March 10, 2014 / 7 Comments


Last night I was directed to a blog post that said self-publishers should not be allowed to call themselves authors.  Fighting words, I know.  It was a ham-fisted, blanket statement,  and I think it’s pretty tough to say something that broad without getting some deserved backlash.  Plus, in all fairness, the person who wrote it had a bunch of issues when it came to their own writing ability.  Then again, said writer wasn’t insisting on being called an author anywhere that I saw…
I found myself kind of agreeing with the general idea, though, if not the way it was delivered.  “Author” used to be a term that meant something.  It implied a degree of prestige, that someone had worked at their chosen art for years and been rewarded with a title.
Nowadays, though… no work needed.  I can just demand that title for doing well… anything.  Or nothing.

Take the Baboon Fart Story book.  If you’re not familiar with it, the story goes something like this.  Chuck Wendig made an offhand comment a while back that these days someone can just print the word “fart” 100,000 times, slap a picture of a baboon on the cover, and have it up on Amazon within the hour.  So, this being the internet, someone did just that.  Baboon Fart Story, clearly stating it was just the word “fart” repeated 100,000 times and referencing Wendig, was for sale on Amazon for about a day before someone at the company realized it was a mockery of their whole business plan and it was pulled for content reasons.  I think their official excuse was “a less than satisfactory reading experience.”

So, question for the floor… should the person who slapped Baboon Fart Storytogether be considered an author?  Has he or she earned that title with that book?  It was 100,000 words.  It even sold a couple dozen copies (some of the equally humorous reviews on Amazon were verified purchases).

Baboon Fart Story.  Author or not?

Now, let me spare some of you a bit of time.  I’m sure someone’s leaping down to the comments right now to explain that Baboon Fart was just a joke.  A not-very elaborate joke to illustrate a point.  Heck, it was really just an exercise in cut-and-paste.

To which I say, whoa!  Are we now putting definitions on what counts as a book?  On who gets to call themselves an author?

Of course we are.

As I’ve said many times over on my ranty blog, most of us know how to cook, but very few of us would consider ourselves chefs.  I make a fairly good almost-from-scratch pizza and decent stir-fried rice, but I’d never call myself a chef.  Someone would have to be arrogant as hell to insist we call them a chef because they poured orange juice and heated up waffles in the toaster.  Because we all understand that chef is a title which reflects a certain degree of experience and education past the commonly-known basics. 
Are there self-published writers who deserve to be called authors?  Absolutely and without question.  There are some phenomenally talented and practiced people who’ve chosen to go that route, and they’ve earned that title a hundred times over.  I’d argue the point with anyone who tried to say otherwise.
Does everyone who self-publishes immediately and automatically deserve the title of author?  No.  No, they do not.  Because being an author means something, and it’s more than “able to upload files.”  It implies someone doesn’t just have a base ability to write—or to cut and paste—but a certain level of experience and ability with words.  The exact definition is changing with some of these new paths, but it’s still there.  And it should be there. And we should all be happy it’s there and strive to earn it.

Because if anyone can call themselves an author for doing anything, then the word is meaningless.  

7 replies on “Terminology”

I think that self-publishing is…. not an acceptable route to go to call yourself an author. As you said, it's like calling yourself a chef because you can cook some things. It's arrogant and unearned, in my opinion.

In fact, I don't think that self-publishing and selling a lot of copies is an acceptable reason to call yourself an author, even. After all, there are a whole bunch of people who have opened successful restaurants out there who still don't get to call themselves "chefs."

It's a matter of having earned your way in by getting past the gatekeepers– and while there are a lot of people out there who consider "gatekeepers" a dirty word… I think they're wrong. Because if I were shopping in an actual bookstore and found crap of the lack-of-quality that I have run into shopping the online-self-published-ebook sites….

Well, I'd consider never, ever buying a book again, and just reading the ones I already have over and over.

Kevin, I agree there are a lot of folks who get caught up on words, But then again… words are what this whole business is supposed to be about. And it's a little bothersome to see some folks who aspire to be authors but are willing to share the title with anyone for any reason.

Far too many folks see this is an all-or-nothing debate, and I wish more people were willing to debate the gray areas rather than the extremes. 🙁

And congratulations on getting your story published! It's a thrill, isn't it?

Well, I think that's going a little extreme, Marc. I agree that someone shouldn't be able to call themselves a chef for cooking a box of macaroni and cheese or running a hot dog stand. But if someone spends twenty years cooking professionally, opens three or four restaurants, and writes a few successful cookbooks… well, it'd be kind of rude not to consider them a chef just because they never went to culinary school.

That's my real point. It's not that someone doesn't deserve to call themselves an author because they self-publish–because there are tons of fantastic self-pubbed writers who are authors, no question at all. It's that since self-publishing is a wide-open door, just walking through it doesn't automatically earn someone that title.

One of my favorite restaurants is a local place (in Bloomington, IL) called Schooner's. They've been around for more than thirty years, have several restaurants in Central Illinois, and if I ever hear of a cook from Schooner's calling themselves a chef, I will probably die of laughter. They do fried chicken, a GIANT tenderloin sandwich, amazing Buffalo Wings, a daily blue plate special… nothing there entitles anyone to call themselves a chef. I should know, I worked there as a young man.

While you do have a point, I'm still not sure I agree. I guess at this point I'm looking at it through a lens of experience. You see, I'm a very fast reader, or used to be– I've slowed down as I age– and I've read more than 8,500 books, counting only novel length stuff. I can't imagine what the number would be if we added in some short stories and all the kids books….

I've attempted to read around 8,650 books. Of the 8,540 "pro-books" that I've attempted to read, I've failed to finish thirty-one books. Couldn't manage it for one reason or another, mostly god-awful (in my opinion) writing. That's less than a one percent "couldn't do it" rate. (0.36299 percent, yow.)

Of the one hundred and ten self-published ebooks I've attempted to read, I've finished exactly two. Couldn't finish the others because of god-awful writing. That's a ninety-eight-point-two percent "couldn't do it" rate.

With numbers like those, I feel pretty comfortable in my peculiar prejudice, unsavory though that may be.

By the common definition of the word, anybody who writes anything is an author. "Author" just describes the relationship between a person and a written work; i.e., the person who created a written work is its author. It's not a protected title.

Instead of policing a redefinition of a common word, maybe we should flex our writerly muscles and be more descriptive. Call ourselves "bestselling authors," or "hybrid authors," or in my case "hybrid author of the bestselling social experiment Baboon Fart Story."

I believe that instead of challenging people who call themselves authors, we should ask them to be more specific.

By a definition of the word, anyone who writes anything is an author. By another, just as common definition (according to Webster's), an author is someone who makes a living as a professional writer. So I'd hardly say this discussion is redefining anything… :/

You do offer us a unique opportunity here, though, Phronk. Addressing yourself as "hybrid author" automatically refers to other works. Without those credits, though, do you think that Baboon Fart Story alone gives someone reason to call themselves an author?

To put it in other terms… if Gordon Ramsay decides to microwave a Hot Pocket for dinner, he still gets to call himself a chef because we all acknowledge his greater body of work that qualifies him as a chef. But does this mean that everyone who microwaves a Hot Pocket gets to call themselves a chef?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *