This week, authors J Thorn and Crys Cain question what it means to be a pro author, and does it matter? This is a question that creatives struggle with constantly. Can I call myself an author? Do I “count”?
Crys: Welcome to the TASM podcast. I’m Crys Cain with my cohost J Thorn.
J: Hey, how you doing there, Crys?
Crys: I’m doing fabulous. I’m wearing a tiara. And that is just the epitome of life right now. I told J before we got on that yesterday was my birthday. What my son got me for my birthday was princess or queen tiara.
So I’ve been wearing it basically ever since. Yeah.
J: You’re not taking it off anytime soon.
Crys: No. I think there’d be a riot.
J: You look very regal today.
Crys: Thank you. So how’s your week been/ for once we’re recording two weeks in a row this summer.
J: I know. Summer of chaos. Yeah. I, it’s September.
Early September. Not that early, as we recording this, but there’s a little hint of fall in the air here in the Northeast, in the Midwest. And my summer of chaos I think is rapidly winding down. There’s hopefully as far as I know, there’s no more chaos planned.
So I think for me, I’m gonna, I’m going to head into the Fall of Tranquility. That’s I’m going to talk myself into that. I don’t know what your fall looks like, but that’s where I’m headed.
Crys: That sounds like a book title, and it doesn’t sound like a good thing. The fall of tranquility.
J: It should be autumn of tranquility.
Crys: There you go. So you’ve been in your new place, what? Two, three weeks now?
J: About two weeks. Yeah.
Crys: How has been reestablishing or recreating schedules going for you or routines and systems?
J: It’s been wonderful. There’ve been some changes. So my son who graduated is now in Portland and he used to drive my daughter, who’s a sophomore, to school or they would drive to school every day. So there’s been a little readjustment on shifting around, getting Brennan to school and who’s picking her up.
The apartment is much smaller and it’s on a single level and I’m just loving that. Like it’s, I know you’ve had that experience, especially knowing what your living history has been, but like decluttering and then moving down.
So like now I’m like two steps from the kitchen and I’m two steps from the bathroom and I don’t have steps to climb. And after 15 years in a family sized house it’s a nice change. I’m really enjoying it.
Crys: Does that affect your focus at all? Or because everybody’s out of the house. It’s not a big deal.
J: Yeah. That’s the thing. Everyone’s out of the house and even when they’re not it’s just my wife and my daughter, who’s 16 and neither of them really need me or want me around all that much. Yeah, even when they are home it’s not really that bad. Saturdays are a little tricky cause I like to get up.
Like Saturday is just another day for me, but it’s the weekend for those two. So that’s that takes a little bit more of an adjustment but on the whole no it, it seems to be going pretty well.
Crys: Yeah. I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last couple of weeks as we were in a family house last week, and then the last couple of nights we’ve been in Vegas because I had recordings to do. And one of the changes I had to make to my schedule because being in a van does not allow for three humans to be in a van while one is recording podcasts. So we’ve been staying in hotels generally over a weekend because I have recordings on Saturdays.
And wondering if we are going to continue this for another, we’ve got this going on for another two months about for sure, month and a half, but then if we continue to drive down to Costa Rica, which is another month or two… it has definitely negatively impacted my ability to set aside specific time to work. Because there’s nowhere for me to have a visual barrier that says, okay this is my space and it’s closed.
Even if I would get up before the kid and start working, if there was a visual barrier, I could keep working if he got up and woke up Priscilla, but we don’t have that. So he sees mommy, he wants mommy. I do not yet know how I am going to deal with this long-term.
Right now, I’m trying to see if I can work things in the bits and crevices. I haven’t been very good at that, but we’ve also been in like crazy national parks mode, which is not something we’ll have on the east coast.
National parks are insane. I just never could have comprehended the scope of them before. I’d never been to one before this trip. So that’s been great and wild.
But I’m definitely looking at the next couple of months with an apprehension I have not felt up to this point. Like, the energy and like optimism is winding down, still very energetic and optimistic, but the intensity is winding down, and I’m like, okay, now things are going to get real here.
Cause we do still have to make money.
J: And that’s legit. I think being in that situation with three adults would be challenging given the age of Smalls like that. I don’t know if there is a solution to that. I think it’s fair to say that young children require different things from Mom and Dad when there’s a two parent household.
Even as a dad, I felt like there were just moments I just had to give up. There was just no way I could be a dad and still do this thing. And having you with Smalls right there? Yeah, I don’t… that’s tough. I’m not sure how you’re going to get around that.
Crys: One thing that we’ve considered, I’ll talk about this more as things progress and I figure stuff out, is doing longer stays at hotels or once we get down south Airbnbs will be much cheaper once we get below the US border. So I’ll actually have a room and I can put in two or three days of really intense work, and then we move on and do days where I don’t work kind of thing, but I don’t know yet.
J: Yeah, you’ll figure it out though. I know you will.
Crys: Yeah, we’ll get there.
So my question today, I’m pertains to all this conversation we’re having about what our lives look right now. And that is one that we are asked often when we’ve talked about it in, in different ways.
But I wanted to ask this very directly and that is: what makes a writer a pro? And a secondary question: does it matter?
J: This is such a loaded question. I feel like someone’s feelings are going to get hurt here at some point. I think we just didn’t need to acknowledge that. Let’s start with the first part.
How do you define a professional writer?
Crys: I guess I’d have to ask, how do you define a professional to start? If we want to take some of the emotion out of it, how do you define a professional banker?
J: Yeah this might sound crass. But I’ve always thought a professional, someone who gets paid to do something. Like it’s that’s simple to me.
I don’t know. Maybe I’m oversimplifying it.
Crys: I think I agree with that. You don’t have to get paid for everything. Cause there are plenty of pros who do pro bono work, but there they do get paid for it and that is why they’re able to do pro bono in some way?
J: And it doesn’t always have to be money.
Like the currency can change, but there’s some compensation for the work that’s being done.
Crys: Yeah. I think I’d agree with that.
J: Okay. Okay.
Crys: So we have a definition.
J: Yeah. So here’s where it gets interesting though. If you are, let’s say you submit a short story piece and you’re paid for it and that’s the only payment you’ve received for your writing.
Are you a professional writer?
Crys: Now… I’m not going to answer this directly. Not yet.
But the short story, like the short stories is also what popped immediately into my mind because traditionally 10, 20 years ago, and it still exists to some extent, but indie publishing has just the kind of blasted old definitions of the water.
Traditionally, it used to be that there were certain pay rates that were defined semi-pro. Specifically for short stories. And that used to be a way that people could say “I get paid pro rates, therefore I’m a pro.”
I don’t think that actually is relevant anymore, because we have so much more control over our intellectual property that there isn’t just one path to publish it. We have far more ability to piece out our IP into different licensing if we so desire, and just writing it and getting paid by a publisher is not how we get to find it.
J: I would agree with that
Crys: Now I’ve forgotten your original question.
J: As I’m hearing you talk, I’m almost thinking like, I think we just punt, like we just move on from this, because I think it’s the second half of that question that really matters, which is: does it matter?
I’ll give a perfect example. You and I are different in this regard. I can’t live on my fiction. Royalties. Am I professionally?
Crys: Yeah, I would say absolutely.
J: There’s a very valid argument for someone saying I’m not like maybe I’m an entrepreneur, maybe I’m a small business owner.
Maybe I’m not a professional writer.
I’m using myself as an example because I think what I’m trying to get to is: I’m not sure that label matters anymore.
Crys: Yeah, I would agree, but it is something that a lot of people really struggle with as far as identifying themselves just as a writer. When they want to say “I’m a writer,” what they often mean is that invisible pro in front of it. And I also don’t think that matters.
Now, I think you can say you’re a writer, even if you’re not making money off of what you’re writing– that doesn’t make you not a writer. But it doesn’t matter if you’re pro or not.
J: I think too, we get into a bit of a semantics here, but I also always thought about it: what is my primary daily activity? What am I doing?
If I’m a brick layer and for 60 hours a week, I lay bricks and I sell one short story. Does that make me a professional writer? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not, but like the majority of my time is not spent writing.
Whereas in my case where I’m saying like, I can’t live on my fiction, but if you zoomed in and you looked at what I did on a day to day basis, 90% of that’s writing. It’s writing emails, it’s writing blog posts, it’s writing fiction. It’s writing non-fiction.
So in that case like I can, I feel comfortable calling myself a professional writer, but I don’t really think it matters. Like I think if you can support yourself doing the primary activity that you’re doing, I think you can call yourself a pro for that activity.
Crys: I like that you brought up the other writing activities you do, because I would say copywriters are also writers. And so “writer” is a bigger group than those of us who write fiction tend to think of it.
I’m curious, it’s been a minute since we’ve been and had like free international travel, but on customs forms, what have you put as your occupation for the last few years?
J: Yeah, that’s a great question. On most ,forms that I filled out I tend to put author and publisher.
Crys: I, because I have to do it in Spanish, I say novelista. I’m a novelist. ’cause when I say…
J: I couldn’t say that.
Crys: I could say that when I say writer I get– and I think this is more of a Spanish confusion.
I get confusion from the, and it may be just the words I’m choosing and, but I know the word novelist. So that’s what I say.
J: I think a professional memoirs, professional novelists, in those cases to call yourself a pro, I do think you need to be subsisting on the income you generate from those specific activities. But writer or author, I feel like that’s a little, it’s a gray area, so it’s fuzzy. Yeah.
Crys: I think one of the things that’s really interesting is we really come into this question around anything that’s artistic. Like you can be a master in your artistic field without ever being a pro.
Van Gogh is our quintessential example. Master painter. Was just terrible as a professional and didn’t make any money until after he died. Super sad. And I think that’s an excellent example of why it doesn’t matter.
J: Yeah. I’m really tuned in now– this is a bit of a tangent, but trust me I, I’m going to bring this back in.
I’m really paying attention to a cryptocurrency, blockchain, creator coins, and how those interface with communities. And a lot of the research that’s coming out around, like things like NFTs, and there are some people who are baffled by that. They don’t understand NFTs at all.
And even though I don’t understand them fundamentally, I understand the motivation beneath them, which is status. And that’s never going to change. Whether that’s a social media, whether that’s a community, whether that’s a family, we are all jockeying for status all the time whether we realize it or not. And I think that what we’re talking about here are these labels are really more about status than anything else.
That’s the core reason behind them. And that’s why I think in certain circumstances, like in this conversation, I don’t know if it matters much, unless you really care about that status.
Crys: I do think it’s interesting. I’ve been saying that a lot in this conversation. That’s my verbal tick for this episode.
I think the reason that this often matters with the status when we’re having conversations with other writers yes, there’s some people who are snooty and want to be uppity. That’s not our people that we hang out with, that we have close to us.
But often when we are talking to someone new, who we know is in the writing field, you know, they’re coming to the conferences, we’re all there, we all have that connection that we love writing.
There is this question of what quote, unquote level are you? And when I mean level, I mean more of… like, I can’t remember what the first level is, but like journeymen… squire, journeymen, master. That kind of level.
Because we’re wondering what is our relationship to each other? Will we be able to help each other on an equal level? Because a lot of our people are helpers. Will I be looking up to you as someone to emulate? Will I be looking at you as someone that I might assist? And that’s healthy, I think.
J: Again, I think it’s a bit crass, but there’s a jockying, right? If you go to an author event, you’re kind of measuring yourself. You’re trying to find out what your level of status is compared to the other people that are there.
And that the terminology between amateur and professional is one way we differentiate.
Crys: But again, does it matter?
I think we have been, in our, group really leaning more towards just knowledge. And what I mean by that is everyone has an expertise in our group that the others don’t have, and sharing that in a small group levels, the playing field so much, or conversation field in a way that just makes the pro not matter because it’s about the relationships.
J: Agree with that.
Crys: What question shall we ask our listeners?
J: We could open a can of worms. Do you call yourself a professional writer?
J: And does it matter?
Crys: Yeah. Does it matter to you? Yeah, because it’s personal question.
C: If you would like to join this conversation in real time, we’d love for you to pop over and check out what The Author Success Mastermind is all about.