Is Writing a Hobby or a Profession for You? Why Either Path Can be a Good Choice.

If one of your New Year's resolutions is to become a successfully published author, it's a good idea to consider first what that means to you.

What is your personal definition of success?

Do you want to be a professional writer or a hobbyist?

Before you burst into high dudgeon and say, "Of course I'm a professional! I've finished a whole novel, published a bunch of short stories and won three awards," consider this quote from publishing superstar Hugh Howey:

"Of…hobbyist writers, thousands now make a full-time living from their work. Thousands more pay a huge chunk of their bills from their hobby. These are part time artists who have thousands of fans and hear from readers all over the world. Some of them go on to get offers from agents and publishers and score major deals. All because they are doing something they love."

Writing is one of the best hobbies in the world. It costs almost nothing and keeps your mind alive and active and you get to create worlds—how cool is that?

And in the digital age, you can share that writing with lots of people. The online writing community is huge. On fan fiction sites or sites like Wattpad and Readwave, you can get fans and develop a following. None of it will cost you a thing. 

You can also buy a pre-made cover, trade edits with a friend and upload to Smashwords or self-publish with Amazon, Nook and/or Kobo and be a published author and it won't cost you much more.

And you might even make money. In the electronic age, the line between writing as a hobby and writing as a profession has blurred. To quote Hugh again: 

"There are tens of thousands of authors out there now making $20 or $100 a month doing what they would happily do for nothing."

Some writers, like Hugh, have made the leap from hobby to profession in a spectacular way.

And even though he's now a superstar trad-pubbed author with a big movie deal, Hugh still writes fan fiction. He's written a story, Peace in Amber set in Vonnegut's world of Billy Pilgrim and the Trafalmadorians through Amazon's fan fiction platform. It hasn't even been released yet, but it's already #1 in Kindle Worlds.

If you're not clear on your goals, I recommend this great post Dan Holloway posted on Jane Friedman's blog this week: What Do You Want from Your Writing in 2014? Dan provides exercises for clarifying your writing goals and suggests things like writing a letter to your future self. 

If you decide that for now your goal is to remain a hobbyist, that doesn't mean you can't be a brilliant writer—or that you can't be published.  

As Hugh says, this is the best time ever to be a writer, whether you choose to treat writing as a hobby or a profession.

But hobbyists can be easily ripped off, hurt, or manipulated if they're not clear on their goals.

Overpriced vanity publishers and predatory publishing contracts can turn a fun hobby into a nightmare for the amateur who doesn't know the ropes.

And lots of them get their feelings hurt and even quit writing because they make the mistake of querying agents and publishers.

Every day I see laments in forums and writing groups from writers who feel wounded when an agent or publisher rejects a book solely on the basis that it has already been self-published.

But the rejection doesn't reflect the quality of the book. It comes because they've flagged themselves as amateurs. A professional presents new material and doesn't mention failed projects.

Agents are only interested in working with professionals who can turn out product quickly on a regular schedule, make timely edits, show up for personal appearances, and dedicate a good deal of time to following directives from the marketing department.

This is the reality: no self-published book is going to be taken on by an agent or traditional publisher unless it's phenomenally successful. And for that kind of success, authors need to produce multiple titles and promote them in a well-planned, professional way.

How does the industry define "phenomenally successful"? According to agent Joanna Volpe, "Today, to turn publisher’s heads, that needs to be...50,000 copies in one month, at a $2.99 price point or higher."

Most smaller publishers won't be interested either. They'd like to be your first choice, not your last resort, and they don't want to deal with a book that's already been in the marketplace and failed to sell.

The truth is, you can't make the leap from self-publishing to traditional unless you become a superstar on your own—and then you may not want to make the switch.

Do note: plenty of self-published authors are just as professional as traditionally-published ones, so choosing to self-publish does not mean you've chosen to be a hobbyist.

But don't knock writing as a hobby. There's nothing wrong with hanging on to amateur status.

Keep in mind that Olympic athletes are amateurs.

What defines the hobbyist writer?

1) Hobbyists write for the joy of writing.

If money comes, it's gravythe way winning a money prize at the local club tournament is for a golfer.

2) They can write in any genre.

Or they can happily cross genreswith no worries about the marketplace. They can write memoirs, zombipocalyptic dystopians, Christian romance, and Star Trek fan fiction and still use the same name, or have 47 pen names if that's more fun.

3) They don't need to spend money on advertising or publicity.

Or, if they're fabulously wealthy, they can spend tons and hire a marketing team, even if they only have one book, written in Klingon, with an projected audience of two hundred readers. Hobbyists don't need to look at the bottom line.

4) They don't need expensive websites. 

And they don't have to obsess about branding or platform or spend any more time on social media than is enjoyable. In fact, they can ignore social media entirely and leave their manuscripts on random bus seats, sail them into crowds as paper airplanes, or write them on birch bark and make them into canoes. There is no wrong way.

5) They can give themselves a big old launch party, no matter the cost.

Or they can splurge on a conference or book fair even if it means spending more money than they'll ever make on the book, because parties and conferences are a blast and this is something they do for pleasure.

6) They can write only one book.

Some hobbyists spend decades working on a memoir and never write another word. It's very tough to make money on just one book, but if it's your hobby, that doesn't matter.

7) Hobbyists no longer have to publish with an expensive vanity press.

In the pre-digital age, vanity presses were the only way most hobbyists could get published. These presses charged thousands of dollars to put a few copies of your book into print. But now, even paper copies can be self-published cheaply through CreateSpace, BookBaby, Lulu, or Lightning Source.

Unfortunately, some of the Big 5 Houses have teamed up with the old vanity presses and offer overpriced packages that exploit the uninformed writer's "overnight success" dreams. A smart hobbyist doesn't go there.

They learn the ropes of self-publishing or use reliable, inexpensive self e-publishing assistants like Smashwords, BookBaby, Lulu, and Draft2Digital. These self-publishing companies offer inexpensive services and even keep track of your royalties for you. (Lots of professionals use them too. Smashwords is one of the best ways to get a book into the global marketplace. More on that next week in a guest post from the EBookBargainsUK guys on "Going Global in 2014".)

8) They don't waste agents' time (or their own) on the heartbreaking query-go-round.

A query is a job application for long-term employment in the publishing industry. Don't go there if you don't want the job.

At best, you'll get discouraged by the rejections, and at worst, you could end up signing a cut-throat contract that takes a piece of your rights in perpetuity or hobbles you with a "non-compete clause" that bans you from ever publishing books in your genre, even if the publisher or agent rejects it.

In these days when it's the hybrid author, not the traditionally published author who makes the most money, a non-professional writer who goes the traditional route could end up losing the possibility of making money from a book any time in the future (or even your children's future.)

What defines a professional writer?

We can't say a professional writer must make a living solely from writing, because many of our most lauded literary icons make a living teaching or have some other day job.

"Professionalism" means entering an industry and treating your writing as a business.

Not everybody wants to do that. Don't let anybody push you into it if you're not ready or you don't feel the need. The fact you're not "going pro" doesn't devalue the quality of your work—and it doesn't mean you shouldn't work to make your writing the very best it can be.

Remember those Olympians!

But you should be aware of these things:

That means writing becomes the main focus of your work life, even if you have another job.

How do you become a professional?

No, you don't need an MFA (in fact that won't impress many people in the industry.) But you do need to educate yourself about the business side of publishing.

Here are some things to do if you plan to be a professional author:

1) Learn the basics of the industry: the jargon, the names of big players, important conferences, etc. Read Publishers Lunch and Galley Cat, and subscribe to major industry blogs. Pay attention to what sells and what's overdone and on the way out. Join professional organizations in your genre, like SCBWI and RWA.

2) Keep up with the latest technology, as well as social media and contemporary marketing techniques. Start following business news, especially in the tech industries.

3) Treat your writing as a job.
Show up for work on a regular schedule. Treat it as your #1 job, even if you have others.

4) Lose the magical thinking.
As Porter Anderson says, just lighting a candle to St. Amanda the Hocking won't sell your work. Don't expect your first novel be discovered in a slushpile if you've never published anything outside of the church newsletter. Don't expect a 600,000 word zombie romance time-travel western based on your psilocybin hallucinations that time in Baja to be a million-seller, no matter how many times you Tweet about it.

5) Always think in terms of "Return On Investment". Estimate the income you can realistically expect to make, and factor in ROI when you plan your marketing strategy. Don't pay for expensive marketing until you've got enough titles out there to bring in the income to pay for them. (Remember what I said about launch parties.)

6) Have a career plan. Know where you want to be in a year, and five years, and ten—and budget your time (and money) accordingly. Make getting successfully published and establishing yourself as an author your #1 goal. That means submitting to magazines and contests and getting known in your genre in order to build a solid writing resume.

7) Develop a personal "brand" and platform (yes, platform still matters), and use social media regularly but with care. Keep religion and politics out of your online activity unless it is related to your writing. (For instance if you write Christian romance, it's fine to talk about religion—in a respectful way—or if you write about LGBT issues, promoting marriage equality is good. But don't share every far-right or far-left petition that lands in your inbox: you're eliminating half the market.)

8) Know your genre and realize you'll be expected to stick to it. Some authors do write in multiple genres, but fans don't like it when you switch. If you do, you may have to use a pen name and double your platform building.

9) Pay for professionals to edit, design and format your book unless you know how to do these things on a professional level yourself—or find a traditional publisher.

10) Don't try to publish a first novel or a single title in a genre. Have at least two finished and more in the pipeline before you launch a career. Yes, writers have launched careers with a single book, but writing the second one is tough while you're busy promoting the first—just ask Jay Asher, who got a fierce case of writers block after his first YA novel, Thirteen Reasons Why became a #1 NYT Bestseller.

11) Learn the basics of journalism and content writing. Even if you prefer to write fiction, you'll need to write tons of articles, web content, and blogposts. A professional novelist is expected to write lots of nonfiction.

12) Learn something about contract law or have an intellectual property expert on speed dial. (See #8 above.)

13) Know there's no such thing as "overnight success."


But if you don't choose to be a professional, don't let anybody put you down for it. Does a golfer have to join the PGA tour to make playing the game worthwhile?

Maybe we over-value "professionalism" these days.

Consider this quote from Alexandra A. Palmer, who blogs as "The Happy Amateur"

"I want to engage in life as a favorite pastime, not a profession. I want to remain… a novice who is hungry for knowledge and humble at the same time. I want to be a constant devotee and admirer of life. In other words, I want to be an amateur."

Or this from UK businessman Nick Glaves

"Sometimes a happy amateur can get the better of the over-competitive, self-obsessed and grumpy professional."

I fear I'm a grumpy professional sometimes, and there are things I miss about being a happy amateur. But I was an amateur at a time when that meant nobody but a handful of writer friends and the 50 people who subscribed to an obscure literary magazine would read my work. These days, a hobbyist writer can reach a worldwide audience.

And who's to say that Klingon birch-bark canoe novel based on your 'shroom hallucinations won't be the next Pride and Prejudice and Zombies?

That would be some nice gravy.

UPDATE: Jami Gold has written a fantastic post expanding on this subject. She's also made a significant improvement. Instead of using the word "hobbyist", which I got from Hugh Howey, she calls the first path "Artist-Authors" and the second "Professional-Authors". I think the change helps clarify my point, because it avoids the stigma the word "hobby" carries for some people. 


What about you, Scriveners? Are you a grumpy professional or a happy amateur? Or are you a professional who's also having loads of fun?Any other suggestions for people who prefer to keep their amateur status? 

Next Week: The EBUK blokes are back, this time telling us how to "Go Global in 2014". They say this is the year to get your work into the international marketplace. 

Books of the Week

All the Camilla Randall Mysteries are on sale this month! 

No Place Like Home 
99c on Amazon US, Amazon UK, and Amazon CA, and Nook

"A warp-speed, lighthearted comedy-mystery"...Abigail Padgett
"A fun, charming novel about the rich and less so" ...Karen Doering
"A cross of dry British humor and American wackiness, and it all adds up to a fun read." ...Deborah Bayles

The Camilla Randall Mysteries 
Boxed Set: 33c per book!!

99c on Amazon US, NOOK, and now £0.77 on Amazon UK and 99c CDN on Amazon CA . $1.03 on Amazon OZ and 49 rupees on Amazon IN, and the equivalent on all Amazon stores.

"The Best Revenge, Ghost Writers in the Sky and Sherwood Limited are hysterical. Anne Allen will keep you laughing throughout, but in the meantime she dabbles her fingers in some topics worth some serious thought: sexism, weightism, lechery, murder, duplicity, homelessness & poverty to name a few. If you love to laugh, you'll like these three books. If you love to think, ponder AND laugh, be ready to fall in love"... C.S. Perryess

Opportunity Alerts

FREE HOUSES FOR WRITERS.  Yes, you read that right. With its "Write A House" project, the city of Detroit is giving away houses to writers. If you're a promising writer, AND a responsible homeowner (who's handy with tools) and want to be a proud member of the Motor City intelligentia, check out their website for details. Applicants will be asked to submit a writing sample, a resume, and a brief description of why they think they should receive the Write-a-House award. Applications taken starting in Spring 2014.

Dog Lovers! Here's one for you: AMERICAN KENNEL CLUB FICTION WRITING CONTEST NO ENTRY FEE. Submit one short story, maximum 2,000 words. Entries can be on any subject, but must feature a dog. (But it can't talk) Prizes $500, $240, $100. Deadline January 31.

CRAZYHORSE PRIZES IN FICTION, NONFICTION, POETRY $20 fee (includes subscription). This is a biggie, well worth the fee. This venerable literary magazine has published the likes of John Updike, Raymond Carver and Billy Collins. Winners in each category receive $2,000 and publication. Submit up to 25 pages of prose or three poems. All entries considered for publication. Submissions accepted in the month of January only.

2014 BETHLEHEM WRITERS ROUNDTABLE SHORT STORY AWARD $10 ENTRY FEE. Submit 2,000 words or fewer on the theme of "Food Stories". In addition to a $200 prize, the first place winner's story will be considered for print publication in the Bethlehem Writers Group's next anthology or as a featured story in Bethlehem Writers Roundtable. Their last anthology won Indie Book Awards for Best Anthology and Best Short Fiction. Second place will receive $100 + publication in the BWG Writers Roundtable. Deadline January 15th.

Geist Literary Postcard Contest Canada's favourite writing contest is back! Enter now for your chance at literary fame and fortune! How it works: Send a story and a postcard—the relationship can be as strong or as tangential as you like, so long as there is a clear connection between the story and the image. If you’re not sure where to look for a postcard, you can make your own or visit Wikimedia Commons. The story can be fiction or non-fiction; maximum length is 500 words. For a classic example of a postcard story, read "How to Survive in the Woods" or "Death in the Family." Prizes of $500, $250, and $100 CND $20 fee. Deadline February 1st.

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