“What’s the difference between a professional and an amateur author? This is a common question, and the answer may vary depending on who you ask. Writers of the Future and other contests often use an “earn-out” method. Once you have earned a certain amount from your stories and books, you’re a pro.
Others will tell you that if you have been paid for your writing, you’re a professional. And in the strict definition of the term, that could be considered accurate. Others will argue that unless you’ve made a profit, getting paid doesn’t matter. Then we can descend into the argument of what constitutes a profit.
The following argument will lean more toward the attitude that you have toward writing. Because I have met many authors who have made some money but still have a very amateurish mindset. I’ve met others who are yet to make a dime but have a very professional attitude toward their craft and the business of writing.
Let’s look in detail at the professional attitude of an author, and how you can get yours.
Time and Schedule
In almost any other profession, you have a work schedule. You go in at a certain time, leave at another, and your breaks may even be scheduled for you. The problem with many writers is that, while you are your own boss, you are a poor manager of yourself. Example:
Manager Me: “What time are you writing today?”
Regular Me: “Sometime after supper.”
M: “What does that mean?”
R: “Well, as soon as the dishes are done, the kids are settled, and everyone else is in the living room watching TV, I will write.”
M: “Won’t you want to watch TV with them?”
R: “Of course I’ll be tempted. But I won’t. As long as they are not finishing Tiger King without me. I can’t miss an episode of that.”
The next thing you know, you are sitting, watching a train wreck of a show you can’t turn away from, and your muse is slowly losing IQ points to battling cat collectors.
The first thing that sets a professional writer apart from an amateur is that they set a writing appointment for themselves, including breaks, and they keep it. Even if that starts as just an hour or less a day, they don’t miss their writing for anything.
Writing is a skill that you will never completely master. There is always something left to learn, skills to hone, and more to discover about the business side of writing. That last one changes all the time, so once you think you have things mastered, you probably don’t.
So professionals go to conferences, not just to speak, but to learn. They attend workshops by other pros, by books, take online classes, attend webinars, join writer mastermind groups, and more. In short, they are always getting more education and constantly learning.
An amateur is someone who often tells me how they can’t afford conferences, never get anything out of them, and don’t need workshops on different areas of their writing because they fell like “they are pretty solid.” Once you feel like you are pretty solid in an area of your writing, you are probably going backward.
A professional never stops learning and will never feel like they have arrived. Almost every pro I know still has doubts about their writing ability in one area or another.
Working with other Professionals
Here is another piece of truth for you. It takes a village to produce a book. You need everyone from editors to book designers to marketing professionals to social media assistants. You know why? Because even if you are an exceptionally talented person who can do all those things yourself, you don’t have time. Your time is better spent writing more.
And here’s another clue. If you think you are an exceptionally talented individual who can do all these things yourself, you probably aren’t. You are probably missing an opportunity to have something better, but also to support other creatives in the things they do.
A professional author usually works with a team of other professionals in order to produce, market, and sell his or her work. An amateur tries to do everything themselves to save money, even if it means sacrificing quality, with the thought that they will “fix it later after they sell more books.”
A Thick Skin
Having a thick skin goes hand in hand with the item above. If you are going to work with other pros, you will need to have a thick skin. First, they will tell you when you are trying to do something yourself and you really suck at it. This is good. You would rather have a professional in your network tell you than a reviewer later on.
Second, you don’t pay editors and others in your network to stroke your ego and tell you everything is good when it isn’t. That is for your friends to do. Your editor is there for one thing, and that is to make your work better. Other professionals are there for the same reason, and they have your best interests in mind.
Professionals have a thick skin, rarely argue with editors or other pros, and have the ability to set aside their egos and look at the draft of their work for what it is: a product they want to sell. An amateur will complain about how their editor does not understand them, is too expensive, and will often balk at any kind of negative feedback.
Professional Author Work Ethic
Above, we mentioned time and schedule. That goes hand in hand with work ethic. Here is where the rubber hits the road. A professional will set a deadline for themselves and stick with it, no matter what. There are all kinds of tricks to doing this, but the pro will work toward a goal tirelessly, and usually by sacrificing things like days off, television watching, or sleep.
On the other hand, an amateur will set very soft deadlines and be perfectly okay with missing them. They often complain that they “don’t have time to write” but will also brag about being up to date on the latest Netflix series, or having beat level 18 on Words with Friends.
It’s not that you can’t do those things, but to be a professional, you need to prioritize writing. Those little amusements come after you’ve met your writing goals.
A professional makes the job of writing a priority and sacrifices other things to make sure they achieve their goals.
Scarcity vs. Abundance
Above I mentioned working with professionals, and that includes other writers. Pros often offer each other blurbs for books or series, swap mentions in newsletters, advertise each other’s books on websites, share posts on social media, and more.
That is because there are plenty of readers out there, and readers consume a lot of books. So there are enough readers for every author. So I am not competing against fellow thriller and mystery authors, but rather they are my colleagues and potential support.
An amateur author will often have a mindset of scarcity, like readers are limited, and they need to keep their readers engaged with their writing and only their writing. Not only is this unrealistic, unless you are writing really, really fast, but it’s completely false.
Readers like variety and they often need more to read than one author can provide. The world is our market, and there are readers out there for everyone.
A professional realizes that there are an abundant number of readers, and they share their influence and expertise with others.
A Business Mindset
I often say the phrase, “You can be as artsy-fartsy about your book when you are writing it, but when it is complete, it is a product you need to sell.” The professional writer immediately identifies with this.
A professional will see writing and publishing for what it is: a business. This is true whether you are self-published or traditionally published. You will be instrumental in marketing your book either way, and whether or not you make a profit is largely on your shoulders.
An amateur will complain about the flooded marketplace or the kind of support their publisher gives them or does not offer, how indie bookstores will not carry their self-published work, some of which is awful, and more. A pro will get to work fixing those things, working with the industry, and learning how to make it work for them.
Being a professional author requires a business mindset and an understanding of the publishing and bookselling industry.
Being an Amateur is Okay
Here’s the thing. Being a professional author is certainly not for everyone. It is difficult and often requires an entrepreneurial hustle that not every author can muster. There is nothing wrong with writing as a hobby because it is something you enjoy, are interested in, and brings you some kind of satisfaction and release.
Too many people try to make a professional career of writing and get frustrated because they find the administrative and business part difficult and stressful. Unfortunately, this is part of being a pro—and it is the least likable part of the job. But it is a necessary part, and you need to be okay with it if you are going to work toward making a living from your words.
The difference between a professional and an amateur author is often more of a function of a mindset than anything else. From your schedule to your education and work ethic, the way you think about your books and the industry can change you from a hobbyist to a pro.
Just remember, once you get to that point, writing is a business, and you’ll have to treat it like one.