A I think you are describing the lifestyle of most writers there, both published and unpublished. The majority of the ‘professional’ authors I know have to juggle writing with raising a family and often some other form of paid work as well. It is bloody hard work.
Your question assumes a difference between hobbyist and professional and I get what you mean by that but the reality is that there often isn’t a difference apart from the fact that the latter gets paid, and even then it might not be very much. In my experience, if there is a difference it is that the professional often treats their writing as a job and gives over a block of time each day to work on their current project and, usually, only their current project. They focus on that, put in X hours a day or week and, once a first draft is complete, they rework it and refine it to get it right. Sometimes the hobbyist can be so pleased at getting a book finished (i.e. the whole thing written) that they do not spend as much time rewriting and refining it. Lots do, but some don’t. I read a lot of manuscripts on authonomy that are clearly several rewrites away from being close to finished. That’s not a bad thing, authonomy is a place to get feedback on works in progress, but it is noticeable.
Oh, and another difference is that professionals often have other professionals – publishers, editors, copy editors, proofreaders, designers etc. – work on their books once they hand them over. So, thinking about it, if the hobbyist wants to spend time ‘growing up’ then it might be an idea to spend some of that time working with other people who are experts in their field and can help.
Q How do agents/ publishers feel about working with a writer who has a job with such long and high commitment (e.g. medicine) that deadlines would need to be prolonged? Or would they rather such a writer had completed a set of novels first?
A Usually agents and/or publishers only take authors on once their work is complete, or in a reasonably advanced state, so I don’t think it would be a massive concern. I actually publish books by more than one doctor, seeing as you mention medicine in your question, and I have had to be patient (pun noted but not intended) when it comes to sequels and follow-up books but the initial books were pretty much written when they came to me. For big mass-market commercial fiction publishers are often looking for authors who can write a book a year, so that may be a concern, but in most other genres and areas of publishing that sort of frequency is not required.
Q We are often told the world is changing, but it still seems agents and publishers remain the gatekeepers for novels. Has there truly been any change within “traditional” publishing in the face of the new digital free-for-all, or are we being hoodwinked by excitable technophiles?
A It used to be pretty much impossible for a self-published author to break through to the mainstream but the digital revolution has changed that and such authors can not only secure traditional book deals on the back of their self-published sales but can also carve out a successful career without needing a traditional publisher at all. I do believe, but then I would, that publishers can bring a lot to the table but they are no longer 100% essential in every case. Having said that, even the most ardent supporter of self-publishing would privately admit that it is easy to tell the difference between a self-pub ebook or print book and one from a traditional publisher most of the time.
Q As I understand it, new published authors are asked to do as much self promotion as a self publishing author does (or more to the point should do). So what’s the true “added value” of a traditional publisher?
A PR and promotion is interesting. You will struggle to find anyone better connected that a book publicist and a good one can take a book to another level but they have lots of projects to work on and can only concentrate on a new title for a certain period of time. Outside of that it really helps to be a good self-promoter or even to take on your own PR people if resources allow.
The true added value of a traditional publisher is significant and would result in a lengthy list but highlights would include great design, a proper edit, a proper proof read, the ability to plug into the sales, marketing and PR teams, the decades of experience, the connections, the relationships with retailers. I could go on.
Q What do you seek in your relationship with the “perfect book”?
A As a publisher I am looking for a book which a) I believe readers will enjoy and hopefully love, b) that they’ll tell other people about and c) from an author who I think has more to come.