Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Being a professional writer

I've been thinking today about what separates a professional writer from an amateur.

The key is that a professional writer handles their writing as a business. But what does this mean?

First of all, it means treating everyone you deal with as a customer. An editor I am sending a story to is a customer. A client I'm writing an article for is a customer. A reader is a customer. This means you have to treat everyone the way you want to be treated when you are a customer.

It means being polite, it means staying rational. It means going ahead and calling the editor an idiot in the privacy of your own home, but resisting the temptation to do so in public.

One thing I have only fully grasped recently is that to a writer or artist everyone is a potential customer. I am, naturally, a highly emotionally volatile person with a temper and a tendency towards mood swings. I've had to learn...and am still learning...a higher level of self control. I've pissed people off in the past...but everyone has. My latest realization is that by treating absolutely everyone as a 'potential customer' I can apply the golden rule in a manner that is not pure altruism. Tech support guy who's trying to fix my broken DVR? Potential customer. Teller at the grocery store? Potential customer. I think that if I can learn to apply this professionalism to my life, then I will be a better person for it.

The second big chunk is that if you run your writing as a business, you have to approach every venture with 'What is in it for me?'.

That sounds horribly selfish, doesn't it. But think about it this way. If you sell a story to an editor, then what do you get out of it? It might be X cents a word. It might be royalties. It might be the ever-nebulous 'exposure'. A lot of writers are willing to hand their rights over to a publisher that opened its doors one week ago and is asking for submissions for an anthology for 'exposure'. Think about that. If they're that new and can't afford to pay you or even give you a copy of the book, how much 'exposure' are you really going to get? There are a lot of people who expect artists, of all kinds, to give their work away. I've even had it seriously suggested to me by otherwise sane people that I find an artist willing to give me cover art so I can profit off of it. That is not professional...on either side. As long as artists are willing to give stuff away because they want the 'credit', though, it will continue to happen.

Will I give stuff away? Sure. If there's something in it for me. For example, if I self publish a novel, I might write a related story and give it away for free. That's called a 'loss leader' and stores have been doing it for as long as there have been stores. I will also give work to non-profits, providing I agree with their cause and know they are really charities...and I will check. I'll write guest posts on other people's blogs for nothing, providing they use my byline and link back to my blog or web site. Even better if I can get them to return the favor. Cross promotion is one of the best things out there.

But I will not work for nothing but 'exposure' unless somebody actually has exposure to offer. Most of the time, publishers that put out 'for the love' calls don't have any exposure. If they did, they could afford to pay their writers.

Now, some people are going to read this and call me a mercenary and a hack. No. I am running a business. I am trying my best to be a professional. I may not always succeed, but I am trying.