Writing as Hobby

What may be missing from the self-publishing debate is the fact that there are a lot of self-publishers who just aren’t that interested in a career in writing – whether it’s via a New York contract or selling books independently. Consider this an addendum to the Two Wings of Self-Publishing post – add a third wing: people who publish for the hell of it.  If they get a few reviews, that’s great, but if they don’t it’s not a problem.

These writers might not care as much about the book cover or having a book properly edited. Personally, I don’t understand how someone with that type of ambition is able to put hundreds of pages together, but that seems to be the case – or there wouldn’t be so many novels getting written and published. The problem is that books by hobbyists are compared right alongside those self-published writers who are trying to make a career of it, and that’s totally unfair – as unfair as comparing Dostoyevsky and Dan Brown.  They fulfill different needs for both the reader and writer.

This points to how weak it is to group self-published books together (“Self-published books are bad”), as writers are coming to the act of publication with very different motives. The equivalent would be criticizing a blogger for not being up to the standards of the NY Times or Huffington post. People understand that blogging takes all forms – sometimes being totally mundane, which is one of the great things about blogging. There are no constraints. The process of publication – putting that same blog within printed pages – means that some people think the writer should be taking greater care with what is eventually released.

The difference between blogging and self-publishing is pretty significant – reading a blog is free. The reader can just click away and start reading something else. If the reader had to actually spend money, they’re right to expect some amount of quality. But it’s as easy to publish as it is to set up a blog on Blogger. In a certain respect, it’s up to the reader to vet a book, just as it’s up to the writer to edit the book. If a book buyer buys a book sight unseen with limited objective reviews of the book, he or she can’t blame the writer if it turns out to be a bad purchase. And obviously he shouldn’t blame all of self-publishing that there’s a bad book in the ranks any more than he should blame Blogger for poorly-written blogs.

The more people learn about the ease of publishing via services like Lulu, and the more self-publishing loses stigma, the more hobbyists are going to be putting out their less-than-inspired work. Imagine a world where self-publishing becomes what blogging was in 2004 – when self-publishing makes the cover of Time Magazine and it’s considered the new revolution in the book business. It’s certainly possible, but it means that more and more people are going to be releasing their hobby projects at the very same time that self-publishing loses stigma. Even without a Time Magazine cover story this is already what’s happening. More of everything is being released: more good books and more bad books.

It may be particularly American to not understand how someone might want to produce something and not care about being hugely successful or famous, but so long as people understand that writing can be a hobby and not every writer is trying to make a major statement, readers will be less condescending when they read a book that isn’t all that ambitious.  Personally, I wish people would take the craft of writing more seriously and not just release something for the hell of it – but this is a significant wing of people who self-publish with no overwhelming ambition, so they’ve got to be part of the dialog. It will help the writers who care more about what they release to acknowledge that there are a lot of books being released by people who are ambivalent about the book’s success – either in sales or how it’s written.

Taking Your Writing Seriously

Nathan Bransford (agent/blogger) got into trouble with a post earlier where he likened writers to hobbyists. He scraped the post of the word “hobby” because people (including myself) took issue with it. In the post he says:

I’m going to be honest here and say that while I don’t judge people when they define themselves as writer, whatever their publication status, I find it a little unsettling when they make it an overly intrinsic part of their identity.

First of all, people just don’t tend to define themselves by what they do in their spare time. You don’t hear anyone shout to the rafters, “I AM STAMP COLLECTOR!” or “I AM A CONNOISSEUR OF REALITY TELEVISION!”

The gist of the post is writers shouldn’t wrap themselves too much in the identity of being a writer because it makes every slight of rejection that much more insulting. Where he veered wrong was this sentence, which he then removed: “And until you’re making a living at it, writing is a hobby. It’s something you do in your spare time.”

For many, many people writing is as important as breathing. And of course rejection hurts deeply because it’s like having a part of your soul rejected. There’s nothing wrong with this. If you’re not feeling your writing this deeply, the writing might not have a whole lot of depth. It was disappointing to me that an agent would take this approach, when he should be looking for those writers who are just that passionate. My guess is the post is aimed at the people who are intensely passionate who don’t necessarily have the talent to back it up. But to state that writing is a hobby until you’re published puts a little too much power into the hands of the gatekeepers being in charge of that identity.

But getting back to the initial point: most writers are intensely driven. Some are not and there’s a section of self-publishing of people who say, “What the hell, I’ll put out my book and see what happens,” rather than “My career starts NOW.” To glom together all of self-publishers under the same umbrella makes no sense because people come to self-publishing with so many varied motivations, levels of talent, and styles of writing.  Writing can be a hobby.  Perhaps it shouldn’t be, but for a growing number of writers that is exactly the case.

  • Nice post Henry. I agree that a hobby is something you do in your spare time, but I think a hobby crosses the line when the person actively “makes” spare time for the activity. Serious writers don’t all have to aspire to serious writing careers. Writing and Publishing are two different things. One is a craft, the other is a business. Writing can be a hobby or it can be someone’s art, encompassing that person’s internal passion in its most pure state. Being driven to create art has nothing at all to do with being career minded or the desire to be famous.

    I have a career that I like. I don’t need a second one. However, I love my art; love all art in general right down to the theory. I make time for writing, sometimes sacrificing other “spare time” activities in favour of it. I read theory for fun, and I take a professional level attitude when it comes to the end product. Being famous or making money was never part of the equation for me. I want people to read my work, of course, but I am an itchy person when it comes to self-promotion. I am just not of the “waive my freak flag” in public sort. I like meeting people, other artists, and talking about craft and theory — to me that’s sharing, and I like that more so when I don’t subconsciously feel the need to sell myself.

    So for me, love the art hate the business, and that doesn’t make me any less serious than a career minded writer.

    I think it’s the delusional do-it-on-a-whim don’t know what they don’t know kind of self-publisher that personifies the “stigma.” I don’t think they don’t care; I just think they don’t know what to care about, so they are perceived as not caring when it’s really just naiveté and defensiveness. Most of them, when they discover they love it, tend to wind up humbled by the experience and eventually get serious. The rest sell a few books on Lulu, get bored with all the work, and move on to something else.

  • I think we need to be careful we don’t take the art or process of writing, bless and consecrate it, and cast it into being intrinsically bound up with book publishing, as if that were its only medium of readership. History and literature is filled with great letter writers and characters who never once set out to ‘publish a book’.

    I wonder if this is what Bransford is getting at, though I don’t buy into his protectionist gatekeeper role practiced in particular, more than ever, by literary agents. With so many publishers not entertaining unsolicited manuscripts one iota, the fact is, agents by default have got the crappiest end of the job now – tasked with filtering most of the slush pile for their more esteemed brethren- it’s now akin to the apprentice washing the mucky boots of the high payed sports star.

  • So true Mick, so true. Though writing and publishing share some similar mechanical aspects, they should not be lumped together, just like people who publish should not all be lumped together. Every dynamic is unique.

    Funny, my dad was a letter reader, and so I became a letter reader and a letter writer. Nice to see there are other letter lovers as well. Right now I am re-reading “Love letters of Great Men” volume 1. Good stuff. The last book of letters I read was deSade’s. Very insightful.

  • I feel like this mischaracterizes what I had originally posted. The actual quote I removed was:: “And until you’re making a living at it, writing is a hobby, i.e. it’s something you do in your spare time.” (bolding here for emphasis)

    The i.e. is important because I was simply delineating a difference between something one does for a living and something ones does in one’s spare time, and was otherwise at great pains to point out the ways in which writing is NOT just a mere hobby::

    “To be sure, there’s something about writing that’s a little different (to say the least) from stamp collecting. It’s more personal, even when it’s not a memoir or something that relates directly to someone’s real life. Putting thoughts on the page, any thoughts, means taking one’s inner life and putting it all out there for the world to see.”

    And, in my clarification:

    “For the record: I don’t think a creative pursuit is the same thing as a hobby, I don’t prejudge people who call themselves writers, and as I hope is already abundantly apparent, I admire anyone and everyone who takes the time to put word to page. I only meant “hobby” as in something that one does that is not one’s career, not as something trivial.”

    I didn’t delete the part in question because I was ashamed of what I said or cowed by the response. Rather, people were simply missing (and continue to miss) the point and it wasn’t the main thrust of what that post was intended to be about anyway. All I was saying was that if writing, and especially the whims of the publishing process, becomes an all-consuming aspect of one’s identity, just as with anything else it’s a path to disappointment. I feel that balance in life is important, and is particularly necessary in a capriciously subjective business like this one. It’s really not a particularly controversial point.

  • Fair enough, but I do think the word “hobby” applies to something fun and kind of trivial rather than “something you don’t get paid for” so the confusion makes sense. Self-publishers are wary of the idea that a book deal is the main way to prove a book’s worth. The book has worth regardless of the writer making a living, which is why I had some oversensitivity about the “until your making a living at it…” part. I’d add also that most writers do not make a living purely by selling books and need a second job – so by that token most writers are hobbyists.

    Believe me, my total aggravation with the publishing process – and not feeling I was being rewarded for something I think I do well – is why I’ve ditched the process completely. I was very wrapped up in my identity as a writer, so the slights of traditional publishing hurt a lot. It’s part of my new obsession with self-publishing. It’s liberating to avoid the aggravating process altogether and not have to worry so much about what other people think – or have those critics decide my future. At one point I thought I could make a living as a writer, but that prospect is pretty unlikely even if I was to get a traditional book deal. I can now at least write and publish on my own terms.

  • The confusion makes sense, which is why I removed it, but I still resent a bit that people seized upon that without considering the entire rest of the post or my clarifications.

    And again, Henry, we don’t disagree on anything here. You’re saying that self-publishers don’t and shouldn’t define themselves by the publishing process, which is completely consistent with my post and how I feel about the matter.

  • “The book has worth regardless of the writer making a living, which is why I had some oversensitivity about the “until your making a living at it…” part. I’d add also that most writers do not make a living purely by selling books and need a second job – so by that token most writers are hobbyists.

    Believe me, my total aggravation with the publishing process – and not feeling I was being rewarded for something I think I do well – is why I’ve ditched the process completely. I was very wrapped up in my identity as a writer, so the slights of traditional publishing hurt a lot… At one point I thought I could make a living as a writer, but that prospect is pretty unlikely even if I was to get a traditional book deal. I can now at least write and publish on my own terms.”

    You’ll excuse my repetition of Henry’s comments. I happen to think they are not only important to this particular article and the following comments by all of us, but fundamental to why Selfpublishingreview is, and why some authors choose self-publishing. I think it perfectly summaries everything. The ‘sensitivities’ Nathan poked in all of us as writers still run deep. Nathan does his job and has explained his article on this site.

    For me, I don’t make a cent on writing nor do I care I ever will. But my writing isn’t a hobby, because writing it is at the very hear of our culture and our instinct. Word to word – One person to another.

    Am I a writer? You better believe it. Thats writing and thats passion.

    Thank you, Henry, for your words.

  • I’m not really sure where I stand on this debate (or even if there is a debate, given Bransford’s comments), but one thing that always makes me uncomfortable is the use of the words “hobbyist” or “amateur” to describe ANY writer. Certainly, there is a sort of continuum where at one extreme we have “professional writers” (that is, a writer who earns a comfortable living solely from writing and from revenue related to his or her writing, for example, Stephen King) and on the other end of the continuum, we have writers who don’t attempt to publish, but perhaps fill journals full of poems or essays or stories or whatever. The latter person might be labeled an “amateur/hobbyist” but I wouldn’t categorize that writer in that way.

    Because the problem is that words like “amateur” and “hobbyist” have, rightly or wrongly, connotations attached to them that suggest that a writer who is a “hobbyist” isn’t REALLY serious about his or her own writing, and I don’t think anyone can make that sort of judgment about another writer. I think that the writer who never publishes can be just as serious about the craft of writing as the person who writes as a career. And if someone takes the step to try to publish one’s work, I don’t think anyone can say that that writer doesn’t feel his or her own work deeply. Does anyone call oneself a “hobbyist writer”? Does any writer really think of himself in that way?

    This is an important issue for me because I am not, literally, a “professional writer.” I’m not writing creatively to earn money, to put a roof over my head and food on my table. I’m more than happy to give my stories away for free because what’s important for me isn’t that I earn as much money as I can from my work, but that I attract as many readers as possible. Some people, therefore, would lump me into the “amateur/hobbyist” category and attach to that label the assumption that since I don’t write for money that I therefore don’t REALLY care as much about my writing. But that’s not true. I take my work very seriously. I’d even go so far as to say that I care about my work as much as anyone in this thread, even as much as a millionaire writer like King. I want my work to be the best it can be, and I want my readers’ experience to be the best it can be, too.

    I’d prefer to assume the best of all of the writers I encounter and assume that they care about their work just as much.

  • Writers have different definitions of success. For many of us, the traditional definitions of success as novelists do not fit, perhaps because our vision does not fit the curent fashion in marketing, or we have defined our audience in ways that don’t fit, either. There are legions of people, for example, who will write their life stories and put them between covers for their grandkids because they won’t be around to tell the family legends that are important to be passed on. The world at large won’t read those or care that they were written, but they will mean a lot to the people they’re meant for.

    I suspect that many writers, like me, are writing fiction at a time in our lives when we already have some retirement income to fall back on somewhat. (Or maybe not, given the way things have gone in the last 6 – 8 months.)

    Within those and other definitions of success plenty of room exists to call oneself a writer. We don’t need an objective measuring stick to be held to our work to see if it “measures up.” We don’t have to write a prize-winning novel to prove to anyone that we’re writers. (Although I admit having that sort of objective validation is sweet. The novel — shameless plug here — is _God’s Thunderbolt: The Vigilantes of Montana_.) If we measure up to our own definition of success, we’re writers.

    When I wrote my first novel in grade school, I was a writer. When I wrote my first article for the high school newspaper, I became a writer. When I wrote horticultural and equine journalism for magazines, I was a writer. When I wrote scholarly papers in graduate school, I was a writer. I didn’t get paid for most of it. When I did get paid by publishers for nonfiction books, I was a writer. When I got paid quite a lot to write software manuals, I was a writer. When I secretly wrote really bad poetry that I won’t inflict on anyone else, I was a writer then, too. When I wrote _God’s Thunderbolt_, I was a writer. I’m a writer now, groping for a thought and hoping for your patience while I dig it out.

    I’m a writer, not because I write and get paid for it (happily enough); I’m a writer because I write. Because it’s who I am. Because I am and always have been totally serious about writing the best I can.

    The IRS doesn’t agree, though. Until I made money for writing, to them it was a hobby although it never was to me.

  • And God Bless the IRS, if they had their way , we’d all be writers and charged for it the moment our pens touched the page!

  • I have always taken issue with persons who refer to my writing as a ‘hobby’ or a ‘pasttime’. What I have said in several places both verbally and in blogs and posts and profiles is that the job that pays my rent is my hobby and that my real vocation is my writing. I’ve been writing longer than I’ve been doing anything else, vocationally speaking. Unfortunately, I have never been in a position that afforded me the opportunity to persue writing as a career because, if I had, I would have jumped on it. I find that in my small experience, most every time I have approached some form of employment as a writer/journalist, etc., I’ve been disqualified by the same circular criteria. What have you published? Nothing… yet. That’s why I would like to have this job. We are only interest in published writers. Thank you very much. And thank you.