Some of the boards I visit were having a discussion of how one defines a “professional” writer, and to be honest, I was shocked by some of what I saw. After weighing in, in a deliberate and careful fashion, I decided to elaborate here, where my comments will not be perceived as aimed at any one person (not that my other comments were), and were if I start to lose my cool, at least the only moderator is me.
To state my qualifications, I have been in this business since 1973. That’s when I submitted my first story, and by some measure, when I became “professional.” I was not “a professional,” by any means, but that was when I began to act like one. I was submitting stories to professional (i.e., someone paid to buy them) venues, hoping to be paid myself. (This went on for a depressingly long time.) I have now sold well over a dozen stories and qualify as an Active Member of the SFWA. So “I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now.”
There is a belief that being “professional” is defined by how much money one makes as a writer. (SFWA demands a certain level of remuneration, and some call achieving that level “professional.” I have no problem with that so long as it is limited to SFWA qualification.) I believe that if one consistently pursues a writing career for pay, and one has made money in that pursuit, then one is a professional writer. It doesn’t matter if you’ve only made $30 in your career (as I made on my first sale), and it doesn’t matter if you’ve only sold one story in the last five years. If you’ve reached that point even once, and you’re trying your best to get there again, you are a professional writer and I salute you. And if someone says you’re not, I will (metaphorically) ask him to step outside.
There are recognized “professions” where one achieves such rank after passing certain tests, e.g., doctors, lawyers, contractors. There are no such tests in writing. That’s because there are no set classes, no degrees or diplomas or certificates. It makes getting there harder for us, and harder to see it when we have it.
Being professional is more than making money; it’s acting like a professional. If a you’re yelling at your agent, missing your deadlines, and walking out of autograph sessions, you may be a pro, but you’re not “professional.” If you send out a story a month with a quick cover letter, follow markets, and dress like an adult at conventions, you may be an amateur, but you’re being professional.
It’s not about the money. Sure, without a paid sale you’ll never be “a pro,” but you can act like one, and you can be professional, without a sale to your name. And when you get that sale–which you will, and believe me when I say I know–you will find that the people who treat you as a professional…why, those are the “pro’s.”