Today I’m honored to have as a guest blogger Annie Neugebauer, who has authored short stories, novels, and award-winning poetry. She shares with her blog readers wisdom, thoughtfulness, and more than a bit of whimsy. Enjoy!
Aspiring. Writer. Author. Indie. Poet. Literary. Commercial. Vanity press. Award-winning.
If you’re in the book industry, you probably have opinions (or at least questions) about terms like these and when they are “correctly” applied. In fact, some of them are so prickly that people have come up with entirely new terms, like “word mongerer” and “story crafter” just to avoid using them. I’m not naming any names, but I have seen Twitter brawls break out over the use of “aspiring.”
So what are the answers? Are there hard and fast definitions? Qualifiers?
No, of course not. People will always disagree. But I do think there are logical distinctions between many of these words, and I’m here to offer a guide for your general consumption. Do with it what you will.
If you write, you can call yourself a writer. This is not an elitist club.
If you write, you don’t need the “aspiring.” This is a term best used for very casual hobbyists who would like to write more often, or interested parties who would like to get around to writing someday. And those people probably aren’t reading this blog.
Now here’s where people might start throwing tom-ay-toes. (Or tom-ah-toes, depending on your point of view.) I believe that “author” should and does carry the connotation of “published.” The mode of publishing is irrelevant. (I do get into some of those terms below.) If you’ve had your work published for the world to see, you’re an author. What counts as “published” is a matter you must settle for yourself.
Now this is a tricky one. According to the definition of “author” above, this term means “writer who aspires to be published.” But considering that every writer I’ve ever known would like to be published someday, I think this is a given. Thus, I vote that we veto this term and replace it with “writer,” which sounds more confident and implies the same goals.
Novelist, Poet, Memoirist, Playwright, etc.
These words are types of medium, not qualifiers. Like “writer,” you don’t have to earn them in blood or contracts. If you write novels, you’re a novelist. If you write poetry, you’re a poet. And so on.
Indie, Self-pub, Trad-pub, Vanity press
“Indie” originally stood for “independent press,” often called “small presses.” “Indie” has also come to stand for “independent author,” also known as “self-published.” One phrase for two totally different things is confusing at best, but that’s the way it is. Both parties seem unwilling to give up the title, and really, who’s going to make them?
The clearest-cut difference between these four terms is payment. Authors who go through traditional publishers or independent presses usually get paid an advance that they then earn out through book sales. These authors keep their advance regardless of the success of their book. Authors who self-publish or use vanity presses put their own money up-front to cover printing costs, and only get “paid back” if their book makes money.
With the swiftly changing book market, there are options in-between all of these. I think, as with so many of these terms, you must choose the term that feels the most honest for yourself and your situation. Accusing others of misuse is not helpful.
Commercial, Literary, Upmarket
Is it just me, or are these getting pricklier and pricklier? I have a whole blog post dedicated to answering the question, “What is literary fiction?” My theory is that literary fiction is actually three separate things: a genre, a style, and a qualifier. Others, including AgentQuery.com, define literary fiction as solely a genre, although even they use “quality” as a guideline, and as we all know, quality is subjective.
But regardless of what you think is true, there is no secret guild to certify the term. So what’s a writer to do? Well, I suggest doing your research: read, study, and familiarize yourself with generally agreed upon literary fiction. If you are familiar with it and confident that your own work belongs under that term, then Godspeed.
The same is true of “commercial fiction.” If you can easily define your work as one of the “genres,” such as mystery, romance, sci-fi, horror, fantasy, etc., you probably fall under this term. But again, you should do your research and then use the word that feels right to you.
If you truly believe you are both literary and commercial, I suggest looking into the term “upmarket fiction,” which is a blending of the two. Writer’s Digest talks about that here.
Scholar, Expert, Professional
These are interesting terms to throw in the mix. What makes someone a scholar? I would argue, based on the root word schol, which means (you guessed it) school, that a scholar is necessarily a student and/or teacher. So can someone incredibly knowledgeable about something be a scholar if they aren’t involved with school? I would say no. They could be an expert. But unless an expert has studied, taught, or written scholastic works, I wouldn’t consider them a scholar.
An expert, on the other hand, is someone so knowledgeable about a specific subject that others (preferably strangers) come to him/her for that knowledge. A professional, in any field, is someone who is paid for their work. So you can be a professional scholar, a scholarly expert, or even a professional expert (yes, really). Mix and match!
This is a squeazy one. (Yes, I made up that word.) Technically, if you have ever won any award for any writing, you are an “award-winning writer.” But considering how easy it can be to win small, local contests… I’m not sure I’m very impressed by this term.
Are you lying if you call yourself an award-winning poet if you’ve won a school contest that had 12 entrants? No, technically you are not. But let’s be honest; if everyone uses this phrase haphazardly, it means nothing to all of us. So I propose that we all save this term for A) large-scale awards, such as those on a state, national, or international level, and B) that you wait to use it until you have three or more such awards under your belt. This, of course, is somewhat arbitrary, but no one likes a fluffed-up resume.
However, if you only have one or two awards and are really proud of them, why not list them specifically? This often sounds more credible anyway.
Finally, a clear-cut one! If you’re in the top 10, no… 25. No, 50. Yeah. If you’re in the top 50 sellers on the New York Times Best Sellers list… or also the Barnes & Noble list. And maybe USA Today…
Okay, forget it. Call yourself what you want. If you believe you’re being truthful, go with it. How about that? Let’s all be as honest as we can be, and give everyone else the benefit of the doubt that they’re doing the same.
I imagine that there will always be an ongoing debate over writing terminology. But hopefully laying it all out like this will facilitate calm, logical discussion, and perhaps give you a place to start.
That’s my take on it, anyway. What’s yours?