What is an SME? It’s a business acronym (and companies loves them some acronyms something fierce) for Subject Matter Expert. I’ve been labeled one at my Day Job thanks to my expertise regarding check printing and OFAC regulations (w/r/t checking accounts). How did I get there? Well, I’d originally been a Jack of All Trades in my position, but over the years I’d become more and more knowledgeable in this sort of stuff, to the point where I could write FAQs and easy to understand How-To’s for my coworkers and new hires. I’ve had managers from other departments requesting my input on related things. And to add to that, I can also go on vacation like I did this week and not have to worry about my team completely falling apart trying to do my job in my absence.
Granted, I didn’t learn all this over the course of a few weeks. I started working specifically with checking around 2008 and OFAC around 2012. Some of it was learned via outdated documentation, and a lot of it was learned on the fly. In short, I decided that this was a narrow-focus subject I could pick up on and get to know in detail.
So what does this have to do with writing?
Good question! Right about the same time I started learning more about OFAC, I’d made a conscious decision to become an SME on writing novels…at least to the level where I could feasibly do it myself instead of farming it out to someone else. It was twofold: I really did want to know more about the process, and I wanted to see if I could pull it off. So over the next five years, I dedicated myself to learning as much as I could about the writing and self-publishing process.
I wouldn’t say I’m an SME at all facets of the writing business, far from it. My focus is deliberately narrow: I know a goodly amount about novel writing, self-publishing, self-editing, cover art production, and so on. I’m still a n00b when it comes to the marketing and promotion side of it, though I’m making an effort to learn more about that as well. And most importantly, I enjoy being at this level of knowledge. Writing is one of the few creative avenues where I’m able to think multiple steps ahead and see all the moving parts of the whole. Knowing what to do with all those parts makes me a better writer.
There’s also the fact that I’m a huge fan of Paying It Forward. This is why I post entries like this…I like the idea of helping out other writers, clearing the path for them so they can see where they need to go. If I can take what I’ve learned and make it easy for others to pick it up as well, so much the better.
Does an author have to be an SME? Another good question; and I would answer that by saying ‘only to the level they need to be at.’ You want to know how to write in your specific genre, of course, and you want to be good enough at it so your readers won’t feel cheated by a poorly written story. You may farm out the editing and the cover and the distribution (or that may be left to your publishing house), either because you’re not good at it or you’re simply not that interested in taking the time for it. Nowadays you might want to have at least a moderate amount of knowledge about promotion, considering the current state of publishing. [As an aside, it never hurts to know a bit about the various parts of the process anyway, so your conversations with editors/cover artists/etc won’t be as confusing and/or scary.]
Think of it this way: when you bring your car into the shop, you can either trust the mechanic, or you can also understand what the mechanic has to do. There’s no right or wrong here; it’s all about how much you want to know about the moving parts. For some it’s advanced algebra, for others it’s utterly fascinating. It’s completely up to you.