Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Authors Guild: The Published Writers’ Union

Unions are so much in the news these days that even on Sunday’s Academy Award program at least three of the Oscar recipients mentioned in their acceptance speeches that union workers had helped them achieve their success. I am proud to say that I am a union worker, too, and have been for twenty-seven years.

When my first book came out in 1984 (a nonfiction treatise on management techniques published by McGraw-Hill), I received an invitation to join The Authors’ Guild. I felt honored to be asked into a club to which only published authors could belong. That letter brought back the thrill of the phone call accepting the book proposal, the signing of the contract, the sight and feel of my first book. I filled out the paperwork and sent in my check. I have been paying my union dues ever since.

The truth is that being a union member is part of my heritage. I could sing “Union Maid” by the time I was six years old. My grandfather Andrea was a coal miner in western Pennsylvania. In 1920, he was sent, with a group of Italian immigrants and Blacks, to break the famous Matewan strike in West Virginia. My father, at age six, was one of those children portrayed in John Sayles’s film Matewan, watching as their fathers — black and white marching together — refused to be scabs.

Uncle Paul is there somewhere.
At age sixteen, my Uncle Paul, my father’s oldest brother, took over supporting the family after their father died of black lung. He eventually became a union organizer in my birthplace: Paterson, New Jersey — famous for its union movement history. (Uncle Paul was also a Member of the US 1936 Olympic Wrestling Team — which made him a teammate of the great Jesse Owens, who showed up the “Master Race” in front of Der Fuhrer on his home turf in Berlin. But I digress.)

Jesse Owens
Besides the pride I still feel carrying my Authors Guild membership card in my wallet, the union has helped me in very practical ways. It got me back the rights to Never Work for a Jerk, once it went out of print. Most recently, the union’s response to my needs was nothing short of amazing.

After the death of my beloved agent Nancy Love last summer, I was looking for new representation. I had found a person who seemed a great match for me, but the contract her agency asked me to sign was far more complex and restrictive than anything I’d been presented with before. Buddies in the business advised signing the thing, since agents were so hard to come by. Friends outside the field said to send it to my lawyer, which was sound advice no doubt. However, great guy that he is, my lawyer doesn’t know intellectual property law, AND heaven only knew how long it would take and how much it would cost to get advice from that quarter. Then the light finally dawned on marble head: Contact Your Union. What ensued was unbelievably fast, helpful, and FREE for me as a member.

Twenty minutes after I sent in an inquiry over The Author’s Guild website, Anita Fore, the Guild’s Director of Legal Services, sent me an email asking to see the contract. I emailed it to her immediately. Two hours later I got a five-page email that analyzed the contract’s points and advised me what to negotiate and how to present my point of view. This from not just any intellectual property lawyer, but one of the best possible — thoroughly versed the legal ins and outs the US publishing market. She is the same person who worked on the Google Books issue. And now she was helping me, personally. How impressive is that. Thanks to her, I wound up with a contract and an agent I like very much.

In the past few weeks, the Guild has emailed its members cogent and concise analyses of how the prevailing industry standard—a 25% royalty for authors on ebooks—will benefit publishers and penalize authors as book sales migrate from print to electronic. (More about that in a future post.)

Listen you writers out there. Advocacy, contract analysis when you need it, a finger on the pulse of the market, and information to help you understand issues vital to your rights—these are what the Authors Guild offers. If you are a writer and you don’t belong to your union, JOIN NOW at

--Annamaria Alfieri

No comments:

Post a Comment