TALK TO writers anywhere, but especially to independent writers (read: free-lance; read: frequently unemployed), and you begin to get the feeling that nothing ever works out right for them. They claim to be victims of agents, of booksellers, of editors and publicists, the seasons and the stars.And sometimes they're right on all counts.
Novelist Barbara Raskin, for instance, recently complained that her latest book The National Anthem doesn' have a prayer of making back its advance regardless of her part in it. The first printing of 12,000 copies was respectable enough, but there was a warehouse fire and most of those were damaged. The second time around the publisher decided to print only 1500 copies. Her editor was fired; Raskin is burned.
Other writers will tell of being sent by their publisher to speak in Terre Haute, only to discover there's not a single copy of their book in the city.
So it is scarcely surprising that free-lancers come to see themselves as little guys up against the power of an industry that couldn't exist without them but treats them as if it could. Regardless of the merits of his case, when Alex Haley, million-seller and all, says he's suing Doubleday because he feels he's been treated like a sharecropper "in the sense that it is we who sweat and produce the crops and then someone else owns the land, the company store, and the cotton gin, and at harvest time they give us what they think we ought to have," well, it strikes a responsive chord in the heart of every free-lancer.
For consolation - and defense - these writers seek each other out, commiserating, counseling, and organizing. There are a number of national and international writers' organizations - P.E.N. and the Author's Guild are only two - but recently Washington has seen the birth of groups tailored to its own special needs and problems.
About five years ago Marguerite Brunner ran a small newspaper advertisement to find people like herself interested in writing. The ad led to a series of meetings and eventually the formation of the Washington Area Writers, which now has 65 paid members. Without being exclusive, many of them are happy to be part of such a small organization. Dues are $5 a year, and the membership is based more on aspirations than prior accomplishments. Nine-tenths of the people involved, according to the group's current president Terry Miller "are doing something else and writing on the side." But none of this is to say that the Washington Area Writers are not serious about their work, and in some cases notably successful. One member, Carol Farley, has a children's novel coming out from Atheneum this month; Brunner has written a book on antiques excerpted by Reader's Digest and Woman's Day.
In 1975, several Washington Free-lancers formed an association to help them obtain some of the benefits available to other professionals. Washington Independent Writers now boasts 500 paid members who can buy health insurance at group rates, receive a monthly newsletter, tax and market information, group discounts, job referrals and attend various workshops. They also publish an annual directory of members, which is sent to editors, publishers, government offices and the like.
WIW has quite a few members who support themselves exclusively on their free-lance incomes. The newest edition of the director includes novelists (Barbara Raskin is the group's president), investigative journalists such as Les Whitten and David Wise, and a host of writers whose names are familiar from Washington's various magazines. DUes are $35.
WIW is fairly militant. Occasionally there is talk about boycotting certain publications and there is a movement to insist on contracts for free-lance work instead of settling for the usual nebulous verbal agreements. (P.E.N. is likewise attempting to establish contractual standards.)
But the most committed stand toward the publishing world can be found in the newly formed Public Interest Media Service, a group of politically oriented writers, many of them former clients of agent David Obst, that John Marks has been getting together. Jeremy Rifkin of the People's Bicentennial COmmission is one member. Taylor Branch, who did a lot of work on John Dean's Blind Ambition, is another. Marks says there are 20 to 30 other people involved as well.
As Marks describes it, the group intends to be more than a co-op agency. Media Service members will sell their books through an agent employed exclusively by them, who will be paid a salary and work out of Washington. Most of the ten per cent commission that normally goes to an agent would instead be used to promote the authors' books, and defend them if necessary. Meanwhile, Marks has been in New York negotiating several deals for Service members himself.
The Writer's Center had its beginnings last September when playwright Allan Lefcowitz noticed an announcement that Glen Echo Park was making space available for vaious groups of artists. He submitted a proposal, it was accepted, and by January the Center was announcing its formal opening.
Glen Echo Park was built in the 19th century as a chautauqua facility and the people at the Writer's Center like to think that they are helping it return to its original function. They are offering essentially four services:
Beginning this month 25 courses are scheduled in everything from "pre-college writing" (high school papers and the like) to "mystery and suspense fiction"; from writing cookbooks to reading poetry. There will be workshops in photo typewetting and small press publishing using equipment recently puchsed with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
A series of Sunday afternoon readings.
A small store to help sell and distribute publications from the area's small presses.
Meeting rooms available for interested groups of writers.
A lot of work remains to be done at the Center, housed in what once was the park's kitchen. "We're knocking out some walls," said Lefcowtiz. "We're going to have a bunch of writers out there getting rid of their agressions" - probably the most valuable service of all.
PHONE NUMBERS: Washington Area Writers, 234-3928; Washington Independent Writers, 347-4973; The Writer's Center, 229-9875.