Friday, August 31, 2007

Brave enough to diss Oprah’s fame, funny enough to grace a Starbucks® cup: meet Judy Gruen

Read a message from author Judy Gruen and smiles are inevitable. “Can’t decide whether to stay friends with a size two woman who won’t eat a carrot because of its high-carb content?” she wrote. Gruen’s keen sense of humor is making her latest book, ‘The Women’s Daily Irony Supplement,’ increasingly popular. Her wit has also earned one of her quips a spot on 5 million Starbucks® cups. How did this author manage to succeed at publishing humor, arguably the most difficult category of writing? Part of the reason may lie in her genes.

“I’m fairly certain I inherited my paternal grandfather’s sense of humor,” she says. “He loved nothing more than to make people laugh, to tell jokes, and play practical jokes on people—though I don’t put antacids on the table in homes where I’ve been invited for dinner.”

As a young child Gruen could always make her family laugh by imitating Kathryn Kuhlman, one of the early televangelists who claimed to heal the lame and cure the blind. Gruen recalls, “Kathryn and the newly healed would laugh and cry and walk together, shouting “Hallelujah!”

Gruen says she also “did a pretty good Nixon, at least for a 10-year-old.” She says her impression of the beleaguered president “cracked up my Mom in particular.” But then, says the lively author, “As my mother, she was obliged to laugh.”

Years later, Gruen began to write freelance essays—“funny ones.” She says she sold them, much to her delight. “I had no idea what a tricky path I was setting for myself at the time. I just wrote what struck me as most compelling and worthy of satirizing.”

Her humor often stemmed from topical items in the news. “I still think the funniest things I’ve ever written were more reporting than anything else. You just can’t make up stuff as hilarious as educators banning “tag” and Paris Hilton brandishing a Bible (upside down) to display her remorse over having to write the word “socialite” on a resume.”

She is serious about her humor, at least from a crafting standpoint. “I still want to improve the quality of my work all the time; I never tire of setting a goal of making my next column better than the last. It’s the most fun challenge I know of, much more fun than dieting.”

Gruen has sometimes touched a nerve with fans of those she writes about. She wrote an essay called “Oprah’s Memo to God.” That notorious essay is in her new book.

“I skewered her vast fame and influence,” Gruen says of the daytime diva. “I thought my computer would nearly burn up from the livid emails I received from Oprah fans, MANY OF WHICH WERE WRITTEN IN CAPITAL LETTERS SO I REALIZED HOW UNFUNNY I REALLY WAS.”

An award-winning author of three books, Gruen has published widely in magazines and newspapers like Ladies’ Home Journal, Woman’s Day, the Chicago Tribune, Family Circle and the Los Angeles Times. She writes a popular column ‘Off my Noodle.’

A veteran speaker at venues like the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, Gruen will speak at American Jewish University in Los Angeles on Sunday, November 11. Those who attend are guaranteed many smiles from the lady famous for quips like, “A woman’s home is her hassle.”

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Writers find inspiration like a penny on the sidewalk

I came across this statue at Marywood Retreat as I finished interviews for a newspaper story. I'll gaze at the photo tacked to my bulletin board until, one day, my pen will begin to crawl across my notebook.

I was interviewing an author this morning for my Web Savvy column, and I mentioned inspiration. To me, the process is sort of like finding a penny on the sidewalk. Since I was a girl, I’ve checked first to see whether the coin was heads up or down. Heads up meant pick the coin up, pocket it and wait for good luck to follow. Sometimes I’d make a wish. Heads down meant pass on the coin.

Inspiration is very much like that penny on the sidewalk. You often encounter it unexpectedly, and you still don’t know what to expect from the encounter until you take a closer look. Despite the overwhelming creative bent, this is a key approach to running my business. I call myself a writer, but what keeps me working rests on the information I can provide and craft. The more unique the information and the more unique the style, the chances for publication rise. By unique style, I don’t mean writing the pronoun ‘I’ in lower case or paring away all the modifiers. I mean the way the piece sounds to someone’s ear, how the person’s brain perceives the information.

Poets and writers can often be on inspiration overload. Once you train the eye and brain, opportunities for creating a work of art from words abound. I’ve sold several pieces related to kumquats, all because I discovered those peculiar little fruits as a girl and many years later, bumped into a kumquat tree for the first time as we shopped at a plant nursery. A polychrome sculpture of the Virgin Mary in an art museum in South Carolina almost got me arrested. I sat for so long in the room containing the statue, the security guard began to hover. That experience led me to write a poem that is one of the only poems I’ve written that satisfies me, and it was included in my last collection. Newspapers and old cookbooks, my husband and daughters, my dog, my chicken and my cat have also spurred my pen to write poetry and prose. And the relationship with my mother is a veritable gold mine.

When I speak to groups, people often ask me if I get writer’s block. I have to say I don’t. It is true that sometimes I just don’t really feel very inspired. But if I gaze around my writing room long enough, something is bound to shine, just like that penny on the sidewalk.

To read a sampler of works I've published, visit my page at Media Bistro.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Facebook group inspires quirky poem

Poems are ridiculous, insecure creatures. They show up at all hours with no warning, demanding immediate attention like a troubled friend who believes you exist for him or her on demand. I joined the "Poetry" group on Facebook recently, and noticed a contest. The challenge: write a poem beginning with the word face and ending with the word book. The impossible—for me—challenge: confine the poem to 8 lines. The reward: cash prizes.

So in the middle of what I can only say is an absolutely insane week of freelancing—multiple deadlines, Monday a holiday, end of the month means time to send invoices out, not to mention duties related to home and hearth—a single line of poetry came to me. Last night at 12:30 a.m. So I jotted those lines down and after finishing an article due Friday, I finally went to bed.

This morning, the poem showed up in its entirety, knocking in my brain and demanding admittance. I wrote and revised it twice. That is very unusual for me, because I usually revise with almost neurotic intensity. The poem “Facebook, Wall to Wall” will be part of my next collection. It's too long for the Facebook competition.

Had I not followed my older daughter’s advice and joined Facebook, I’d never have met this poem. Sometimes, the writing of poetry is a near-ridiculous process.

Visit my 'Web Savvy' column at The Writer magazine; take a look at my column at Covering Florida.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Wal-Mart orders ‘Faces of Freedom’; proceeds help wounded warriors

A late afternoon email from Rebecca Pepin brought good news. Wal-Mart has ordered 10,000 copies of the book ‘Faces of Freedom’ for outlets in parts of Virginia and South Carolina. Pepin conceived and edited the book as a tribute to U.S. troops who have lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. Fellow Florida author Jenn McCollum and I hope to set up a signing here in Jacksonville.

Pepin pulled together professional writers to pen a story about a fallen warrior from each state, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. I can only imagine the headaches of coordinating all those creative types. Each of us agreed to provide the interviews and article at no charge as a small token of our appreciation to the troops who do the hardest job in the world. All proceeds go to wounded warriors and their families.

My own story recounts the life of a soldier from Missouri, Sgt. Michael T. Fuga. As I interviewed his wife and drafted (then redrafted then redrafted) the story, I thought of my mother’s youngest brother who was like a brother to me. He did two tours in Vietnam. The second time he came home, after being wounded, I remember the look in his eyes as he came through the door. I recall the dismay he felt over the lack of support for our troops. Participating in this book project was also a small way of giving something back to someone I loved.

‘Faces of Freedom’ makes each individual sacrifice personal, fleshing out the numbers we hear on the nightly news. The book is a monument in words, one deserving of our support.

Visit my column 'Web Savvy' at The Writer, and drop by my column at Covering Florida.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Wired magazine’s September issue serves up well-written story about Web War I

Wired [1-year subscription]

There’s a lot of great content in the September issue of Wired Magazine, starting with a story about a botnet attack on Estonia. The attack, says the article, “nearly shut down the most wired country in Europe.” This orchestrated attack constituted Web War I against a country, the magazine says.

The attack involved a variety of methods, including computers forwarding SPAM or viruses without the owners even realizing it. Joshua Davis wrote the story, and he is one of those rare technical writers able to spin a riveting tale. Davis peppers his account of the attack and the solution with physical descriptions of major players as well as the meanings of technical terms related to the attack and the aftermath.

Davis begins his story by putting the reader in the victim’s seat:
The Minister of Defense checked the Web page again—still nothing. He stared at the error message. For some reason, the site for Estonia’s leading newspaper, the Postimees, wasn’t responding. Jaak Aaviksoo attempted to pull up the sites of a couple of other papers. They were all down.
From that point, Davis takes us to Estonia—even to Russia—as he unwinds the saga of a veritable Web War. By the end of the article, we are aware that any country with an Internet infrastructure may be vulnerable. The attack on Estonia began after a statue commemorating Russian soldiers who fought in World War II was moved to what Estonia perceived as a more appropriate site.

There’s also a story by another writer about a murder that allegedly occurs because of two people connecting via the Internet. Both of them pretend to be someone else, with tragic consequences. The story is true crime at its most interesting, with a cyber-twist.

I started reading Wired when I got a free subscription from one of the journalists’ organizations I joined. I’ve definitely become a fan. Clean writing, features and tips, and tech news keep me up-to-date on a primary resource for running my freelance business. Definitely worth a subscription.

*This is not a paid review. The staff of Wired has no idea I am praising their product.*

Visit Covering Florida for my take on national party leaders dealing a blow to both Democrats and Republicans because of the January presidential primary. Visit my column at The Writer, Web Savvy, to read about moving a magazine from print to Web.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Billionaire says Internet ‘dead and boring’

I learned to navigate Facebook by enlisting help from my daughter, a graduate student at a Florida university.

I read part of an interview with Mark Cuban in Lloyd Grove’s column at Cuban made his primary fortune by plying his entrepreneurial skills as a partner in This Web TV company was sold to Yahoo for $5.7 billion in stock, and then, Lloyd writes, “cashed out before the tech market imploded.” Cuban’s remarks about the Internet are based on what he perceives as an inadequate broadband speed to your home, that limits potential for “technical innovation.” I’m not a computer expert, so I won’t argue Cuban’s point. I guess I’d call myself a “creative expert,” though, using the Web for everything from finding markets for my writing to locating old friends and enjoying the seemingly limitless potential at sites like the social network Facebook as well as the eclectic BlogHer community.

I’d have to say those of us in the arts are having a field day with the Web. Even the U.S. presidential candidates (or their strategists) are beginning to respect the power of YouTube.

As a journalist, I learn something every day, courtesy of the world’s largest information resource. Naturally, using the Web has diversified my publishing portfolio. I write regular columns and articles for some sites and publications, but I often simply write something, email it to a publication I've never done business with, and learn, with pleasure, it suits the editor I sent it to. This happened recently when I spotted a story that no one had covered yet. I did some research, put the copy together and sent it on its merry way. In a short while, I had an acceptance and shortly thereafter, had emailed the invoice. This happens quite frequently. The process once took weeks, even months in some cases. I deal with every editor I provide content to by means of email and on lesser occasions, fax by email. If I have a question related to freelancing, I can post it on any of several message boards at professional organizations I belong to and receive an answer quickly, sometimes immediately. If I need quotes from experts, they're keystrokes and a few URLs away.

As a poet outside the collegiate writing industry, I am certain my poems would have never connected with the number of readers who've found them and then bought the book. Same goes for the readings and programs I speak at. The Web is a writer's best ally.

So maybe those of us in the creative arts, non-geeks that we mostly are, simply look at the Web with a different perspective than someone who is an expert in matters technological. The beauty of the Web, like other media, is in the eyes of the beholder.

Visit my column Web Savvy at The Writer, and drop by my blog Covering Florida.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Should a poet plan on starving?

I enjoyed sharing my poems with members and guests of a historical society in Jacksonville.

When I was young my mother, when I repeated my ambition to become a poet, advised me in typical no-nonsense fashion.

Poets are dead before anybody knows who they are.”

Years later, as I worked steadily at trying to survive as a freelance writer, I continued to write poetry on the side. I published many poems, earning small amounts from educational publishers, magazines, contests and at least one Web site.

Finally the day came when a publisher agreed to invest his money in my collection, A Poetry Break.

Because I was so grateful, I undertook a promotional campaign worthy of a new drug discovery. I spoke, I traveled and I blogged.

It paid off. The book did well enough for the publisher to take on my nonfiction book. And now that I am in the final edit on my new poetry collection, I’ve dialogued with several publishers about bringing it out.

I am also considering self-publishing, for a number of reasons. Here’s a list:
1. I do not work in the academic world and therefore have nothing to lose by self-pubbing.
2. If I calculate royalties by way of self-publication, compared to royalties from self-publishing, my profits would increase by choosing the latter route.
3. I do not want to work as hard this go-round. Promoting the book consumed so much of my time my freelance nonfiction work suffered.
4. I would like total editorial control over the book.
5. The book biz sucks.
You are probably wondering why I have included reason #5. I could fill a book with support for that statement, but I came to learn many things as I pounded the pavement as an author. For one thing, bookstores and distributors order books, and then return the books that do not sell. This makes anticipating income very tricky. You may have a great royalty one quarter but then see your royalties decimated in the next due to returns. In addition, if your publisher is not one of the big houses, you will be very lucky to get reviews. In order to get reviews you or your publisher often must (1)schmooze and (2)politic. We were very lucky on my poetry collection. I count as a stellar moment in my life learning that a newspaper columnist, a complete stranger to me, reviewed my book, and so did others.

In addition to all that, if you are to succeed in today’s book world, you must write a book that targets a specific group of book buyers. I confess this is a simplified explanation, but will simply say if you write a book titled ‘How to Teach Your Dog to Play the Piano,’ you will have a ready line of dog lovers waiting for your signature at the nearest bookstore. Or if you develop a line of mysteries with a young sexy detective who is one part Jewish, one part Christian and one part Muslim and maybe one part Buddhist—I am imagining both the maternal and paternal lineage—you will have a runaway best-seller, having capitalized on a number of trendy niches.

Meanwhile, I ply my trade and count myself lucky to be able to earn money by writing columns and articles like the one you are reading right now. My poetry book still sells; I earn fees for speaking and talking about poetry and creative writing. I have learned to recognize those as numerous blessings.

Perhaps I am also learning to admit to myself that my mom was right. Or at least she was close.

What I am telling myself in response is that it really doesn’t matter. A poet is a poet and can’t do a thing about it.

An invitation

Visit my blog Covering Florida.

If you’re interested in writing for online sites, visit my column at The Writer. Web Savvy has covered digital cameras, writing style for the Web, and moving a publication from print to online. Available to premium subscribers only.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Readers and books diverge, but is the news really as bad as pop pollsters claim?


Now comes the latest in a long line of those pop polls mass media loves. What better way to grab attention? An Associated Press-Ipsos poll reveals 1 of 4 of American adults didn’t read a book in 2006. This begs the obvious question: what about the other 3? And it begs a question I love to ask. Who has time to squander yapping on a phone with a pollster? What type of personality agrees to do this? Come to think of it, questions are going off in my brain like light bulbs. I’m an avid reader, but often, there’s simply not a book on store shelves that makes me pull out my wallet and fork over my cash (or do the one-click purchase at amazon or other online retailers). I have a veritable library here at home; I like to re-read books that have pleased or interested me. So much of what is published today is disposable literature.

I suspect some of those non-readers do indeed read, just not books. The Internet provides the largest library in history, right at your fingertips, with lots of free content about every subject known to mankind. A book is one of many vehicles for words. Now, thanks to technology, we have a choice of vehicle.

I also read Democrats read more books than Republicans. This was determined by polling 1,003 adults. But here’s the rub—those adults were willing to talk to a stranger on the phone and hopefully—because there’s no way to prove otherwise—tell the truth about how many books they allegedly read. Pop polls are like pop science. Pollsters from both political parties love to draw a dividing line because that’s how they get votes and promote dogma, using terms like “red” and “blue” to suggest your level of worth and/or morality.

“Fat is contagious,” one study reveals. Think about it. Think about your family, friends and coworkers. If fat is contagious, wouldn’t they all be fat? Silly stuff, these declarations.

Pop polls and pop science. Take them for what they’re worth, somewhere on the level of a wad of used gum having a sidewalk meltdown in summer heat.

I have removed a comment containing an embedded links list to other sites. Please do not use the comments option to SPAM others. Legitimate comments are always welcome. SPAM will be zapped.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Another lawsuit in the blogosphere, this one over evolution (sort of)

Fellow American Society of Journalists and Authors member Joshua Berman has called our attention to a post at, wherein there’s a revelation about a professor at the University of Minnesota Morris being sued, along with Seed Media, for a negative book review.

The professor ripped into a book by Stuart Pivar, who has morphed from author to plaintiff. Pivar’s case was filed August 16 in the New York Southern District Court. Pivar’s suit alleges assault, libel and slander.

I take small comfort in the fact I predicted lawsuits in cyberspace would increase. I attributed my prediction to technology and intellectual property rights. However, I am adding the proliferation of lawyers as an additional cause of this phenomenon. In my post, I even alluded to libel and slander. Sink me, I'm psychic.

I guess I could read the professor’s reviews and maybe even look at the book, but I don’t place much faith in anyone who tells me there’s a definite answer (or even a half-witted answer) for how we all got here and why we look like we do and why if we’re so smart we pay for water in little plastic bottles. My faith in religion and science both have declined rather steeply in recent years. Science can’t cure a common cold and religion can’t cure the darkness of the human heart. Besides, I’m a poet and I prefer mystery to definitive answers on any given day.

The professor says the author submitted the book for review. So if I were the judge (and most of them, sad to say, do not have an abundance of common sense), I would nix the suit in a heartbeat. You send someone a book for review, you take what you get and act like a big boy. In addition, the publicity is likely to benefit both the book and the professor, so they’ll both be winners in a sense.

Last time I looked, we still had a semblance of freedom of speech in this great country. Hopefully, the judge in the case will be aware of that and act accordingly.

Follow the links from the original boingboing post to read the reviews, comments and lots of other stuff about how 10-legged spiders have nothing to do with collapsed coelenterates and other really juicy matters.

Celebrate the trendy preoccupation of media and masses, not to mention the courts. Science now reigns over Mount Olympus, Valhalla and anywhere else a deity can plop his feet. Or his theory.

(~~Photo of Southern Black Widow courtesy of Florida Dept. of Agriculture and Consumer Services~~)

If you’re interested in writing for online sites, visit my column at The Writer. Web Savvy has covered digital cameras, writing style for the Web, and moving a publication from print to online. Available to premium subscribers only.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Five great Web sites for writers

Want to know which digital camera is best for your budget and your purpose? Or how to shorten that URL to an easier-to-remember Web address? Or whether a Web site has published your content without legal permission? How about finding information about fair poetry and writing contests? Or maybe just find a site with forums, markets and writer-bewares (not to mention a free newsletter). Here are five Web sites useful to writers.

1. PC World is a commercial site with information about tools and aids for the computer. There’s a great review of digital cameras. I looked at cameras on-site, and then quizzed an editor I knew about the best camera for my needs. Being able to take a good photo is a great asset if you’re providing content for Web sites or for newspapers. You don’t necessarily need the most expensive camera.

2. is the site with a quick fix for a long URL. Visit the page to learn how to convert that really long Web address into something snappy and easy to remember.

3. Copyscape allows you to input a URL to see if your content has been used elsewhere on the Web.

4. Winning Writers offers a free newsletter and basic site access as well as a more expansive subscription at a modest fee for information about fair contests.

5. Writers Weekly is tops for general information, forums, markets and writer bewares. I’d say Angela Adair Hoy is probably one of the best independent advocates for writers on the Web. Free newsletter. The Web site also has a great comparison chart about print-on-demand publishing costs.

I’ve personally used each of these sites with great results.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Don’t be naïve: if your content is good enough to publish you deserve to be paid

I often have aspiring writers ask me if they should write for free. I usually tell them if something’s good enough to publish, you should be paid for it. I confess I often see things published that weren’t good enough to see the light of day, in my humble opinion, but yesterday I saw something that completely blew my mind.

There was a “job” listing by a publication at the freelance board for the Society of Professional Journalists. I took a look at the publication’s Web site. The manuscript and image submission guidelines state the following:
“By submitting your material, for good and valuable consideration, the sufficiency and receipt of which you hereby acknowledge, you hereby grant to (publication) a non-exclusive, perpetual, worldwide license to edit, rerun, reproduce, use, syndicate, and otherwise exhibit the materials you submit, or any portion thereof, as incorporated in their feature, (name of feature) or the promotion thereof, in any manner and in any medium or forum, whether now known or hereafter devised, without payment to you or any third party.”

Amazing. My advice to you when confronting terms like this: Just don’t do it.

The Web enables any aspiring artist in any genre to set up a blog or Web site and share your work. This is the era of citizen journalism. Why would you want to assign any kind of rights to your material if you’re not getting compensated? So you can say someone else put your work on their site and stuck your name on it?

This is almost as bad as buying an anthology so your poem will be included in a book.

Be smart. If your content is good enough to publish you deserve to be paid. And if you’re not offered compensation, go and set up a blog or a Web site. You can do that free at a number of places, including

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Book on blogging hits the mark

A fellow member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors recently recommended a book on blogging. Start your Own Blogging Business by J. S. McDougall delivers what she said it would and more.

The book covers blogging from startup to revenue earning, offering information for hobby bloggers and those who blog for business purposes. There's a chapter on blogging services; I thought I knew them all but I discovered a couple I didn't know about. Chapters on generating traffic, keywords and search engine optimization, as well as dealing with ads from affiliates like Google AdSense place information in front of you in an easy-to-read, non-boring style. There's a section on donation services, like the Amazon Honor System. This would never have occurred to me, but it seems to be an especially good idea for lit zine sites and others who have expenses but no ready source of revenue.

The book really inspired me to do some things differently and keep doing some other things the same way--what I'm doing right is by trial and error because that's how I learned everything I know about blogging.

McDougall's book, published by Entrepreneur Press, is a great book for the home office. It's the information that's useful; the editing could be improved. I highly recommend it, and please note this is not a paid review. I didn't know the book existed until it was recommended to me.

Monday, August 13, 2007

On publishing a book of poetry

My new poetry collection is almost complete, and I’m considering different options for publishing it. I had the benefit of a traditional publisher with my last two books.

But copyright developments in the marketplace as well as thoughts about profitability are leading me to take a hard look at self-publishing.

If you’ve been following the columns I’ve written about the Faulkner vs. National Geographic case, you’ll see how cloudy copyright issues can be. It’s my opinion Judge Lewis Kaplan erred in his decision on that case.

I actually read his decision, all of it.

I also read reviews posted by those who purchased the Complete National Geographic collection. Everything I read there drives home my position—the CNG was not an archival collection of the original issues. I love the reader’s comment exclaiming, “I have to watch a damn Kodak commercial?”

I seriously doubt the judge had the foresight to experience sample CDs from the collection, but I could be wrong about that. You’d think they’d have demonstrated the product in a courtroom where such a sweeping decision would take place.

My point is that some of these photographers, whose heirs actually sided with Faulkner, signed a contract before technology made such a collection possible. There would have been no way for them to foresee the creation of this product. As a consequence, their beautiful photographs are rendered to pathetic images in many cases, according to reader reviews. That would make any artist feel pretty lousy because this distorts, possibly even damages, the integrity of the original artwork. After all, you hear the name ‘Geographic’ you automatically think pictures.

At this point in my career, I see contracts that ask for everything but the kitchen sink. That’s one reason I don’t submit poetry anymore to online magazines. Most lit zines can’t pay a writer—they just don’t have the budget. But at least if I have my poetry in a collection that I own, I will have some control over where it’s published.

The downside is the time necessary for making sure the book gets distributed, possibly by placing it with a distribution channel who has arrangements with a major wholesaler.

I actively participated in the marketing of both my other books, so I figure I’d have to do the same if I were to invest my own money in publishing my work.

I saw on the National Writers Union site there’s a report for members about this subject. I haven’t read it yet, but the gist of the report focuses on comparable benefits for self-publishing if your books are done through a small traditional press as mine are rather than a big house.

Publishing is changing drastically, in no small part because of technology. It pays to weigh any decision beforehand, for we learn much at the expense, often unfairly assessed as in the National Geographic case, to others.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

SPJ rescinds amicus brief; Judge Kaplan of Faulkner vs. Geo is an interesting guy

After days of emails and message board comments flying back and forth between freelancers who belong to the Society of Professional Journalists, I bit the bullet. I re-read the legal decision handed down by Lewis A. Kaplan, judge for the U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York.

This is not riveting reading. It is rather like reading, in succession, the breakdown in nutrients on 100 cereal boxes.

For me, there was a humorous moment in Kaplan’s decision. He cited Webopedia in defining the term ‘JPEG’ in a footnote, explaining how to pronounce the term (“jay-peg.”)

My Wednesday and Thursday columns this week hit on the highlights of what became a veritable fracas between SPJ’s president and various freelancers who get a wee bit touchy when it comes to copyright issues. Though a couple members got a little sassy in their comments on the president's blog, others like me just wanted answers to simple questions.

In defense of SPJ, the organization has backed off signing on to an amicus brief on behalf of National Geographic in a court battle over copyright issues. Actually, the term ‘Geographic’ is putting it too simply. Also involved were NG subsidiaries National Geographic Ventures and National Geographic Enterprises (now known as National Geographic Holdings). Mindscape, Inc., was also involved as was Dataware Technologies Inc. (now known as LeadingSide, Inc.), and a division of Dataware called Ledge Multimedia. Eastman Kodak Company was involved because of a new ad included in the collection Geographic produced, and a few thousand free copies of a CD-ROM Kodak received. At some point, Dataware filed for bankruptcy. Right now, the nutrient table on my daughter’s box of Cocoa Puffs is looking riveting.

Judge Kaplan ruled for Geographic and friends, citing numerous instances of case law. Basically, he contended the CD-ROM was equivalent to a Microfiche reproduction, and Geographic had the right to take hundreds of issues of the magazine, compile the content into a multi-media collection going back many years, and sell them with the same rights to the content as though Geographic was selling single issues. Here’s a lift from the judge’s decision—CNG refers to the digital multimedia collection of the issues of the magazine. Kaplan says the plaintiffs—Faulker and other writers and photographers upset enough to sue “the world’s largest nonprofit scientific and educational organization, with approximately ten million members worldwide”—claimed the following:
*The CNG contains material that never appeared in the Magazine – not only the animated opening sequence and music, Kodak advertisements, and in some editions a summary of each article and a closing montage,but software tools including a search engine with advanced search capabilities, save, print and bookmark features, and a hyperlink to NGS’s Internet web site.
* The software tools provide the user with an opportunity to have a media experience in using the CNG that is different from simply reading print pages.

You can even switch photos around to different angles.

Although I’m about to cancel my subscription for ethical reasons, I must tell you, I cannot do all these things with my print copy of National Geographic. If I could, I might wiggle a few tunics on strong masculine legs. Or I might make an iceberg larger in an effort to metaphorically combat global warming. The creative mind knows no bounds when it comes to manipulation, especially with images. I must also confess I am a bit upset with an organization that prefers to pay corporate lawyers large sums instead of offering nominal sums to freelancers for reprint rights.

Despite the fact the CNG is a very different product than the hundreds of single issues put out by a society I respected until now, Judge Kaplan ruled against the plaintiffs. Bottom line: the slick multi-media collection complete with interactive software is the same as those printed issues with all those lovely 4-color photographs. Freelancers lose. Corporate entity wins. Sound familiar?

But wait! There’s more. Judge Kaplan may not like photographers or writers, but he really likes movies. This is the judge who placed an injunction on the DVD-Copy Website so that DVDs could not be decoded and played on personal computers. Not only must the owner of DVD-Copy not post the code, he can’t even link to sites that do. If the words 'freedom of speech' are running through your mind, know you are not alone. Please note I am not arguing the merits of that ruling. I’m just pointing out Kaplan took a strong stand to protect deserving firms like Disney, Universal City, Paramount and Time Warner from having their copyrights infringed upon. He’s not the first judge to prefer movies to text and print images I am certain.

Now at first I thought Judge Kaplan might just be a wee bit uninformed about the publishing industry. But no! In February, 2004, the New York Times reported Judge Lewis A.Kaplan of Federal District Court in Manhattan married “a former news correspondent and publishing lawyer.” NYT says Kaplan's bride was, until September 2000, a vice president and associate general counsel at Random House in Manhattan. So the judge certainly has a ready resource for knowledge about publishing.

When I returned Friday evening from covering an assignment for a daily newspaper and afterwards, a late dinner with my husband, I found a notice posted on the Society of Professional Journalists site. The notice stated SPJ decided against signing the National Geographic (et al et al) amicus brief. That relieved me somewhat. The organization I believed in had seen the light. Tatum is quoted in the article on the site.
"We believe this brief is good for all journalists wanting fair compensation for their work, but we also listen to our members and see clearly how support of the brief has not been good for the Society," SPJ National President Christine Tatum said. "Our members are divided over this issue. We would love for them to focus instead on projects and causes that garner much broader support."

Then I read Tatum’s statement on her ‘Freedom of the Prez’ blog. Now there are some people who have the gift of diplomacy and some who do not. And there are some presidents (need I say more?) who believe in absolute freedom for their executive inclinations.

She talked a little about intelligence, silly insults and people who throw barbs without attaching their names. Ah, those freelancers are a rowdy bunch. Must have something to do with the astronomical costs of our health insurance or perhaps the fact we don't have New York law firms on hand to advise us every time a contract comes our way.

Tatum said something that got this Southerner a little riled. She recounted a message expressing support from a freelancer she consulted:

"Of course I can see why those freelancers are pissed. It's like when your mom used to say, 'I'm grounding you for your own good. You'll thank me later.' Mom was right, but it was hard to believe that at the time."

This had an effect on me similar to the effect I felt when I stepped on a large snake whose species I could not identify as I walked barefoot across my garden to pick a tomato.

Mom and SPJ? Is a professional organization taking the position of disciplinarian because the contracts we must accept are not heavily weighted in our favor? I'd suggest freelancing full-time. There is a bit of room for negotiating, but see how far you get quibbling at length over a contract.

I have serious misgivings about an organization that waded into territory it did not thoroughly investigate to begin with, into a court case presided over by a judge who has marital ties to the publishing profession, and into a court case where the judge feels it necessary to explain the pronunciation of the term ‘JPEG.’

I further have serious misgivings about those in my industry who are unable to compare the technology in use 20 years ago, such as preparing color plates—often discarding these very expensive plates if a single color wasn’t properly registered—to the technology of today whereby digital scanning may produce a photograph that is worthy but trust me, will still be different to many produced by those antiquated color plates. Perhaps you’d have had to be there to see the way magazines were produced before desktop publishing to understand what I am talking about. I further have problems with my organization taking a position on a matter that clearly did not favor the best interests of a segment of its membership. Furthermore the matter had nothing to do with those SPJ members who work as employees for publishers and other media corporations. I have big problems with the president of a national organization who tries to tell me the organization sided with a publishing conglomerate (and associated subsidiaries and vendors) in a situation that clearly—common sense is helpful here—cannot be rationalized as fair to the freelancers involved.

I am still speechless over the fact SPJ did not consult the national freelance chairperson before making a decision that clearly impacted freelancers.

The case of Faulkner vs. National Geographic (and associated subsidiaries and vendors) is far more complicated than a simple contract dispute.

That a federal judge is incapable of putting the picture together and that he is incapable of understanding the differences in the product Geographic produced compared to issues of the print magazine simply drives home my entire opinion about federal courts in general.

Tatum concluded her post by defending her decision to offer the brief on behalf of Geographic and by addressing those rowdy freelancers directly. “I have nothing to apologize for -- and, as long as you keep the discussion civil, neither do you."

I have a smart chicken running around my back yard. She flew over the fence one day and decided to adopt us.

Perhaps a future U.S. president will send her to preside over a federal court—just as a president put Kaplan in a court to ultimately preside over a case that will govern other courts’ decisions on photographers’ and writers’ freelance work in the future. We may take comfort in the fact he’s kept the movie industry safe, however, from all those kids who want to copy a DVD.

I think my chicken, with a small amount of training, might also be able to run a courtroom, or a non-profit. It looks easy enough, and she's one smart bird.

Friday, August 10, 2007

A writer who really doesn’t aim to be one

When my younger daughter was enrolled in the creative writing program at a public arts school, she frequently told me she liked to write but she had no intentions of becoming a writer. I told her, “Too late.” I told her a writer writes because she does it, not because she really intends to do it. My daughter really wants to be a musician. She writes songs and lyrics. She’s won awards, not just for writing but for a song she wrote. She's performed in front of audiences. What astounded her father and me was her calm approach. She seemed perfectly at ease on stage. So I am indeed a proud mom, because she did those things on her own. I found out about her first award when I read her name in the newspaper.

That isn’t to say we didn’t nurture her. I read to her from the moment she opened her eyes. Her dad plays the guitar every day, often sitting in front of the TV, an in-home studio musician for whoever’s playing. Becky wanted to take guitar, so we bought her a guitar and paid for the lessons. “The first time I have to ask you to practice,” I said, “we don’t pay for lessons anymore.” She’d go to her room and close the door each day to practice. Sometimes, we’d have to remind her to come eat dinner. That’s how I knew she took her work seriously. Her desk is filled with notebooks containing music scores and lyrics. She’s a walking encyclopedia, just like her dad, on music past and present.

We’ve had many conversations about her music goals. She worries about making money. I told her not to worry about the money. “Worry about the art—work on that part.” I told her she could worry about the money when she graduates from college and looks for a job. She’ll enter college in a couple weeks, where she'll major in digital-multimedia. We figure she can find a good job that way, but she can also use those skills in her music career. With the opportunities offered by technology, we figure that's a good major for any budding artist.

A few days ago she told me she was starting a blog. In no time, with very little assistance, she had it up and rolling. Then she told me, “Now I don’t know what to write. I don’t have any ideas.”

“So start with that,” I told her. “You get writer’s block, write about that, and once the pen gets going you’ll find yourself writing something.”

It worked, even for a writer who doesn’t intend to be one, even for a writer who's a determined and talented musician.

Visit Becky’s blog, A Musician's Notes.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

SPJ president explains support for National Geographic in lawsuit filed by freelancer

Absent the front pages of most newspapers today is a story about an organization ensconced in the newspaper realm for almost a century. The story actually impacts publishers and content providers in all media. In simple terms, the Society of Professional Journalists has filed an amicus brief supporting National Geographic in a lawsuit brought by a photographer whose last name is Faulkner and others whose images were used in the magazine’s print edition. Geographic decided the magazine also owned rights to those images for use in a CD-ROM collection comprising numerous issues of the print edition. Two federal courts are at odds over who actually owns the rights. This is a simplistic explanation. Writer Erik Sherman offers the nitty gritty at his WriterBiz blog.

When I learned SPJ had filed the brief on behalf of Geographic, I immediately questioned the wisdom of an organization whose membership includes both publishers and freelancers. It seemed to me neutrality offered the best path for SPJ. In other words, this is not SPJ’s fight. In my opinion, seizing the opportunity for battle was not a wise move.

As a result of SPJ support for Geographic, the chair of SPJ’s freelance committee and one employee resigned. On message boards related to professional writing organizations, on telephones in freelancers’ offices and on blogs written by freelancers, the issue has become a hot topic.

Many of us will not renew our membership as a result of SPJ’s decision. Others who were about to join have shredded their applications.

SPJ president Christine Tatum has a rather eloquent blog entry at Freedom of the Prez, whereby she defends the organization’s decision, made by Tatum and the Legal Defense Fund Committee chair, to support Geographic. Without meaning to, I’m sure, she infused a bit of humor into the fracas. Here’s what Tatum wrote:

“I stand by the decision I helped make because it stands to help clarify law so that freelancers can negotiate smarter contracts that help ensure they're paid fairly for their work. It might sound odd - even ludicrous to some - but a ruling in favor of a publisher in this case actually could help all freelance journalists well into the future.” The decision was made, she says, “…After very, very careful consideration.”

If you really, really believe that argument, I have a Pulitzer Prize I’d like to sell you.

SPJ might have made a conciliatory statement about this matter, averting what should have been obvious: impending alienation of the freelancers in the organization’s midst.

If contracts for freelancers are an issue, you’d think there’d be information plastered all over the SPJ Web site. Prior to joining, when I heard the organization’s name, SPJ—to me—stood for freedom of the press, and for protecting my rights as a journalist to information held in government files. I never envisioned SPJ as an organization involved with contracts between freelancers and publishers, and I doubt any of the other freelance members did either. That’s what I have organizations like the American Society of Journalists and Authors for.

Federal courts disagree about Geographic’s use of the materials, so we are not likely to resolve the right and wrong on blogs or phones or message boards. For one thing, the legal brief is as long as the community phone directory we get here in our neighborhood.

Tatum writes, “A ruling in favor of National Geographic Society is a relatively rare opportunity to help advance that very important and far more progressive discussion. It would add clarity to the law and protect journalists by improving their chances of receiving fair compensation.”

This reminds me of the impact made on my driving by a handsome officer who handed me a ticket for speeding.

Absent this entire sequence of events is a large dose of common sense. Geographic could have paid their contributors a reprint fee for digital use in a collection, one that will surely be profitable, and that society may have saved large payments to legal firms, and none of this would have been an issue. Does a publication really prefer paying a lawyer rather than a contributor? What does that say about the moral standards of such a publication?

I plan to cancel my membership in the National Geographic Society too.

I’ll hand it to SPJ president Tatum. She did a fine job of crafting words to justify SPJ’s decision. What’s missing is the logic. There’s a hole in the foresight as significant as one famous emperor’s new clothes.

And now that I think of it, I actually have two Pulitzer Prizes for sale. Cheap. I’ll engrave your name right on the front of them. Email me for details.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

SPJ freelance chair resigns, cites amicus brief in National Geographic case

I met a few SPJ members in Washington at the D.C. chapter's Christmas party. I'd traveled to the capital to read poetry at 'Florida Poets Arrive' at the U.S. Library of Congress.

The Society of Professional Journalists signed on to an amicus brief supporting National Geographic in a lawsuit involving contributors’ rights relating to collective works produced by publishers. How does this serve SPJ or the freelancers who belong to the organization?
Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell was a definite asset for freelancers who belong to the Society of Professional Journalists. Most members of the organization are full-time employees of newspapers and magazines. Most freelancers join the organization because SPJ is a guardian of freedom of the press. My own membership fees have connected me to a network of writers and editors around the country, but until Kerri headed the freelance committee, there was scant attention to those who are self-employed.

Kerri worked hard to increase our presence in SPJ. One big accomplishment was the freelancer database she and her committee implemented. Now if an editor is looking for an independent journalist, there’s a handy database full of willing and available writers. She also maintained the SPJ blog The Independent Journalist, listing jobs, opportunities and other information relevant to our trade.

Unfortunately Kerri emailed me this morning, stating she is resigning her position as chair of the SPJ Freelance Committee.

Kerri is leaving because SPJ signed an amicus brief supporting National Geographic in a lawsuit. NG purchased photos from contributors, using the works in print editions. But now the photos are included in a CD-ROM collection.

As an SPJ member, I’m not satisfied with the organization’s explanation justifying signing on to the brief—I fail to see how this fits with SPJ’s emphasis on freedom of information and first amendment rights. SPJ notes in a statement on the Web site:
This case does not harm a contributor’s ability to receive payment for the reproduction of his work when published in the same context of the original. It merely affirms that any such understanding must be expressly written into the contract.

Chances are when some of these contributors signed contracts, a comprehensive CD-ROM collection was an idea unborn. If a CD-ROM of each issue had been produced separately—and written into the contract as such—that would be a different scenario. But a collection of numerous issues in digital form should not fall under the contractual agreement these freelancers signed for usage of their properties in the print edition. The marketing for these products will certainly be different—the approach in selling a subscription is inherently different than that used to sell a collection. We are talking about a completely different entity.

Even federal courts are at odds over this matter. The American Society of Media Photographers says in the case of Florida photographer Jerry Greenberg, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled that Geographic had violated Jerry's copyrights by creating and selling the digital collection without permission to use his photographs.

But then the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York dismissed almost identical claims by photographer Douglas Faulkner and others.

As digital collections become more popular, issues over rights to intellectual property will surely proliferate.

Freelancers in SPJ have certainly lost a strong advocate. Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell did a great job for us. She really made us feel like we belonged.

I'd have preferred that SPJ at the least stayed neutral in the Geographic brawl--taking sides alienates those of us who may be fringe members, but believe in the mission SPJ built its foundations on.


Erik Sherman's WriterBiz.

K.C.'s Write for You, Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell's blog

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Driving is not a good time to write, especially on your cell phone

Nine out of ten (89 percent) of American adults believe that sending text messages or emails while driving is distracting, dangerous, and should be outlawed, according to a new survey commissioned by mobile messaging service Pinger, Inc. and conducted by Harris Interactive(R). Similar numbers (91 percent) of adults thought that drivers distracted by sending text messages or mobile email were just as dangerous as drivers who had a couple of drinks.

If I were to pull out my notebook and start composing a poem in my car while dodging bloodthirsty drivers in Jacksonville, you’d probably think I was nuts. I see people do this—admittedly they may not be writing poetry. Not long ago, I was stopped at a traffic light and happened to glance at the cute little sports car in the lane next to me. The driver had almost run the light, stopping at the very edge of the pedestrian crosswalk just in time to avoid a major crash. This same young driver had his cell phone suspended in the air above his steering wheel. He was furiously pecking at the keyboard. When the light turned green, he was completely unaware.

I’m all for reading and writing. But technology is tempting drivers to not only talk and gesticulate while I’m dodging them in traffic. Now there’s a temptation to exchange sweet nothings or the location for the day’s happy hour destination.

I can hear the numbers crunching at insurance companies across the nation, as they write additional charges into the premiums we’ll all pay so Junior can tell Susie to meet him for a beer as soon as 5 p.m. arrives. The scary thing is that 6 percent of those 55 or over are doing the same thing.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Jeff Reich steps up as editor at The Writer

Jeff Reich has been named editor of The Writer. Elfrieda Abbe has moved into the publisher’s slot. Congratulations to both as they continue to manage a magazine known for nurturing writers since 1887.

I met Jeff for coffee during a conference in New York. He is a genteel sort of fellow, very well read and very “thinkative.” He’s one of those editors writers are glad to be able to work with. Part of the reason may lie in his experience. Jeff worked at newspapers and magazines in Milwaukee and Mexico City before joining The Writer. He was also part owner of a large independent bookstore and manager of a foreign-language bookstore. Those may be a few of the reasons he is a very visionary sort of guy, taking pride in the past of a great magazine but also staying on top of trends that are changing the way we write and publish today.

On the Web site, Jeff says, “Joining the staff and helping to produce an even better magazine for writers has been a great honor.”

The magazine’s online site offers subscribers premium content. This is fairly unusual because most publications simply recap copy from print to Web with few changes. Among the Web-only offerings are Marla Miller’s The Early Years, the online Q&A column and features like Online Extra. My own column Web Savvy is exclusively published on the Web site. Writers also have full access to read and comment on dozens of different topics on the forum.

Alongside those contemporary columns are works from the past, located in the section Classic Writer. Literary greats like George Sands, Somerset Maugham and George Bernard Shaw can be found in pages from the print edition dating to the magazine’s inaugural year.

For over 100 years, The Writer has been a fixture for those in the literary trade. Visit the Web site and take a look at content covering all aspects of the writing trade.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

New office finished and back on track (sort of)

We finally managed to cull through all the stacks of paper I'd accumulated in my former office. I learned something about myself: I am better off with a smaller office. I am teaching myself to use a trash can.

I'm a fanatic clipper--always snipping an article or fact collection for possible future pieces. I'm trying to save files in folders on my computer, and trying to keep a clip notebook so those finds stay in an organized place.

My new office is an interior room, and that will definitely work better for me. My old office had 7 windows. I shot the butterfly photo at top right one day when I was in the middle of a hair-raising freelance project. Same thing happened every time I saw a hummingbird. Had to jump up and take a looksee.

Years ago I did a story on a psychic. Wrote the piece for a newspaper. When I walked into her office, I was armed with my tape recorder, my notepad and a whole lot of skepticism.

Within minutes, Mary Green had turned me into a believer. For one thing, she started our session by asking me why I insisted on writing at a desk by a window. There were a few more tibdbits she tossed before tossing a whole loaf. "Congratulations."

"For what?" I asked.

"You're pregnant."

"No way," I said.

Five months later my husband and I welcomed our first child into the world.

Many years later, I realize I need to minimize distractions. Mary Green was right. The window view wasn't working out.

I'll be posting here five days a week on most weeks. Summer's on the wane and my freelance plate is full.