What makes you an author?

booksAt what point can you say that you are not just a writer but an author – in other words, makes you an author?

The cut-off point for a writer is easy. If you write then you are a writer. Yet we could hardly say if you “auth” then you are an author.

If you look up “author”, you find that this is someone who has written something. Which suggests that “author” is the past tense of “writer”.

However, if you start asking around, people will tell you an author is someone who has been published. A lot of people (who shall remain nameless) told me that “a proper author” is someone who has been published by a traditional publishing house.

In other words, most people are wrong.

When do you stop being “just a writer” and become “an author”?

This got me thinking. I am a writer because I write and you are a writer if you write. When do we also become authors?

Is there a moment when you can say, from here on out, this is what I am?

I would like to propose the following definition: an author is a writer that has finished writing something.

That is not to say that what you have written is ready to be seen by anyone. I know that 99% of what I write is utter rubbish on the first draft. That’s why we have editors.

The fact of the matter is though, that publication long ago stopped being the defining mark of authors. Today, we all have access to the power to publish. We can publish on blogs, on social media, and with print on demand. The power to publish is ubiquitous and so it makes no sense that this should in any way define the “rank” of a writer.

Publication does not an author make

A self-published author is as legitimately an author as a traditionally published one.

I know for some people that statement will seem controversial but hear me out. Traditional publishing might be a benchmark of quality (most of the time) but that is a far cry from defining what makes someone an author.

From a copyright perspective, the first copyright holder is the creator of the work and that creator is most commonly called “the author of the work”. Somewhere along the line, however, we added a value judgement to the word. It became a rank of distinction. This, I feel, is not helpful.

Now, a professional writer, they probably have a team which may include their publishing house. After all, if the money comes from the art a person writes then it makes sense to have other people run the selling and distribution side of things. For a lot of people, this is the best and most profitable way to do things.

But this is not the only way.

Is it better to be an author or a writer?

Dean Wesley Smith pulls no punches in defining an author as “a person who has written” but a writer “as a person that goes on writing”. I mostly agree but not entirely.

The New World of Publishing: Writer vs. Author

As a way of encouraging authors to keep writing, to keep making art, this might be a reasonable definition. As a way of understanding what any of us means when we use the word, not so much.

Again, hear me out.

My main objection to the elitist use of the word “author” to only mean a certain type of published writer was that it ignored the truth of what an author is. My problem with Dean Wesley Smith’s definition of a writer is that it is the same problem flipped over. Both definitions add a value judgement that is unhelpful.

If writing is your business, your income, then sure – keep writing. After all, a professional is only a professional if they keep doing what they do and get paid. For the rest of us, we should just relax and just enjoy our art.

Having written, it is important to engage in active promotion. Even if your book is traditionally published, the chances are that the level of promotion is not likely to be groundbreaking. We talked before about the very limited income prospects of writers. Yes, your next book is a great way to promote your existing books but that alone is not going to be enough.

On the other hand, if all you do is marketing then you are no longer even a writer – you are a salesman. Unless that appeals to you, I suggest you avoid it.

If writing is your art then engage with your art. Keep doing the thing that you do.

When to call yourself an author?

This leads back to the question – when should we call ourselves an author and why does it matter?

For many of us, simply owning the title of “writer” is hard enough. Anything more can feel like putting on airs.

As artists that use words, the meaning of words is something we may be prone to contemplate, and that is fine. There are some words though, that are simply powerful tools for selling our art. “Author” happens to be one of those words.

The truth is, for those of us who wish to sell our art, what we call ourselves matters. Mostly because, as we saw earlier people have come to see authors as a particular class of writer. The very title suggests a degree of quality that “writer of long stories in a book” does not quite capture. In other words, this is a marketing term and you should use it as such.

I would suggest the following test. When, and only when, you can complete this sentence are you an author: “[Your Name] is the author of [Your Work].”

If you have ideas of being traditionally published or making your living from writing, then I suggest your name and the word “author” need to get together as soon as possible in the public mind. I would suggest that you practice introducing yourself as such. Even if you prefix the word with “developing-” or add after “- in training”.

At the end of the day, this title is as much about marketing as it is about getting things written. Assuming that you have the getting things finished well in hand, it might be time to start the drip-drip-drip process of rebranding yourself as an author.

Yes, that means thinking about Twitter accounts, Facebook pages, blogs (we can help with that), and online profiles. Yes, that means learning about press releases and making friends with local reporters. But it also means making sure you protect your writing time too. After all, authors are writers too.

Over to you

  • What’s your take on this?
  • When does a writer become an author?
  • Do you agree with my take on things?

Let me know your opinion in the comments.


About Matthew Brown

Matthew is a writer and Geek from Kent (UK). He is the founder and current chair of Thanet Creative as well as head geek for Author Buzz. His ambitions include appearing on TableTop with Wil Wheaton and seeing a film or TV series based on something he wrote.

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