Monday, June 18, 2012

The New Definition of Author

Said it before and I'll say it again; anybody can write a book.

What follows when I say/write this somewhere is something like, "No, I couldn't," or, "Maybe, but not just anybody can write a good book."  Fair enough, but if you can put together a few thousand words, you can call it a book, put it up on and others as a legitimate publication, and sell it.

Because of that, we have to re-define author.

Authors, to many of us (I'm guessing, as I often do), are or were a group of people who had incredible writing skills.  They were unique, and considered very creative, artistic, and intelligent.  If they had a recognizable name, they were easily made into living (or dead) legends as soon as we learned about them.  Maybe it had something to do with our English teachers and their constant references and teachings of the great names.  Maybe it was an academic crush we had after reading one author or another.  Somehow, the term "author" had a very regal air about it.  It sounded like its own lottery victory--something like a knight or a Samurai.  Author.

Now, we new-age "authors" have to be honest about who we are.  If anybody can get a book out there, put before millions of people if they have the connections, advertising money, or just luck (anything other than a fantastic gift in their craft), we can't let the new term stain the old term.

The new author can be anybody.  Literally.  Anybody CAN write a book.  You don't see bands and musicians that perform local gigs being dangled in front of hungry listeners in fifty different countries unless they market it as such.  A sculptor, painter, or artist of any type typically has to break through some huge barriers to get any significant sales.  But not an author.  An author can put together something, get it before millions, and start making some money with no advertising dollars, no agent, no editor, no lawyer, no label, no imprint--nothing.  An author needs nothing but the will to write and publish his own work in order to be an author.

Of the other authors I talk to, with the exception of a couple, very few are having any illusions about the new definition of author.  They know that it doesn't take what it used to take.  Sure, some of the greatest writers of all-time have been self-published because no formal house would take them, and thanks be to the Gods of Words that they did.  And of these new authors, stars will emerge.  But never before has the entry cost been so low, and the potential payoff so high for a writer.  Never before has enough time in a day existed for somebody to risk the long, tedious process of putting down words at novel-length, (especially considering the initial investments before typewriters of type-setting them, presenting them to a publisher or agent, and then waiting sometimes months or years to hear if you had anything worth publishing) because they had more free time--didn't have to work on the farm sixteen hours a day, or the railroad, or the lumber mill.  Now, even full-time employees find time during their days to write and send it to themselves through e-mail, or jot it down somewhere on a break, then they have evenings and weekends.  Never before has it been so easy to call one's self an author.

The good news is that most of us know this.

Most of us, I think, are very respectful of what our more traditional heroes did to get their stories into print.  We are not them.  We are the new authors.

What does that mean to you as a reader?  Nothing, really.  Means you are going to have a LOT more to choose from, but you'll have to develop an eye for quality work or at least work that you enjoy (formatting problems and typos are on the rise, for some reason, even among big names).  You'll have to learn to have that discriminative eye to save yourself time from investing your precious reading time into a book you won't enjoy.  For writers, that means that you should have no illusions about how important you are just because you put a bunch of words on paper.  For one thing, no matter how good you write, you're nothing without readers.  Secondly, most of us do not write for fame or money and wouldn't mind being nothing--most of us would write if we were the last human on Earth and had no audience.  It's just a necessity.  Most of us, articulate or not, do not know why.  We just need to write.

To my reader friends, this writer is asking for your patience.  Yes, we're flooding you with new choices in reading now, and most of us cannot afford to vet our stories to the degree some household name in writing could--with the many levels of edits and re-working and teams of beta-readers and professional critiques.  We just want to tell our stories.  That means that, yes, we're going to put out some sub-standard work as a group.  The bar has been set high--it is now being lowered by volume of works produced and the trade-off of relaxed restrictions for more variety.  We want to keep the bar high but we are really nothing more, when compared to the traditional author, than a fruit-stand on the side of the road compared to a major grocer.  Our stuff might be great, and less filtered and more pure than the stuff you get through the grocer, but who is running our quality control?  Who is making sure we comply with FDA standards?  From which seller are you more confident buying from?

That's the struggle for us, while having to think (and discriminate) more is the burden for the reader.

In any case, I encourage readers and authors to share in that public discourse that defines what an author is in 2012 and beyond.  All that has happened is that the entire show has changed to open-mic night.  I think it's important that new authors aren't believing in something that isn't true and that readers aren't believing that the word "author" means what it used to.

In summary, I guess I could say that the new author cannot carry by default what his traditional counterparts carried in status and esteem.  That still must be earned, in any field.  What we can offer is a fruit stand, and we can tell you how pure our fruit is, and we can talk about how we grew it and how enjoyable it will be, and we can sell it for less than the grocer.  Everything involved, to a reader and author, is still a risk, but it's not an incredibly important risk.  Try something new, hone your skills for separating bad writing from good writing in the early going, and let's move some fruit!


  1. Yes, there are more "authors" now, thanks to indie publishing, e-books, etc., and most of them aren't that great. But, all authors have had to prove themselves when they first started out, although the competition wasn't so heavy many years ago. I'm finding today some of the most popular authors aren't getting the proper editing, even though they are published by well known publishers. The same criticism that is made of self-published authors can be made of traditionally published authors when this occurs.
    One can read only so many books. The good writers, who can not only write, but tell a story, will rise to the top. There are just many more to sift through now.

  2. Well put. I tried to encapsulate that as well in the 5th-to-last paragraph, saying that typos and formatting issues are on the rise, even with the big names. That, in a sense, is a partial equalizer; it gives the new, self-published writer a rise of sorts, but in general, the leg-work it took for an author pre-2000 compared to the required leg-work today to get published was a bare-footed Iditarod through publishing mine fields.

  3. I love the fact that it is easier to become an author in the 21st century because it puts into the hands of readers a broad array of theory, ideas and imagination in rapid fashion as compared to decades past. The legendary authors of extraordinary literature of the past will always remain as the inspiration and teachers of authors today who aim for similar success but to be called an author of any genre or author in general is an admirable accomplishment. That title alone, whether one's book is self published, short, long, boring to some or inspiring to many is shared by the likes of Earnest Hemingway and Barrack Obama and today's advancments in publishing ability has allowed even the average "Joe" to achieve that.

  4. Couldn't have said it better, Eric; can't wait for your books to start rolling out (warning, it's addictive; once you write one, you don't want to stop!).