"Professional Author" in the Era of Ebooks
I've been reading the Dean Wesley Smith and Joe Konrath's blogs quite a lot lately. Both of them have (to varying degrees of severity) expounded on how publishers just don't "get" the new media, and are not making the appropriate changes for the times. We're already seeing the results of that, with hundreds of authors eschewing publishers and agents and self-publishing direct to ebook instead. And the trend could accelerate, with Amazon now predicting that ebooks will outsell paperbacks by the end of 2011. Publishers are having trouble with the changes, scrambling to catch up. Agents are on the verge of making the endangered species list. But it seems to me that authors are not all making the transition very well, either. Perhaps nowhere is that more clear than in writers' "professional organizations". Last night, sparked by an idea, I cruised around a few of the websites for these organizations. The published policy for the Authors Guild, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association, and Novelists Inc. all stated about the same thing:
Not published by a traditional publisher with a substantial advance and royalty setup? Don't bother applying for membership here.
I had to shake my head at this a little. You'd think that writers, at least, would be more on the ball.
Until fairly recently of course, that all made sense. A professional writing credential was one where people paid you money - either a lump sum for a short work, or a lump advance and royalty for longer ones. There have always been vanity publishers who would print an author's work for a fee. Those have never been considered professional writing credits, and I think that's a valid argument (although there are probably viable exceptions among vanity press authors, as well). But with e-publishing, everything has changed.
The SFWA specifically excludes self-publishing from being allowed to qualify an author for membership. Now, let's ask this: which work is more professional, the new author who publishes through a traditional house, sees $4000 in advances, has a 5000 copy print run which sells 3000 copies? Or the author who puts their work up on Kindle, and over the next year sells 10,000 copies of their work with a net profit of $20,000? Money aside, I would suggest that the book that is three times as popular with readers is probably the writer you want as a member.
It's not even that hard a change to make. Simply set minimum standards of ebook sales (either number of books sold, money earned, or some combination of the two), and the author who wants to join under ebook self-pub must be able to show evidence of having passed those standards. But none of the organizations I listed have done this. I'm a bit surprised at the SFWA, to be honest - with John Scalzi at the helm, I figured the SFWA would be moving on this already. And...maybe they are. Maybe this whole thing is just hurtling along faster than they had thought it would, and they're trying but haven't caught up. Maybe they've already even "exempted" in a few authors for e-self-pub works. But the site still doesn't show that they're aware it's a problem now, and is going to be a bigger one in the future.
In the long run, I'm not that wrapped up in this issue. Interested and mildly amused (writers of the future, caught "fighting the last war"?), yes. For myself (planning to self-pub to ebook next month), my plans may not win me membership in these sorts of organizations, but that's not really on my agenda. If I am making good sales (income) and reaching lots of readers (entertaining with good work) then I'll be happy. My own sense of legitimacy comes from "do people like reading what I write?", not from joining a writer's club, regardless how well known it is. And I think a lot of the new generation of writers that I belong to feel the same way.
Besides, when I think about it - any organization that doesn't change is signing its own death warrant. Or at least, its own statement of obsolescence. If the old communities don't keep up, the people riding the wave will found their own groups that do.