What does being a “published author” mean in a digital age?

Laplace by Harold Hoyer

Laplace by Harold Hoyer

“Published author” is used all over the place, but is a slippery beast to define. At South by Southwest I heard it dozens of times, and I’m not sure any two people used it exactly the same way. Hearing it at the Wiley Author Party was very different from hearing it at digital publishing panels, or just talking with people about it over beers.

Do you have to charge for your book to be “published”? Does it have to be in print? Can a PDF ebook download on a website qualify? It’s all shades of gray, but since the term is so prevalent I thought I could pin it down.

I started the discussion with a Google+ discussion, then followed it up in our weekly Books & Beer video chat. Things got interesting.

How does someone qualify as a published author?

Here is where I started, with a list of things that seemed like a reasonable litmus test:

  • Work can be digital or print – Digital-only publication is well able to support an author as a career. Trees need not die in your name.
  • Self-publishing is still publishing – A contract with a big publishing house may be cool, but is no longer required. Most of the same work needs to happen, and the end result is often the same.
  • Work must be available in a major outlet(s) – Could be Amazon.com, iBooks, or the end-cap at Barnes & Noble. Readers should be able to have easy access to get your work in the largest marketplaces. A PDF ebook download on your website can take a long time to create, but people aren’t going to find it while shopping.
  • Must have an ISBN number – This is table stakes, even if you’re self-publishing. It makes you easily compatible with all major book tracking systems, and isn’t a step you can skip just because you’re flying solo.
  • Price is irrelevant – Books have multiple funding models, and there is great published material out there available for free. You do not have to be charging the reader.

Two things I intentionally left off this list after some debate:

  • Quality doesn’t matter – There is a lot of junk in the ebook market, but there has been junk on bookshelves since Gutenberg finished his little project. Probably before. This is always the amusing asterisk when someone brags they are a published author – “published” has never guaranteed someone is any damned good.
  • Word count doesn’t matter – I struggled with this one, because a 10,000 word short-story could legitimately be a popular published work, so why not 9,000? 8? Part of me feels there should be some lower level to this, but I’m having a hard time justifying it or deciding what it should be.

Does this represent a good threshold for someone to consider themselves a “published author”? Most people seemed to agree it was, but a few people asked whether the number of copies you sold should factor in. Do you need to sell any at all? This is a question of reach, and probably gets closer to a discussion of quality. If “published author” just means you’ve accomplished some technical steps, how many books you actually sell is a different (but valid) discussion.

Where things really got interesting were from people who said the whole topic was meaningless.

Why define published author at all?

105119 by El Bibliomata

105119 by El Bibliomata

Not having been around the publishing sphere much prior to things going digital I looked at the term as some measure of technical experience.

I never saw it as a mark of quality, as I’ve known fantastic unpublished authors and horrible published ones, but more like a merit badge for having navigated the halls of publishing, contracts, writing deadlines, editing, and all those hoops you have to jump through to get your book on a shelf. Not everyone sees it that way. At all.

I ran headlong into some very raw feelings about the term, and the impression that many people use it simply to be exclusionary or elitist. I’d already noticed people often defined it so that whatever they had previously accomplished qualified, but I was surprised by the level of derision. Several people didn’t see any value from using the term at all. Hated it, in fact.

Maybe the idea behind “published author” has come to an end in an age where some people who publish blog posts on a regular basis get more readers than many mainstream books. Perhaps its use won’t settle out until the publishing industry itself finishes transforming itself.

Either way, the term is still popping up quite often, so I’ll be rolling with my definition above for the next little while.

  • mangozoid

    My own argument for defining what a ‘published author’ is would have to start from the outset with the basis that someone else — an independent publisher — has seen fit to publish your work, and in this context, so-called ‘vanity publishing’ does not an author make.
    I appreciate that many self-published ‘authors’ can and do make a living from their work, but I personally believe these ‘vanity-publishers’ have a very long way to go before I’d even consider placing them in the same category as an author like Patterson, Atwood, Harris, Herbert, King, Reynolds, etc. Such accolade or association would seem highly inappropriate and somewhat unfair, even disrespectful, not to mention opening up a whole new can of worms involving the definition and perception of quality writing from what I’d personally term ‘a real author’ and the value thereof, as opposed to those writers who are merely ‘published’. The latter, as you rightly point, would seem to indicate (at the very least I’d hope), a full and proper appreciation of the physical process of ‘going through the motions’ just to make it onto Amazon, rather than necessarily being an indication of the perceived quality of such work…

    • http://improvmedia.com Jeff Moriarty

      Why is a third party being involved important? If all the steps are the same then all a third party is possibly bringing to the table is an independent evaluation of quality.

      I think “published” and “quality” have never really meant the same thing, but many people equated them. The terms are becoming more distinct, and it is much easier for someone to become validly published. How we determine the quality material among the growing body of published work is another, also very interesting discussion.