• Lizzie Newell

Professional versus Amateur

Updated: Mar 20, 2019

The fight is on! The rivalry fierce.

“Dilettante!” jeers the professional from the corner of the ring. “Elitist snob!”

“Hack!” hoots the amateur. “lousy sellout!”

Hold it! Hold it! Hold it right there.

A professional is someone who gets paid for what they do. An amateur works for love. It’s possible to be both. They don't listen.

I’m coming to the defense of the amateur. Too often “amateur” is used as a dirty word, an epitaph meaning shoddy and poorly executed.

Professionals are just as capable of shoddy work, particularly when they cut costs or increase production speed in a drive for more money. This is when they can rightfully be called “hacks,” and receive the justified ire of the amateurs. Amateurs who are lazy or undervalue their work can be just as rightfully be called “dilatants.”

But in a society which sacrifices nearly everything—health, truth, compassion—to the pursuit of money, professionals have the upper hand. I’m rooting for the amateurs. I always liked the underdogs.

On a more serious level, I recently hunted up Maya Deren’s essay, “Profession versus Amateur.” A celebrated filmmaker, she wrote about the freedom conferred by amateur status. She pointed out that “amateur” means one works for love. She wrote it in 1965, well before social media and ebooks, yet her words still ring true. Using minimal equipment and reaching small audiences, amateurs can fearlessly experiment, pushing art in new directions. They have a freedom that professionals can only envy.

This was true in the 1950s and 60s. It’s still true today although it now plays out on the big tech-media stage.

Here’s what’s been going on. In traditional publishing, authors queried purchasing editor, who decided what would be published and paid advanced to the chosen few. If the book didn’t bring in enough to pay costs, the professional retained the money. It worked well for professional authors. The bestsellers subsidized the mid-list. Then along came ebooks and print on demand. Authors no longer had to run begging to the purchasing editors. Authors instead made their books available at a lower price point, undercutting traditional publishers.

The publishers responded by dropping midlist books, the ones which didn’t bring in enough to cover costs. These authors resorted to self-publishing, further dropping unit cost. With the unit cost of books so low, authors increased production, making up for the loss by increasing sales. With so many titles, amateur authors can’t reach an audience unless they embrace professionalism and the strategy of writing and publish books quickly. More glut of titles.

This has gotten so bad that, according to an Author’s Guild study, the average income for authors has plummeted to $6000 per year. Keep in mind that this average includes those very few authors with multimillion-dollar incomes, so the vast majority of authors make less than $6000 per year. With this below poverty income, nearly all authors are amateurs earning their income from day jobs and pensions. If they didn’t work for love they wouldn’t be writing.

I say that we embrace being amateurs and recognize the freedom that such a status affords. With this goal, I joined Wattpad. I believe it’s superior in discoverability and handling of keywords. I recognize that if other authors are making the same choice, money to authors will go down further. This is because Wattpad authors compete by producing work for free, a price point of zero. More glut.

Oddly I’ve noticed that amateur authors are producing some of the highest quality work. I see this in fan-fiction. As rule I don’t follow this genre. I view it as derivative because authors don’t do their own worldbuilding. But at sci-fi cons, some of the best author readings I’ve listened to were fan-fiction. Despite derivative worldbuilding, the handling of language and character was outstanding.

I also see high quality on the amateur publishing website Wattpad, particularly in regards to covers. On professional platforms, covers tend to be photomontage using stock photos, often with the same models and photos on the covers of multiple books. The photomontage looks clunky to me with source photos obviously pasted together. The lighting doesn’t match, and the edges of the images remain distinct. The writing inside often has similar problems. With trope taking from other books and recombined in a way that doesn’t technically violate copyright but still reads as pasted together.

In comparison, the amateur covers on Wattpad have illustrations which look consistent and confidently done. They actually look more professional than the covers used by professional authors. I found out this may be because… they are.

Amateur authors are able to sidestep copyright and so use images which are too expensive for the professional writers. Or they use images which are free or nearly free, underpaying professional photographers and illustrators.

Come to think of it, the fan-fiction writers do the same sort of thing. Producing original work is hard. It's even harder to develop an audience for original work. Even though fan-fiction doesn’t make money, it competes for eyeballs with original work. Fan-fiction authors are sidestepping copyright and exploiting existing audiences developed by authors of original work. Consider the difficulty faced by Steven Spielberg when he produced the first Star Wars movie, J. K Rowling in publishing Harry Potter, or Phillip K Dick when he first published the stories that only later became blockbuster movies. Fan fiction writers don’t have to go through this.

So, we are back to the same boxing ring as the fight continues. This time I’m rooting for the professionals. Or maybe I will shout “Stop it! Just stop it. Professionals, stop sacrificing quality for quantity and money. Amateurs, stop sidestepping copyright. Either pay good illustrators or do the work yourself. All of you, slow down. Do excellent work. Do original work.”

Post developed out of a discussion with author Sara Beeksma.

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