What the Heck Should I Call Myself, Anyway?

Today I’m honored to have as a guest blogger Annie Neugebauer, who has authored short stories, novels, and award-winning poetry. She shares with her blog readers wisdom, thoughtfulness, and more than a bit of whimsy. Enjoy!

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Aspiring. Writer. Author. Indie. Poet. Literary. Commercial. Vanity press. Award-winning.

If you’re in the book industry, you probably have opinions (or at least questions) about terms like these and when they are “correctly” applied. In fact, some of them are so prickly that people have come up with entirely new terms, like “word mongerer” and “story crafter” just to avoid using them. I’m not naming any names, but I have seen Twitter brawls break out over the use of “aspiring.”

So what are the answers? Are there hard and fast definitions? Qualifiers?

No, of course not. People will always disagree. But I do think there are logical distinctions between many of these words, and I’m here to offer a guide for your general consumption. Do with it what you will.

Writer

If you write, you can call yourself a writer. This is not an elitist club.

Aspiring Writer

If you write, you don’t need the “aspiring.” This is a term best used for very casual hobbyists who would like to write more often, or interested parties who would like to get around to writing someday. And those people probably aren’t reading this blog.

Author

Now here’s where people might start throwing tom-ay-toes. (Or tom-ah-toes, depending on your point of view.) I believe that “author” should and does carry the connotation of “published.” The mode of publishing is irrelevant. (I do get into some of those terms below.) If you’ve had your work published for the world to see, you’re an author. What counts as “published” is a matter you must settle for yourself.

Aspiring Author

Now this is a tricky one. According to the definition of “author” above, this term means “writer who aspires to be published.” But considering that every writer I’ve ever known would like to be published someday, I think this is a given. Thus, I vote that we veto this term and replace it with “writer,” which sounds more confident and implies the same goals.

Novelist, Poet, Memoirist, Playwright, etc.

These words are types of medium, not qualifiers. Like “writer,” you don’t have to earn them in blood or contracts. If you write novels, you’re a novelist. If you write poetry, you’re a poet. And so on.

Indie, Self-pub, Trad-pub, Vanity press

Oh boy. You know I had to go there. (Ed: link to Porter Anderson on Writer Unboxed.)

“Indie” originally stood for “independent press,” often called “small presses.” “Indie” has also come to stand for “independent author,” also known as “self-published.” One phrase for two totally different things is confusing at best, but that’s the way it is. Both parties seem unwilling to give up the title, and really, who’s going to make them?

The clearest-cut difference between these four terms is payment. Authors who go through traditional publishers or independent presses usually get paid an advance that they then earn out through book sales. These authors keep their advance regardless of the success of their book. Authors who self-publish or use vanity presses put their own money up-front to cover printing costs, and only get “paid back” if their book makes money.

With the swiftly changing book market, there are options in-between all of these. I think, as with so many of these terms, you must choose the term that feels the most honest for yourself and your situation. Accusing others of misuse is not helpful.

Commercial, Literary, Upmarket

Is it just me, or are these getting pricklier and pricklier? I have a whole blog post dedicated to answering the question, “What is literary fiction?” My theory is that literary fiction is actually three separate things: a genre, a style, and a qualifier. Others, including AgentQuery.com, define literary fiction as solely a genre, although even they use “quality” as a guideline, and as we all know, quality is subjective.

But regardless of what you think is true, there is no secret guild to certify the term. So what’s a writer to do? Well, I suggest doing your research: read, study, and familiarize yourself with generally agreed upon literary fiction. If you are familiar with it and confident that your own work belongs under that term, then Godspeed.

The same is true of “commercial fiction.” If you can easily define your work as one of the “genres,” such as mystery, romance, sci-fi, horror, fantasy, etc., you probably fall under this term. But again, you should do your research and then use the word that feels right to you.

If you truly believe you are both literary and commercial, I suggest looking into the term “upmarket fiction,” which is a blending of the two. Writer’s Digest talks about that here.

Scholar, Expert, Professional

These are interesting terms to throw in the mix. What makes someone a scholar? I would argue, based on the root word schol, which means (you guessed it) school, that a scholar is necessarily a student and/or teacher. So can someone incredibly knowledgeable about something be a scholar if they aren’t involved with school? I would say no. They could be an expert. But unless an expert has studied, taught, or written scholastic works, I wouldn’t consider them a scholar.

An expert, on the other hand, is someone so knowledgeable about a specific subject that others (preferably strangers) come to him/her for that knowledge. A professional, in any field, is someone who is paid for their work. So you can be a professional scholar, a scholarly expert, or even a professional expert (yes, really). Mix and match!

Award-winning

This is a squeazy one. (Yes, I made up that word.) Technically, if you have ever won any award for any writing, you are an “award-winning writer.” But considering how easy it can be to win small, local contests… I’m not sure I’m very impressed by this term.

Are you lying if you call yourself an award-winning poet if you’ve won a school contest that had 12 entrants? No, technically you are not. But let’s be honest; if everyone uses this phrase haphazardly, it means nothing to all of us. So I propose that we all save this term for A) large-scale awards, such as those on a state, national, or international level, and B) that you wait to use it until you have three or more such awards under your belt. This, of course, is somewhat arbitrary, but no one likes a fluffed-up resume.

However, if you only have one or two awards and are really proud of them, why not list them specifically? This often sounds more credible anyway.

Best-selling

Finally, a clear-cut one! If you’re in the top 10, no… 25. No, 50. Yeah. If you’re in the top 50 sellers on the New York Times Best Sellers list… or also the Barnes & Noble list. And maybe USA Today

Okay, forget it. Call yourself what you want. If you believe you’re being truthful, go with it. How about that? Let’s all be as honest as we can be, and give everyone else the benefit of the doubt that they’re doing the same.

I imagine that there will always be an ongoing debate over writing terminology. But hopefully laying it all out like this will facilitate calm, logical discussion, and perhaps give you a place to start.

That’s my take on it, anyway. What’s yours?

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Annie Neugebauer (@AnnieNeugebauer) is a short story author, novelist, and award-winning poet. She has work appearing or forthcoming in over two dozen venues, including The Spirit of Poe, Underneath the Juniper Tree, the British Fantasy Society journal Dark Horizons, and the National Federation of State Poetry Societies’ prize anthology Encore. She’s also a member of the Horror Writers Association, vice president of the Denton Poets’ Assembly, and president of the North Branch Writers’ Critique Group. She lives in Texas with her husband and two very naughty cats. You can visit her at www.AnnieNeugebauer.com for blogs, creative works, free organizational tools for writers, and more.

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

45 Responses to “What the Heck Should I Call Myself, Anyway?”

  1. When I was a technical writer working in a high-tech company, my title was changed from Technical Writer to “Learning Products Engineer.” I did the same job of course. Now, I’m still a writer but I call myself a “novelist-in-progress,” because I’m not published (I’ve written novels)…. once/if published, I suppose that will change. As for the “best seller,” category a writer friend recently told me that is a term up for grabs — because a book could be a bestseller on not only the places you mentioned but also on something much less obvious like a publisher’s or agent’s list. As you say, ongoing debate, I agree!

    • Hi Julia! Yes, the bestseller title can actually become a bit of a joke, if we aren’t careful. It’s one thing to specify, i.e.: “I was the bestseller at my local book festival” (still something to be proud of, I’d say), but a whole other thing to mislead, i.e.: “Bestselling author…” which I think makes most people envision national lists. Thanks for commenting!

  2. Annie, thank you so much for providing this fun and illuminating guest post on The Artist’s Road!

    I’ll lob a question your way, regarding the word “author.” You write: “I believe that “author” should and does carry the connotation of “published.” The mode of publishing is irrelevant. (I do get into some of those terms below.) If you’ve had your work published for the world to see, you’re an author.”

    By that definition, it would seem I have been an author since the early 80’s, when I had poems and short stories published in my high school literary magazine, or perhaps mid-80’s, when published in my college newspaper, or perhaps 1988, when I was first published in a professional magazine as a journalist. I’ve lost count of the number of news articles I’ve had published (it’s in the 1000s) and I’ve had creative writing published in literary journals. But I don’t call myself an “author,” not yet. I believe I can’t call myself that until I have a book-length work published by a professional publisher. (I’m okay with those who self-publish book-length works calling themselves authors, although I don’t plan to go the self-publishing route.) I take it you don’t limit the term “author” to writers of book-length works?

    • Thanks so much for having me here, Patrick! I’m honored to contribute.

      And as to your question about what constitutes an author… I think the line right after the quote you drew out is key: “What counts as ‘published’ is a matter you must settle for yourself.”

      Personally, I agree with you. I won’t feel comfortable calling myself an “author” until I have a book-length work published, because that’s what I ultimately think of as “published” in my head – as in that’s what my goal is when I say that word. That being said, I have had stories and poetry published in anthologies and literary magazines, so I am *technically* published. My compromise is to only use the word “author” when I specify in what vein, as in “short story author” in my bio above. This way I don’t feel that I’m misleading anyone into thinking I have my own book published yet. Does that make sense?

      When I get a novel or full-length book of poetry published, I will change my bio to “author” with no modifiers to the word, and that will be a happy day. =)

      • Thanks, Annie!

        The word “author” certainly has multiple uses nowadays. In writing workshops, we often refer to the person we’re workshopping as “the author,” an attempt to use the third person. And it’s not at all uncommon to say someone has “authored” a blog post. Perhaps we apply too much meaning to labels, which of course is a point of your piece.

        • True enough. I think we’ve seen here that an argument can be (and probably has been) made for both sides of every term. I think there’s a lot of value in contemplating what we call ourselves, not just for accuracy but also for personal honesty, but in the end we have to let others do the same – even if they disagree.

  3. I love going to the dictionary to look up words and phrases, not only when I’m unsure of a particular definition, but just to look at what those Lexiconians came up with (hehe, special breed of hmm…authors…or writers…or scholars or…?)

    This post piqued my curiosity yet again and I went to dictionary.com and discovered there are slight differences to the nouns ‘writer’ and ‘author’ as far as they are concerned. The first definition of writer is:a person engaged in writing books, articles, stories, etc., especially as an occupation or profession; an author or journalist.” while the first entry for ‘author’ is: “person who writes a novel, poem, essay, etc.; the composer of a literary work.”

    When I hear the word ‘author’ I was assuming that the writer has a book(s) published as well. I consider people who write blog posts or professionally-written articles in traditional media or literary pieces,as ‘writers’.

    After mulling it over, I believe writers have the ‘right’ to call themselves authors if they’ve completed a book(s) whether they are published or not. Nothing ‘aspiring’ about having actually done all that work!🙂

    • How interesting! I’m a little surprised by how similar the dictionary definitions are, to be honest.

      I think bloggers and essayists could and should call themselves authors *if* that’s their main goal, and they are published accordingly. In other words, if I’m a blogger for a career and my biggest dream is to be published at the New York Times blog, then once I am I might decide to call myself an author. Whereas I (in real life) blog and have been published elsewhere, but still wouldn’t call myself an author because blogging isn’t what I personally mean when I say “I want to be an author.”

      In other words, I think everyone’s goals are different, and thus everyone should feel slightly different about terminology. We all have to be true to ourselves, in the end.

      Thanks for your thoughts, Carole!

  4. This does clarify a lot, but in the end, personally I don’t care what the labels are.
    If I see best-selling behind the name of an author, I’m not more impressed. In fact, I may be even less impressed. The cynical little voice in my head chimes up and says, “Yeah? We’ll see.” Its the words between the pages or on the e-reader that matter most to me, not the proclamations. Same goes for award winning. If you haven’t listed the names of the rewards, it doesn’t mean all that much to me.
    I think the only term that really annoys/baffles me is “aspiring”. When I see that, the voice inside my head says, “Well? What are you waiting for?”

  5. This gets so muddy, doesn’t it? Especially with the trad-pub/self-pub chaos going on right now. As a very soon-to-be self-pubber, I do like the term “indie”, though I’m also very aware that it’s kind of stolen, lol! It’s not stolen in bad spirits though – Independent author is just really long and clumsy to say. But really, as long as you don’t call me a “vanity publisher” then we’ll be fine.😉

    I’m personally okay calling someone an author if they have a completed or substantial work. They are the author of that work. To me at least, it’s more a functional term than anything. Especially true of bloggers who write very substantial and brilliant collections on their blogs (whether it be non-fiction, or fiction). Some of them may never wish to re-publish that content for money, but the blog itself is still a substantial work, and I’d say they were they author of it, not “the person who writes X” or whatever, lol!

    The whole commercial/literary/upmarket thing busts my brain! It is useful to consider that upmarket is a blend of both literary and commercial. I’m not sure I’ve ever thought of it that way. Upmarket, I think I’ll claim that one!😀

    Great post, Annie! And hello, Patrick! Nice to meet you!🙂

    • Thanks Laura! I personally don’t have a problem with self-pubbers calling themselves “indie” authors, but I know it’s such a volatile subject in the field. And that’s a really good point about people who have substantial bodies of work that aren’t officially compiled in book form. The writers of really big blogs sometimes say “is the author of Really Big Blog”, and that never even gives me pause. So yes, I agree that that can “count” — especially if the blog is heavily themed and/or the success of that blog (or collection of essays, etc.) is that person’s ultimate goal as a writer. Great thoughts!

    • Nice to meet you as well, Laura. Thank you for visiting!

  6. Great post, Annie! I enjoyed reading your views on what all these terms mean to you. You explain each one, and your beliefs and thoughts regarding it, so clearly. I clicked on your link to your post about literary writing and found that post a great read too. So many times a person will ask me what literary writing is, and it’s difficult to explain to a person who hasn’t read much, or who thinks they have and thinks they don’t like it. Maybe I’ll just save your link and pass it along to them. Haha!

  7. Great post, Annie! You’ve raised issues that get many of us where we live and explored them with great clarity.

    I was considering changing the wording on one of my bios to say that I “enjoy screenwriting and travel writing” (instead of labeling myself as a screenwriter and a travel writer) because I didn’t want to mislead. I’ve finished two screenplays but I’m not a produced script writer. And I’ve been a travel blogger for three years on my own site, Milliver’s Travels, but I haven’t been paid to write travel articles for another publication. Your article suggests those are legit labels to give myself. However, reading some of the other comments here, I’m still conflicted.

    • Milli, I don’t think you should even hesitate to call yourself a screenwriter or a travel writer. Some people disagree about the use of the word “author,” but I haven’t heard anyone disagree (yet, at least) about the use of the word “writer.” If you write screenplays and travel essays, you truly are a screenwriter and travel writer. I think — and this, of course, is just my opinion — that the only gray area would be if you wanted to start calling yourself an author of those things. And even then, you could make an argument for “author”, as you can see in the comments above. For what it’s worth, I say full steam ahead!

  8. So fun to see YOU here at Patrick’s this week, Annie. Wow, the whole “name game” thing IS complicated, isn’t it? I like the way you’ve educated us, but, in the end, allow us to use the honor system as we craft our bios. Thank goodness, I’m using award-winning correctly🙂. Like you and Patrick (having been published multiple times in non-book-length venues), I’m waiting for that happy day to call myself “author.”

    Also love your humor: “So you can be a professional scholar, a scholarly expert, or even a professional expert (yes, really).” Semantics, semantics. And, as you know, I thought your ‘literary fiction’ definitions post was brilliant.

  9. Oh, Annie. This reminds me of when I asked people what constitutes art! Nice job, as usual, being rational on a weirdly touchy subject. I’ve just started calling myself superhero badass (and then wearing my cape so no one questions my credentials).

    • Hi j! I would advise you watch Pixar’s The Incredibles at some point, so you learn the hazards of superhero cape-wearing…🙂 You can always just go with the old standby, wearing your underwear on the outside of your clothing.

      • Yes, but the danger of cape wearing is part of what makes me such a badass. I could still do the underwear thing. They’re not mutually exclusive to a fashion disaster like me!

    • Haha! Like Quail Man! (I’m thinking only 90’s children get that reference.) You are a superhero badass if I’ve ever known one.🙂 Thanks J!

  10. Thanks. Lots to consider. My two cents? Once some of my work/stories got into literary journals (early 2000s) I was okay calling myself a “published author.” Because I had to query, be accepted, get edited, and jump through the publishers’ various hoops, the label made sense to me. I’d had poems and articles published since the late 80s … but hadn’t dealt with serios editors/publishers who pushed me the way a good editor does. So, though I don’t yet have a published book-length piece, I’m okay with author. Most of my work, I consider literary nonfiction … with a little literary fiction. Again, pretty comfortable at this point with those terms despite no published book … yet.

    • Good for you, Terri! I, too, call myself a short story author, so I totally agree. Once you’ve gotten past the gates and worked with editors, “author” seems like a pretty appropriate term — whether or not you specify what length works you’ve published. Congrats on that, and good luck with the book!

  11. Hi Annie

    Enjoyed reading this post. Thanks for explaining the terms so clearly.
    I’m sure they shall slip my mind, so I’m saving this post for my personal reference.

  12. Annie, this is great! Reminds me of your breakdown of literary fiction. You’re good at analyzing this stuff!

  13. I actually like the term indie writer. It feels closer to what I think I do than the rather academic term of Self Published Author. No, I don’t have a contract, no I don’t get paid unless I sell, but I write and I’m independent, therefore I am an indie writer.

  14. I think you have every right to call yourself what you feel comfortable with. And independent writer does have a certain industrious quality to it, which might better encompass the many hats self-publishers have to wear these days.

    • When I was a regularly-published writer of articles for magazines and newspapers, I took to calling myself an independent writer. I learned that from a group I belonged to, which was Independent Writers of Southern California. It felt fresher than freelance (which smelled a tiny bit like being a mercenary, which I really was).

      Once I started getting nonfiction books published, I just said “I’m a writer.” Now that I’ve had it with nonfiction (except my blog and love advice column), and all I want to do is improve my fiction skills and a novel or two published, I find “writer” is still the most apt. And you don’t have to write every day to still call yourself a writer, I believe. There will be slack times, but I’m not about to go to school to be a nurse, or take up painting, or become an actress or businesswoman (except where the writing forces me to do the latter). So that’s how I see myself: a writer. It feels right.

  15. Hi Susan! I totally agree that daily writing isn’t required to be a writer. All that’s required is writing — and probably some kind of commitment to doing so, regardless of how often or how consistent that is. A writer is a writer, and you definitely are one. That term has always felt right to me, too.

  16. Before checking into it , I would have thought “Author” was someone who finished writing a book and was published. “Aspiring Author” as someone who finished writing a book, but not yet published.

  17. Reminded me of this time in seventh grade when our school librarian came to talk to our class and she started saying something along the lines of, “You are all authors,” and in my head, I was like, “BULL! I call BULL!” (I was already a very dedicated writer by then.)

    And I’m a writer. Even after I’ve (hopefully) reached the qualifiers that many people would use to consider someone an ‘author’, I think I might still want to call myself a writer. When I think of an author, I think of Veronica Roth, or Suzanne Collins, or Anne Rice. Someone that just introduces their butt to chair, and writes a gleaming novel. (Even though I know that’s not how it works at all. Ever. In a gajillion years.) When I think of a writer, I think more of what I hope I’ll always be: sitting in my hammock-swing, procrastinating, listening to music, and writing. I’m also already quite arrogant, on occasion, and if I started to call myself an author, I think I would fall over from my head being so big!😀

    (Wow, at least half of this comment doesn’t make much sense, does it?)

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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