Want To Join The Board Of The Met Or MOMA? Bring $10 Million

Photograph of the facade of the Metropolitan O...
$250,000 will get you in...to their board. Image via Wikipedia

So you like art and dress well and want to meet some of Manhattan’s most wealthy and powerful?

Write a check for $10 million, or maybe just $5 million, reports The New York Times:

“For those who can, we have an expectation and we try to be very clear about that expectation,” said Reynold Levy, the president of Lincoln Center, whose board members are generally asked to contribute $250,000 upfront and on an annual basis.

Sometimes the generosity of veteran trustees will exceed expectations. Consider the $30 million gift Ann Ziff made last month to the Metropolitan Opera, which simultaneously announced that she is to become its next chairwoman.

The pressure to raise money from volunteer boards has intensified as the economy slumped and broader charitable giving declined.

Yet even with weakened portfolios, many people of means remain willing to answer the call because a spot on a cultural board is among the most coveted prizes in a city of strivers and mega-achievers. And spots are limited: the New York City Ballet, for example, has 40 voting members; the Museum of Natural History has 56.

The rewards of service are many: social status, the personal satisfaction of doing good, the chance to rub shoulders with Rockefellers and Lauders, and a say in setting the intellectual course of the nation, if not the world, through a leading museum or performing arts institution.

I sit on two boards, neither in this social or financial stratosphere — but one that does require a financial commitment from me. It’s many fewer zeroes, but it requires me to pony up to work with fellow trustees for the Writers Emergency Assistance Fund, which gives emergency grants of $5,000 for first-time recipients to writers whose work qualifies. This terrible economy, which has decimated print journalism, has hit independent writers — even those successful for decades — extremely hard.

Every single grant application I read is a reminder to be grateful as hell we have insurance, my partner still has a job and, for now, we remain in good health.

The good news? We usually get a check out within a week.

I also sit on the board of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, whose annual conference is this month in Manhattan, April 24 and 25.

Do you sit on a board? Why do you do it? What have you learned?

The Slush Pile Is Gone: What Ambitious Writers Must Do

Simon & Schuster logo, circa 1961
Image via Wikipedia

Great piece in today’s Wall Street Journal on the death of the “slush pile”, where would-be writers once awaited rescue from their hard-working anonymity:

Getting plucked from the slush pile was always a long shot—in large part, editors and Hollywood development executives say, because most unsolicited material has gone unsolicited for good reason. But it did happen for some: Philip Roth, Anne Frank, Judith Guest. And so to legions of would-be novelists, journalists and screenwriters—not to mention “D-girls” and “manuscripts girls” from Hollywood to New York who held the hope that finding a gem might catapult them from entry level to expense account—the slush pile represented The Dream.

Now, slush is dead, or close to extinction. Film and television producers won’t read anything not certified by an agent because producers are afraid of being accused of stealing ideas and material. Most book publishers have stopped accepting book proposals that are not submitted by agents. Magazines say they can scarcely afford the manpower to cull through the piles looking for the Next Big Thing.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The Web was supposed to be a great democratizer of media. Anyone with a Flip and Final Cut Pro could be a filmmaker; anyone with a blog a memoirist. But rather than empowering unknown artists, the Web is often considered by talent-seeking executives to be an unnavigable morass.

It used to be that you could bang out a screenplay on your typewriter, then mail it in to a studio with a self-addressed stamped envelope and a prayer. Studios already were reluctant to read because of plagiarism concerns, but they became even more skittish in 1990 when humorist Art Buchwald sued Paramount, alleging that the studio stole an idea from him and turned it into the Eddie Murphy vehicle, “Coming to America.” (Mr. Buchwald received an undisclosed settlement from Paramount.)

The irony, she writes, is that the Web was supposed to make it easier. Not so. You must have an agent.

Her piece also offers a terrific sidebar on how to sell your material, but I saw some things she left out.

I’m now writing my second non-fiction book for Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin; my first, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns”, was published in 2004 by Pocket Books, the paperback side of Simon & Schuster. In both instances, I easily found an agent eager to sell my work. How?

Be excellent. If that sounds elitist, too bad. The Web, and technology, has given millions of amateur writers the technical tools to produce a lot of material. It has also fostered the seductive illusion that, by banging out a lot of it — whatever it is — you”re now highly experienced as a writer and therefore must be really good and it’s your right to get published right away. Wrong.

Writers whom agents eagerly court are writers with a track record of excellence. We have, most typically, been writing for years, not weeks. We have been published by some of the toughest, most jaded and demanding of editors for outlets like The New York Times or The Atlantic or have passed through the gates of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. We’ve been vetted.

Hone your skills. Every day. This is not a joke. The most skilled and ambitious professionals I know are deeply committed to their craft. We read, study, watch and listen to work we think inspiring and intelligent. We read/watch/listen to  — and analyze — everything vaguely similar to what we hope to achieve,  fully aware of how much competition is out there and how carefully they are sharpening their swords.

At every level of the game, even with decades of terrific experience and credentials, we take classes and workshops, some even pursuing MFAs or other advanced degrees. We apply for, and sometimes win, grants and fellowships to help us work on material that is perhaps less immediately commercial but helps us grow as artists and creators.  We spend time, money and attention on our skills and our craft.

Get to know other excellent writers. Other terrific writers have already been published and found an agent. If they decide you, too, are ready for prime time, they might share that contact data with you. They also may not. It’s an awkward moment when someone, as they always do, asks for the name of your agent. It’s like asking for your partner’s phone number. That writer may not be a good fit for your agent, in terms of their talent, material or personality.

You best get to know other skilled writers by joining an industry association or group and, best of all, giving of your time and energy so others have a chance to get to know and possibly like you. I sit on the board of the 1,415-member American Society of Journalists and Authors; a fellow board member had a Times‘ best-seller.

Be generous. No one likes a grabby user, and the writing world is filled with them. Just because you reallyreallyreally want to become rich and famous thanks to your astonishing talents doesn’t mean anyone else will rush to get you there — nor should you ever expect this. When you, too, can share a contact or some advice, and you feel comfortable doing so, do it. I don’t help everyone who asks, but I have surprised a few people by doing so. If you are a much younger/less experienced writer asking for help, think through what you can offer in return — maybe a mass tweet or access to your Facebook contacts, all 567,890 of them, when your mentor’s latest production comes out. 

Be strategic. Before you try to find an agent, think through carefully what it is you offer and why that agent, in particular, might be a good fit for you. Ask around. (See suggestion No. 1)

Be patient. Such an unfashionable idea! I wrote at least four unsold book proposals before I sold my first book, then wrote a few more before  I sold my second. It may be hard to fathom, but not everything you write is worth an agent or editor’s or producer’s extremely limited time and attention. If you find an agent, trust their thinking. If you don’t, find another. The world is filled with agents, many of whom may be a very poor fit for you and your work.

Timing is everything. Both of my books wouldn’t have been of as much interest to an agent or publisher even six months before they sold; the mood of the marketplace and the zeitgeist were, at that particular point, especially receptive.  No one wanted my  book about guns or self-protection pre -9/11, but it sold shortly thereafter, when Americans suddenly felt scared in a whole new way. My current book is about working a low-wage, low-status job, something millions are now doing in this recession.

The agent is not your Mom/lover/BFF. They are a skilled professional whose credentials and other clients and projects you will check out thoroughly. Won’t you? You wouldn’t just hand over the keys to your home or vehicle to anyone unfamiliar — but that’s what you’re doing with your hard-earned career when you commit to an agent. Check them out and, if you decide to work with them, and vice versa, respect their time. Don’t burn them out or freak them out by calling and emailing all the time for their reassurance or guidance. That’s what your therapist or writing group is for.

Slow, Late, Non-Paying Clients — How to Avoid Or Cope With Them

Sand Dollars and Shells
Sand dollars are pretty, but they won't pay the rent...Image by Zevotron via Flickr

Here’s my New York Times story today about dealing with the bane of business, and one that is getting much worse in this recession — clients who refuse to pay you, now or ever.

Like many of my article ideas, this came out of my own costly experience last fall. First, an out-of-state, privately-owned start-up publication abruptly cancelled $20,000 worth of work, then tried to stiff me out of $5,600 for my work already in, accepted and invoiced for. Two months later, an in-state regional publisher sat on my check — my story already in the magazine, already published — for months, essentially thumbing his nose at me in emails.

My favorite read: “The squeaky wheel doesn’t get the grease.”

At least they were answering my calls and emails. My solution, in both cases? Attorneys.

I found the first one — unusual for me, then very new to social media — through LinkedIn. I posted a simple request: “I need to find an attorney in X state to sue a deadbeat client.” I heard within hours from an attorney in San Francisco, referring me to someone he knew in the city where I needed help. Within a day. I’d hired a collections attorney; many other freelancers who had sold writing, photos or illustrations to this magazine, some of whom I was in touch with, said they preferred to be patient. I doubt they got a penny. Six months later, I got 50 cents on the dollar, minus 1/3 to the attorney. Better than nothing.

As for the New York loser, I turned to a friend I play softball with, a local attorney. His letter to this publisher managed to get me a check within days.


1) Do your due diligence! If you are going to do business with anyone, find out whatever you can about their current financial situation and their reputation for payment. I’m on the board of the 1,400-member American Society of Journalists and Authors, and we have several mechanisms available to our members to help them recoup their payments and, perhaps most crucially, warn others away from trouble spots. Use any legal or ethical means necessary; anyone who’s recently done business with them (fellow members of an industry association or listserv) can help.

2) Don’t just wait if payment is late. I know one young writer who waited (!) almost a year for her money from a major New York publisher. Call, email, call and email, however politely. You’ve earned your income and you have bills to pay.

3) Use prudent caution if you choose to work with/for a start-up, a family-owned business and/or one that is out of state. All these can be red flags.

4) If you fear your payment isn’t going to arrive, look into small claims court or a collections attorney sooner rather than later. It takes time.

5) Document every deal: emails, contracts, faxes. You need proof there was a deal.

6) Do whatever you can to keep three months’ expenses in the bank, or a line of credit at a decent interest rate — which is also harder to get these days — as backup. Your mortgage, rent and other bills will not wait for these deadbeats.

Old(er) Women And Sex — With Or Without A Partner

Lamplit bedroom
Wherever works...Image by *Susie* via Flickr

Congrats to California writer Joan Price, whose website, which focuses on older women and sexuality, has just been named one of the top 100 sex bloggers. She’s a fellow member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, (on whose board I serve), a recent widow, and a fearless writer on sex and sexuality for women over 50. Yes, women over 50 have sex.

Recent blog posts include her rave review, with color photos, of the Snow Bunny, a sex toy – “no cervix battering!” — and a new book of women’s erotica. Typical of Joan, who’s as openly sensitive above the shoulders as below the waist, she also blogged recently about the loss of her beloved husband, Robert whom she met while line-dancing.

She’s now working on a new book, Naked At Our Age, and seeks people to interview who are ages 50 to 80 and currently celibate, whether happily so or not.

It's J-Day: Mentors, Money and Where to Find Them

A helping hand
Image by Eduardo Deboni via Flickr

For anyone still trying to make a living doing serious, thoughtful journalism, it’s crazy out there. Staff jobs are increasingly hard to get and keep. Freelance budgets have been slashed. Blogs pay poorly for all but the big stars. Whether you’re trying to fund a project, a book, a pitch, a series, a documentary — or the travel costs to get to a great story —  the bills keep showing up, no matter how frugal you are or, if you’re really lucky, how generous, patient and understanding your parent(s) or partner.

What happens if you just hit bottom? You’re about to become destitute, despite years of hard, recognized work? Contact the Writers Emergency Assistance Fund, of which I’m a trustee. Our maximum first-time grant is $6,000 and those in desperate need can get a check within a week or two. We listen carefully, read all details of a request, check your credentials (we’ve had people try to scam us), confer, vote and respond quickly. Our trustees include magazine editors of national magazines, past and present, and several veteran freelancer writers. We don’t approve all applicants, so please read the details. But we’re here to help, and we’re able to do so as well as we can, recently, thanks to a fellow writer, Cecil Murphey, who has made several extremely generous donations. As many of us know, some writers make a lot of money, while others live check to check. Sometimes, the smartest work can’t find a ready audience.

I also want to talk about mentoring, a fancy word for help. Continue reading “It's J-Day: Mentors, Money and Where to Find Them”