Writers write books (Mistake #70)

Here’s a wise quote from a writer of whom I’d not previously heard, but who contributed a piece for the latest edition of The Author. Her name is Juliet Gardiner. She wrote:

“Writers have never sat at home writing books. What they have done – and continue to do – is sit at home writing manuscripts which will then require a series of processes in order to be turned into a book.”

Gardiner’s article happens to be about speaking at events, and the thrust of her argument is that giving talks is one of the aforementioned processes.

All sound advice, but the point I want to focus on is that those processes exist – that there are intermediary stages, and many of them.

I think most people understand this in a vague way: that you don’t send off your completed masterpiece today and see it printed tomorrow. But newcomers may not understand the work involved – the reading, the editing, the copy editing, the fact checking, the typesetting, the design, the publicity, the marketing, the distribution… it goes on – or the people involved – the editor, another editor, the copy editor, the publicist, the designer… it goes on again.

So, a writer will write a manuscript. Other people step in and get involved with a long list of processes to ensure a version of that manuscript gets printed onto lots of sheets of paper which are bound together into what we call a book. But is it really a book at this point? You could argue not. Books are for buying, reading, rereading and using – they’re not for sitting in warehouses, in boxes or on shelves. As Gardiner suggests, a team, including the writer, must get involved in helping promote and market these products to ensure they are bought and read and used and become, indisputably, books.

You might want to quibble with me about this, but the more I think of it the more I think it’s helpful to think in this way. There’s a follow-on reason. An occasional mistake writers make is to call themselves ‘author’ when they have a few ‘books’ – or book-length manuscripts – on their hard drives or in their lofts. Some go further. The novice writer who wrote to me on headed paper marked ‘Author and Journalist’ before she’d written or published a word sticks in the mind, and unfortunately not in a good way.

To be clear: there is nothing wrong with being aspirational. If publishing books is your goal, great. And if you want to call yourself ‘author’ while you’re working towards that goal, well okay. But I think it’s a mistake. And it’s not because I’m possessive about the term and want to preserve its rarity and therefore its cachet – I’m a writing tutor and advisor, and it’s my job to get you into print if that’s where you want to be. But if you call yourself an author, people will ask you about your books. If you then explain your ‘book’ only lives in your head, attic or C Drive, then they’re going to go ‘Oh, right’ (ordinary people) or ignore you and mark you down as an amateur (editors, agents). Not good, right?

Really, this is a plea to just think about it all differently. Calling yourself an author is an amazing thing, and while it does eventually become dull and insignificant for the most part, it’s something you should earn and reward yourself with once you’ve achieved it. It’s not something you just decide and start doing on a whim or which happens overnight. It takes work, dedication, time and a team of professionals behind you too.

Besides, if you call yourself an author now, how will you give yourself a ‘promotion’ when your book is published and out there being read? Tell people you’re an ‘aspiring author’ by all means – that’s humble and people will warm to you and be interested in you and what you’re doing or thinking of doing. A good place to be. And when you’re approaching agents or editors, you don’t need to call yourself anything: if you’re sending them a proposal or sample chapters, then they know where you want to go.

Comments 8

  • The other day I was thinking about the mindset of ebook-only authors vs those who've been published traditionally.

    I wondered if a lot of the comments I've read, such as "writers shouldn't have to obey antiquated rules," "who made them the gatekeepers?", or "writers no longer have to be dissed by publishers," had their birth in an entitlement generation.

    For the last twenty/thirty years, we've been intent on making students feel good in schools, more than being adept at reading, writing, and math. You didn't win? Here's a trophy anyway. You didn't get a passing grade? You got a happy face because you tried.

    Self-esteem was more important than achievement.

    Lots of us, who weren't coddled as much as kicked, have a different mindset. We expect a certain amount of struggle. We know we need to prove ourselves. I don't think it's a generational or age thing as much as it's simply an attitude difference.

    I didn't expect the bar to be lowered simply because I couldn't crawl over it yet.

  • I disagree with the comment above and the topic about writers writing books. If you write professionally or not, you are a writer. You are not an author, which means you got your work published. So, you can call yourself a writer if you have a pack of unpublished stories or articles in your cupboard.

    Also, I don't think people say: 'I am writing a book.' They say they are writing a novel or a story. Writers are being published through the e-books method and some some these stories are badly written, I agree, but nobody who writes a novel thinks about the process of publishing a book. Real writers want to write that story that is in their heads and that consume them daily. They want it written. They want it done.

    In regards with the comment, getting good grades and passing tests are proof of nothing.They don't demonstrate someone's intelligence or skills. Many people have to take tests in subjects that they have no desire to learn and most of them pass. However, when you fail a subject, but get a word of encouragement it does motivate you to keep going and that is nothing but a good thing.

    I wasn't coddled and had to take and pass 8 A levels. I just resented the fact that I wanted to spend my time studying subjects that mattered and interested me and couldn't. I wasn't keen on Chemistry or Physics and had to do it anyway. Now, I have no use for those subjects and they are not relevant in my professional life. So, I couldn't disagree more with the comment above.

  • @ Karen – Interesting comment and idea, although I can't quite decide whether or not it may be true or not. Perhaps it's a part explanation. The sense of entitlement among many entering (or trying to enter) the business of journalism is something which I've often noticed, and it probably deserves a blogpost of its own… One to ponder – thanks for making me think!

    @ Claudia – Yes, you can call yourself a 'writer' if you write, professionally or not. I've not disputed that – although whether it's a good idea to do so is a different matter, perhaps deserving of a separate post. My point is that it's may be a mistake to think that writers write books – they actually write manuscripts. In my long experience tutoring and interacting with lots of writers many do say 'I am writing a book' – and that's of course fine, though my post questions the wisdom of this. The blog is about non-fiction so I'm not referring to stories and novels. And I don't think Karen's objecting to 'encouragement' – but to easy rewards.

    Thanks both for comments.

  • I have indeed been here writing books, printing them, copyrighting them, and showing them around. This is my hobby stage to surge ahead and get them to a printer. I am registered with ISBN and us copyright.org. It's children's books so the illustration part takes longer. But I slap on the cover, self created saddle stitch and completely hand crafted from cover to cover with love. I have 2 books in 2 years and working on my 3rd and 4th already written but in need of illustrations. I will one day send it on as a manuscript, but self publishing independents have a place too for immediate results.

  • In regards to the coddling of students – this is a real phenomenon in the US. I had a friend 10-12 yrs ago who was getting his BA in education and he was actually taught/told to not fail students if they couldn't write, speak, or for any other reason. It had become the belief in the system that failing or grading down students hurt their self esteem. Somewhere along the line they had lost sight of the true way in which people earn their self esteem. In addition, when he was standing in line to take his teacher's exam, the line next to him was longer and it was for college graduates who had failed their teacher's exam multiple times – and they only had to understand math up to the 8th grade level. Very sad statement on American education.

  • There was an interesting article on this in Writers' Forum (which I happened to be interviewed for). In the article, the question was: when do you call yourself a writer?

    A dictionary definition of a writer is 'someone who writes.'

    The dictionary definition of an author is: 'someone who writes books as a profession.'

    In my opinion, anyone who sits down regularly to write something can call themselves a writer. Calling yourself an author before you've had a book published is perhaps a little premature 😉

  • I agree with Simon – if you write regularly you're a writer no matter what your publication record is. But you're not an author till there's an actual book or magazine article with your name at the top.

  • I think Simon has summarised it nicely, but I still think there are two distinctions to be made: the 'right' to call yourself a writer (and I'd go along with you both on that), and whether to do so is beneficial to you or not, in the eyes of the people who matter (editors).

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