Friday, March 6, 2015

What Makes You An Author?

In the film “Amelie” the title character says, “…every seller window should have a person who whispers comebacks...” That would be my dream job, to tell people off and rebuke their asinine arguments. "At least you'll never be a vegetable - even artichokes have hearts." However, I was raised in a culture of kindness and goodwill where a gift like mine has no use. And it's not considered very nice to tell people they suck, or that their point is ridiculous even if you say it in a colorful and intelligent way. Furthermore, we now live in a world where you can no longer agree to disagree and stay civil. If you disagree with someone you're a monster. Meanwhile, there are people out there publishing ludicrous opinions as fact via blogs, Twitter, and Facebook who think they can go unchallenged or un-corrected. But since I was taught The Golden Rule and that old adage: "If you can't say something nice, then don't say anything at all”, I've learned to keep my comebacks and jibes to myself rather than saying them aloud. Until now that is. I’ve decided to use my gift for a worthy cause, to defend the under-appreciated and misjudged. I'm speaking, of course, of self-published authors, my people, my kind.

Recently I read a blog post wherein the blogger said boldly that "Self-published authors shouldn't be called authors at all." He stated that they were not the same as traditionally published authors. "Just because it’s easy to upload your written word, so that it can be downloaded to another machine does not make you an author, any more than me buying a stethoscope allows me to be called a doctor." A more idiotic statement I have never heard. For one, you’re comparing a profession of science, that requires ten plus years of schooling and training to a profession that doesn't require a degree or training at all. Writing is an art form more than it will ever be a science. You can learn techniques and method until you’re blue in the face, but that won't make you a great writer. It's not something that can just be taught, it has to be earned. With every bad bit of dialogue and every poorly-thought plot point, a writer hones their craft. Writing is all about trial and error, rewrites, and do-overs. A doctor can't afford to make a mistake. There are no second drafts when it comes to saving a life. It's a precise science, whereas writing is subjective. What constitutes great writing in one genre is nonsensical in another. Two authors can have the same idea and yet write two completely different books.

The blogger went on to say that the true definition of what makes a real author is whether certain organizations recognize them as such. These guilds/associations base their inclusion on how much money an author makes. So apparently an author is only judged on the nickels and dimes they have to rub together not on the quality of their prose or character development. "You have to earn $1,000.00 in the form of an advance on a single Eligible Novel. Or, you have to earn $1,000.00 in the form of royalties or a combination of advance plus royalties on a single published Eligible Novel. Finally, you have to pull in $5,000.00 in the form of earnings for a Self-Published novel." It seems that this blogger is confusing professional with successful.

There are plenty of individuals in lots of professions that, although talented, are not particularly successful by most people's standards. To be professional at anything means you are doing it as your profession, you treat it like a job, not a hobby. Again, this is where his comparison of doctors to writers makes little sense. However, we'll stick with it a moment to prove my point. To be a professional doctor you have to: go to school, get the training/degree, set up a practice, and be compliant with certain laws and regulations. To be successful/make money as a doctor you have to: advertise and network so that people know who you are and where your office is located, you have to have a good bedside manner with your patients. This gets you recommended from your satisfied clientele to their friends and family. Now, there are a few ways to go about becoming a professional writer. If you want to be a journalist and write for a newspaper or magazine you need to: go to school, get a degree, do some internships/ training/ build your resume, and then apply for a job(s). For this kind of writing schooling is necessary. To be a successful writer for a newspaper or magazine you have to: have people skills, have an article or column that lots of people read and enjoy, you have to have some credentials for the type of work you write, for example, if you write for a finance magazine you need to know something about finance and be able to write an article that makes sense and gets the point across in the allotted word count.

However, the above mentioned blogger wasn't talking about a magazine writer or columnist in a newspaper he was talking about authors of novels, Fiction, Non-Fiction, and so on. So what are the requirements for a novelist then? To be a professional novelist/author you have to: have a story to tell and know the technique to tell it. Believe in your story to the point of madness (being a tad insane doesn't hurt). Submit your work to agents/publishers, get a publishing deal. Have your books distributed to bookstores/have an online platform where readers can find your work. To be successful/make money as an author you need to have: A recognizable name (as in, people have heard of you and your work). A finished product to sell that looks professional. Have a book that is easy to find and buy because it is widely distributed and promoted, and have and maintain a solid reputation as a good writer which means your work is of a high quality (reviews). If you're writing about a certain topic it helps if you've studied it or have a degree in that field but it's not necessary as you can always research it for the book or hire someone to do that for you. If you're writing Fiction, Sci-Fi, or Fantasy you can do without a ton of research and come up with a lot of it entirely out of your own skull. Contrary to popular belief, you do not need an English degree to write a book in the language, they have these people called editors who can "edit" your work for you. Proofreaders and beta readers who go through it and help you find the segments that don't make sense or slow down the flow of the story.

Comparing a doctor to a writer is idiotic because it takes a truly bad doctor with terrible people skills and poor judgment to fail at his profession, where as an author's success is based almost entirely on the readers. You can be the best writer ever and do everything right and still not be successful if people don't hear about you, can't find your printed work to purchase, and you don't get good reviews thus not getting word of mouth recommendations to other readers.

Many an artist never reaches true success until long after they are gone. Garnishing fans over the last hundred plus years American author, Edgar Allan Poe, struggled in his own time. Poe’s total earnings as a “professional” author, poet, editor, and lecturer were about $6,200.00, and that is over a course of fourteen years! His highest payment he ever received was when his classic short story, "The Gold-Bug" won a $100.00 prize from Philadelphia's Dollar Newspaper. In John Ward Ostrom’s lecture, “Poe's Literary Labors and Rewards, ¬Myths and Reality at the Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society 1987”, he calculated that Poe's life earnings as a writer, $6,200.00 would be worth about $56,000 by 1987. Divide that by fourteen years that means that Poe only made $400 a year! Now I'm not sure what the dollar is worth today in relation to the poverty level we were at in the 80's, but I dare say that even now Poe's earnings would be considered poultry at best. By the before-mentioned blogger’s standards, Edgar Allan Poe, the inventor of the detective novel and one of the most celebrated American novelists of all time, would not be deemed worthy of the title “professional author.”

Dutch post-impressionist Artist, Vincent Van Gogh, lived in poverty, producing close to 900 works, yet only selling one. The Red Vineyard at Arles sold for 400 Francs. That's equal to about $1,00000-$1,050.00 today. However, now his works are all very sought after. The Portrait of Dr. Gachet painted June 1890 was sold in 1990 for $138.4 million. By this one blog’s standard, Van Gogh was not a professional, he was not of value. Yet his paintings didn't change over the years. They are the same now as they were then. So is the case with a novel. It doesn't transform into a masterpiece the second it makes x amount of dollars or gets a publisher’s stamp slapped on it. The writing process is the same for an indie as it is for a traditional author. Big name authors don't have magical pixie dust that makes a book appear out of thin air. Writing is work; it is hard work, no matter who you are, period.

Personally, I like to compare the publishing world today to the film industry. Every year the big studios release about 200 films. Not all of them are glowing gems of cinematic brilliance. Some are "Schindlerd’s List" Oscar contenders and others are simply of the "Dude, Where’s My Car" variety. Having been released by a big studio doesn't guarantee a film’s worth or success. Some are box office smashes, some are moderately successful and some just tank. The critically-acclaimed masterpieces are not always big money makers. The quality of the film has nothing to do with how much money was put into it, or how much it made. “American Beauty” had a budget of just $15 million yet won 5 Oscars, including Best Picture. On the other hand, “Sucker Punch” had a budget of $82 million and only grossed $89.8 million worldwide, and was scorned by critics and movie goers alike. No, the quality of a film is dependent on the talent of the writers, cast, and the crew that made it.

Likewise, not all books released by the top five Publishing Houses are all quality books or big international best sellers. The best-sellers may not be the best written either. Take "Twilight" for example. I can't think of a book that creates more contempt in authors then Stephanie Meyer's four part vampire saga. Why? Because it is so poorly written, and its success so staggering that it angers other authors who actually have talent, yet struggle to make it in the mainstream world. They envy her success, sure, but they mock her inability to foreshadow, write interesting characters, or give a book a decent ending. She is not respected by a large part of the authors in the industry, traditionally published or indie. Yet, based off of this blogger’s criteria, she is a true author while small indie authors, like myself, aren't even worth noting because our book(s) haven't given us fat bank accounts. Meanwhile, some of the breakout films over the years have been low budget, well-written, independent films. These films got recognized for their brilliance because the film critics looked beyond the shiny logo of a big studio and judged it off of its own merit. The Sundance Film Festival was created for indie films to get a chance to shine. In fact, there are hundreds of film festivals like it that make it possible for films, that otherwise might never be seen, get noticed from movie goes, critics, and studios alike.

Finally, after an eternity in the dark ages, the publishing industry developed its own kind of Sundance for books: Amazon. Thanks to the invention of the e-reader and Print on Demand publishing, the once-silent now have a voice in the publishing world. The game has changed so that the big five can no longer decide for us what is worth reading and what isn't. After all, why should they have that power? They don't write the books, or come up with the plot. They aren't the ones toiling for months, and even years, over stories, weaving parts of their soul into their narratives. No, really all a publisher does is clean, package, and promote a product. Nowadays with the networks of freelance professionals online anyone can hire a few editors, a formatter, a cover artist,
and pay for their own advertising. About the only thing one can't do is get onto the shelves of a brick and mortar Barnes and Noble. This mostly has to do with limited store space and the cost of overhead. After all, they can't carry every book that they have on their online catalog in the store. They have to limit themselves to the ones that seem most likely to sell well. This doesn't mean anything about the quality of the books.

So, putting all that aside, what really makes an author and author? What does one have to do to be worthy of that prestigious title? Once more, what can be done to dispel this idiotic notion that indie authors are a lesser life form than traditional authors? Why is it that a person who decides to take their fate into their own hands and put out a book on their own is not as viable as those who get chosen by the publisher and have someone else produce their work for them? Why should those who have money and power decide for the rest of us what is hip and trendy and what is
not? Why are we still living in a world of haves and have not?

So my point is that there is a whole lot that goes into a book. There is a whole lot that goes into becoming an author. Whether you do it on your own, or with the help of a publisher, the process in large is the same, except one turns the writer into an employee and the other makes the writer god of their own universe. If your only goal in writing is to make money, then you might want to reconsider your profession. If you find you can't live with yourself if you don't at least try to write, then chances are this is what you’re meant to do. Because no matter how you publish, the only thing that is going to get you through all the crap that comes with writing is your level of passion and commitment. After all if Poe didn't give up after fourteen years of struggling, then neither should you! So, like the old axiom, "You can't judge a book by its cover", I likewise say, "You can't judge an author by their publisher!" That's all from this Indie Author's Soapbox.

Now go forth and buy an indie book! You know you want to! Or just buy any book, I don't care just as long as you're all out there reading!

Till next time,
R.J. Craddock

P.S. If you'd like to read the original blog that got me all riled up you can find it here.