Hiding My Addiction: The Secret Life of a Writer

My supervisor at a college where I once taught said to me one day as I was freewriting in my journal, “Ah, the life of a writer. Sitting along the bank of a river, leaning against a tree, feeling the breeze in his hair as he writes.”

Well, maybe that was his ideal writer’s space. (I was actually sitting at my desk in a cramped office at the time.) It’s not mine, as idyllic as it sounds.

I’m a restaurant addict. There, I’ve said it. Oh, it feels so much better, like a weight has been lifted. If I were in Europe I could gather with others like me and face no social stigma because we are everywhere and celebrated. In the fast-paced United States, where we are frowned upon by the hurried many who want their seating and want it now, we are more often shunned, especially during rush hour when regular people come and go in a 45-minute span that must include time waiting for their seats, waiting for their food to come (or the opposite order if they’re at cafeterias), and eating, plus travelling to the restaurant from their jobs and then back to their jobs.

So thank you, David Gershman  of the Ann Arbor News  (“Coffee shops become the office: Free customer wi-fi lures students to study,” Saturday May 16, 2009), for making public that serious condition that is suffered by an undocumented number of people like me, who go by many names to cover our condition, most common of which are “students” and “writers.”

We’re the ones who seek refuge in restaurants and other food establishments—with or without Internet access—for hours at a time ostensibly working on our prose and poetry, studying for finals if we’re in school, perusing the Internet and catching up on our emails if we have access, or just reading. Sometimes we even talk to each other but more often than not we merely acknowledge each other in passing during visits to and from the restroom. (What do you think happens when you’re drinking coffee all day?) We can always spot our own kind.

But please know, hostile public, that we are sensitive to your frustration. The more advanced and sensitive among us observe rules of etiquette and teach them to our progeny.

Here are a few rules that we follow:

* Avoid writer-unfriendly restaurants where waitstaff rely on tips to supplement their less-than-minimum-wage hourly pay rates because they need constant turnover at all of their tables. Self-serve restaurants, on the other hand, are havens.

* Choose restaurants with lots of tables, where even at rush hour there are likely to be vacancies.

* If the restaurant does get filled, share your space with customers—don’t let concentration on your project of the day be an excuse to ignore customers who are walking around with trays in their hands and eyes gazing desperately for open space. For one hour, you can consolidate your books and papers that are scattered across two tables or a full-length booth and let a stranger sit with you.

* Patronize the establishment that is giving you your space. Good grief, don’t bring in food from the outside. I know times are tight but you’re already getting unlimited space and free Internet access. Buy at least coffee; and if you’re there during a packed rush hour, spring for a full meal occasionally.

I call those forced dining experiences “guilt lunches” because I only buy them out of guilt. For years, I saved all of my restaurant receipts and then at tax time told my accountant they were business expenses that I made because the restaurant was like my office, which made my food purchases the equivalent of rent for office space. He said, “You’re just eating a meal, like everyone else.” I countered, “But I only ate to preserve my space; I wouldn’t have eaten otherwise.” But he didn’t buy it. He said the owner would have to give me a rent receipt for me to call it rent, and then the owner would have to record my payments as rental income. And that was that.

Now I have to, well, eat the bill. If any accountants out there can give me a counter argument for my accountant, let’s get together. We can meet at the restaurant of your choice.


Academic Writers: You Can Improve Your Publishing Contracts

Are you an academic writer? Have you signed a book contract?

* Guess what #1: You’ve probably already been screwed. Academic contracts are the worst in the business.
* Guess what #2: You’re no different than most academic writers, who are driven by the tenure system to publish or perish and don’t realize the value of their written words.

Meanwhile, other authors, especially new, unpublished authors, are afraid that publishers will blow them off if they ask for changes because “there are thousands of writers” who will accept those same unreasonable terms.

Still others just don’t know they can say no to a bad contract.

* Guess what #3: You can improve your contract through negotiation. Ask for nothing and you get—nothing!  Ask for everything and you don’t get everything—but you get a lot more than if you don’t ask.

That’s the lesson I’m going to teach you if you attend my upcoming workshop as part of the Ann Arbor Writer’s Conference and Book Fair.

I’ll also give you a brief overview of the publishing industry, cover some of the main clauses that you will see in your contract, and give you valuable tips on how to negotiate a contract over the phone.

If you’re a serious writer, don’t miss it.

Five major steps to keep in mind if you want to maintain your dignity during contract negotiations:
* Speak up, including over the phone (write out your entire intro paragraph)
* Question the clauses in your contract
* Never sign a boilerplate contract without asking for important changes
* Determine your “bottom line”— the minimum standards you are willing to accept through negotiating, and
* Exercise the right and the courage to walk away from a contract that doesn’t meet your minimum standards.

Remember, when you accept the terms of boilerplate contracts without question, you bring down the curve for your brother and sister writers. But every clause you negotiate for the better is a victory for writers everywhere. Solidarity.

Date: Friday May 15, 2009
Time: 8:45-9:45 a.m.
Location: Palmer Commons at 100 Washtenaw Ave. in Ann Arbor
Room: Forum Hall

Then join me Saturday at the 6th annual Ann Arbor Book Fair inside the Michigan League on the University of Michigan campus. I’ll be at booth #30, selling books through my own Azenphony Press, and promoting my editing service and my next book, about the underground press from the Vietnam Era.

Check out the Ann Arbor Book Festival Web site for directions to Palmer Commons and the Michigan League. Or just Google “Ann Arbor Book Festival.”

And for full, clause-by-clause contract advising and help in negotiating, you would be wise to join the National Writers Union, where your  membership gives you free contract advising from NWU’s Grievance and Contract Division, the best group of contract advisers in the business. You can join online.

Know Your Book Contract: The Drunk Lawyer Clause

A few years ago I was the freelance editor of a four-volume set of books known as the Banned Books Series that were published by Facts On File, a major reference publisher. I was offered a modest advance—well, not too modest; it enabled my wife and me to make the down payment on our first house.

But that’s not the point I’m making. I was offered no royalty, just the advance, because that’s how book editors were traditionally treated. I told my agent I wanted a royalty also. I knew it wouldn’t be a major windfall; the writers deserved more for their efforts than I did as the editor. But, I said, “I know who I am. When the book comes out, when I see my name on the cover”—because I negotiated that placement—“I know I’ll be out there selling the book. My efforts will help the authors. My efforts will help Facts On File. I deserve a royalty.”

And I got it. Of course, it was only 1% or so, and it came out of the authors’ royalties (with their agreement) rather than from Facts On File. But I was pleased to know that I was the first editor ever to receive a royalty from Facts On File (if I am to believe the publisher). And I did promote the book, to everyone’s advantage.

But not because of the 1% royalty, which, in Yiddish, would be known as a pitzelach, a teeny bit. In the boilerplate contract was a clause, known as the resale clause, which said that the volume authors and I could purchase a minimal number of books, ten or so, at some modest discount, between 30 and 40%. But then the next phrase said, “but not for resale.” The sentence after that said, “Royalties will not be paid on books purchased at author discount.” This is a common clause in boilerplate contracts, especially academic press contracts, which are the worst in the business.

We know that boilerplate contracts are written by publishers’ lawyers, and that the contracts are generally to the advantage of the publishers. But this clause was destructive to both the publisher and the author. I’m sure it was written by a drunk lawyer because it harmed his own client. It treated the contributors to the book as competitors to the publisher. I said to my agent, “I want to be able to purchase books at 50% off or the best distributors’ discount, for resale, and with no risk to my royalty. If Baker & Taylor purchases books at 50% off I don’t lose my royalty. Why should I lose my royalty if I purchase for myself at 50% off?” Further, I argued, I knew I’d be walking into bookstores and libraries that their salespeople would never approach. I knew I’d be setting up speaking opportunities on my own dime. Why should Facts On File get the money?

Fortunately Facts On File was enlightened enough to see the logic. They allowed the revised clause. And I made it worthwhile for them. The set sold in hard cover for $140. Libraries loved the set. They still are a mainstay of Banned Books Month every year and in fact the second, expanded edition came out a few seasons later. For me, I would walk into a library, show the purchaser the set, walk out with a check for $140, and bank half of it. It was free money for the publisher because I found outlets their best sales force couldn’t find. Facts On File may have only made 50% of $140 but it was a lot better than 100% of nothing. And they did no better when distributors sold it. In fact, I was a distributor. That’s how they related to me.

The worst-kept secret in the publishing industry is that publishers don’t promote books. Are you ready to stand in for them? Successful writers know that they are not just starving artists; they’re also business people. Signing a contract is part of your business. But what do you know about the contract that is in front of you?

On Friday May 15, you have a chance to learn more than you ever knew there was to know about book contracts if you attend my workshop as part of the Ann Arbor Writers Conference.

Time: 8:45-9:45 a.m., so if you have a day job you can attend and still make it to work with only a little comp time required.
Location: Palmer Commons at 100 Washtenaw Ave. in Ann Arbor
Room: Forum Hall

Then join me the next day at the 6th annual Ann Arbor Book Fair inside the Michigan League on the University of Michigan campus. I’ll be at booth #30, selling books through my own Azenphony Press, and promoting my editing service and my next book, about the underground press from the Vietnam Era, so I’ll be available to answer questions about contracts as an expansion of my talk.

You can get directions to Palmer Commons and the Michigan League, as well as answers to all your questions about the Ann Arbor Book Festival, at their Web site. Or just Google “Ann Arbor Book Festival.”

For full, clause-by-clause contract advising and help in negotiating, I urge you to join the National Writers Union. For your membership, you can request free contract advising from NWU’s Grievance and Contract Division, the best group of contract advisers in the business. No exception. No group even comes in a close second. You can join online. Membership is worth it just for this one member benefit. I’m one of the CAs so you can request me if you want—but for the full contract review you have to be a member.