On Authorship and Authority
That “authority” and “author” share the same root is a given in publishing circles. To become an author you should have authority in your subject, and those with authority often write books. The trajectory of authorship goes like this: You work to become an expert in a particular topic. You author articles and books. The more you publish, the more you embody the very definition of authority: “the confident quality of someone who knows a lot about something.”
When it comes to how one builds authority, modern authorship (and life) may give us pause. Self-publishing has made it so that anyone can publish anything–forget the need to be an expert, or even to know a lot about anything. Our culture also celebrates people who know very little about nothing, and books about nothing regularly top bestseller lists.
There’s a difference between books about nothing and books without substance, of course. Patti Smith’s new (very literary) memoir, M Train, is a bit of a mediation about nothing. The opening line reads, “It’s not so easy writing about nothing.” Seinfeld, famously, is a thought-provoking show about “nothing.” You can write novels and memoirs from a kind of authority that doesn’t require accumulating years of study or apprenticeship. You can gain your authority to publish from lived experience. People even write self-help books from that place of authority. Brene Brown, Byron Katie, and Iyanla Vanzant are among just a handful of famous self-help authors whose authority lies in their willingness and capacity to write and share about their own hard knocks (and embarrassing/shameful/low moments).
This question of authority came up for me recently because I interviewed Elizabeth Gilbert about her new book, Big Magic. I asked her if this was a book she’d been thinking about writing for a long time, and her response was yes, about twelve years. Why had it taken that long?
I think that I honestly didn’t feel that I quite had the authority yet. I needed to feel like I had a few more books under my belt, that I could really stand on my record. You know, if I was going to throw myself out there and say, I’m going to tell you how to do this thing, then I had to know that I was smoking what I was selling, basically.
Refreshing. And a model for how authors might think about what they publish and in what order. Many authors simply don’t have the patience to wait to cultivate their own expertise. An aspiring author may have three or four ideas and feel compelled to write the BIG IDEA rather than the IDEA TO PUT THEM ON THE MAP because they don’t fully grasp the value of planting seeds, tending to an author platform that could (and frankly will) take years and years to grow.
Publishing in your area of (growing) expertise across multiple mediums is invaluable. This is what growing an author platform is all about. You publish guest blog posts, try to get published in print, create a podcast, write an ebook. Aspiring authors toiling away on a single memoir or novel for ten-plus years and tending to nothing else but that are not growing their expertise. And it’s fine if you only intend to ever publish one book, but if this is your publishing path, you need to have very tempered and modest sales expectations.
Author experts are not made overnight, and getting published writing under your belt (including books, of course) is the key to true authority (and by extension success). No matter what your genre, your author trajectory is the same: Publish a lot of content wherever you can. Your first book should serve no other motive than to put you on the map. (If it does more than that, awesome. If you sell a lot of copies and get rich, you’re an anomaly.) A first book’s job is to establish you as a writer, to garner good reviews (and hopefully sell a decent number of copies), and to set you up for subsequent books. Keep writing, keep publishing, keep refining your ideas and opinions and thoughts. Cultivate your authority and don’t be surprised or impatient if the pace of your growth sometimes feels excruciatingly slow. That’s part of the journey.