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Authors Guild: Solitude and Solidarity

Image – iStockphoto: Katharina 13

Writers, among some of the most solitary workers in the world, can find growing support and services in a newly redirected Authors Guild that favors the majority, not the few.

Writing Alone, Working Together

To quote the immortal Alistair Cooke on Masterpiece Theatre, “Last time, as you’ll remember …” I was going on here about author advocacy. In the comments that followed, I discovered that everyone isn’t up to date on the Authors Guild [1], which is the States’ leading author advocacy organization, in business since 1912.

In the month since my last column here, in fact, the guild has made a series of moves that help define its developing role in the writer community and so this is a good time to back up and do a bit of groundwork on what the guild is, how it has changed since the start of 2015, and why authors may want to consider joining the 10,000 or so members already in place.

I’ll bullet out some talking points:

While you can see the organization’s member benefits laid out for yourself, here [5], I’ve chosen these recent points because they give you a look at the guild’s quickly developing proactive stance in six important areas:

As a point of disclosure, I’m not a member of the guild because I report on the guild’s work frequently [6] as a journalist and have followed and commented on its changes and development since 2014 [7]. And my message today is more recommendation than provocation. If you don’t know the Authors Guild and its work–or if you have ideas about it that you haven’t revisited in some time–this is a good moment to give it a look.

Remembrance of Dings Past

Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh

By the summer of 2014, the Authors Guild already had begun to change, but the going was slow and the effort was hobbled by the raging Amazon-Hachette negotiations. The debate around that situation had given rise to the Authors United collective of writers, many of them marquee bestsellers, who sided against Amazon. The group was led by Douglas Preston and counted Richard Russo, then the guild’s vice-president, among its supporters. Scott Turow’s presidency of the guild had concretized an anti-Amazonian perception of the group in many minds.

As I wrote in July 2014 [8], “Even beyond issues of Amazonian ardor or otherwise, the most general, overarching, abiding complaint about the Turow-led guild has been, in a word, elitism.”

But Turow was on the way out. Author Roxana Robinson would succeed him as president. And the most important change would be the arrival at the beginning of 2015 of Mary Rasenberger, an attorney, as executive director.

Rasenberger would quickly begin turning things around in May 2015 by launching the guild’s Fair Contract Initiative [9], enumerating for publishers in a series of uncompromising white papers its new demands for contract reform. By October of that year, the guild would make common cause with the UK’s Society of Authors [10] in demanding better pay practices from publishers for authors.

The advocacy efforts were growing smarter, leaner, more professional, and were expertly articulated in such concise articles as the guild’s Publishers’ Payment and Accounting Practices Need To Keep Up With The Times [11].

Publishers were “sitting up,” and so were authors. Rolling out its contract position papers, opening its membership to self-publishing writers as well as trade authors, and learning to re-engage with readers in its blog posts (rather than shutting down unpleasant comment threads), the guild was shaking off criticisms of advantages for elite names in the business and speaking up for the overall community of writers in an increasingly challenging environment.

Two weeks ago at BookExpo in New York City, Rasenberger was on a panel staged by the Association of American Publishers on copyright challenges, and she spoke (‘It’s the Author Who Suffers’ [12]) to the dangers faced by writers when copyright protection is under fire. She’s a former policy planning advisor for the US Copyright Office in Washington and she and her team have been to the Hill this year [13] to lobby for streamlined and less expensive copyright registration for writers of small pieces. You can keep up with news from the organization here [14].

While many more instances of engagement, contact, program development, and outreach are occurring, the main point I’d like to commend to you today is this: the guild has a dedicated team and strong support for Rasenberger’s turnaround efforts, starting with Robinson as president and now with the presidency of James Gleick. The Authors Guild is not your father’s old boys’ (or girls’) club.

However fair or unfair criticism of the organization was in the past–like Bible-verse fights, you can find an anecdotal contradiction to any point–the Authors Guild has been pressing forward for more than three years now, and a lot of hard work is starting to pay off in new programs and an accelerating national vision–not an NYC hunker-down.

In case you haven’t seen any news reports lately, writers in the States have probably never had more reason to stand together for the indispensable freedom of expression that their work requires. One of the proudest factors about the guild is that it has journalists as members, as well as novelists, poets, historians, literary agents and representatives of writers’ estates. Our sisters and brothers in journalism are being called “the enemy of the people,” just this week again, by a president who also tried to use prior restraint–a cease-and-desist letter–to stop Macmillan from publishing author Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury [15].

Beyond the political crisis of the moment, the inherently non-aligned nature of the author workforce means that collective demands are more critical than ever–for better pay, better contracts, better treatment by the industry, the courts, and the government.

While no membership is for everyone, I submit that this is a great moment for authors to check out the Authors Guild and consider adding their voices to its growing choir of support.

So how about you? What’s your thinking on this? How important do you see author advocacy and a collective presence for writers? What’s your take on the Authors Guild today? Happy to hear from you if you’d like to chime in.

Postscript: In comments, several more key points arise worth noting:

About Porter Anderson [20]

@Porter_Anderson [21] is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives [22], the international news medium of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He and Jane Friedman co-own and produce @The Hot Sheet [23], the essential industry newsletter for authors. Anderson previously was The Bookseller's Associate Editor for The FutureBook [24] in London. Formerly with CNN, CNN.com and CNN International–as well as the Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and other media–he has also been a featured writer with #MusicForWriters [25] series. More on his consultancy: PorterAndersonMedia.com [26] | Google+ [27]