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September 3, 2019

What Makes a Writer a “Real” Author?

Pearl-style necklace with text: Who Decides What's "Real" and What Matters?

Over the years, there have been plenty of arguments about what makes someone a “real” writer or a “real” author. Those who fail the various tests are considered merely “aspiring” — if the tester is feeling generous.

In other cases, those who fail the test-of-the-day might be called worse, like a poser or hack or accused of producing (not creating) garbage or fluff. Impostor syndrome is rampant among writers, and “titles” like those take advantage of our self-doubt.

However, this question doesn’t have to be nearly as complicated as the naysayers—or our negative thoughts—pretend to be case. Let’s look at the question of what makes a writer or author “real” from another perspective.

What Makes Someone a “Real” Writer?

We often differentiate between the titles of writer and author. The term author is usually considered an add-on to the title of writer, so let’s first look at the qualifications to be a writer.

Do you write? Yes? Okay, you’re a writer. *grin*

Think that’s too easy or simplistic? Fine. We could add in some thoughts about a writer being someone who was trying to improve their writing skills and not just typing random things, but really the idea is that we’ve outgrown the “aspiring writer” label.

An aspiring writer is someone who’s just thinking about writing, in a “I think I’d like to write a book someday” kind of way. If we’re beyond that thinking-only stage and have moved on to putting words to a page or screen, we’re not aspiring anymore. We’re doing it. We’re capturing our thoughts and ideas in writing, so therefore we’re a writer.

What Makes It Harder to Define a “Real” Author?

For many in the industry, the simplest definition of an author is someone who’s published — sometimes with the additional qualifier of being paid for their writing. At the very least, the term author refers to whether a writer is sharing their work in a way that can be referenced by others.

What do you think makes someone a “real” author? Click To TweetIf we’re no longer just writing for ourselves, such as in a diary or private journal, then we have readers. Having a readership changes our relationship with our writing, which many point to as a reason for the title change.

However at the same time, the public aspect of publishing means that others are able to see — and judge. And those judgments can include tests of who’s considered a “real” author…and who’s not.

Why Does Published=Author … Sometimes?

Let’s first dig into why publishing is seen as a reason for adding the title of author to our resume…

The easiest aspect to explain is that being published changes how others view us. Being published separates us from others — we’re the author, and they’re the readers. We’re the producer, and they’re the consumers.

But there’s a deeper level to the changes we go through when we’re published. As I mentioned above, publishing and having a readership changes our relationship with our writing.

Once we’ve shared our work and have readers, we might be more professional about it, take it more seriously, or attempt to make money from our efforts. Our goals change from simply writing because we want to capture our thoughts and ideas to those that we no longer have control over, such as having others like our ideas.

As writers, we mostly control whether we meet our goals:

  • Did we make our word count for the week?
  • Did we finish a writing project?
  • Did we learn a new writing skill this month?

Once we publish, we’re still writers, but extra elements come with the addition of the author title.

When we wear our author hat, we don’t have complete control of meeting our goals:

  • Did we get the industry interested in our work (agents, publishers, foreign rights, etc)?
  • Did we get positive feedback from readers in the form of reviews or sales?
  • Did we reach our personal milestones of success as far as readership or sales?

Obviously, there’s a lot of gray area between someone focused simply on the writing and someone who’s published, as we can already be thinking of future readers and actively trying to get published, complete with many of those out-of-our-control goals. Some call this in-between stage pre-published to describe when someone is thinking and acting professionally but they’re not quite published yet.

When Doesn’t Published=Author?

Yet even after we’ve shared our writing and even earned income from it, some still won’t consider us an author. Or even if they’ll begrudgingly allow for author, they won’t consider us a “real” author.

Years ago, I’d pointed out that those of us who blog actually click a button labeled Publish each time we go live with a blog post. Along similar lines, developing our social media presence can include thinking of our audience before we click the button to share our thoughts.

For the vast majority of us, there’s no money in those endeavors. But for a few influencers or blogs with significant advertising traffic or how-to workshops, social media and blogging can lead to income from our writing before we’ve actually published a book.

That’s an extreme example of how there are many ways of looking at what it means to be published. However, even after we’ve published an income-earning book, some will still want to withhold the title of author from us. The problem comes in when some judge us, our writing, or our publishing journey and decide it doesn’t count.

Why Wouldn’t Our Publishing Journey Count?

Over the years, I’ve heard these various excuses for why some authors are more “real” than others:

  • Big Publisher vs. Small Publisher: “Publishing with a small publisher means you weren’t good enough for a “real” publisher, so it doesn’t count.”
  • Print Publisher vs. E-Publisher: “Everyone knows that ebooks aren’t “real” books, so publishers who release only ebooks don’t count.”
  • Literary Fiction vs. Genre Fiction: “Genre stories and genre writing don’t require skills, so they don’t count.”
  • Traditional Publishing vs. Self-Publishing: “Self-publishing means gatekeepers must have rejected you for poor quality, so doing it on your own doesn’t count.”
  • Plotter vs. Pantser: “Writing by the seat of your pants is more luck than skill, so it doesn’t count.”

I’ve been around long enough to remember the first time a book from an e-publisher won one of the RWA’s coveted RITA awards. At the time, the assumption was that e-publishers couldn’t produce quality books, that they didn’t even care about quality. E-books themselves were often seen as “not real books.”

Fast forward a few years, and similar arguments broke out about the assumed quality of self-published books. It’s always about assumptions—their assumptions.

(Currently, some are arguing over whether audiobooks should be considered “real” books, and so on. Some always seem to insist on defining themselves by who or what they exclude. *sigh*)

The Issue with a Romance Publishing Journey

That’s not even touching how the entire genre of romance is often denigrated, even by other genre authors.

If we're published, we're an author, aren't we? What happens when someone judges that our journey doesn't count? Click To TweetVirtually every romance author can share stories of people asking them when they were going to write a “real” book, as though the whole genre doesn’t count to make them qualified for the “real” author title. Or they can share painful examples of family, friends, co-workers, or strangers treating them poorly, with sexual innuendos or accusations of porn, as though writing stories of happily ever after were something to be ashamed of.

Countless—and I do mean countless—articles by those outside the genre of romance somehow keep expressing surprise that romance stories and their authors are intelligent, professional, skilled, and knowledgeable. The latest travesty involves a woman who falsified her interest in writing the genre to win a scholarship to a romance writing conference, just so she could get a free vacation and make fun of the authors she met, even when they were trying to be professional with her.

We get it. Those who sit in judgment have puny imaginations. They therefore can’t possibly imagine how, say, a self-published author of romance ebooks could be professional enough to have their journey count. </sarcasm>

What Matters Is Whether We Respect Our Readers

As with so many situations where people make judgments and assumptions about others, the perspective they use for judging others says more about themselves than about those they’re judging. And in many cases, they’re not just judging the authors, but also the readers.

Some people will always want to find reasons to exclude others, or to make them feel “less than.” But that’s a losing game because there’s always plenty of commonalities between both sides of the dividing line.

I recently saw some of the stream from the finals of a worldwide e-sports tournament (EVO Smash Ultimate). I’m sure plenty roll their eyes at the idea of e-sports being “real” sports (and I might have leaned toward that camp before witnessing the level of competition), but they’re forgetting all the things that e-sports have in common with sports like car racing, where intense focus and quick reflexes that are required for hours at a time are the measurement of success.

Those gamers respected the competition and the tournament regardless of whether any of those e-sports scoffers did. We can say the same about what it takes to be a “real” author. Skills are skills, writing is writing, and reading is reading.

Do we respect our stories? Do we respect our readers? If so—if we try our best to deliver a story that’s worthy of readers and the money we charge—that’s what matters. Just as those gamers delivered a real sports competition, we’re delivering a real story for our readers to enjoy, and that’s what counts.

So if we encounter someone who acts like we’re not a “real” author, think about what that says about them, about what and who they think don’t count or should be excluded and what beliefs they must have to reach that conclusion. And remember that’s it’s probably not about us. *smile*

Have you ever encountered attitudes about whether someone is a “real” writer or author? What assumptions lay behind that attitude? What do you think makes someone a real author? Do you agree or disagree with my perspective of how it comes down to respecting readers? Can you think of other ways to define a real author that doesn’t denigrate others’ journeys?

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Star Ostgard
Star Ostgard

I write fanfiction and published it. Many people don’t consider that “real” writing, so I’m not a “real” writer, and definitely not a “real” author. The fact that I also write original fiction matters not a whit, or that “real” writers/authors also write fanfiction. I’ve also had arguments about the literary/genre crapola, and about what genres are “real” and what aren’t.

I think it really boils down to who is comfortable with their own writing and ‘career path’. If they fell threatened in any way about someone else’s writing or career decisions (or real or perceived ‘success’), they will go out of their way to denigrate that writer without actually attacking them. Patronizing passive/aggressive is so much harder to respond to, of course.

Frankly, I gave up worrying about it long ago. I write, I write well, I work at my writing, I’ve published it, and I’ve got a following, even if it isn’t on social media. I’m happy with what I write and I’m proud of what I write. So the nay-sayers can kiss my binding.

Deborah Makarios

I think of the difference between writer and author as writer = someone who writes, and author = someone who writes books. E.g. a playwright might be a writer but not an author – or they might be both, writing both plays and books (hello, Agatha Christie!).

Whether you are a writer or not depends on intention, I think. Write for maybe only a handful of readers? You’re a writer. Write for yourself? You’re a writer. Write shopping lists only? Maybe not a writer (unless you write them in iambic pentameter, in which case, cool!).

Clare O'Beara

Thanks Jami for saying what a lot of us don’t like to say. We don’t want to give a poor impression of writers like ourselves. I have to think we have all encountered similar attitudes.

Kathleen Day
Kathleen Day

I work at a college library so literary writing trumps genre and, of course, being published by a commercial publisher trumps self-publishing (a cataloger’s nightmare) or not ever being published (me, having completed and submitted 5 novels). So, if I refer to a plot point in my WIP or say “I’m a writer, too,” I get indulgent smiles from other adults. Students are more enthusiastic, amazed I can write anything ‘that long’. Writing remains my ‘secret pleasure’ I don’t often discuss. It’s hard to find a beta reader in my isolated area (no writers’ groups) and one writers’ conference I managed to afford resulted in agents asking me to send them my work then never replying. So, even I don’t consider myself a “real” writer until I get a book contract.

Sieran

Jami, I love the thoughts and ideas in this post! Lmao, yeah I see people talk about “real” writers and “real” authors all the time, and I see this so often that it doesn’t bother me anymore. I feel like most of them are just trolling, lol. Don’t feed the trolls! What concerns me more, are the well-intentioned folks who truly believe that you have to meet certain criteria to be valid and “real”. For instance, you must be published by a traditional publishing house to count. I believe they are speaking out of sheer ignorance, not that their attitudes aren’t hurtful and invalidating, though. For me, yes, if you write, you’re a writer. Yet, I’ve come across some less certain scenarios. What about someone who has written many stories in the past, but hasn’t written anything in years? Are they still a “real” writer? A former/ex-writer? I have a friend who has written and published some short stories and poems, but he hasn’t written anything in years (except for one single blog post!) I consider him to be a writer, especially as he still thinks about potential story ideas. But he does not consider himself to be a writer!! Have you encountered the situation where you think someone is a real writer, yet they themselves don’t think they’re a valid writer? Some also believe that only fiction counts as writing. Nonfiction writing, especially if it’s as informal as a blog post or a fun web article, can be seen…  — Read More »

Matthew Wright

I think the issue comes down to professionalism, which to me involves approaching the field of writing with a sense of abstraction – being able to apply the necessary emotional effort to write well, but not becoming emotionally involved with the content – and ultimately looking at it as a business, requiring business relationships with publishers, bookshops, readers and so forth. This is not to reduce the fact of content: the necessary creativity and artistry required to write well – irrespective, incidentally, of whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. I think the ‘book’, ‘article writing’ and so forth distinction is largely secondary in terms of defining an ‘author’.

What intrigues me is the extent to which the distinction has been weaponised; I’ve been a published author, writing books, articles, papers and so forth professionally for decades. And yet I find a significant sense of snobbery in some sectors, this from people who should know how to better behave, when my work intrudes into a field they regard as exclusively their own. That brings me back, of course, to the definition of ‘professional author’ as someone who has an ability to abstract themselves from emotional engagement with something that, ultimately (and irrespective of what is written) can only be produced through personal passion.

Star Ostgard
Star Ostgard

I disagree if you’re saying that one has to treat writing as a business, as that seems to imply one has to go for publishing in order to be considered an “author”. That kinda goes with your next comment about weaponization of the words. Why should one have to be published to be an author? Or, on extension, does published mean getting paid? What if nothing is published during one’s lifetime, but only after? Or if I take a cast-off story I wrote in grade school, run it through a self-publishing mill, and pop it up on Amazon? Does that make me an author over someone who has written another Pulitzer Prize winner but never tried to publish it at all? So, basically, I don’t think publishing has anything to do with it. Then, of course, I may have misinterpreted your comment altogether. 😉

But I do agree that, at some point, if one decides to publish they must – absolutely must – have the ability to detach from the “writer self” and become the “business self”, particularly if they are going to self-publish. Much different mindset needed once the book is completed.

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