After the plague, Piers Plowman

Now that the pandemic has roused the sleeping proletariat at least so far as to slap at the snooze button and miss, I’ve been thinking about professionalism in the modern age.

As I’ve said, an agenda ain’t nothing but a to-do list.

I was already thinking about it a little bit since watching (and re-watching) a Netflix documentary about the music mogul Clive Davis — which is really quite fascinating as a rich vein of artifacts in our cultural history. The documentary follows not just Davis’s career, but several careers of artists he’s worked with over the years; but to me the most interesting on a personal level was the career of Barry Manilow.

Now, people snicker behind their hands about Barry Manilow, and I admit I’m not a fan. But here’s the story: Manilow put out a record on a small label and it didn’t sell. Davis recruited him for Arista Records and put together a songwriter shop to compose him some hit singles. Then Manilow streaked to the top of the charts! But as his career progressed, he pushed back on singing songs he didn’t write himself, and worked out a compromise with Davis about the makeup of his albums.

It seems to me that there are some parallels between the music business and the book business. As Davis points out, you need a “continuity of hits” to remind people that you’re there and get them to take interest in the rest of your work. A similar pressure seems to be weighing on authors to be massively prolific so they can continue to meet their publisher’s ROI goals. And content outlets like Kindle Unlimited have turned books into a commodity that can be sold in bulk — and who knows how much of that money the author sees. I’m guessing it’s not much.

I didn’t know these things about the publishing industry when I was making my decisions what to do with Ryswyck. I plunged into the world of aspiring authors on Twitter and in writers’ and agents’ lists and forums; entered a few contests; wrote a few pitches. There was a pervading atmosphere of assembly-line marketing, and a tacit assumption that the apex goal of a writer’s schematic was to be accepted by an agent and publishing house and thus accorded the status of Professional Author.

I still feel the pull of that forlorn attraction. But even so, this seemed (and still seems) to me to be entirely backwards. As I saw it, the entire point of being a published author was to get the book I wrote into the world. I didn’t write a book as a means to obtain Pro Author status. I wasn’t interested in producing an upmarket, high-concept, trendsetting property of 110k words or less. I wanted to sell Ryswyck, which is (if I understand those buzzwords correctly) none of those things.

The disappointment was brief and acute. But I got up and dusted myself off, and shook out my Project Manager hat, and started making spreadsheets for all the things an independent author needs to do. And, as it turns out, really the signal difference between an independent author and a traditionally-published one is indeed that marker of status. My trad-pub author friends either have day jobs or families to support them; they do a great deal of their own marketing; their advances are designed to clear overhead and little more than that. Only the highest-grossing authors really make a living doing this; everybody else makes their living by doing “this” and some other stuff, including busting their hump to make appearances at cons and land speaking gigs.

So what makes a professional? In the modern age, we tend to judge it by the Olympic definition: a professional gets paid to compete, and an amateur pays for the privilege. But not all Olympic events are equal, and the more artistic ones suffer by this definition. Michael Jordan can play on the Dream Team and then go back to his highly-visible salaried position on a professional baskeball team; figure skaters, once they turn pro, are hardly heard from again unless they become commentators or you find yourself with tickets to an ice show. If I asked a 20-year-old who Kristi Yamaguchi is, would they know?

Our remaining tickets at the Symphony were cancelled due to the pandemic. Luckily, enough philanthropists have underwritten the losses that the professional musicians did not immediately lose their jobs. But: they’re still professionals…even if…they’re not getting paid. The performing arts are heavily subsidized by philanthropists; the publishing industry is heavily subsidized by the day jobs of their authors. And I doubt they buy their authors group health insurance either, but that’s a whole other ball of wax.

What makes a professional? Besides the Olympic definition, there’s the class theory definition: a professional is someone who completed an education or training course and has been certificated by the profession’s constituent authority. A tradesperson…sells goods or labor for their income. But very often they also have to get certified — I mean, you’re not going to hire an uncertified electrician for your house remodel. When I worked as a library paraprofessional — that is, a person with two degrees neither of which was a Library Science degree — I often thought that the market had become overprofessionalized. But now I think it’s the opposite: no one is a professional anymore; we are all in a trade. We all sell our labor and our goods for our living, only some (many) of us need some kind of certification to do so.

I don’t have the chops to go into how this is both levelling and massively difficult if not impossible in late-stage capitalism. Suffice it to say that while the publishing industry makes a good (if ruthless) business model, it makes a very poor guild.

If there’s a conclusion to be drawn from this, I don’t yet know what it is. Except that I think it’s high time we artists set about to rethink the definition of our professionalism and stop overlooking how much we subsidize our own careers. If these chin-stroking plutocrats admire feudalism so much, wait till they have a real guild to deal with.

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