This blog entry is for anyone who has ever looked at a book contract or fantasized about wanting to write a book.

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Last month, I spoke to a group of writers about some of the worst clauses that regularly show up in book publishing boilerplate contracts. The information that I shared in fifteen minutes was an iota of the information that the National Writers Union’s trained contract advisers provide to our members while we are teaching them how to negotiate.

Most writers unfortunately have no idea what a book contract looks like, what rights they have as authors, or how to monetize those rights. Too many are willing—and expected by publishers—to blindly sign boilerplate contracts, which are written by the lawyers of the publishers to protect only the publishers. Authors get little in return and feel powerless.

So the union’s Grievance and Contract Division advises members on their contracts. We take members through every clause in the contract or whichever particular clauses are of concern, explain what they mean, and suggest counteroffers and sometimes even counter-counteroffers. We don’t claim to be lawyers because not all of us are; but as an activist brain trust we know more than most lawyers; lawyers come to us for advice.

Many writers join the union just so that they can obtain the free contract advising that is a members-only benefit of membership. We welcome them because every clause that any writer negotiates for the better is a victory for writers everywhere.

Even with contract advising, however, most contracts are not writer-friendly when they are signed. So, many writers today are turning away from traditional publishing houses. New and emerging printing technology and social media are now accessible to us all; and the failure of publishers to adequately market our books is known as the worst-kept secret in the business.

Writers are looking for newer models, publishing independently or working with smaller, print-on-demand publishers who are more likely to treat them as team members. But they don’t know any more than we do.

To protect your work whether you sign with a traditional corporate/academic publisher or a smaller, new age publisher, you need to understand what rights you are giving away and what rights you are successfully exploiting.

Here are a few …

Clauses from Hell

Copyright: In summary: Look for a clause that says, “The copyright will be taken out in the name of _________” and put your name there like you want it to appear on the copyright page of your book.  If the blank is already filled out with the name of the publisher, cross out the name and print yours neatly above it. Then initial the change—every change you make must be initialized. If the publisher refuses to negotiate, walk away and don’t look back.

Royalty: The standard royalty rate for hardbound trade books is, give or take, 10% of list price, which is the cover price, on the first 5,000, 12.5% on the next 5,000, and 15% thereafter. This is called an escalating clause where the royalty increases as sales increase. On trade paper, it’s 7.5% on the first 10,000 and 8% thereafter. If you are offered royalty based on net price, that means list minus expenses. As much as possible, avoid agreeing to contracts in which any expenses other than discounts and credits for returns get factored in. Whatever you are offered, ask for an escalating royalty structure rather than one rate based “on all books sold”; and make sure your royalty on subsequent editions is based on cumulative sales, which means that sales don’t begin again at 0 for the second edition.

Always keep this phrase on the tip of your tongue: “That seems pretty low to me.” [Repeat after me.]

Resale clause: I call this the “drunk lawyer clause” because it is a clause that hurts the client—the publisher. The typical resale clause says that the author may buy some minimal amount of books at some modest discount, like 25 or 40% off cover price. But then it says “but not for resale.” And sometimes it even adds, “Royalties shall not be paid on books purchased at this discount.”

This is a nuts clause. If your boilerplate has it, cross off the low royalty and write “50% or the best distributors’ discount.” If it says “but not for resale,” cross out that clause and don’t look back. Do the same with the no-royalties clause if your contract has it.

Why is it a nuts clause? Because it treats the author as a competitor of the publisher instead of as a partner. Once you submit your manuscript to the publisher, you are no longer merely the author. You are now, potentially, a distributor, just like Barnes & Noble and the other major distributors. You know you’re going to promote your book when it comes out: at talks, at conferences, through social media. Every time you buy a book at 50% off, the publisher is getting 50% of something for doing nothing. Without that incentive to sell your books, you lose money setting up your website, promoting your events, and driving to them, so you stop buying books. The publisher then makes 100%–of nothing. If your editor doesn’t understand the logic of making free money just for giving you a chance to make money, too, walk away and don’t look back. Once you find yourself a competent editor, buy yourself 50 copies of your book for inventory and keep them in your car everywhere you travel.

Advances: The general rule is to ask for as much of an advance as possible because that’s all the money you likely will ever see other than sales you make on your own if you secure a favorable resale clause.  This is because royalties often never amount to the size of your advance. If the advance is paid in one lump sum, make sure you receive it upon signing rather than upon submission or acceptance of the manuscript.

Grant of secondary rights, in general: Before you grant any secondary rights, ask which ones they will be actively exploiting and how they will be exploiting them. If they have no intention of exploiting any rights, they have no business expecting you to give them control over them. This includes performance rights, translation rights, foreign rights, and others. Cross out all related keywords and phrases that pertain to the rights you want to keep. [For performance, for example: audio (sound recordings), video, motion picture, multimedia version, television and radio, cinema, cassette, filmstrip, disk, wire recording, stage, movie, dramatic, public reading, adaptation, visualization, and recording.] If they insist on taking any rights that you would rather keep, give them limited-time rights, say eighteen months.

Electronic rights: Electronic rights used to be a 50-50 split at worst. Sometimes the author could get up to 90%. But that was when electronic rights were only a minor part of the income stream. Then along came the windfall provided by the Electronic and Information Age. Instead of sharing it with the authors, publishers decided they wanted it all. They called electronic rights “an extension of print rights” and offered 10 to 15% net for e-book rights. Fight for at least 50%. This fight should not be seen as lost—but winning it will be a long uphill struggle.

Copies of the manuscript: This shouldn’t even be an issue today but I still find it in some contracts. If your contract requires you to ship two double-spaced printouts of your manuscript in addition to sending an electronic attachment, cross out the printouts and initial. No competent publisher is editing off hardcopy anymore so why should you send it that way?

Production and promotion: You won’t get much say in, for instance, cover design, promotion, marketing strategy, or selling price of the book, but you should be able to get a clause that says some form of “the publisher will seek input from.” Why would they be crazy enough to not seek input from you when you know your book, its selling points, and even college courses that might adopt it as a text better than anyone?

Remember, though, the worst-kept secret in the industry: Publishers seldom do any major promotion beyond listing your book in the current catalog and sending out a few press releases and review copies. That’s the reason so many of us are turning to the new technology to do it ourselves.

A Few Final Words

There is nothing simple about looking at your first book contract. Contracts are a mumbo-jumbo of legalese that is deceptive, vague, and oppressive. Don’t let yourself feel rushed. Don’t make any conclusive statements over the phone without first taking a day or so to think about the ramifications. Practice saying, “Let me get back to you. I need to speak with my contract advisor.” You can be sure your publisher will check with their lawyer. Why should you do any less?

It’s true that there are a lot of writers who are willing to sign poor contracts in exchange for bylines. But it isn’t true that the moment you speak up your publisher will dump you. There is tremendous pressure in the publishing business to produce many books and produce them fast. This is a testament to the megabucks publishers stand to make from our collective knowledge and labor. But publishers still want to produce quality books because their reputations rise and fall based on the books they produce. While they won’t give in to your every demand, it is a lot cheaper for them to let you win on a few clauses than it is to reject you altogether and find another writer, with a good book, who won’t make any demands, in time to get the finished product into the next catalog.

Finally, always think of your bottom line. If you’re willing to cross it, then you aren’t negotiating; you’re bluffing. Look in the mirror before you make that first phone call after you’ve had a chance to read National Writers Union Guide to Book Contracts and then review your contract with your contract advisor. Practice saying, “I am a writer. I have dignity.”

Ken Wachsberger is a former national officer with the National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981, and is a member of the Southeast Michigan chapter. He is a contract advisor with the Grievance and Contract Division as well as a freelance writer, editor, and author, book coach, and owner of Azenphony Press Writing and Editing;;

Academic Publishing Destined to Fail without Publisher-Author Partnership

In the May 26, 2014 issue of The Nation, Scott Sherman wrote about the precarious state of academic publishing due largely to pressures it faces, including from declining library budgets, the rise of commercial publishing conglomerates, and especially the growing popularity of electronic publishing, seen by some university press directors as “a decisive rupture from the past” (“Under Pressure: Incrementalists and futurists battle over the mission of the university press”—online version had a different title). He provided an insightful look at the inside of the university press system. However, his solutions didn’t go far enough because they omitted the needs of a key player, namely writers.

So I wrote a passionate letter to The Nation that stated my credentials and made my argument.

Unfortunately, The Nation restricts letters to the editor to 300 words. My response was about five times too lengthy. Alas. But fitting it within the paradigms of acceptability would have diluted my response like coffee from a fifth-time-used filter. So I stuck to my original length and hoped they would be so inspired by my passion and knowledge that they would call me and propose that it be run as an article.

I’m sorry they didn’t. It is a topic that is seldom covered, including by The Nation, where articles about the publishing world are not strangers. The topic must be covered if those who purport to care about the future of academic publishing are serious.

I write as someone who has written and edited widely for what may be broadly called the academic press and includes both the university presses and the commercial academic presses. I taught at the college level for some thirty years, though never on the tenure track. In addition, I am the founder of the National Writers Union’s academic writers caucus and a long-time contract adviser for NWU’s Grievance and Contract Division specializing in teaching members how to understand and negotiate academic press book contracts.

Only in the last section of the article were writers even seriously mentioned, though they were referred to by their campus name, “professors”: “University presses provide a number of vital functions for the academy as a whole—starting with the fact that, by and large, young professors achieve promotion and tenure based on monographs they publish.”

In my contract advising, I tell members that they aren’t writers who teach or teachers who write but rather both writers and teachers, members of two professions at the same time, and they deserve to be treated with dignity within each profession.

This pressure of tenure-track faculty members to earn bylines in sanctioned publications—and this includes university presses as well as certain commercial academic publishers—in order to be considered as candidates for tenure is known in academic circles as “publish or perish.” It is this pressure on faculty members that enables academic presses to offer them boilerplate contracts that are arguably the worst contracts in the business. This same pressure causes faculty members often to ignore their right to negotiate (unfortunately many don’t know they even have that right) and instead to sign the boilerplate as it is presented to them. (Hint: If they joined the National Writers Union before blindly signing, they could be assigned a trained contract adviser who would walk them through their contracts, explain what the clauses mean, and teach them how to negotiate—a free members-only service.)

Traditionally these contracts

  • State that the copyright will be taken out in the name of the publisher rather than the author, who is the rightful owner (I’ve actually heard publishers defend this clause by saying “it’s more convenient” or try to intimidate authors by charging that they were the first to ever ask to retain the copyright in their name—a dubious claim but one that, if true, I urge members to consider a badge of honor and a victory for writers everywhere);
  • Allow the author, through the resale clause, to buy only a minimal number of books at some modest discount but then include some variation of the egregious phrase “for personal use only” or “not for resale”; and, in some cases, even say the author will lose the royalty for books purchased at a discount—even though books bought at that same discount or higher by Baker & Taylor and other distributors do not result in lost royalties;
  • Have no out-of-print clauses, which means the publisher owns the book forever regardless of how low royalty payments go or how little effort the publisher exerts to reverse the downward direction;
  • Offer royalties of 6% or lower on all rights including electronic rights, which have traditionally been 50% or more; and those rates based on net price, meaning book price minus often-unspecified costs;
  • Have no escalating sales clause (where royalty rate increases when book sales reach a certain sales threshold); or they do provide escalating sales royalties but sales are not cumulative, which means that if the publisher decides to do a new edition, often just as sales are about to reach an escalation point, the sales return to 0;
  • Require the author to prepare revised editions often at the whim of the publisher and generally resulting in more expense for the author or loss of byline if the author refuses to revise and the publisher finds a replacement author;
  • Charge authors for indexes and permissions, which, combined, equal an amount that surpasses the sum total of the advance (which is often nonexistent) plus the miniscule royalty payments the author will ever receive, and which will never be countered by author sales because those are prohibited by the resale clause (see second bullet above)—meaning the best possible outcome for the author is a net loss on the book. And I haven’t even discussed costs for the author’s personal book website; for travel to speaking events, which often don’t pay; and other promotional and public relations costs that the author assumes once the book is finished; plus another charge that the worst of contracts include, the subvention, which is an advance that the writer pays to the publisher—making those contracts one step removed from a subsidy (aka vanity) press contract.

These are only a few of the worst clauses writers face in traditional boilerplate contracts from academic presses. Many tenure-track faculty members are willing to accept these contract abuses, believing mistakenly that they are a necessary tradeoff to achieving tenure. They aren’t. Every contract is negotiable and no author should ever sign a boilerplate.

But, in fact, many writers who sign contracts with academic presses are not academics on the tenure track at all and could care less about the humiliating tradeoff. One group are academics on the road-to-hell track, namely the rising number of adjunct faculty members, who earn second- and third-tier pay rates, with benefits that are far inferior to those of tenure-track faculty members—or no benefits at all. In their most glorious dreams, they will never achieve tenure.

Other authors are not even academics but just happened to write books that were not seen as commercial enough by the trade press and were forced to seek homes with academic publishers because they thought they had nowhere else to go—the line between trade and academic publishing is narrowing.

Meanwhile, writers are treated at best as competitors to publishers; at worst, they are just the raw material that publishers need to create their product. Throughout my quarter century of contract advising, I have witnessed an arrogance on the part of way too many academic publishers toward these writers that assumes that they have nowhere else to go. In the past publishers have gotten away with giving writers sub-par contracts and then not even promoting the books. (That they don’t promote their books beyond listing them in seasonal catalogs and sending out a few press releases is known as “the worst-kept secret in the industry.”)

Unfortunately for these publishers, the new digital technology gives writers options. It may be a long time—or maybe not if teachers demand change in their tenure system and justice prevails—before independently published books count for tenure-track professors. (Granted, some independently published books are intellectually and literarily crap but, don’t look now, some books published by peer-reviewed publishers aren’t much better—they just have fewer typographical errors and more footnotes. Every publisher is under pressure to fill its seasonal catalog.)

But tenure-track professors are only a portion of the stable of writers who fill every seasonal catalog. Those other writers, including adjuncts and freelance writers, have no reason to stick around and continue to self-flagellate.

Unlike tenure-track faculty members, these authors earn their living, or a significant portion of their living, through their writing. They pay the rent, raise their families, and retire (or can’t ever afford to) based on the economic value of their words, so they don’t have the luxury of giving them away in exchange for a glorified byline.

The image of university presses (based on some reality) is that the books they produce are on topics so esoteric that only a limited number of libraries will buy them because they have no commercial appeal. And so they overcharge for those books, and those libraries do indeed buy them because they are committed to buying every book on that subject no matter which university press publishes it or else they are committed to buying every book that certain publishers publish regardless of the subject.

Unfortunately, many books have strong commercial potential and yet are priced right out of the commercial market because overcharging is what academic presses do. Even entrepreneurial authors with author-friendly resale clauses can scarcely help to boost sales because their books are so expensive even their parents won’t buy them, let alone others in their sales network: family; friends; visitors to their websites, blogs, and other social media sites; attendees at events they set up themselves or are invited to: conferences, bookstores, book fairs, service organizations; and many more.

The good news for publishers is that, although writers may be backing into becoming publishers of their own works, the vast majority at least of those I have met and advised over the years would much rather be writing and letting publishers take the lead in sales. This is why, even though today’s technology makes independent publishing easy, it isn’t a foregone conclusion that traditional publishing is on its way out.

But publishers have to show that they give a damn about their writers because writers are paying attention, and it’s not only for reasons of financial gain. Maintaining their own self-dignity counts also.

Publishers might begin, on the way toward overhauling their author-hostile contracts, by hiring social media experts who are prepared to teach their authors how to take advantage of Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and emerging forms of social media to sell books; and then encouraging their authors to buy books at 50% off or the best distributor’s discount, to resell, and with no loss of royalty for those books purchased at the author’s discount. Publishers need to internalize the economic reality that earning 50% of something—which is what they already earn through some deals with book distributors and which they will now receive through author sales—is better than earning 100% of nothing, which is what they earn when authors don’t sell their books. In other words, it’s free money.

The last paragraph in “Under Pressure” asks “Who might spearhead” the task of systemic overhaul. Ideas are presented revolving around finding sources that will be “the catalytic force for the greater good of university presses and their readers”—but no mention of the greater good of writers.

I propose that any successful paradigm must, at last, include writers as partners in the process, not competitors, because once they finish writing their books they are no longer merely authors; they now are—potentially—marketers, promoters, and primary, unsalaried yet eager sales staff. Any paradigm that fails to embrace this opportunity is destined, and deserves, to fail.

[This blog post appeared originally in Rag Blog on August 7, 2014.]

Coming to New York, Hope to Meet NY Friends 7/25/11

I’m honored to be the guest of the National Writers Union-New York chapter during my upcoming visit to New York. I’ll be in town all week, from Friday to Friday July 22-29, but on Monday July 25, NWU-NY is hosting a reception for me in honor of volume 1 of my 4-volume Voices from the Underground Series, titled Insider Histories of the Vietnam Era Underground Press, Part 1.

Many thanks to NWU-NY for your hospitality.

I’ll be talking about the underground press and the significance of alternative media in our nation’s history. The roots of the National Writers Union itself are in the underground press as many of the founders and early members were underground press veterans. Even today, many of the most devoted activists are veterans (myself included).

I’ll also talk for the first time about an exciting digital project that has been occupying a major amount of my time. If you are a veteran of any of the underground papers from the period—including the feminist, lesbian, gay, military, and ethnic papers—I hope to see you. If I haven’t already talked to you about the project, be sure to come so we can talk and I can include your paper in the upcoming digital collection. (And if you aren’t from New York but you’re intrigued, write to me at

  • Date: Monday July 25
  • Time: 6-8 p.m.
  • Location: 12th floor, UAW conference room, 256 West 38th, New York

If you don’t want to hear me talk but you’re feeling hungry, refreshments will be served.

Meanwhile, here’s a recent review of volume 1.

Volume 2 should be out any minute. I’m accepting pre-publication orders.

I hope to see you there.

Lesson for Book Authors on Tour: Postscript to Printers Row Report

Are you an author planning to go out on tour? You can avert disaster by getting contract advice from trained book author peers from the National Writers Union, but only if you become a member. Do it.

The bookstore in charge of selling author books for last week’s Chicago Tribune Printers Row Literary Fest screwed up my books. They didn’t realize I was scheduled to speak twice so they had my books from the publisher sent to the location of my second talk.

When my first talk ended and interested book buyers converged on the scene of the book table, they found none of mine. The book store representative apologized profusely to me.

But I was cool. In fact, I was actually glad. Because I had negotiated with my publisher for the right to purchase books at 50 percent off to resell, I had a knapsack full of books. “I’ve got my own inventory,” I told him.

But I assured him that I wasn’t going to give the usual huge cut to the bookstore because they didn’t do anything to earn it. Out of well-deserved embarrassment, he didn’t contest my decision so I earned my usual royalty plus the difference between what I paid for books and my selling price.

If I hadn’t negotiated that change in the boilerplate contract, my publisher would have missed out on those sales as well so they, too, gained from my negotiating good sense. They got 50 percent of something instead of 100 percent of nothing.

Are you looking at a book contract? Before you sign, look here. Then make the decision that serious writers make.

Lessons from Vietnam Era at Printers Row

I’m late in reporting on last weekend’s Chicago Tribune Printers Row Literary Fest. After four months of strategic preparation and psych-up, it came and went. I returned home to way too many emails and some serious deadlines that I’m just meeting.

My deepest thanks to everyone who showed up on Saturday and/or Sunday to share a brief moment with me recalling the Vietnam era and drawing lessons for the present. I was grateful for the opportunities to share stages Saturday with Bill Ayers and Sunday with NPR’s Alison Cuddy, and also to connect or reconnect—before, at, and after both events—with friends from high school, cousins, members of the National Writers Union-Chicago chapter, veterans of the underground press and the Vietnam era, and others who weren’t even born then but knew something happened then that needs studying now.

Saturday’s show

On Saturday, Bill began by talking about the importance of the Voices from the Underground Series and the significance of our telling our own stories because of the false mythologizing that the right is doing. He used as an example the Catholic Church’s recent attempt to blame their entire pedophilia scandal on the liberal sexual attitudes of the sixties. He also noted that the period known as the sixties was more than just a decade that ended after 1969. Then he introduced me.

I began by noting that the sixties didn’t begin for me until 1970, as a result of Kent State. I talked about the series and how it came to be, told a few stories, we did some give and take, and then we opened the floor to questions.

In response to one question, I agreed that today’s bloggers are the political successors to the veterans of the underground press. Unfortunately, I said, many have no idea we even existed. That’s one of the changes I hope will come about through my books, and that was one reason why I invited Markos Moulitsas, founder of Daily Kos, one of the most important progressive blog sites today, to write the foreword to volume 1. His contribution was masterful. However, at this time, I said, I don’t believe blogs have eliminated the need for newspapers. As the questioner brought up, you can’t hand out blogs. Handouts, whether flyers or newspapers or buttons, I agreed, are a powerful organizing tool.

I broadened the definition of what the underground press is seen to be. “The traditional story line says that Art Kunkin used the new technology of offset printing to start the Los Angeles Free Press in 1964 and from that paper emerged the hundreds of papers that we know of as the underground press. It’s a good story and a big part of it is true but for me the definition is too narrow.” I noted that the gay press began in 1947 when a lesbian office worker started a mimeographed 12-page paper called Vice Versa so she could meet other lesbians (a fact I only recently learned from having read Rodger Streitmatter’s landmark Unspeakable: The Rise of the Gay and Lesbian Press in America). She took the name of Lisa Ben, a rearrangement of the word “lesbian.” During the fifties, other gay and lesbian papers included ONE, Mattachine Review, and The Ladder. African Americans had several important radical papers that were founded before 1964 including Paul Robeson’s Freedom; Freedomways; The Liberator, The Student Voice, put out by Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); and Triple Jeopardy, by the Third World Women’s Alliance. A paper given credit for being a starting point for the women’s liberation movement, called “a kind of memo,” was written in 1965 by Casey Hayden and Mary King to express concerns within the fertile organizing atmosphere of SNCC.

Then, for the sake of those who came of age after the Vietnam era ended or just forgot, I pointed out some of the memorable titles that Chicago hosted: Seed, Rising Up Angry, Muhammad Speaks, Lavender Women, Black Maria, CWLU News, Voices of the Women’s Liberation Movement, Spokeswoman, Killer Dyke, and Feminist Voice. I’m sure there were others but those were the ones I called out.

If you were associated with any of those papers or know anyone who was, please write to me. I’m involved in an exciting digital project now, which I didn’t talk about in Chicago, that is attracting the attention of underground press veterans all over the country. I would love for these papers to be part of it if I can talk to the rights holders and get permission. [Muhammad Speaks, CWLU News (and papers associated with it: Womankind, Blazing Star, and Secret Storm), and Voices of the Women’s Liberation Movement already are.]

Overall, it was a positive audience, they laughed at the right places, and at the end, I’m grateful to say, they bought books.

Sunday’s show

My co-panelists on Sunday were Matthew Ehrlich, author of Radio Utopia: Postwar Audio Documentary in the Public Interest, a study of radio journalism in post-World War II America as we moved into Cold War mode; and Matt [his preference] Carlson, author of On the Condition of Anonymity: Unnamed Sources and the Battle for Journalism, a study of anonymous sources especially around the time of the Iraq War. Alison did an impressive job of tying together these three marginally related books, using as the common theme journalism in war time.

Leading up to the panel, we had discussed the idea of her letting us each introduce our own books and then opening it up for free-flowing discussion. It sounded good in theory but the more I thought about it the more I became convinced that it would be a disaster to have three egocentric authors nosing for opportunities to plug our respective books. Fortunately, Alison prevented that potential scenario from reaching fruition by asking us her own pre-planned questions one at a time.

She began by allowing us to each give a 3-minute overview of what in the current moment drove us to do our particular projects. In my case, the roots of the Voices from the Underground Series go back to the late 1980s so I told how it came to be, how it was received, how it went out of print, and how it came back in an expanded, updated, four-volume format. (Yes, I pushed the 3-minute time limit.) Then she moved us into broader topics including the relationship between journalism and war, the possible roles journalists can play during war, the various pressures they face in covering conflict, and the way technology shapes the coverage they are able to do.

I noted that contributors to underground papers weren’t necessarily trained journalists; they were community and antiwar organizers, activists, and thinkers who rabble roused first and then wrote about it, or organized events and encouraged the community to attend, or built countercultural institutions and used the pages of the underground press to give them strength. I got a good laugh when I noted that writing for the underground press itself was not a good career move. Matt C. got a follow-up laugh on his next question when he noted that writing for the mainstream press today isn’t necessarily a good career move either.

Today, with the rise and proliferation of new mediums for accessing and distributing information, including e-newspapers and blogs and even Twitter, we’re watching the decline of certain forms of journalism, especially print newspapers. In addition, I said, investigative journalism is more dangerous because the number of staff journalists on papers is being reduced so journalists doing real investigative reporting do not have the protection of large newspapers. They work with no health insurance because they are freelancers so if they get sick or injured they have to cover expenses on their freelance income. And, being freelancers, they have no assurance that what they write will even be picked up, or if it is picked up they will be given a living wage. Certainly if they are captured they have no assurance that a news institution will use its strength to free the reporter.

I reminded listeners that Bradley Manning was being tortured in prison for exposing ugly truths about our government. “Instead of being treated like a hero for uncovering lies he’s being convicted without a trial, even by Harvard law school grad President Barack Obama, who could have used the truth Manning exposed to indict the Bush-Cheney administration but instead has chosen to embrace it.”

Overall, I thought our answers complemented each other well. We fooled the audience into thinking we knew what we were talking about. Here’s hoping the C-SPAN audience was as receptive.

 Please let me know if you are looking for a speaker on the Vietnam era.

Chicago Friends and Friends-to-Be: Please Join Me at Printers Row Lit Fest

Words matter, who says them, their context, their connotations.  That’s why veterans of the Vietnam era now have to write their memoirs to reclaim the story line that the right wing has twisted. But that also was a lesson we learned during the Vietnam era. And so that’s why we had to create our own media to end the war.

That media was called the underground press.

The underground press was the antiwar press, the non-corporate press, the dissident press. Underground papers were everywhere. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of them. They were published and read in high schools, in college communities, in big cities and small, in expatriate communities of Canada, and overseas.

There were over 400 papers published by or directed to members of the military, all branches, at bases in the U.S. and around the world. When the right wing said “Support the troops” even as they sent soldiers overseas to die needlessly and then spit on them by cutting the education benefits of those who survived, these were the troops I most supported.

Underground papers were unanimous in their opposition to the war but they spoke to their own unique audiences. Papers in my four-volume Voices from the Underground Series represent the gay, lesbian, feminist, Black, Puerto Rican, Native American, Asian-American, military, prisoners’ rights, psychedelic, rank-and-file, Southern consciousness, new age, and other voices of the what was known as the counterculture.

When an earlier version of Voices from the Underground first found print in 1993, the stories were met with rave reviews from those in the media who understood that the U.S. had been the bad guy in Vietnam. But the country overall was not ready to accept any U.S. image other than that created by the “greatest generation” during World War II.

Today, after a string of invasions of one form or another that include Panama, Grenada, Nicaragua, Chile, Iraq, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, our image is sadly but deservedly tarnished and patroits are looking again for lessons from Vietnam.

So, soon after a review copy of volume 1 arrived at the Chicago Tribune in late January, I received an invitation from the organizer of the Chicago Tribune Printers Row Literary Fest to speak at this year’s event. I’m deeply honored and excited about the opportunity to share stories, re-unite with old friends, meet veterans and students of the period, and answer questions.

If you’re from Chicago or anywhere nearby, I hope you can make it. I’ll be appearing twice:

Saturday, 6/4/2011, 10 a.m. – 10:45 a.m.

Program:  Ken Wachsberger in conversation with Bill Ayers 

Location:  Hotel Blake


Sunday, 6/5/2011, 1 p.m. – 1:45 p.m.

Program:  Panel Discussion: Matthew Carlson, Matthew Ehrlich, and Ken Wachsberger moderated by Alison Cuddy, to be broadcast on C-SPAN

Location:  University Center/Lake Room

If you missed the period, this will be a major adventure for you, and a good time.

After my talk Saturday and before my talk Sunday, I’ll be hanging out with my friends from the Chicago chapter of the National Writers Union at Table 247, located on Dearborn Street between Harrison and Polk Streets.

I look forward to seeing you there. If you can’t make it but are interested in purchasing the book, you can order it through my website.

This Book Review Won’t Hurt a Bit

I just finished reading a book that I am pleased to plug. It’s called This Won’t Hurt a Bit and it’s by my friend and fellow National Writers Union member Tim Sheard. When I told him I would review it, I immediately became a little scared that I wouldn’t like it but would have to review it because I promised and would have to say something nice about it because Tim is a friend. Fortunately, I am able to keep my promise to Tim and not have to lie.

Lenny Moss is the hero of this book, the first in an ongoing series of mysteries by the author, all of which can be found here. Lenny is a custodian and union steward at the hospital where he works. He has a well-deserved reputation for helping his fellow workers. As Tim writes, it was known that “Lenny’s union work was respected throughout the hospital, that the man would fight tooth and nail to help a co-worker in trouble.”

So when the preservative-filled body of a brilliant resident of the hospital, Randy Sparks, is discovered playing the role of cadaver in a lab and laundry worker Regis Devoe is charged with the murder and thrown in jail, the workers naturally lean on Lenny to find the real murderer. Their ongoing question is, “How would a laundry worker know how to fill a dead body with preservatives?”

Lenny is a reluctant hero, characteristically understating his ability every step of the way. But he is encouraged by his fellow workers, an eclectic cast of characters from every department in the hospital—including the dietary workers, the seamstress, housekeepers, residents, security, and others—who begin collecting clues while making their daily rounds and constructing personality descriptions of the doctors, who early on are determined by the workers to be the prime suspects. As he is compiling and analyzing their clues, the hospital administrative staff, who naturally would savor any reason to fire Lenny because of his union work, are looking for ways to get rid of him—one way or the other, so the book becomes a race against time, not only for Regis but for Lenny.

It didn’t hurt me a bit to review This Won’t Hurt a Bit. It was a fun book to read. It was an easy read, the passages flowing smoothly, bringing seemingly unrelated parts into alignment with each other. If you like mysteries and enjoy the mental calisthenics of stretching your mind to retain even the most minute of clues in your bid to solve the murder before the hero does, you’ll feel stimulated and refreshed when you finish. For the record, I didn’t solve the mystery before our hero. He pulled it all together with a clue so obscure I had totally forgotten about it. My hint to you: It was presented merely as part of a character description.

In addition to being a long-time writer, Tim Sheard is a critical care nurse in Brooklyn. He brings that insider experience to life as he describes the nuances of the many behind-the-scenes jobs that make any hospital work. The story is told from the perspective of the workers, regular people with a common cause. As with any successful union-friendly piece of literature, it reminds us that we’re all in this together.

Ann Arbor Writer’s Conference: If You’re a Writer, Don’t Miss It (Just Because I Am)

I’m missing this year’s Ann Arbor Writer’s Conference May 15 at University of Michigan to attend Carrie’s college graduation at Syracuse University. I even turned down an invitation to be a speaker again. If you want to learn about how to negotiate a book contract, you’ll have to wait for another appearance by me. Or, better yet, join the National Writers Union, where members from the Grievance and Contract Division, who know book contracts better than any group of folks probably anywhere in the world, will explain to you what every clause in your contract means and how to negotiate for a better contract.

In the meantime, just because I’m missing the Ann Arbor Writer’s Conference doesn’t mean you have to miss it, too. If you’re a writer and you’re anywhere near the Ann Arbor area, don’t miss the opportunity to learn from the pros.

The day begins at 8:30 a.m. with the author’s breakfast at Hatcher Graduate Library. There speakers for the day join attendees to share their writing experiences and describe their work.

Following the breakfast are three sessions, the first beginning at 10:15 and the last ending at 3:15. As with all great conferences, this one provides the frustration of offering more talks than one person can attend; each session has four separate talks so you have to pick and choose. The best way to benefit from them is to attend with friends and swap notes afterwards.

The sessions will meet at Mason/Haven Halls on the University of Michigan Central Campus and will be followed by an hour-long panel called “I’ve Finished My Book (Article, Essay, Etc.): Now What Do I Do?” featuring Ellen Meeropol, Ann Pearlman, and Bonnie Jo Campbell and moderated by Mary Bisbee-Beek

Following is a list of the topics that will fill the sessions along with descriptions written by the presenters. For bios of the speakers and locations of the sessions, visit the website:

10:15 am – 11:30 am – SESSION 1

A. Feel the Power of Flooding the Page with your Thoughts – Debbie Merion

In this workshop, you will experiment with the freedom to write the worst junk in America. Get ready to be surprised with what emerges. Ironically, the most present, compelling first drafts result from quieting the censor in our heads. We’ll write as a group — a powerful experience — and then listen intensely to recall exact words and phrases heard. The goal is to learn nonjudgmental writing and feedback techniques that lead to vivid writing.

B. Beginning the Novel – Vasugi V. Ganeshananthan

The first hundred pages of a novel are make or break. What works? What doesn’t? What information does a novelist put into the “beginning” of the story? We’ll look at the beginnings of books by a range of authors and talk about pacing, themes, language, style, plot, and character. You don’t have to read the whole book to appreciate a good beginning — that’s the point. Readings to be provided at the session.

C. Methods of vision & (re)vision – Aracelis Girmay

The work of revising is an exceptionally rigorous practice. I’d like for this workshop to serve as a space where we can explore methods of revision as a highly imaginative, exciting, &, sometimes, political practice. This workshop will be a generative workshop focused on the practice of surprising or honing the eye/I. It will be an opportunity for us to study a very small selection of high-stakes, beautiful work by Lucille Clifton, Nazim Hikmet, & Frida Kahlo. We will use these works as models to guide us through our in-workshop experiments. It will also be a chance for us to experiment with methods of revising lines, histories, & images.

D. Brainstorming, Work, and Creativity: Thinking Outside of the Box – Chloe Miller

Right brained or left, it doesn’t matter – being creative is essential in the current economy. Access your inner poet and your muse with poet and entrepreneur, Chloe Miller will lead a discussion of how to connect creativity with business planning and the generation of concrete ideas. This is a hands-on, interactive, process-driven voyage of discovery. Be prepared to roll up your sleeves.

11:45 am – 1:00 pm – SESSION 2

A. Why Writers Write and Why It Is Important – Walter Palesch

During this session, Walter Palesch will share his philosophy on the relevance of writing today. What are the goals of the writer when telling a story and the responsibilities one has to the integrity of the characters? He will discuss the importance of careful research when developing a historical novel. Finally, once the work is complete, what are the strategies you can use for getting your work into your readers’ hands, both in the publishing and marketing areas?

B. Crash Course for Aspiring Writers – Jeannie Ballew

Do you have a secret book in you that you’re longing to write but haven’t because it feels so daunting? In this workshop, you will be introduced to a powerful book coaching process that will show you how to produce a rough draft of your entire non-fiction manuscript within two weeks. You will start by identifying your readership and work through specified steps to a complete finished rough draft.

C. YA Beyond Vampires – How to Write Uniquely – Darryl Markowitz

Is the purpose of art met in today’s Young Adult literature? How can you write a unique work of literary art? In this workshop, participants will briefly discuss the writer as a literary artist. There will also be a writing exercise in creating compelling characters with moral/social views that you can continue to develop in later works.

D. The Girl with No Hands – Rachel McKibbens

This workshop will take a look at the cultural and literary significance of magical realism, as well as provide participants with writing exercises that ignite the use of startling imagery. We will also discuss the importance of cutting loose the binds of “truth” by allowing the fantastic to co-exist with the factual.

2:00 pm – 3:15 pm – SESSION 3

A. Make the Most of Your Writing Time – Margaret Yang

You’ve blocked out your writing time – five hours on a weekend or five minutes between errands – and then something happens to derail your good intentions. It’s too noisy. Your spouse wants to talk. You can’t think of what to write about. What are you going to do? This workshop will provide tips for making the most of the writing hours (or minutes) that you’ve worked so hard to obtain. We will discuss why “just doing it” isn’t enough and how to use your environment to your advantage. A small amount of planning pays off in increased productivity.

B. Drawing Fictional Characters – Ann Pearlman

Characters in novels keep us reading the stories. They are often what we remember about a favorite book. What makes a good character so compelling to the reader and how does the writer successfully create believable people on the page? Fiction writer/memoirist/biographer Ann Pearlman, author of the highly successful The Christmas Cookie Club, will take you through the experience of developing sound characters with their own personalities, even bringing her own tricks and exercises to get you started.

C. Breaking New Ground in Nonfiction – Micki Maynard

For nonfiction writers, getting past the conventional wisdom can be a challenge. What are the best methods to draw new conclusions about what may seem to be familiar subjects and get past the status quo? This session will offer helpful advice on the kind of research an author must do to build a case, break new ground, and have the courage to stand behind their conclusions.

D. Don’t Succumb! Finetuning Story Ideas – John Hilton

Finding a compelling story line can be the biggest challenge in writing nonfiction. There’s no formula for finding fresh insights and building an engaging narrative, but a longtime magazine editor offers some thoughts on the perils of clichés and the rewards of thinking for yourself. Attendees are encouraged to bring their ideas for nonfiction stories and they will be (constructively) considered, discussed, and tweaked.

Much more Friday night, Saturday night, and Sunday. Check the Ann Arbor Book Festival website for all of the details.

And let me know how it was.

I’ll see you there next year. My new book will be out by then.

Progressive Activists to Celebrate, Educate in Ann Arbor

I hope to see friends and fellow activists at the upcoming activists’ conference March 12-14 at University of Michigan. The conference, called “Bring It Back, Take It Forward: A Celebration of 50 Years of Activism,” will bring together activists from the Vietnam era and today. It will be a time to look back to what we did then; and then look to the present and future to discuss how we can move forward together.

I’ll be speaking Saturday morning on a panel called “Independent Media from the Underground Press to Today.” I’ll be joined by John Woodford and Harvey Wasserman, two major figures from underground press history. John was a former editor of Muhammad Speaks, the newspaper of the Black Muslims; Harvey was an original member of Liberation News Service, the AP-UPI of the underground press. John and Harvey are both contributors to my upcoming Voices from the Underground: Insider Histories of the Vietnam Era Underground Press. Joining us will be Michael Dover, another veteran of the Vietnam era, and Roshaun Harris, a young media activist from the Detroit area.

 Admission is free.

Following is the official press release.

 * * *

Ann Arbor, MI – February 27, 2010 – Progressive activists including United Farmworkers’ President Arturo Rodriguez, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, Dean Baker and famed radical activist Bill Ayers will convene in Ann Arbor March 12-14 as part of a conference focused on  celebrating accomplishments and working on next steps in the struggle for social justice. The conference, entitled “Bring It Back, Take It Forward, A Celebration of 50 Years of Activism,” will be held in the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor’s Rackham Building on Friday and Saturday March 12 and 13 and at the School of Social Work Building on Sunday March 14.

Several panel presentations are scheduled, focusing on topics including the environment, health care, feminism, immigrant rights, the independent media from the underground press to today, Transgender, Bisexual, Lesbian and Gay (TBLG) issues as well as the progressive movement itself. Friday night March 12 highlights include a labor and economics panel featuring Rodriguez, Baker, and current University of Michigan student activist Yousef Rabhi and moderated by State Representative Rebekah Warren. “People interested in what is happening in the progressive movement now and also in learning the lessons of the past should definitely attend this conference,” says organizer Tim Colenback.

Additionally on Friday evening a panel will be held on the progressive movement, which includes veteran activists Ayers, Rick Feldman, Ron Scott. and Bob Zellner, along with Laura Russello, a current member of the Michigan Peaceworks board.  The original President of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Alan Haber, will moderate. Longtime-activist Haber commented that “the ‘Bring It Back, Take It Forward’ conference is the first event in a new season of activism. Everyone interested in progressive change should attend.”

Saturday afternoon March 13 features two panels, one focused on feminist activism and the other on peace activism.  The feminist panel includes Jan BenDor, who was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame and was a Co-Founder of the Women’s Crisis Center; Kathleen Fojtik Stroud, the founder of SAFE House, the first publicly funded domestic violence shelter in the United States; and Catherine McClary, the current Washtenaw County Treasurer.

The peace panel will be dedicated to the late University of Michigan Political Science Professor J. David Singer.  The peace panel will include Alan Haber, Odile Hugonot Haber, Andy Lichterman. and Paul Williamson.  Additionally, Eastern Michigan University political science professors Judith Kullberg and Richard Stahler-Sholk will present as members of the peace panel.

Saturday night has a decidedly more “Take It Forward” flavor with presentations by young Detroit activist Yusef Shakur, Ann Arbor-based performance artists Riot Youth’s Gayrilla Theater, and Drag King Rebellion and spoken word artist Invincible. The Saturday night schedule also includes presentations from former Human Rights Party activist Nancy Romer, longtime advocate for criminal justice system reform Rosemary Sarri, and drug-law-reform advocate Chuck Ream.

Other panel and discussion topics at the conference include health care, immigrant rights, and environmental justice.

At noon on Sunday March 14 participants will meet at the University of Michigan School of Social Work to discuss what was learned and focus on what the future should entail. More information on the all-day event and the complete schedule are available at  Information is available by calling 734/717-5634 or by e-mailing

This can’t-miss, once-in-a-lifetime event is co-sponsored by the Ann Arbor District Library, Gray Panthers of Washtenaw, Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice (ICPJ), National Writers Union-Southeast Michigan Chapter (NWU-SEM), Social Welfare Action Alliance (SWAA), Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), and several University of Michigan schools, colleges, programs, and departments. Please check the conference website for additional sponsors.

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.