Hobbyists and Serious-sts

There are two kinds of writers, the hobbyist writer who writes for fun, and the serious writer whose intent is to make this silly writing thing a career.

The hobbyists don’t know the business and don’t necessarily care because it’s simply a fun weekend thing. They don’t want to promote their books, and they don’t really care if the books are a huge hit. Hobbyists usually go to Kinkos, Lulu, or go the POD, or vanity route, which is perfectly acceptable for their needs.

I am grateful to the hobbyist who has defined themselves as such. But what happens when he hasn’t? They leech over into our world. We work very hard to weed out the hobbyists from the serious-sts because publishing isn’t a lark for us; it’s our day job, and we need committed authors.

The Weeding Process

So you’re wondering how we identify the hobbyists.

  • They have little or no understanding of the business.
  • They are in a hurry to publish. They cranked out their story, and it’s suddenly full steam ahead.

It begins with the query letter.

Awaiting the book deal before finishing the book

The hobbyist is the type who tells me their novel isn’t completed yet, and they’ll either finish it once I offer them a contract. If no one picks it up, they’ll walk away from the story because, hey, why bother, yanno?

Am I the only one who has a problem with this? How an author expresses himself indicates where they fit on the writing ladder. The I’ll-finish-it-when-I-have-a-contract writer isn’t committed to his craft or his story, so he’s standing on the bottom rung. There is no reason for me to invest more time than it takes to whip out a form rejection letter.

“Readers will love this story”

The hobbyist query letter is usually filled with description like, “the reader will be riveted to this story because everyone loves a good father/son angst story.” Well, that might be the case provided we know what causes the father/son angst and it’s a compelling angst-y story. Otherwise, I’m just as happy with father/son happy stories. See, it depends on the PLOT – the who, what, when, why, where. And the details of the plot are what hobbyists usually fail at.

I know, I know, I can hear you screaming from here; “but, Lynn, you cranky old broad, I’m a serious writer, and you told me my query sucked!” Yes, I probably did. The reason I put you into the hobbyist category is because you didn’t take the TIME to learn how to write a proper query letter. You blindly stabbed about like the beagle does after a few margaritas and shot your wad on prematurely querying editors and agents, when you should have taken that time to learn how to write an effective letter.

It’s like dating someone who speaks a foreign language. Why on earth would you do that? You aren’t prepared to communicate with them. And unless they look like Antonio Banderas, I’d call that a wasted evening. Chances are you wouldn’t get a second date. Likewise, you won’t be able to re-query those agents and editors. What would you say? “Could you kindly ignore that crap letter I sent a couple months ago; this one is much better.” Uh huh. That’s a hobbyist move. A serious writer learns the language first in order to have a great first date because, let’s face it, the genie is already out of your bottle.

Hot off the press

The hobbyist query letter may say, “I just finished writing this…”

Now, I realize this sentence is a bit innocuous, but, to me, this statement makes it appear as though  the cyber ink is still damp on The End. Hobbyists don’t realize that The End is only the beginning of a long road they must travel BEFORE they even think about querying. There is the editing phase, the cooling-off period (where you put your manuscript away for a month or two only to realize later that it’s utter crap – or is that just me?), the major rewrites.

By the time the serious writer is ready to query, her manuscript is anything but “just completed.” It has battle wounds, a few scrapes and bruises. But those wounds shaped the writing into something well-thought out and fully developed. The serious writer never tells anyone, “I’ve just finished this,” because they haven’t.

Marketplace? Readership? Huh?

The hobbyist writer is invariably unaware of the pesky thing called the Marketplace. They don’t understand the fierce competition and tend to live on Writer’s Island, happily tippy tapping away at their stories, unaware that a whole industry is centered on nothing but forecasting which books they believe will sell.

And it’s mostly because they don’t care. It’s a hobby. They tread on our turf in order to throw a literary dart at the giant industry bull’s eye just to see, “do I have something here?” It’s not a burning desire for major publication, but rather curiosity.

“Am I the accidental success story?” Meaning, will he be an instant success without having to work at it? For the most part, these folks are a myth.


Many hobbyists write memoirs or family histories. Nearly every one I receive is either too personal (meaning they lack overall interest except to those closest to the story) or lacks a marketable story. It may be that you wrote about living on a farm, or how your Irish Auntie Bess came to America aboard a ship, but I can’t sell that. There needs to be poignancy to the story because most readers will become impatient with a long-winded accounting that has no red meat (which is the crisis, the conflict). Even the most lovable characters need something to react against, and the hobbyist writer often omits this in their memoirs. These stories end up being interesting only to the writer’s family and friends.

Publication is hard work

Writers must define who they are.

  • If you are unwilling to do any book promotion, you may be a hobbyist – or Tom Clancy. Edited to add: Editors understand that authors have day jobs in order to keep the lights on, so no one is suggesting national book tours or publicity 24/7. I’m talking about local events in your own area. The first three months are crucial to getting a book to catch fire, and those weekend events, newspaper and magazine articles go a long way toward helping support our national efforts.
  • If you don’t care whether your work is edited within an inch of its life, you may be a hobbyist – or very arrogant.
  • If you don’t really care whether your books are on store shelves  – you simply wanted to write your story, you may be a hobbyist – or have gotten such a great advance that it doesn’t matter to you. Edited to add: The reason my teeth grind over the author who doesn’t care whether his books are shelved is that we are at odds with each other. I need those books to be shelved so they can sell. So the author can earn back their advance. Random House may not care because they’re so big, but they should. Author and editor must be on the same page.

May I be so blunt as to suggest that hobbyists need not apply? It’s the clash of the Titans because the hobbyist and I are opposing forces whose relationship usually ends poorly. See, I’m in it for the long haul because we sink major bucks into our books. If the hobbyist looks at me as the one who published their little story – and, gee, wasn’t that nice of me? – and doesn’t care whether the book sells well or not, I won’t think nice things. Things that would make my mother blush. I need the books to sell to keep the beagle in designer chewie bones and expensive tequila.

Decide who you are – hobbyist or serious-st – before you get too deep into your story. If you’re having fun, that’s fabulous. All writing should be fun. But if your vision doesn’t go beyond the confines of friends and family, then let’s not let our worlds collide. Either print it up at Kinko’s and share your story at that upcoming family reunion, or do the Lulu thing. Keep your darts in your desk, and only pull them out when you’re seeing who will pay for the next round of margaritas.

12 Responses to Hobbyists and Serious-sts

  1. Bingo says:

    I agree with everything … except your bullet list!

    I’m a midlist professional. Five books published, two more on the way. From St. Martin’s and Doubleday. You’ve never heard of me–almost nobody has–but this is how I make my living.

    And yet this is one of the easiest ways I know to tell if someone is serious: if they’re just dying to spend long hours -promoting-, they’re not serious about the -writing-. You see this all the time in the comments sections of agent blogs. They’re just so _eager_ to start self-promoting, and so convinced that spending huge amounts of effort will actually pay off. People who are serious about the writing almost inevitably resent the self-promotion, because it eats into writing time and energy.

    I know a good number of writers. None of us want to spend long hours promoting our book. (Well, okay: one does, but she’s an extrovert of the highest order, which is kinda rare among people who play with the contents of their own heads for a living.) Some of us _do_ promote our work. But none of us (with that one exception) _want_ to. And none of us has seen any real difference in sales between the promoters and the non-promoters.

    My guess: if you tracked 100 novels by new authors who promoted like crazy, and 100 novels by new authors who didn’t promote at all, you’d see no statistically significant difference in sales.

    Also, many of us don’t really care whether our books are on store shelves. We just wanna write and get paid for writing. Sharing with readers is purely optional. (Okay, okay, maybe that last one is just -me-! And explains why nobody’s heard of me …)

  2. Congrats on your success, Bingo. Promotion is a loaded weapon that discharges at will. I’ve seen too many good books go the way of the dinosaur because the author didn’t do any promotion. Two of my buds were with St. Martin’s and Random House. Wheee doggies, they said, it’s easy street time. I kept telling them to get out their faces out there. They didn’t listen.

    Despite Random House’s and St. Martin’s superior distribution, few knew the book existed. It was just one of thousands on crowded bookshelves, and their sales were tepid. Their books were both dumped within a year. It’s possible they were just lousy books, but their editors liked them well enough to buy them.

    I can’t help but feel that had they gotten their faces out and supported their publishers’ national efforts, their sales may have been higher.

    I haven’t done the formal research that you recommend, but as one who sits in an editor’s chair all day and has a lot of fellow editor buds, the promotional lamet isn’t likely to disappear anytime soon.

  3. Bingo says:

    Oh, my success is hardly worth congratulations! I’m just one of the faceless throng …

    But in re. your buddies: how often do two authors work their asses off and -still- nobody knows the books exist? Just because they suffered tepid sales (as do I) that doesn’t mean that if they’d engaged in enthusiastic self-promotion, the sales would’ve increased. I’ve seen people invest six months in full-time promotion, and still have tepid sales. And not only that, but they didn’t get started on new books, because they were so invested in promotion.

    I know there are ten thousand examples of writers who fail to promote, and then the book fades into obscurity. But there are also ten thousand examples of writers who promote, and the book fades into obscurity.

    I guess it sounds like I’m saying that I don’t think self-promotion matters at all, which isn’t really true. I do think it increases the odds–slightly. It’s a little like making sure that the tires of your RV are properly inflated. Yes, that’ll increase your gas mileage. But you’re driving an -RV-. Tire inflation is hardly what’s guzzling all that gas.

    And there’s a cost. A seriously self-promoting writer slightly increases her chance of success with Book One, but takes months longer to finish Book Two. Does the earlier release of Book Two (and the eventual writing of more books over the lifetime of the author) make up for the ‘slight increase’ of self-promotion? I dunno. Maybe.

    I also think there’s a pretty natural bias on the part of publishers to encourage writers to self-promote. That doesn’t mean the encouragement isn’t justified, of course, but I do think the bias is something to be aware of. (And my bias, as a writer who dislikes self-promotion, is rather clear, too!)

  4. Of course, there are no guarantees that promotion will make a book successful, but I’m a gal who dislikes leaving any stone unturned. It isn’t publishers’ natural bias that has us looking for authors with a platform and encouraging author promotion; it’s survival.

    Everyone is operating on smaller budgets these days, and we have to do more with less. If I’ve invested thousands of dollars into a book, then I want my authors doing local promotion while I take care of the national stuff. Why? Because the first thing out of genre buyers’ mouths is, “What is the author doing to increase demand?”

    Those buyers already know what we’re doing. They want to know that the author is out there in their local community in order to increase awareness of the book’s existence. An author who does nothing equals a smaller purchase order and possibly a larger return ratio.

    I’m a writer as well, and I haven’t found that my promotional efforts get in the way of my writing or the publishing business. I’m incredibly organized; my first duties go to my authors, then to my personal promotion, then to my writing. It’s not that tough. For me, at least. Then again, there has been talk about my sanity…

    Anyway, Bingo, I hope you sell millions because this writing thing is way cooler than wearing one’s underwear backwards.

  5. Bingo says:

    ‘Not that tough!’ Clearly I’m doing this wrong.

    Seriously, though, if you don’t find that self-promotion–and a day job!–interferes with your writing, then you’re a completely different model of human than I am. Undoubtedly a more advanced one.

    I write full time. I despise weekends. I refuse holidays. Everything that isn’t writing interferes with my writing. If I falter for a day, and don’t focus on my writing, it takes me two more days to get back into the rhythm. A single book signing ruins three days.

    Hm. Maybe I’m inappropriately extrapolating from my neurosis. But I suspect that my personal crazy is pretty similar to that of many other writers.

    And yeah, I definitely agree that that is one thing that self-promotion actually does, and exceedingly well, is allows people on the other side of the desk to check a little box. Which ain’t nothing.

  6. self-promotion actually does, and exceedingly well, is allows people on the other side of the desk to check a little box. Which ain’t nothing.

    Oh, we do far more than check little boxes. But rather than sling arrows, we’ll just have to agree that we sit on opposite sides of this particular fence. I’m sure you’re a fabulous writer, and I’m happy you’re making a good living from your writing and are able to do this without stepping foot outside your office. You’re very fortunate. Most authors I know aren’t that fortunate.

  7. Bingo says:

    Oh, I hope I never claimed I made a -good- living!

  8. Well, crap. I’m pulling for you.

  9. Rosy T says:

    I found this a really interesting post, Lynn – and much of what you say about ‘pro’ and ‘am’ writers is right on the nail. But I think – speaking, at least, from a UK perspective – that you omit a middle category, into which I’d place myself – those who are serious about their writing even though it will never be a career. The reality over here at least, is that the vast majority of published authors do not make a living from their writing. (Bingo is one of the lucky ones!) The average advance is still only £8,000 sterling – and much lower if you look only at debut and midlist authors. Nobody can live on that.

    So, yes, of course authors have to do what they can in promotion terms, but realistically, the vast majority of us also have a day-job – probably full-time, if we have a family to support – and what with that and the writing, there is precious little time left for promotional work. My own experience (published with a major UK publisher) is that editors and publicity people fully understand this, and don’t expect that we can just drop everything and go on a book tour! Sales and marketing are the publisher’s job – they have armies of people employed to do it. The poor old author, trying to write the next book as well as earning a crust to support herself, tries to make herself as available as possible: she does what she can locally, or online, but what we can do is marginal compared with what the publisher’s sales and PR machine can do.

    So when you define the serious writer as one “whose intent is to make this silly writing thing a career” I think this is slightly misguided. I know many serious published novelists, and most of them, like me, know that writing will never be their main career. This doesn’t mean we are dilettantes. It means that we are realistic, and struggling to put what we can into our writing (and promotion, as required) whilst working away at the day job in order to pay the mortgage and feed the kids. Most realistic editors – knowing that the advances they pay aren’t enough to live on – understand this tricky balancing act.

  10. Thank you for your comments, Rosy. Most authors here in the US don’t make a living off their writing either, they and have day jobs. No one here expects authors to drop everything and go on a national book tour. I’m talking about doing local events, either in the evening or the weekend.

    All of my authors have day jobs. Adam Eisenberg, author of A Different Shade of Blue, is a judge, yet he does weekend events and some evening events. Because of he’s out there showing his face, he’s made the bestseller list for one of Seattle’s major bookstores for several weeks running.

    This is a book that could have easily slipped through the cracks because of its niche subject matter – women cops. But he hit the pavement running – while still maintaining his busy docket – and he’s doing quite well. I know for a fact that it’s due to his promotional efforts. Our sales teams were able to hit the Pacific Northwest like white on rice, and it stems from what he’s doing.

    So when you define the serious writer as one “whose intent is to make this silly writing thing a career”
    Sorry for the confusion. I’m not talking about authors who can make this their day job, but authors like you, who have many books churning inside of them and have the imagination, talent, and discipline to write. The hobbyist is the kind who usually becomes bored when things get a little tough. They also usually have only one book in them.

  11. Bingo says:

    Um, I feel after my comments above, that I should mention how lovely I find both this blog and your willingness to engage in comments, Lynn. Thanks for both! (And for making me think about this stuff; I’m determined to try harder with the self-promotion, next time. I’ve got a couple of YA novels on the way, and I suspect things are different in kidland.)

  12. […] “A publisher suggests there are two kinds of writers.” https://behlerblog.wordpress.com/2009/10/05/hobbyists-and-serious-sts/ […]

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