Tuesday, June 30, 2009

What constitutes "professional"?

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."


Graham Powell said...

When it comes to professional organizations such as the MWA, we have to remember that they aren't fraternal societies or fan clubs - they're there to look out for the interests of professional writers.

Though actually I think the MWA sets the bar pretty low. I suspect that one sale to AHMM or EQMM would qualify.

Michael Bracken said...

I don't think the organizations exist to look out for the interests of professional writers; I think they exist to look out for the interests of members. Though there may be much overlap, the two groups are not identical.

For example, a few years ago MWA shifted its focus and put more emphasis on serving the needs of novelists, giving short story writers short shrift. At the time one board member suggested that if short story writers didn't like it, they could form their own organization.

Um, excuse me, the organization is the Mystery WRITERS of America, not the Mystery NOVELISTS of America. It bothered me then and it bothers me now.

On the other hand, MWA does set the bar low for short story writers to join as active members. MWA requires a total of $200 in earnings from short story sales, but doesn't count any sale that resulted in payment of less than $25. A single sale to a publication with a reasonable pay rate should be sufficient to meet the membership requirement (and it doesn't have to be to AHMM or EQMM; there are other publications that use crime fiction).

HWA and SFWA set the bar higher for short story writers. Unless they've changed their requirements since the last time I looked, each requires a minimum of three sales to publications that pay no less than 5-cents/word.

Every organization does need to establish membership requirements or else what's the value of membership?

But, failing to meet a particular organization's membership requirements does not automatically mean a writer isn't professional. It just means she didn't qualify for membership.

Graham Powell said...

It just means she didn't qualify for membership.

Yeah, well, that's what I meant. I actually thought the short-story threshold was set at $100, which is why I picked AHMM and EQMM - a story of reasonable length in those pubs should pay more than that.

Although I don't know what their current word rates are, so (as always) I could be wrong.

Kevin R. Tipple said...

Too many groups and orginizations as well as employers throw around the buzz word of "professional" and need to stop.

This professional nonsense extends into the reviewing world as well. I get it from all sides because of my review work as well as the fact that I haven't made any magical threshold to prove being a "professional" under some arbitrary standard. Consistently working hard and trying to churn out quality doesn't seem to fit any groups definition of "professional" except my own.