As freelance checks start rolling in, I recently paid my membership dues to the IGDA (I had been part of the Writers special interest group for several months now, but I hadn’t had the spare $48 to put in my membership dues — whoops). I also decided to apply for membership to the Horror Writers Association, and was pleasantly surprised to see my application accepted within a couple of hours. During all of this, I got a lot of well-wishes, but also stumbled across a couple of side discussions (related to the SFWA, actually) about how membership in such organizations constitutes being a “professional.”
And that got me thinking a bit.
For years, my definition of professional was simple, and similar to that used for athletes: a professional gets money, while an amateur doesn’t. Over the years, with the rise of self-publishing and Kickstarters, there’s been this change to imply a certain amount of quality control to professionals. Nuances of “getting paid” vs. “making money” have been bandied around, and for a while I fell into the trap of trying to draw such lines myself. I mean, I’ve been a professional by my own definitions for over a decade now, and there’s a certain comfort in drawing the lines to include me and exclude those whose quality I dislike. But that’s arbitrary, pointless, and ultimately mean.
So instead, I started thinking about what professionalism means to people. It’s a fuzzy topic, and it gets fuzzier as business models evolve, but I think people generally have some mixture of three concepts when they think of someone as a professional.
The first factor I eluded to above. Many people equate financial income for artistic work to constitute professionalism. And, at some level, it’s hard to argue with that — if you’re making money, or even (dare I say it?) a living by performing art, there’s a certain clarity to the situation. “I am a professional writer, because my primary job is writing.” It’s very binary function is appealing.
And yet, for years writing wasn’t my primary job, but rather a secondary one. Was I not “professional” during that time? Also, I have sometimes posted free things on the Internet — are they not professional? When I wrote the Holmes essays, were they amateur until I compiled them into Watson Is Not An Idiot? What about if I take a low-paying job for a friend?
The point is, “a professional gets paid” is a stickier question than it first appears.
The next factor is explicitly nebulous — artistic quality. These are the kinds of arguments that unfairly get lumped into the “self-published/indie” vs. “published via another company” distinction. It’s a yearning for some sort of gatekeeper, a level of quality assurance that a third party company can and will vet bad quality products and keep them from reaching the light of day.
This one is easier to refute with examples, but harder to dismiss. While you can certain find examples to both arguments, and point out the decreasing creativity in established areas to balance out the decreasing quality in indie circles, but the reality is simple logistics – a company has more resources to use on a product. But I do think a creative who works for other clients is forced to try new things and consider ideas he wouldn’t before, which helps him grow. There’s just something about working with someone outside your own head that’s hard to replicate.
So, working for a client can make your work of higher quality, but it’s not an inherent quality of working through a gatekeeper.
And finally, there’s “professional bearing,” or whether someone comports themselves as a professional. And in this case, it’s all over the board — I’ve met some of the more professional-acting people in the fanfic and mod communities, and met some childish assholes who make way more money than me.
What’s worse, there’s no single metric for professionalism. I was blown away to learn that, for example, some RPG companies don’t have comprehensive outlines for their products. I had internalized this as a “professional” mode of work, but in reality it’s just my own work process. Same with online behavior — some of the more vocal and opinionated people online I know are still intensely professional in how they conduct themselves.
Does being nice and speaking well mean “professional?” I would argue that Chuck Wendig is intensely professional, but he has strong opinions and strong language, and isn’t afraid to share either. Is it an unwillingness to comment on the business you’re a part of? Michael Stackpole is a professional by just about any metric you can think of, and he is extremely open about his perspectives on the industry he works in.
So What Is A Professional?
Well, I consider myself one, both as a narrative designer of games and a writer of horror. That’s why I finally plunked money down to two organizations — to help me continue to grow in those fields. But I wonder sometimes if the decision to be a professional isn’t someone else’s, but mine alone. I think if more people felt they were professionals, whether other people agreed or not, things would be better off.