Following is a revised and expanded version of something I wrote in the comments section of yesterday's post:
"Professional" is how one group of writers attempts to distance themselves from another group of writers, and each group of writers manipulates their definition to ensure that they are "professional."
One thing that amuses me is when writers of one genre, having little experience with common practices in another genre, define "professional" in such a way that professionals in the other genre are excluded from the definition of "professional."
Here are some rather general guidelines to determine whether or not a publication is professional:
1) How much does it pay?
For purposes of obtaining active membership (membership with full voting privileges) HWA and SFWA require short story sales to publications that pay no less than 5-cents/word. MWA and PWA are less rigid. My understanding, which may be incorrect, is that RWA considers only sales of novels as a qualification for active membership.
2) Is the editor of the publication paid?
A professional publication pays its staff. Usually. Some literary magazines are staffed by volunteers and underwritten by a university or a non-profit organization.
3) Does the contract indicate understanding of copyright law?
A professional publication offers a contract or letter of agreement that clearly indicates that they understand copyright law.
Why e-zines aren't generally considered "professional":
1) They don't pay or they pay only a token amount. A few science fiction e-zines do pay "professional" rates, but writers in other genres are unaware of them and therefore tar all e-zines with the same negative brush.
2) Few e-zines have paid staff because the e-zines don't generate enough income. Many e-zines are supported by the editor/publisher's day job. Professional publications aren't usually supported by the editor/publisher's day job. They ARE the editor/publisher's day job.
3) Far too many e-zine editor/publishers indicate a complete lack of knowledge about copyright law in their guidelines. For example, their guidelines say things such as "all rights belong to the individual contributors" or "all rights return to the writers after six months" or some other nonsensical statement.
Here are some rather general guidelines to determine whether or not a writer is professional:
1) How much does she get paid?
Some organizations consider any amount of money received below a certain threshhold--for HWA and SFWA that threshhold is 5-cents/word for short fiction; for MWA it's $25/story--to be below professional level and that a writer who accepts less than "professional" pay is, therefore, not a "professional."
2) Does she pay self-employment tax on her earnings from writing?
A professional writer is, in fact, self-employed. She keeps accurate records and reports her income from writing and expenses related to writing to the IRS and, when she shows a profit for the year, pays taxes on her income.
3) What portion of her income is generated by writing?
A professional writer generates a significant portion of her annual income from writing or, by some definitions, by writing and writing-related activities (editing anthologies, lecturing, mentoring, etc.). What constitutes "significant" varies.
4) What does she write/where has she been published?
I have met many novelists who seem to believe that what separates "professional" writers from all other writers is the publication of a novel, especially if the novel is published by a "New York publishing company." Some writers believe that only ink-on-paper constitutes "professional" publication, ignoring audio, electronic, and other forms of publication.
5) What is her education?
Having a degree (B.A., M.A., M.F.A.) in professional writing, creative writing, journalism, or a similar subject is a plus, though a degree alone is usually insufficient.
6) What awards has she received?
Remember, awards from "my" organization are more professional than awards from "your" organization.
7) Does she pay to have her work published?
Vanity publication, self-publishing, or starting a company that publishes the publisher's writing in addition to that of other people is considered unprofessional. Except when it isn't.
I might could go on, but no matter how we try to differentiate between "professional" and non-professional writers, it usually comes down to a discussion of "us" versus "them," and we always want to be part of "us."
Didn't Pogo say, "We have met the enemy and he is us"?
Perhaps we should spend more time thinking about what it means to be "them." After all, someday they might be "us" and we will be "them"--stuck on the outside looking in because we no longer fit the definition of "professional."