Branding yourself as a professional writer

One of the ways authors become successful is by building a brand – something indelibly associated with them alone. It’s multi-faceted. What you write is part of it. Name is part of it. There are intangibles, including attitudes and behind-the-scenes conduct – in a word, professionalism.

Professionalism counts when you’re building relationships with your agent, publisher, publicists, media and anybody else who you have to work with in order to get your creations out there. Including your audience.

Readers know when you’ve approached what you’re doing with the right attitude. The result can be summed up in a word. Quality.

It never occurred to me that anybody might not have this attitude – to me it’s just how things are done. But I had a sharp lesson in it back in 2007 when I agreed to present a session at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival. One of the clauses of the contract took me aback. I had to agree to actually do it, and to be on site at least half an hour before the talk was due to begin. Uh – what? I got on to the organisers. ‘I do this professionally,’ I said. ‘I’ll be in the green room, waiting.’

It turned out that some writers don’t. Some have to be roused from their hotel rooms, awash with hangover. Life, apparently, is an endless round of ‘what shall I potter about with today’? They miss deadlines and leave trails of chaos in their wakes.

I have no idea how these people finish anything. Or complete their contracts. And, of course, the publishers nightmare is authors who don’t, won’t or can’t finish.

My take? There’s no room for flakes. Quality writing demands quality attitude. Publishing is a business. If you work professionally, you’ll earn respect and publishers will come back  for more.  If you aren’t, they won’t. Same’s true of your readership

Want proof? Take a look at my publishing list. A lot of that’s due to hard work, but it also comes from the attitude I take to writing and the way I deal with people in the business.

The trick is to step back from the personal side. Yes, you’ve made a huge emotional commitment to the writing. That’s what writing is, if it’s good. It’s you trying to evoke emotions in others. But it’s also important to be professional.  To me that means doing things particular ways:

1. Act with integrity – be absolutely straight in your dealings, up-front, honest and reliable. Do what you say you will. Own your mistakes and don’t try to hide them. Fix the problem and move on. Do not get emotional when dealing with people.

2. Be businesslike – which means understanding the business first. How publishing works, why it has to work that way, and what the costs are when it doesn’t. Figure out how to make what you are doing meet the needs of the publishing business.

3. Set quality standards in your work and stick to them, even if it means throwing away material and starting again. A reliable and consistent output is crucial to a professional repute, to your repute as a great writer among your readers – and to your brand.

4. Do not compromise (1-3).

Needless to say, I expect the people I deal with to demonstrate the same standards. Particularly integrity.Most do. And those that don’t – well, that’s their problem, but if I complete a professional arrangement in good faith and the other party doesn’t uphold their part, well, that’s a fairly epic fail by my standards.

So how do you see professionalism in writing?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2011


18 thoughts on “Branding yourself as a professional writer

  1. I completely agree. If more writers acted like professionals, we’d all be treated better.

    I also take issue with so many writers giving up so writing for free and virtually no payment; that makes things so much more difficult for those of us who are professionals.

    1. Hi, thanks for visiting. Regarding free writing – yes, I absolutely agree. Those who do offer their work free or accept publishing at token return effectively act to drop the market price, and as things tighten up in any event – reducing publishing in the mainstream media to a buyer’s market in any event – that leaves the hapless freelancer with very little real bargaining power. Books are a little different; royalty figures are pretty consistent, though I find wide variations between what even the international houses I deal with are prepared to offer as advances and otherwise cover in terms of costs (illustrations). The web is throwing another large spanner into the calculation, so I guess we’ll have to see.

  2. Great post Matthew. I totally agree with you. Self-awareness, self-discipline and integrity are key to any successful creation in my opinion and writing is no different. The distinction between the creative process of writing a book, which for me is quite blissful, and the publishing process is interesting. They are distinct arenas requiring very different attitudes which is perhaps where some writers fall over!

    Love your writing by the way. x

  3. Hi, thanks for your kind thoughts about my writing! Yes, there’s definitely a sharp distinction between the writing process and the publshing business. One of the hazards with it is that people good at the writing or editing part – but with no business skills – sometimes end up hired on the business side. Or an enthusiastic writer – or somebody with an interest in the arts – will set themselves up as an indie publisher. I’ve seen a few examples of that in NZ. The results are often catastrophic. Yet the two facets must be reconciled for there to be a publishing business at all.

  4. Wow. Don’t think I’ve ever seen a longer published list. Inspiring. You are right, of course, about professionalism. Most of my post-college life has been closet writing while working in public for “free” as a housewife and community volunteer. Writing as a profession takes discipline, focus, and for a person like me, a leap of faith — but probably not for more than for any other profession. It is helpful to approach a writing project like, say, running a board, revamping an inventory or spring cleaning: one step at a time, with discipline, focus, even, as Pamela indirectly points out, self-respect. I think I’ll post your list of published works on my bulletin board.

  5. Sure, although I was thinking an old-fashioned piece of paper, fluttering in the breeze on my cork board. Nothing like hard copy to keep my mind earthward. JBW

    1. I like the idea of paper! Nothing old fashioned at all – I use it all the time to write on, it works in bright sunlight, and it works when the power’s off (if the sun’s shining…) Go ahead!

  6. I agree totally about the importance of being professional. Do you think it necessarily follows that authors offering books for free is unprofessional? Supermarkets offer loss-leaders. Bob Mayer says the eBook is the new mass market paperback. If it gets the author’s work out, isn’t it another kind of marketing? I realise this is reducing a book to the level of a bottle of peanut oil, but some books are intended for fleeting entertainment, not treasuring. Like a box of tissues when you’re sad, or lollies in the middle of the afternoon.

  7. Good point. In answer, to me professional behaviours and market pricing are two different things. And as I see it, if enough authors run loss-leaders (as is happening now, in a buyer’s market of self-publishing), then that becomes the new expected market price irrespective of whether the reader expects merely fleeting satisfaction from the author’s work, or a longer-term emotional response which allows the work to be treasured. That’s true irrespective of e-publishing or mass market – the publisher royalty to an author on a trade paperback isn’t much more than the direct returns from e-publishing. And except in rare Cinderella instances, self-publshing also lacks the clout of a name-brand publisher).

    Reduced income, in turn, limits the abilities of authors to actually produce anything in the first place, without supplementary employment. I am not talking, either, about the ability of a typical author to buy a fourth Aston Martin DB9 to match the 15-metre yacht and summer villa on Tracy Island. I’m talking about paying the next grocery bill. To give that numbers, one figure I’ve seen from a US agency put actual average American title sales, from their sample, at 12,455. Now, it might take a year to write a book; and at 99c author return per sale, less deductions, that;s not going to justify the author’s time. As a weekend hobby, maybe. But not as key household income.

    Can that be skewed in the author’s favour? Sure. Maybe through social media? I’d hope so.What I’ve defined as professional conduct must help. At worst, it can do no harm. And at best, maybe it will open bigger doors. But offering books free, unfortunately, doesn’t do favours to people who hope to rely on the income of their writing endeavours. Would that things were otherwise!

  8. This is mostly just a wording thing with me, but there’s a difference between being a “professional writer” and acting professional.

    You should always act professional when you’re dealing with people who aren’t friends or family.

    I don’t think it’s just in writers either, it’s the way most of society is these days. Parents aren’t teaching their children how to behave when they’re young, so most people never learn how to act.


    1. I agree. To me, a ‘professional writer’ means earning money out of it. Whereas, as you say, ‘acting professional’ means general conduct, precisely as you put it. I wish more people did it!

  9. Hi Matthew,

    I enjoyed your post! I agree with every word you said. What I wan to know is, does one have to be just a professional to act like this? What ever happened to common decency?

    I find it sad that it doesn’t matter what profession you are in, there is a general lack of respect for others. People have lost a sense for others. I hate to say this but the world doesn’t revolve just around us.

    Thank you for this post. Well said!

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