In his controversial book The Cult of the Amateur, Andrew Keen argued that one of the downsides of democratization is the empowering of amateurs. Nowadays, anyone with a social media platform -- no matter how unprofessional, extreme, inflammatory, wrong-headed, or downright wacko they happen to be -- can broadcast their thoughts to the world. Pure volume of "hits" can empower just about anyone. Which creates a problem. As Keen puts it:
By empowering the amateur, we are undermining the authority of the experts.This principle is at work, I believe, in the writing community. What makes someone a "writing expert"? Are there any real writing "experts" anymore? What qualifies writing advice as good advice? And with the market in so much flux, is it possible that those we once viewed as "experts" must surrender their market cred to the more forward thinking?
For this reason, nowadays, being an aspiring author can be rather overwhelming. There is so much writing advice available, much of it contradictory, it's hard to discern the "experts" from the "amateurs," who to listen to and who to dismiss. Heck, are "experts" and "amateurs" even legitimate categories anymore?
I recently met with my critique group and we were brainstorming about ways to pool our talents to help ourselves and other writers. It was a fun discussion that caused us to reflect more on our own career paths and some relatively new models that could benefit groups like ours. (I go more in-depth into the details of that discussion in this post: What Writers Talk About When No One's Listening.) The big question for me was what qualifies me to give advice to other writers?
I am a hybrid author (2 trad published novels, 2 self-published); in many respects, I'm probably an "average" sampling of the writing community. I've been pursuing a professional writing career for almost a decade, am agented, have attended writers conferences, taught at writers conferences, have a decent résumé, and don't mind offering my two cents about writing when asked. I have a completed non-fiction project and an Urban Fantasy in the chutes for publication. So I'm still truckin'.
But by many counts, I'm still an amateur. At least, I'm no "expert."
I haven't earned back royalties for my first two trad novels. I have no formal education in writing, no BA or MFA in Creative Writing. I'm not a New York Times bestseller. None of my stories have been optioned for movies. I haven't won any awards, so I'm not an "award winning author." My full-time job is in construction for a school district -- I'm not even a full-time author!
So what qualifies me to give advice to authors about writing?
That's how I put it to my critique group that day. And was soundly rebuked. "You may not be an 'expert,'" they said. "But you have something to offer other writers." Listen, it's encouraging to think that my advice or observations could be helpful to someone. Really. But at what point is my "expertise" just a blasted opinion? Or an educated guess? In other words, I'm no "expert." I'm just an average writer plugging away, learning the ropes, trying to get my voice heard amidst the cacophony. If someone can glean some wisdom from my mishaps, mis-adventures, and advice, that's icing on the cake.
But I'm no expert.
And half the writers who are now considered "experts" aren't much different than me.
The new world of publishing, the one that empowers authors and wrests control from those myopic gatekeepers, has turned amateurs into experts. The rise of indies, across the board, has been a good thing. A great thing! The downside, however, is that just about anyone can position themselves as in-the-know. Land a significant endorsement, pay for a good cover, start some social media chatter and, bingo, you're an authority.
I can't help but side with Keen's observation -- by empowering amateurs, "we are undermining the authority of experts." At the least, we are diminishing the advice of seasoned writers and publishing professionals in favor of what works, what's affordable, and what's trending.
Things are changing SO fast in the writing industry, it could rightly be asked whether or not there ARE real experts anymore. However you answer that, it's the opposite that I fear: That anyone who has published a book or two, has a website, and an internet connection, can now be considered an "expert."