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What makes a professional writer?

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LJ Cohen


My personal bookshelf: 8 novels published in 6 years

This is one of my periodic musings/rants on the state of publishing. As ever, this is my opinion, based on my experience and YMMV.

Depending on your definition, I'm either a professional author or a hobbyist writer. Personally, I'm not sure it matters. And I'm okay with that.

I came to writing after spending almost 25 years as a physical therapist, working in a variety of settings from hospital-based inpatient care to an outpatient private practice. I earned a good living and spent significant time and money on professional development so I could stay current in my skills.

I had the opportunity to speak at professional conferences and contribute to the research literature as well as write chapters for text books.

There is no doubt that physical therapy was my profession.

During my latter years as a clinician, I started to focus on long form fiction - as a hobby. While I can't deny holding to the fantasy of having one of my manuscripts discovered and published to world-wide acclaim, I understood that this was fantasy. Being an author wasn't my job at that point.

However, I was also the parent of two children, and as their needs changed, I also shifted my working priorities to part time employment which allowed me greater flexibility to care for my sons.

Just because my earnings decreased as I limited my work hours didn't suddenly demote my work to hobby status in the eyes of the world.  Whether I worked 10, 20 or 40 hours a week as a PT, I was still a professional. And that designation remained whether I was the primary 'breadwinner' of my family or not.

Fast forward to 2012 when I published my first novel. By then, I had disbanded my physical therapy practice and was no longer working as a clinician. I remained a licensed professional, even as I didn't earn any income in that profession.

I may have earned $500 in 2012 from that first venture into publishing.

So where did I stand as a writer? Professional? Hobbyist?

Would it matter if I said I spent time and money on professional development? Wrote consistently? Sought feedback on my work? Learned about the changing landscape of publishing? Had an agent? Went on submission?

If your definition of professional is someone who earns a full living from their chosen work, then there were many, many years I wouldn't have been considered a professional physical therapist. Without my spouse's income, there were years I wouldn't have been able to pay the rent, childcare, and basic needs for my family.

Let's fast forward again, this time to 2019.

I have 8 novels in the marketplace.

My average annual income as a novelist is approximately $6,000 - $12,000 a year, depending on if I have a new release or not. That is not by any definition 'a living' - not when you have a family to support.

So, am I a professional author? A hobbyist?

Would it change your mind if you knew I was a full member of SFWA? An invited guest speaker at well regarded genre writing conventions?

If your definition of professional has an income requirement attached, then the percentage of writers who are professionals is vanishingly small.  Yes, there are writers earning good money. They are the outliers. Trust me. I know a LOT of writers. Most of them don't earn the equivalent of minimum wage from their creative work. And some make far, far more than that.

Still others sell a ton of books and plow nearly all their earnings into promotion and advertisement, writing fast and furious in search of audience share. That is a route I have seen lead to financial success, but it requires a kind of relentless focus on the numbers (both books written and sold) that doesn't work for me and would lead me smack into the brick wall of burnout.

And honestly? I don't see all that much of a difference between my traditionally published writer friends and those who go the indie route. Some writers will do extremely well. Some rare writers will be in the right place at the right time and grab that brass ring.

Yes, hard work and discipline is certainly a factor in artistic success - and it's the only part of the process the writer has any control over - but even the most successful writers will tell you how much luck and timing had to do with it.

It was far easier for me to make a living as a physical therapist then it is as a writer. I suspect most artists of any stripe will say their 'day jobs' make more financial sense than their art work.

And none of this means that artists cannot also be professionals even as they pursue their art as part of their life. As a hobby, if you will.

I think the biggest problem with the professional/hobbyist divide is that society has conflated pursuing a hobby with dabbling and all the negative connotations it carries.

I would love to reclaim and redefine the word hobby in a way that doesn't place it on the opposite side of some imaginary continuum where "professional" is the other end.

Perhaps we would all be better off with less of an artificial separation between vocation and avocation.

If you're looking for me, I'll be searching for that elusive balance.


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