When does a writer become a professional?

When does a writer become a professional?

At what point does a writer earn the right to declare they are A Writer without a self-deprecating smirk? When does a website of online fan fiction, run as a passion project, become part of The Publishing Industry? How many copies of your ebook do you have to sell before your mate, who sorted the cover, is A Bona Fide Book Designer?

The line between amateurs and professionals in the publishing world is increasingly blurry - and increasingly important to interrogate. As Dr Erika Fulop, a lecturer at Lancaster University who is studying the topic, told me: "we still live by the inherited dichotomy of amateur versus professional, despite a quickly changing literary ecosystem where its sense changes and its usefulness becomes questionable. It is important that we are aware of what would be best for us as authors, readers and critics. We have a role to play in what it becomes."

A fortnight ago, I took part in Dr Fulop's academic 'sandpit', which gathered eight writers to discuss 'Literature in the Digital Space: Beyond the Amateur-Professional Binary' (gulp). Then last week, I was invited onto a more practical panel at Bradford Literature Festival -'Writing and Thriving in the Digital Age' - alongside journalist Danuta Kean, blogger and novelist Isobel Costello, and the editor and author Nikesh Shukla.

Both discussions, in their different ways, raised many of the same questions. And here are just some of the thoughts they provoked.

We need to think differently about money.

The first criteria mentioned when it came to defining the difference between amateur and professional was, unsurprisingly, cash. If you're earning from your writing, then surely you're a pro? But it quickly became clear that even this idea is fraught. The average earnings of a European author are £12,500 per year - a sum less than the UK's full-time annual minimum wage. So if you can't make a living off your earnings, are you really a pro?

The answer is, of course, yes. Throughout history, one-trick writers have always been incredibly rare beasts. With portfolio careers becoming the norm, people who make money from publishing - however little, in whatever medium - should not feel, just because they earn most of their crust from copywriting, shelf stacking or circus performing, that they are any less of an author than a white, middle-class, late-middle-aged man able to pursue his 'vocation' in a Highbury attic without the distraction of other, grubbier work. Yet there is still a surprising amount of shame around the truth that the career of a professional writer is necessarily diverse.

I'd argue, too, that you can certainly be professional without (yet) being paid. There's an interesting parallel here with the startup world. In the tech industry, people who spend untold, unpaid hours labouring to bring their brilliant idea to the world are lauded as bold entrepreneurs, not sneered at as irresponsible amateurs. So aspiring writers looking to breed a bit of self-worth might do well to think of themselves as founders bootstrapping their own micro-startup.

When it comes to readership, size isn't everything.

Another useful way to think about the shift from hobbyist to professional is in terms of readership. A book (of whatever form) really comes to life when it finds an audience, so building a fanbase around your work is essential if you want to be a pro. Nowadays, however, 'amateur' writers and publishers can have far greater traction than 'professional' ones. A sci-fi short story published for free on a forum, or a self-published romance ebook, can easily reach a larger audience than a prize-winning piece of literary fiction.

And audience isn't just about breadth, but depth. Does it matter that only twenty people have read your poetry collection about androgyne Scottish-Nigerian superheroes, if all twenty of them are your most rabid fans and evangelists? One interesting discussion in the sandpit focused on the power of online communities to spread stories that are unique and valuable to marginalised cultures, much like the oral storytelling of yore. The first people who committed those stories to the web - and the ones who adapt and build on them - might not be considered 'professionals', but they wield a huge amount of collective influence and resonance.

The real difference is in attitude.

It can be a noble, rewarding and life-enhancing thing to be an amateur. Striving to become a professional can be a painful slog that forces you to compromise your artistic soul. Perhaps a better word to distinguish 'a certain sort of publisher or writer' than professional might be expert. Because whether you're paid for your work or not, and whatever the size of your readership, the one factor that distinguishes a dabbler from a dedicated practitioner is commitment.

Commitment to finish whatever it is that you're working on, however many barriers you come across and however many iterations you have to plough through. Commitment to making your work the best it can be - whether that involves reaching out to a local writing group or paying for the services of others who can help you take it to the next level (either via getting a deal with a traditional publisher or hiring freelancers through an online marketplace). Commitment (only once you've properly finished the first project) to move onto the next, and the next, and the next... because your real aim isn't fame, riches or validation. It is to write the best writing you possibly can.

It's a fascinating, emotive and ever-evolving issue. I'd love to hear your stories and your thoughts.