Wednesday, December 5, 2007

An Author Is Just Like a Doctor, Except ...

In response to last week's post, Burl Barer, who on his own website proclaims himself to be a "brilliant author," commented:
"Self-published makes you an author in the same way that buying a stethoscope makes you a doctor. You don't fool anyone, not even yourself." 

Just how brilliant is Burl's analogy? And are we fooling ourselves?

The question seems to be, what makes someone an author and how does this compare to what makes someone a doctor. To begin, we need to define both author and doctor. I did some research on widely accepted definitions of these terms.

  • Author: "A writer of a book or article; a person who originates a plan or idea." (Oxford English Dictionary, 2005) "The original writer of a literary work; one who practices writing as a profession; an originator or creator." (American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 3rd Ed. 1992) Hmmm. No mention of who publishes the book or article the author has written—or in fact, whether it has even been published.

  • Doctor: "A person who is qualified to practice medicine." (Oxford English Dictionary 2005) "A person, especially a physician, dentist, or veterinarian, trained in the healing arts and licensed to practice." (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, (3rd Ed. 1992)

Key differences here are that a doctor needs to have qualifications and a license, while an author must create an original work and—if we want to use the strictest definition—practice writing as a profession. Perhaps it's the idea of practicing writing as a profession that Burl and others of the old guard believe differentiates self-published authors from "real" authors. So lets' look at definitions of profession and professional and see if we can apply them similarly to authors and doctors.

  • Profession: "A paid occupation, especially one involving training and a formal qualification." (Oxford English Dictionary 2005) "An occupation requiring considerable training and specialized study." (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, (3rd Ed. 1992)

  • Professional:"Engaged in an activity as a paid occupation rather than as an amateur; worthy of or appropriate to a professional person; competent." (Oxford English Dictionary 2005) " Engaging in a given activity as a source of livelihood or as a career; performed by persons receiving pay; having or showing great skill; expert." (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, (3rd Ed. 1992)

The specialized training and qualification thing certainly fits doctors. Do I want my doctor to be highly qualified? Absolutely. And I'm glad the government takes care of this for me by requiring physicians to be licensed. No way do I want some amateur surgeon taking out my appendix.

But we clearly don't hold writers to the kind of standards we require of doctors. It's hard to make a case that all authors published by traditional publishers have considerable training and formal qualifications. While some have studied creative writing or journalism, many have had no formal training as writers. And unlike academics and scientists whose articles must pass through peer review before being published in professional journals, nonfiction book authors can write and traditionally publish work that would never survive scientific review. As an example, take a look at some of the diet books out there.

It's easy to come up with lists of badly written fiction and poorly researched nonfiction books that have been published by mainstream publishers, many of which have done very well in the marketplace. And it's equally easy to generate lists of well-written fiction and bona fide informative nonfiction books that are self-published.

So where does that leave us? Unless we're prepared to set up licensing boards to make sure authors meet certain standards, we can't be comparing authors to doctors when we discuss who is entitled to the title. That's the problem with analogies, Burl. They don't prove anything.


  1. The beauty of words is the fact that we redefine them all the time. Their meanings aren't fixed for all eternity. What a doctor is today he may not be tomorrow.A few years ago no one would have accepted that one could be published without using up tonnes of paper but the world is changing. The term "electronic rights" had to be invented, defined and it continues to be redefined.Traditional publishing is not what it once was; it can't keep pace. It pays lip service to it's authors because that is all it has time for. It should be grateful to have some of the load taken off its back. Maybe the quality of the books it does get round to churning out will improve.

  2. I've never understood why we self-published authors have such difficulty getting respect, while self-published recording artists (i.e., "independent label") and filmmakers have not experienced this problem.Still, thee are a number of steps we as self-publishers can take to get that respect, that all-important third-party credibility. Reviews, testimonials, articles/excerpts, awards...all of these and many more. (I discuss these in quite a bit of detail in my seventh book, Grassroots Marketing for Authors and Publishers--and yes, that book was self-published too.)

  3. As a newly self-published author I have so much more respect for the industry, authors, and especially self-published authors. This discussion truly speaks to my soul right now. Prior to publishing my book I didn't have a clue as to how many hats a self-published author would need to wear. Nor did I phantom how difficult it would be to gain recognition for my book. As with may other projects I have accomplished in my life Nike's slogan is what has gotten me thus far--Just Do It. For all authors--especially self-published--I bow to you with grand acknowledgement!!! When I got an award for my book as finalist in self-help relationship I felt as though I had won the lottery.