On the National Writers Union’s New Website and Solidarity Among Writers

home_pageOriginally, I planned to begin this post about the National Writers Union’s new website by saying that, though I have been an NWU member since 2001, I continue to pay my dues out of union solidarity and because I want to be a part of the labor movement. In truth my freelance work involves only occasional writing jobs, and a lot of the writing I do is for my own blogs. As a result I don’t think I’m as much of a “professional” writer as some of my fellow union members are.

But when I described my proposed opening to my partner Greg, who is also an NWU member, he said it was rather a weak and idealistic explanation for why I stay in the NWU. So I asked him why he keeps paying his dues each year, and he said, “Because I’m not a fool. I think that everybody who knows what’s what also knows that it’s important to be part of an organization that advocates for your profession/ trade/ line of work, and freelance writers are no exception. I would certainly also argue that being part of a trade union allows you to be part of a larger struggle, and there’s strength in numbers. But I’m trying to be practical here and not just idealistic.”

I liked his answer, and I agree with it. I guess I justify my union membership the way I do because I sometimes feel a little underwhelmed by my own writerly resume. Other writers in the NWU have many published books to their credit (as does Greg) or have had their freelance work appear in lots of major publications that pay in dollars per word. As for me, most of what I’ve had published is short, literary fiction that only occasionally pays anything, and then it’s usually an honorarium. So I identify myself within the union as being a part of the Biz Tech division, which incorporates business and technical writers, as well as “all other writers who are not book authors or journalists.”

In any case, I decided to write a piece about the NWU because a few days ago (July 13) they rolled out their new website, which has been in the works since the 2013 Delegate Assembly. There’s much to like about the new site, including a “Hire a Writer” page that will allow you to search the union’s “talent database” to find a union writer appropriate to the job you have in mind. Or, if you are an NWU member, you can add your profile to the database and possibly pick up a freelance job through the new site.

But what I liked even better about the site is that it contains some real messages of solidarity, encouraging writers of all types and skill levels to join and giving them good reasons to do so. Part of the answer given to the question “Who Can Join?” which is given a prominent place on the home page is the following: “The National Writers Union (NWU) represents all types of writers working in print, electronic, and multimedia formats… As writers’ work moves online, we will continue to support all writers. All are valuable economic participants whose labor as creators is the driving force behind the new age of digital content.”

OK, I thought, that sounds very welcoming and inclusive. Then I went to the Frequently Asked Questions page and looked at the answer given to the question of why a well-published and experienced writer should join the union when it’s “open to both professionals and writers just breaking into the field.” Because, says the reply, “[i]n our experience, more established writers aren’t treated less well when less experienced writers demand better treatment. We all gain.”

And finally, in answer to the question of why a writer who writes for pleasure and considers herself to be an artist, not a worker, should join the union: “Yes, some of us write for pleasure and don’t depend on writing income to support ourselves. Yet our writing has value: since publishing is a profitable business, we deserve to be treated with respect and consistency and to receive a fair share of the proceeds. We all need to ask for what we deserve so that we don’t become a society where only the wealthy can afford to write.”

If I had to make one criticism of the new NWU website, I would say I was disappointed that it’s not a whole lot more vibrant-looking and colorful than its predecessor. So many members asked for more of an eye-catching design that I was surprised to see the same old limited palette of blues, greens and greys and a continued lack of photos and graphics. But the message of solidarity and the reminder about “strength in numbers” lets me know that I’m making the right decision when I pay my dues and continue to be a member of the National Writers Union.

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A Community of Critics and Readers Benefits Literature

Summer in Kathy's GardenQuite frankly, I bought the latest print issue of Harpers because the online site has a paywall and I wanted to read Caleb Crain’s “Counter Culture: Fighting for literature in an age of algorithms.” (I decided that if I had to pay I’d rather have a paper magazine.) Though I was less impressed by the issue’s other content, particularly a commentary in praise of bloodsport (falconry) and an article that damns with faint praise the Affordable Care Act, I found Crain’s piece on literature in the digital age to be very worthwhile reading.

Crain begins with a description of a “new kind of disenchantment [that] has come over literature” that affects how people determine which works deserve to be considered literature and which should endure. Then he describes the “revolutionary advance in counting,” by which he means computerization, that has led to algorithms that claim to be able to recommend appropriate reading matter to you, depending on what you say you have read (e.g., on Goodreads) or what you want to buy (e.g., on Amazon).

After taking a quick look at counting — and literature — in a historical context Crain discusses how we see things we judge to be countable, such as “likes” on Facebook or the number of stars in an Amazon review. We tend, he says, to see instances of a countable thing as interchangeable, and when we apply this interchangeable status to works of literature, why should we chose to read one work as opposed another? Why should one single instance of a countable thing matter more than another? Asking such questions can lead us to “equate the value of a thing with the popularity of it,” as the number of clicks or views seems to indicate the worth of an online article or video.

Some say that paying attention to what is popular is more democratic than adhering to a rigidly determined canon of great literature, which was extant when I took my first Survey of English Literature course in the 1970s. And in fact present-day readers are more open to a diverse array of voices partially because the canon is no longer sacrosanct. But Crain says, “The canon is a mystical sum, which can never be tallied: its only true index is written in living and fallible hearts./ This myth of unknowability is being replaced today by an illusion of certainty.” And that certainty is based on quantifiability, such as the Amazon sales rank of a book or how many stars it got in reader reviews.

But if the internet, at least in theory, gives everyone a voice, who are the influencers in the internet age? And why should we value the opinions of critics at the New York Times, for example, over other voices and opinions? Crain says, “It’s impossible for a critic to judge a book unless she holds it to a standard, which may take the form of a rule, such as ‘Language should be no fussier than what’s needed to convey its message,’ or of a personal touchstone, such as Sybille Bedford’s A Legacy. But where does the authority for the standard come from?” He notes that in the past a critic appealed for her authority to her shared community, i.e., those who regularly read the publication she wrote for. And if she no longer reflected their views and tastes, she would no longer be able to influence them. Now, however, readers of reviews aren’t necessarily readers of publications and are more likely to find reviews on Twitter and Facebook. (And in fact, though I’m at least occasionally a part of the Harpers readers’ community, I came upon a link to Crain’s article on Twitter.) Crain says that, though most critics are cut off from their community of relevant readers, new communities of “critics and readers with borders that are porous and expansive but nonetheless meaningful” could be just the thing to help literature survive.

Though I prefer the term “reviewer” to the term “critic,” I’m heartened by the implication that community is more important to the future of literature than either saving the canon or bowing to inevitable algorithms. In fact I usually choose what to read based on reviews in trusted sources or on recommendations of friends whose tastes I share, so for me community is already the most important influence. And that community does not usually include an unknown group of people posting reviews on Amazon, whose values and point of view are otherwise unknown to me.

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Manifesto for a Reader-Centered Universe

Recently I decided to make reading a higher priority. I started doing book reviews. I got a library card at a nearby community college library that still has lots of books. I joined Goodreads. I wrote this manifesto at the height of the excitement over e-books and new publishing technology, and I still stand by it.
manifesto
One of the most challenging and frustrating things about being a writer in the 21st century is the fact that there seem to be more writers than readers, and probably the most annoying thing about the buzz over digital publishing is that the focus is on the technology, rather than on the human element.

We refer to Kindles and the like as e-readers, yet they are passive objects, and the real reading is done by me and billions of other humans like me. This isn’t simply a matter of semantics. As we go down, level by level, from the legal fictions of corporate persons who produce the e-readers and the publishers who make e-books available; through the bookstores and libraries, where we are at last face to face with other humans; and finally encounter individuals in the act of reading, we see that one phenomenon is most important: a human reader interprets a script or other text produced by a writer in order to understand something that a writer or group of writers produced yesterday or a thousand years ago.

Once you make your way past the corporate persons and the bureaucratic entities and you begin to reach the level of other human beings, you realize the true importance of the reader. We are not just consumers: we are the goal, the grail, the intended endpoint of all that is written! If it weren’t for us, gentle readers, people like you and me who read newspapers and magazines, books and academic articles, whether online or on paper, over the internet (or perhaps we are distracted or not literate or can’t see and we must listen to them being read to us in audio books or by screen readers), in whatever form we take in the words that were written by writers, we readers and auditors are the intended audience and what the whole process is about. We must not let them forget that.

A reader, an auditor, the intended audience of the written word is a human being. And an e-reader is a device, not a reader, any more than your speech recognition software really hears you. As we begin to try to automate the process of putting writers’ words into “print” and making them available on the internet for download to e-readers, we have to remind ourselves that reading is an active process and it means nothing and affects nothing without the willing cooperation of readers, human readers. And if you think that how we say this doesn’t matter, then you’re not being a very good reader, dear reader. But if you care about being a reader (auditor) of the words of writers and care how they are presented to you, you deserve to be treated very respectfully and with the full knowledge of your worth and importance. As a writer, as a publisher, and as a web designer, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a reader-centered universe.

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Should Writers Get a Little Help from Their Governments?

[posted by Alice]

Earlier this year more than 9,000 writers took part in the 2014 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey. Results were reported at, among other places, Publishers Weekly (“DBW 2014: Survey Finds Most Authors Want to Earn More“) and the Guardian (“Most writers earn less than £600 a year, survey reveals.”) According to the survey, 54% of traditionally-published authors and almost 80% of self-published writers are making less than £600 or $1,000 a year. Only a tiny number — 0.7% of self-published, 1.3% of traditionally-published — are making more than $100,000 a year from their writing. Most of the writers told the survey-takers that getting their work out there was more important than making money, but living the writing life isn’t sustainable if there isn’t any financial reward. How can a writer keep going if she can’t sell her books?

A few days ago I read an article that showed that not all writers have to rely on making money from book sales. Edward Nawotka in Publishing Pespectives (“German Writers Rely on Readings, Fellowships for Income“) reported that many young and aspiring German writers, like those interviewed for the above-cited survey, make money from bookstore and event readings and from fellowships. In Germany people pay to hear writers read; cities have writers-in-residence programs; and there’s something called The Artists Social Program which offers writers discounts on their health insurance.

That sounded remarkably good to me until I found an article called “The Norwegian Government Keeps Book Publishers Alive And other reasons it’s the best place in the world to be a writer,” and I learned that Norway has the best of both worlds. Just an example: “So long as a new Norwegian book passes quality control, Arts Council Norway purchases 1,000 copies of it to distribute to libraries — or 1550 copies if it’s a children’s book.” So writers are guaranteed to sell many copies of their books, and the country also lends other kinds of support to writers. Well-known artists receive a guaranteed income, usually until retirement, and others are eligible for 1-5-year work grants.

So what does all this mean? Does it mean that the United States and Britain don’t value literature as much as Germany and Norway do? Or does it just mean that small rich countries with languages that are not widely spoken (like Norway) have governments that are more willing to subsidize the nation’s literature? Obviously, I don’t have the answers, but it does seem that the U.S. and Britain have more of a market-oriented approach, forcing writers to depend on how many books they can sell, and Germany and Norway give writers a wider range of ways to make an income (and help popularize their work). And it isn’t a simple matter that rich countries can afford to subsidize writers. Norway does have a higher per capita GDP than the United States, but the United States has a higher per capita GDP than Germany does. In any case I think that forcing writers to depend on book sales might not be the best way to insure that we in the U.S. have the thriving literary culture we deserve.

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Sports Illustrated Enters the Daily Fantasy Sports Marketplace

[Posted by Alice]

According to Forbes, Sports Illustrated, a publication once best known for its annual swimsuit issue, has announced that it is launching a daily, play-for-cash app and entering the “daily fantasy sports marketplace.” In the past, daily fantasy sport was dominated by startups, but the government has taken a hands off approach and professional sports leagues have not legally challenged these games, so the playing field is wide open, no pun intended. Major League Baseball maintains a cooperative agreement with one daily fantasy website, and though there are possible federal challenges ahead, that probably won’t stop CBS and Yahoo from entering the “daily fantasy sports marketplace.”

Wikipedia says, “A fantasy sport (also known as rotisserie, roto, or owner simulation) is a game where participants act as owners to build a team that competes against other fantasy owners based on the statistics generated by the real individual players or teams of a professional sport… Probably the most common variant converts statistical performance into points that are compiled and totaled according to a roster selected by a manager that makes up a fantasy team.”  According to this same Wikipedia entry, the Fantasy Sports Trade Association estimates that 32 million people aged 12 and over in the U.S. and Canada played fantasy sports in 2010, and participation has grown 60% in the past four years. And mobile devices have made it easier to play these games.

SI publisher Brendan Ripp said, “With consumers flocking [to mobile], with advertising dollars flocking there, what we wanted to build … is a successful mobile plan so that the consumer will consume our content across any device including desktop and come away with a positive experience with the right advertising built into it.” SI doesn’t intend to have fantasy games on its site, like ESPN and Yahoo, but wants to “get ahead of the curve” with this app, allowing people to challenge their friends “to single-day matchups” that they can gamble on.

The idea of picking players and running a game based on stats has been around since the 1940s, but the idea that a computerized statistical modeling of professional sporting events could be something that would help to keep a publication like Sports Illustrated in the running is another remarkable effect of the proliferation of mobile devices.

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Who Are You Watching and Who’s Watching You?

On the Rising Popularity of Mobile Devices

[posted by Alice]

During the three years that I’ve been following electronic publishing trends and the effects of new media on readers and writers, nothing has surprised me more than the spectacular increase in adoption of mobile devices. Smartphones and tablet computers are soon likely to outsell both laptops and e-readers. (See “Tablets set to outsell laptops by 2014”  and “The E-Reader Revolution: Over Just as It Has Begun?” )

Such a rapid change has forced online publishers to take notice because people use mobile devices differently than laptops. (See “Study: Mobile news ‘snacking’ is up sharply, but tablets are the killer news devices” and “Mobile Mindset”) And these new habits, combined with the physical reality of smaller screens and higher resolutions, are reshaping the internet, forcing sites to become responsive to the needs of tablet and smartphone users. Remarkably, 21% of all adult cell owners now do most of their online browsing using their mobile phone. (See “Pew Internet report: Cell Internet Use 2013.“)

Personal observation bears out the statistical claims in these reports and studies. Here in the United States the people I know who have mobile devices refer to them almost constantly. Last summer I traveled to Prague for the first time since 2011, and I noticed a tremendous increase in the numbers of tourists checking email on their phones in Starbucks and taking selfies on Charles Bridge with their iPads. And as I watched tourists from all over the world turn away from the city and their companions to focus on small screens, I wanted to ask two questions: Who are you watching and who’s watching you? Here are a couple of answers:

In a September 9 article in Der Spiegel called “How the NSA Accesses Smartphone Data,” a team of writers (Marcel Rosenbach, Laura Poitras and Holger Stark) reported on leaked NSA documents, including an internal presentation called “Does your target have a smartphone?”  According to this article, “For an agency like the NSA, the data storage units [i.e., smartphones] are a goldmine, combining in a single device almost all the information that would interest an intelligence agency: social contacts, details about the user’s behavior and location, interests (through search terms, for example), photos and sometimes credit card numbers and passwords.” So the NSA set up task forces to figure out how to spy on various phone systems, which they now know how to do. And to add insult to injury for iPhone users, it turns out that the NSA sees Steve Jobs as the Big Brother who leads them zombielike to a data-sharing dystopia. (Watch “The Dark Side of the iPhone Lines.”)

In the September 12 New York Times, you can find an article called “No Child Left Untableted,” about 18 middle schools in South Carolina in which every teacher and student has received a tablet computer and will be expected to use it as a “transformative educational tool.” The upshot of this development is that kids and teachers will be looking at screens instead of at each other. Author Carlo Rotello tries to be even-handed in his presentation but ultimately says little to dissuade us from the ominous implications of this sentence: “The tablets, paid for in part by a $30 million grant from the federal Department of Education’s Race to the Top program, were created and sold by a company called Amplify, a New York-based division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, and they struck me as exemplifying several dubious American habits now ascendant: the overvaluing of technology and the undervaluing of people; the displacement of face-to-face interaction by virtual connection; the recasting of citizenship and inner life as a commodified data profile; the tendency to turn to the market to address social problems.” (Watch Louis C.K.’s Explanation of Why He Hates Smartphones Is Sad, Brilliant.)

 

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More on Those “7 Things They Don’t Tell You About Freelancing”

[posted by Alice]

When I get tired of working at home, I take my computer to a library or coffeehouse, like other freelancers do. On Saturday morning I went to Starbucks. Usually, when I sign on to the wi-fi, I ignore the Digital Network page that comes up after I accept their terms of service, but yesterday one of the offerings caught my eye. It was a mediabistro article called “7 Things They Don’t Tell You About Freelancing: Here’s what we wish they taught us in J-school.”

It’s not hard to understand why the Starbucks Network would feature an article about freelancers (lots of us “work” there). But the reason I actually clicked on that link was because just last week I attended the Delegate Assembly of the National Writers Union, the only labor union that represents freelance writers, and I was more focused on freelancers’ issues than usual. Even after I learned that the article was originally posted on August 8, 2011, I continued reading because blogger Alisha Tillery gives a soberingly accurate description of the life of a freelance writer. She says that freelancing is a full-time job, yet you might also need to have a “real” job to sustain yourself; you still have a boss (your editor) but you may have to chase checks in order to get paid; and so on. Tillery also gives information about using the Writer’s Market, suggests sites where freelancers can find job postings, and says that the Freelancers Union might be able to help with late payment issues and other problems.

As a newly energized NWU member, I asked myself why she didn’t also include the National Writers Union in her list of connections and resources. There are advantages to the fact that the NWU represents only writers and is an authentic trade union, part of the AFL-CIO, with the attention to workers rights this implies. (Freelancers Union, by comparison, is an unaffiliated organization that deals with freelancers in arts, design and entertainment; media and advertising; financial services; nonprofit;  technology; domestic child care; skilled computer use; and traditional or alternative health care.) And though it’s true that if you live in New York City, membership in the Freelancers Union can get you health insurance, the same is true of the NWU.  And the NWU has been around longer than the Freelancers Union. (The National Writers Union was formed as a local of the United Autoworkers Union in 1981, and the Freelancers Union was founded by the nonprofit Working Today in 2001.)

So why didn’t the NWU get a nod when Ms. Tillery talked about resources for freelance writers?  Whatever the reason, it’s a good thing that she talked about any sort of unionizing efforts at all. Because it’s true that writers tend to resist any attempt to organize them, and some are too individualistic to imagine that they could be comfortable in any sort of union, especially if they are already doing well. Yet as newspapers close and new technology creates as many challenges as opportunities, it is obvious to me that unions for writers have a crucial role to play. Ursula Le Guin, the legendary science fiction writer and NWU member, said it very well in her solidarity message to our Delegate Assembly:

Dear Sisters and Brothers:  We know that the mega-corporations think they own and control publishing.  And we know that organizing writers is like herding cats. So — let’s imagine a huge herd of lean, hungry, highly organized cats coming at those fat-cat corporations, and clawing the stuffing out of them. I can’t wait.

Whenever I sit alone writing, I’m aware that we freelancers need solitary time to do our work – at home or in coffeehouses – but we can benefit from the solidarity and collective spirit of a union, as well as the collective power it can give us to deal with all those problems they didn’t tell you about at J-School.

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