekers and often occupy prominent (if temporary) positions in society, their books tend to sell, irrespective of their quality.

If you’re running a traditional publisher purely as a business, these people are the ideal author. But, anybody willing to go to these lengths mostly for attention and little renumeration is going to be a desperate individual. Because this crowd doesn’t see authorship as their career they are much more willing to burn down anything in their path that might prevent them from getting the attention they think they deserve.

3. The one person creativity business

This is the modern author. Self-publishers think they have a monopoly on the entrepreneurial life but it is a fact for anybody who is attempting to make a living creating art today. Illustrators, cartoonists, actors, painters, and writers all need to be one person business entities to survive.

The basic skills you need to succeed:

  • You need to know how to market your stuff, because nobody else is going to do it for you (traditional publishing or not).

  • You need to run your career as an enterprise, hire the right people (editors, illustrators, designers), and build an ad-hoc small business organisation to support your career.

  • You need sales skills because you can’t rely on just the quality or timeliness of your writing to sell your work.

A lot of people in this situation go even further, get deep into understanding accounting, cash flow, CRM, project management, and more.

This is the opposite of specialisation. These are the primary skills of the one-person creative business. Sales, promotion, and marketing abilities are more important to success in this career than pure writing ability. You need to be able to write, of course, but it’s more of a ‘this high to enter’ baseline benchmark than a correlative to success.

Some of the best, most interesting books being published today are self-published but that’s because traditional publishing’s chattering amateur baseline for writing ability is lower than the self-published author baseline, not because writing ability is directly rewarded in self-publishing.

Because of all of the hustling, promotion, marketing, and business stuff you need to do, there are huge risks of burnout, and you might feel unable to write the stories and books you really want to write.

By any measure, due to the numerous roles and obligations involved, this is high stress career, especially for introverts. These authors are more likely to see reviewers or readers who don’t give them lauding reviews to be threats to their livelihood. They have huge incentives to misbehave: buy reviews, engage in sleazy marketing, perform overdriven social media campaigns, pressure reviewers to change unfavourable reviews, and maintain deceptive book covers and metadata.

4. The day job author

Most people, self- or traditionally published, have day jobs and other long term careers. The day job isn’t a transitional role but a long-term support structure for creating art. Sometimes having a day job is the best thing you can do for your craft.

Having a day job can free you to create better stories, let you further the art and craft of your field. At the same time that freedom lessens your financial worth to the industry as a whole. Your output is less than a full-timer’s. You might sell less than a full-timer because you are taking more risks and trying new things.

5. Writing and publishing as community functions

One of the biggest gifts that the web and digital publishing has given us isn’t self-publishing but how it has enabled writing and publishing to become a general purpose tool for communities.

Pick any given interest- or field-specific community and you’ll find that the writers who dominate the discourse there aren’t ‘authors’ and don’t belong to any other profession even remotely related to the publishing industry. Unlike the chattering attention-seekers, they are rarely ‘published’ in the industry sense. They consider themselves to be photographers, teachers, programmers, designers, and musicians first and writing is only a tool for them to further their craft and field. They write blogs, post on forums, and publish ebooks (usually selling direct either on their own sites or on community sites). They serve the needs of their community better than any outside publisher can. Publishers, self- or traditional, that seek to cater to these communities can’t behave like regular publishers. If they did behave like publishers in the industry do, their credibility would be shot within five minutes of them posting their first blog post.

So, I don’t think it’s hyperbolic at all to say that authorship as a profession is dead or dying.

We’ve gone from a world where writing was the primary skill of a specialised profession to a world where it is an important but secondary skill of a variety of social and economic groups: attention-seeking amateurs, interest- and field-specific communities, part-time artists, and one person creative businesses.

None of these groups directly reward writing skill or storytelling craft. Writing has ceased to be a strategic component of these careers. For many of them it remains a necessity in the same way you need electricity to run an office, but it doesn’t provide the strategic leverage it provided in the careers of professional authors thirty years ago.

You can also find me on Mastodon and Bluesky