The Context of the Chaos

This is not an essay about being a working mom vs. stay-at-home-mom, just to get that out of the way. This is an essay about me, however, and I’m a mom who works full-time. And when one is mom who works full-time, these things inevitably happen:

Calls from the school nurse that concern vomiting (or lice. Which is worse, actually?); snow days; professional development days (i.e., no school on a random Wednesday in March); class parties that require (gluten-free, dairy-free, nut-free) baked goods. Also, there are forms to be signed, birthday party presents to be purchased, play dates to be scheduled, piano practices to be forced, Saturday soccer games that require oranges, and oh my god we were supposed to sign up for summer camp by WHEN? In addition there is, of course, work itself: deliverables, billable hours, expectations, deadlines, clients, reviews, colleagues, bills, goals, commuting, dry cleaning.

So when I’m on a conference call, and on the other line is the school nurse saying something about lice, I might actually scream (yes, scream – without realizing it): “Wait, what? Lice? LICE?” Similarly, when school is cancelled for snow, it is full-blown, fucking panic-city because clients in California have no idea what a Nor’easter does to the roads. There is no way I’m getting into the office. Yet snow-silly children are streaking around the house talking about hot chocolate. I stomp about for a bit, yelling at my husband (who would strap on snow shoes rather than miss a day of work) and texting dramatic complaints to friends.

Later, I might wonder: Did I really need to lose my mind over lice? (Although, in my defense, have you seen lice?) Did I need to storm about the house, all but blaming my husband for the snow day? Surely this isn’t balanced or productive for my family or me. There are things I could do to balance my sympathetic nervous system, I know. See? I even know enough to know what a sympathetic nervous system is. This is because years and years and years ago I lived in California, where I practiced yoga every day, ate super cleanly, and hiked in the Santa Monica hills. I didn’t often blow-dry my hair. I even took a yoga teacher training course, where I was introduced to said sympathetic nervous system, and “fight or flight”, and the idea that we might, with practice, be able to retrain our nervous system.

I took that as a challenge. You mean me, Type-A, neurotic, anxious ME could, like, chill out if I just practiced? Oh, bring it. So I studied some yogic philosophy, and I learned about balance and centering – and connecting. I learned a great deal and some of it seeped into my core being. I try to remember that.

Then … I moved back East and went to law school and easily slipped back into my fast-paced life. Not unwillingly, mind you – it felt good to reconnect with certain interests and passions but from a newly recalibrated basis point.

But then I had a child. And then another. And I was working full-time as a lawyer. A 90-minute yoga class, are you kidding me? I know that everyone, whether she is a busy mom or not, should take time for herself, eat healthy, exercise, meditate, be grateful. Sometimes I do some of these things and many times I beat myself up a bit about not doing more of most of them. Because I know. I know, better than most, that if I had exercised then ostensibly my endorphins would mitigate the freak-out when my child gets lice. Or if I had meditated on being kinder to myself, when I inevitably forget to sign up for spring soccer, I wouldn’t default to, “If I were just more organized I would not forget these forms! I am so worthless! What is wrong with me!”

But here’s my secret: all the yelling and the stomping, as opposed to om-ing and savasa-ing, at this stage in my life is perhaps getting me to the same place. The same “IT”. Because what was I striving for? Ultimately, it was connection. To me, connection is the feeling of belonging, of feeling inspired, of feeling safe. Of feeling the most ME. A lot of meditation and Thich Nhat Hanh and Ashtanga got me there when I was 25, and so I thought connection meant, like Zen/yogic connection. Like lotus pose peaceful bliss.

Obviously, at 30-somethingmmmhmm, and children, and a demanding job, there’s not a lot of peaceful bliss in my life, nor am I making time for it, which is what leads to a certain amount of self-flagellation. But it was this blog tour – so thank you, Katie, and particularly Tanya Geisler in this post – which helped me reframe the issue. Connection is what I’m seeking, but it doesn’t have to be Zen-like transcendence. I can find connection in other ways: in a sunset run up the hill in my neighborhood, dancing with my kids around the kitchen table, having a glass of wine with friends, attending a though-provoking speech. It turns out, in the midst of all this chaos right now, I am also viscerally connecting with my life. There’s just so much going on that I have to connect with something – how could I not?

I’ve got to acknowledge connection when and where and how I can: a quick snuggle in the morning (physical connection), a peaceful early morning walk from the train station to the office (connection with nature/self), a productive phone call with a client (connection with my career and the world around me), then taking the afternoon off to be the class “Mystery Reader” (connection with my children and their lives) This may change – maybe someday I’ll be so organized and serene that the only path to connection is some serious yoga and silent meditation – but for right now, the connection is intertwined with the chaos.

Why am I blogging for the first time in months? I was inspired by the fabulous Katie Den Ouden, who asked me to be a part of her Skinny Dip Society blog tour. See last Friday’s post by Rachael, here, and check back tomorrow for a post by Stephanie of the Lipstick Gospel.




Filed under Lawyer Moms

Friday Five: Getaway Edition

Reading: The Bones of Paris by Laurie R. King. Here is a screen shot of all the books my queue (my virtual nightstand). But I was craving a mystery, and I’m a sucker for anything with “Paris” in the title.


Watching: September brings not only a new school year, but a new TV season. Hooray! My favorites start this weekend. Fortunately, I’ve had Ray Donovan, Broadchurch and my old standby, House Hunters International on HGTV to get me through the summer. I am addicted to HHI — so formulaic! Having lived in NYC, LA and Boston — apparently, if the rental prices on the show are accurate, the most expensive cities in the world — I get a kick out of people bemoaning the prices of rentals in, say, Berlin or even Rome.

Cooking:  The children are still eating greens and couscous and chicken and stuff, but between travel schedules and Back-to-School-Nights and work events, I am neither cooking nor eating. All I can muster up is my new favorite breakfast, but at least it makes me feel like I’ve done something healthy for myself: Fage Greek yogurt with flax seeds and a bit of granola mixed in. Berries & peaches.

Listening to: Katy Perry’s “Roar”. Look, the girl can write a hit song. Extra credit for one appropriate for both mother and first-grade daughter to sing at the top of their voices.

Doing: Off to Nantucket. My dear friend Lindsey describes in words more lovely that I ever could what I will be doing this weekend.

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Should I Self-Publish My Book?

If you want to be a capital “W” writer, there still is much to be said for the editing and publicity support of a publishing house — not to mention the prestige. If, however, your book is part of your business platform and you know you can sell copies in the course of your business (speaking engagements, trade shows, on your website); or, your story is simply one you know will find an audience, even if that audience is too “small” for a publishing house (see, e.g.,  Julie Flygare) — or some combination of both — you are a perfect candidate for self-publishing. Of course, there also are the E. L. James’s of the world who find a devoted online readership, which can help propel self-published E-Books up the Amazon and iBooks best-seller lists and as a result attract attention from publishers and agents. If you think that’s you — go for it! Below, my flowchart of some of the basic issues:


Self-publishing used to be sort of the secret, ugly, bastard step-child (am mixing my metaphors, I know) of the industry. But with the relative ease of self-publishing E-Books, with the success of certain self-published writers, and with digital advances that make self-published print books not only easy to do oneself but much more professional looking, I don’t think they are quite as stigmatized. As an agent, if I believe that a book is terrific but I just don’t think the big publishing houses will bite, I wholeheartedly encourage self-publishing. Likewise, if I try to sell a book and cannot — and particularly if that book has a devoted niche audience, such as Young Adult or Science Fiction (or Romance, though I don’t take on Romance manuscripts) — I will absolutely direct a writer towards self-publishing. Even if the big houses aren’t interested, we have seen that there are still readers out there, finding books through websites and listserves.

But by fervently supporting self-publishing, am I condemning the industry by which I make a living to a slow death? The thinking being: if more people are self-publishing, more people are buying and reading self-published books, thus supporting Amazon, thus further decreasing the traditional publishers’ bottom lines, thus ultimately decreasing author advances. Perhaps just as important, am I supporting a vast morass of unedited, uncurated crap?

The self-published books I have seen have been quite excellent (more on that tomorrow).  I also truly believe in supporting people who want to write — no matter how they get there. Before self-publishing became so much easier, these people were stopped entirely from sharing their stories. If they want to share them through traditional publishers, I can help them and if I am successful, I’ll make some money. But if they don’t want to — or can’t — go the “traditional” route, who am I to keep writers from sharing their books — books which I well know take time and effort and courage to write.

There are agents who troll keep an eye on the self-published best seller lists looking for authors to pick up, repackage and sell to publishing houses. I don’t do that, though I have had authors come to me seeking an agent after they were independently contacted by publishers due to the success of their self-published books. There are also agencies that set up their own sort of in-house E-Book publisher for their clients; in other words, if the agency cannot sell a book, they will help the writer self-publish through the agency’s own E-Book “imprint”, and then the agency will still take their commission. This makes me uneasy because I’m not sure how hard an agent will advocate for traditional publication if the agent knows that he or she can still make money through the agency’s own “imprint”. (I’m not sure agents should be in the business of both agenting and publishing, though maybe this is the lawyer in me being overly wary of crossing ethical, client-focused lines?) And, finally, there are certain publishing houses who have developed hybrid E-Book imprints for certain genres, such as Romance — if a manuscript is not quite good enough for a house to take the financial gamble on a print run, but there are still potential E-Book readers who can be reached through various forms of internet marketing, the publisher will create an E-book version only. I’m not sure how I feel about this either — could the writer make more money simply self-publishing? How much editorial or marketing support will the publisher actually give?

In the end, as Julie Flygare mentioned yesterday, no one who picks up her excellent memoir seems to care whether it is self-published. Is it only us navel-gazing publishing types who care whether Knopf* publishes our books?

*for those who want to be capital “W” writers, Knopf is like the Harvard of the publishing world. Big, historic, bureaucratic, prestigious. [I like to think of Scribner as the Princeton! Smaller, more nimble, friendlier, yet just as prestigious…heh]

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Tuesday Five: Julie Flygare

wide-awake-and-dreaming-cover-final-JPEG1-683x1024Julie Flygare is a writer, runner*, yogini, and lawyer (my kind of girl!). While in law school, she was diagnosed with narcolepsy and cataplexy (lawyers: can you imagine?), and chronicles her diagnoses and the aftermath in her memoir,  Wide Awake and Dreaming: A Memoir of NarcolepsyShe quickly found an agent for the book, who sent the manuscript around to all the right editors at all the right imprints. But as many talented writers find, if you’re not a celebrity or Cheryl Strayed, memoir is a particularly competitive and difficult genre in which to publish. Julie, however, knew her story needed to be told, and this book would be her calling card and her entrée into the world of advocacy for her disease. So she self-published, and her experience and motives are the perfect example of why I am actually a big fan of self-publishing (more on that tomorrow). The result? She has ordered numerous reprints of the book and her website has crashed from all the traffic. She is currently a spokesperson for narcolepsy research, and her influence and platform are only growing — with the book (a truly compelling read, by the way) to back it up.

How do you know me?  We went to Boston College Law School together, and had mutual friends who put us in contact directly a few years later when I was going through the book publishing process. You looked over my proposal and my previous agent’s efforts and gave me honest helpful advice for proceeding forward with my book.

Why did you go to law school? I went to law school to study art law. I was an art history major at Brown University and fascinated by intellectual property, international art trade treaties and WW II reparation issues. My father (a lawyer) was influential in this decision as well.

When did you know you wanted to write a memoir? I’ve always loved writing and took a few creative non-fiction writing classes in high school and college. As my experience with narcolepsy evolved, I never thought to write about it. I wanted nothing more than to hide my narcolepsy and erase it from my life.

Graduating from law school, I’d planned to write a different book, based on a law school health law paper I’d written. My law school mentor, Professor Chirba had strongly encouraged me to pursue a career in writing. About a month into learning about the writing and publishing process, I found myself drawn to telling my own story with narcolepsy. Once the idea hit me, there was no turning back. Something clicked, stars aligned – it felt so “right”.

What has been the biggest surprise about self-publishing?  Very few people seem to realize or care that my book is self-published. I was surprised that the current print-on-demand mechanisms make it challenging to mimic the well-planned “book release date”, but once it released, it’s been no stress at all. Of course, it’s harder to get coverage in major magazines and self-published books are ineligible for many book contests – but it’s been so thrilling to get my story out there to the world. Self-publishing was a lot of work, but I am a control freak and so it was nice to maintain control at every step, especially in the book cover process. I am very proud of my final product.

Describe your perfect day.  My perfect day would include giving a presentation at a conference and hosting a book signing afterwards. I get to talk about myself and people clap? It’s still a bit surreal. I love traveling, making people smile and inspiring them to reach for their dreams now – don’t wait!  As a person with narcolepsy, these activities leave me totally exhausted but when I close my eyes to sleep, I know in my heart I’m doing what I love.

*Julie ran the Boston Marathon after her diagnosis. Badass.

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Friday Five: What I’m…

Reading: (Or, more accurately, read — the past-tense — as I devoured it) The Hive by Gill Hornby. A snarky, funny, yet poignant story of the friendships you make almost by default when your children start school.

Watching:  Broadchurch on BBC America. Like a good Maisie Dobbs mystery, I’m hooked on British policewomen and picturesque English towns with a dark side.

:  Last of the summer tomatoes. This recipe is adapted from the cookbook Time for Dinner, and is really this easy: Fresh chopped tomatoes (use a knife if you must, but squishing with hands OK too), chopped garlic, basil leaves, salt, pepper in a bowl. Pour hot pasta over to cover tomatoes and cook them slightly for about two minutes. Toss. Throw on some olive oil and cheese if you want (I always want).

Doing:  Early fall weekends seem to be filled with soccer and birthday parties.


Wearing: Oops


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Looking for Wonder Woman: Slaughter, Sandberg, and Spar (and Me)

WonderWomanI have already downloaded (on my iPad, remember?) Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection by Debora Spar, the president of Barnard College. The book was published yesterday, and she was interviewed in the New York Times over the weekend and wrote an essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education called “The Superwoman Myth.” She seems poised to continue the conversation started by Anne-Marie Slaughter last June in The Atlantic in the controversial piece, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” and Sheryl Sandberg’s equally controversial Lean In. Both Slaughter (whose book  stemming from The Atlantic piece will be published by Random House next spring) and Sandberg have helped me rethink — and have encouraged me to change — my attitude and approach toward working full-time in a competitive industry with small children. And even in just these two articles Spar has suggested intriguing (and undoubtedly also controversial) theories about the modern woman in the modern workplace. I cannot wait to read the book.

To summarize Slaughter’s nuanced Atlantic article: she  was director of policy planning at the State Department under Hillary Clinton; ultimately she felt she couldn’t mother her teenage sons while working such a time-consuming, long-distance job. And so she set out to look at why that was and why even women as educated and accomplished as she faced similar frustrations. Amidst her many anecdotes, a very small quotation in the article had a disproportional impact on me. Slaughter wrote of “a maternal imperative felt so deeply that the ‘choice’ is reflexive.” I interpreted this as:  biology plays an undeniable role in women’s actions in the workplace, yet it is largely ignored. But the reality is we get pregnant and tired and then we are mothers who are torn (at times) and tired (at all times). Moreover, so what if we have a biological predisposition to assume more of the physical parenting of small children? Instead of a working culture that says, “Women have proved that they are smart enough and capable enough of working in the same ways as men – so they should. Exactly the same,” why not value  biological differences and, as a result, as a culture make it easier to both work and caretake?

Sandberg, in Lean In,  urges women to speak up for and fight for policies that promote their success in the workplace. To tackle the demanding jobs and to change from within. To not be afraid to work hard and to like it, and even though the quotidian worry about two important things — the job you love and the children you love — is exhausting and frustrating, to admit that is not a weakness or a failure. This last point was a revelation for me. I had long wondered if my anxiety at work meant that I made the wrong “choice” and might actually be happier at home with my children, or, worse, that I should be able to handle both worlds and because I couldn’t I was a failure.

Instead, I realized  the ambivalence and I anxiety I felt at work was simply because working full-time with children is difficult — and the entrenched powers that be make few real allowances for that.   I didn’t make the wrong “choice” in the work/stay-at-home dichotomy — rather, this particular dichotomy doesn’t even apply to me. (Which is a relief, too, because I have long been uncomfortable debating a “choice” that is actually not a choice for so many women; one of the things I thinks Sandberg does in Lean In is to move the conversation well beyond this privileged “choice”, although I know many  will disagree. ) So though in many moments of despair and exhaustion I have been tempted to light my law degree on fire in favor of an idealized (and yes, I know, unrealistic) alternate reality of Lululemons and perfect playdates,  that is not actually what I want. In fact, love my job. I just don’t love the attendant parent-specific stressors of full-time work, both micro (getting up for work after a night of puking kids, false client deadlines, commuting) and macro (the stigma of dark under-eye circles, snow days, sick nannies, nonexistent maternity policies).

Whereas Slaughter’s intellectually probing article legitimized that which frustrated me about being a BigLaw lawyer, by identifying the source of my anxiety, Sandberg inspired me and re-energized me and began to restore some of the confidence I had lost. My frustration was neither (a) because I was actually meant to be home with my children and thus was failing them nor (b) because I was a slacker mom because I stayed home with a barfing child when none of the men I worked with ever did and, as a result, I was a sucky lawyer.

Should allowances be made for women who want to stay home with the puking kid, though? Or for pregnant or nursing women who might be nauseous or exhausted and need to work from home? For years I have argued that if we, as a society, value families, the answer is yes. So in the Chronicle piece when  Spar wrote…

     To begin with, we need to recognize that biology matters. Women are not in any way physically inferior to men, but they are distinctly and physically different. They have   wombs and breasts and ovaries, physiological attributes that—for better or for worse—tend to affect the course of their lives. 

…I almost jumped out of my chair. (Perhaps not coincidentally, I have long been greatly influenced my brilliant, progressive-thinking aunt, who was one of Spar’s predecessors as president of Barnard. And, related: if this is the conversation that young women are having at women’s colleges – remember, Barnard was also venue for one of Sandberg’s viral speeches on “leaning in” – sign me up. Or, rather, sign my daughter up!)

Just as important, however, Spar tackles the post-feminist need to be perfect. We haven’t been able to make a dent in the overall workplace attitude, so we’re focusing our energy — and our frustration — back on ourselves.  We beat ourselves up because we have been raised to “do it all” — and we can’t.

She’s right. I have been raised to think I can do it all — and I want to. I do!  In contrast, a wise mentor at my former law firm  told me during my first week, “Outsource everything.” When she made partner three decades ago (one of the first women to do so, working full-time while her husband was chief of surgery at a prestigious hospital), she didn’t think twice about day-nannies and evening-nannies, housekeepers, cooks, dog-walkers, tutors. Making partner with two  children was difficult enough. Now, it seems that because making partner is “easier” — because women have the same opportunities as men — whipping up Gwyneth’s kale and quinoa stir fry shouldn’t be an issue either. (Do you know how freaking long it takes to chop kale?)

Spar writes: “Feminism was never supposed to be a 12-step program toward personal perfection.” In the Times piece she suggests that we give up the PTA. Or a perfect body. That second-best is OK. We should learn to pick our battles. (PTA or the body. Kale or PTA.)

It is going to take me awhile to internalize this one. I don’t really practice settling (“satisficing,” Spar calls it). As I point out to my non Type-A husband often, “Being driven and committed can be a good thing !” I want to train for a half-marathon. I want to go on the Tuesday morning field trip to the fire station. I want to  chop and  sauté  the goddamn kale. I don’t want to do all these things because I’ll be perceived as a “perfect mother” – but, rather, because I enjoy them. I love to cook. I love to run. I enjoy my children and being involved in their daily routines when I can be. I also love my job.

But, frankly, I also get down on myself. Not because I’m not perfect (well, sometimes because of that). But also because sometimes — though now, thanks to Sandberg, I  can articulate this — It’s. Just. Difficult. I know that being home with children all day is difficult — I know that. Believe me, on school holidays when I’m flailing without a set at-home routine, I know it. But in addition to the undeniable stresses of modern parenthood, there are the undeniable stresses of the modern workplace with its 24/7 connectivity and economic instability. That endemic unease of something else tugging at our attention, always. And, always, always, there is the potential for a full-blown panic: the babysitter is sick, or an unhappy West Coast client schedules a 9 p.m. call, or there is a snow day. Or eight snow days. Or the croup. Things that would be annoying but not a crisis in another context, in another life. We feel anxiety, and then we feel panic — because we love our jobs and don’t want to be the slacker colleague. And because we love our children and don’t want to be the slacker mom. We’re going to be both, likely even at the same time. And that doesn’t mean we should thus quit our jobs but…it’s still just hard.

And thus, ultimately, Spar — like Slaughter and Sandberg — suggests we turn our focus outward to the issues that present the greatest challenges to working moms. If women are not worrying about every volunteer meeting or waking up in time for CrossFit every morning (i.e., worrying about themselves), but instead spend that time both with our children and collectively changing cultural norms, perhaps the result will be a workplace that doesn’t instill a baseline level of panic — panic borne from the fear that by embracing motherhood we are not living up to either professional expectations or potential.

I think about all of this, all of the time. And so I’m grateful to women with the experience and platforms — and success — of  Slaughter, Sandberg, and Spar for using their positions to share their stories and opinions. Undoubtedly, another conversation has begun – a conversation that includes the phrases “have it all” and “lean in” and, now, “joyous feminism”. Indeed, I hope these three phrases are the beginning of a new phase of feminism, one which embraces biology and ambition.


Filed under Lawyer Moms, Read This

Industry Scoop: E-Book News

Do you read on an iPad or Kindle? Or do you prefer “old-fashioned” paper? Or does it matter? I love reading on my iPad for a number of reasons, including its back-lit function (I can read in bed and let others sleep in the dark) and its portability. Most of all, I love the instant gratification. If I hear about a book I want to read, I go to the iBooks store and download the “Sample”. If and when I’m ready to read it, I download the whole thing. I have spent more on books – hundreds and hundreds of dollars more – since I have become an E-reader than I did previously, when I would wait until the book became available at the library or someone gave me a Barnes & Noble gift card.

Fellow E-reading devotees may be interested in two digital startups that plan to offer monthly fee E-Book subscription services – think Netflix for books. (Source: Jeffrey Trachtenberg in the Wall Street Journal, subscription required.) But will publishers get on board? E-Books tend to be a source of angst for most publishers. On one hand, readers like me have spent more on books than they otherwise would have. On the other hand, E-Books sell for so much less than hard-covers, and if more people are buying E-Books at $9.99 than are buying hard covers at $25.99, a company’s bottom line suffers. Any new development with the selling and pricing of E-Books leads to greater angst, at least until the fear of the unknown is conquered.

Will readers get on board? It’s unclear whether these startups will offer best-sellers or new releases and whether the monthly subscription rate will be low enough for those who are not voracious, book-a-week readers. And if the prices are low enough to attract readers, arguably it is the authors who will suffer a decrease in royalties. (Thus, obviously, agents tend to hate subscription models.)

Another initiative retailers and publishers are trying with E-Books is the “bundling” of E-Books with the purchase of print books – in other words, when you buy a print version of a book, you can also have the E-Book for just a few dollars or, in some cases, for free. Amazon is one such retailer and is calling its service Kindle MatchBook (apparently only HarperCollins has agreed to participate in the Amazon service, though other publishers have tried other types of bundling). For E-reading fans, this could be a great idea: you love having the hard copy on your shelf, or to underline, but when you travel you want to take only your Kindle.

Of course, the agent has to ask: does this deprive authors of the 25% E-Book royalty and the 7-15% print royalty they would receive if both books were bought? Or is this a great idea in that it would boost interest in print sales and the industry in general?

There are still some issues to be worked out, the most technical of which concern the large and controversial (see: United States v. Apple, Inc. et. al.) agency model of E-Book pricing, which are described in this Publisher’s Weekly article.

Personally, I’m a fan of E-Books and their place in the industry – I heard a great story on the TED Radio Hour over the weekend about a TED talk Nicholas Negroponte gave in 1984 in which he essentially predicted the ubiquity of E-readers. There will always be print books, I suppose (though Negroponte seems to think not). But because E-Books cost far less to produce, ship and store, it seems to me at some point the industry will reach a state of equilibrium so that more people are buying books at $9.99 with a greater net profit to publishers than they have from readers buying hardcovers at $25.99.

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Advice (FWIW): Copyright Registration

In addition to being an agent, I am a lawyer. I was a lawyer first, actually. And before I was a publishing lawyer, I was a tax lawyer. At a huge corporate firm. (Really!) Now my practice covers most areas of intellectual property law, including trademarks and copyright, publishing agreements, and entertainment law. It is a nice complement to being an agent, as I can spot certain problems in advance (such as: “No, you can not use the name of the Senator with whom you had an affair in your memoir, lest you want an invasion of privacy suit” — true story). I can also advise writers on the ins and outs of copyright.

Most people probably know that if you create a work of art, you own the rights to that art — and, specifically, the right to make money off that art. What is confusing, however, is what “copyrighting a work” means, what actually does for you, and how to do it.

In prior years, publication with notice (the “(c)” symbol) was mandatory for a writer secure copyright and thus to assert any copyright ownership. Now, your copyright is extant as soon as you put pen to paper or record a note. When you “copyright a work”, you are not bestowing copyright on it because the copyright is inherent in it. You have copyright to your work even if you don’t register. If someone steals your work you can still sue them for actual damages (meaning, how much money you lost and how much money they made off your work). But by registering the copyright to your work, if you sue for infringement you may also be eligible for statutory damages and attorneys’ fees.

So why do we still put a copyright (c) symbol on the things? The copyright symbol simply puts people on notice so that they cannot in their defense claim inadvertent infringement. If you don’t have it, your work is still protected — although it used to be required for protection, and this is the source of some confusion.

OK, so then why do you need to register with the US Copyright Office at all? Certain monetary damages — attorney’s fees and statutory damages — that you might be owed because of someone else’s infringement accrue only from the date it is formally registered. I have seen artists whose work was not properly registered lose out on years of potential damages because they only properly register the work with the copyright office when they first learn of the infringement.

I would argue that in this digital age when material can be disseminated so quickly and widely, it is more important to formally register your work with the U.S. Copyright office. If you publish a book, the publisher will do that for you — it is (or should be!) a part of every publishing contract. (A publishing contract is in essence a copyright license from you, the copyright owner, to the Publisher, allowing them to distribute and make money off your work.) But if you are self-publishing or you have an unpublished work that you are circulating widely, it might be a good idea to go on to the U.S. Copyright Office website and register the work, which you can do electronically (for $35).

What if you have a blog? First and foremost, you should have a clear copyright notice at the bottom of every page. You’ll see on this blog that I do not, but that’s because I can’t figure out how to do it! (Can someone help me?) If I did, it would look like this: Copyright (c) Kathryn Beaumont, 2013. Remember, this doesn’t mean the copyright is registered, per se, it just means that I am putting my readers on notice that they can’t claim that they didn’t know this was my original work. I would also add a Terms of Use page somewhere, which states that if people are reading your blog, then they agree not to x, y, or z (steal your work? Make mean comments? Post comments or work that is copyrighted by others? Steal your photos? Whatever you want…)

Should you also register your blog with the U.S. Copyright Office? If your blog is widely read, has had copyright infringers poach from it in the past, or you plan to put it into a book someday, I’d recommend it. Unfortunately the Copyright Office is not clear whether blog postings are that exist online and nowhere else are considered “publications” and, thus, what sort of protection they need to have to allow you to sue and be awarded certain damages. The thinking for some time had been that you were eligible for all damages if you registered the entire contents of your blog and then updated it subsequently every three months — because you have three months after publication to register a work for purposes of statutory damages and attorney’s fees. But if the Copyright Office won’t comment on whether a blog is “published” for these purposes, then the three-month window is sort of arbitrary. With an unpublished work, you can’t sue until it is registered.

So, basically, you can register the contents of your blog once, and then however often makes you feel comfortable (or you want to pay $35) register the chunk of posts since your last registration as a new work.  You would have to create a new registration for the updates as opposed to being allowed to register them as some sort of new derivative of the overall blog registration.

Why should I care about this? I just want to write! Many artists create because they just have to — it’s an innate calling (“Painting is like breathing,” etc.), and thus don’t always think about their work as “property” or as having monetary value. But it does! There is always potential value, so it’s wise to protect it so that when you finally realize that value — even if you think it will never happen — it’s not too late.

NB: What I didn’t cover: copyright damages, what constitutes infringement, or Fair Use. I welcome all thoughts and experiences you have had with copyright registration — particularly blogs. But if you have specific questions as they relate to your own work, I can’t answer them here.


September 12, 2013 · 4:34 pm

Monday Five (Tuesday Edition): J. Courtney Sullivan

imageOne of the things I love(d) most about being a journalist is meeting interesting people and asking them questions. Every Monday, I hope to bring that here, interviewing writers, lawyers, creators, and all-around cool people. Today’s edition is a day late, as I am in New York for work, but hopefully worth the wait as it features New York Times best-selling author, J. Courtney Sullivan. Her most recent novel, The Engagements, was published in June by Knopf.

How did you meet me? I met [you] through our mutual Kneerim, Williams & Bloom family. My wonderful agent, Brettne Bloom, introduced us. [We] bonded immediately over Red Sox baseball and good Milton restaurants. (Yes, they exist.) Later on, [you helped] me navigate the legal ins and outs of my most recent novel, The Engagements, which deals in part with the behind-the-scenes workings of the diamond industry.

What was your major in college? Did you take any creative writing classes? I was an English major at Smith. At least back then, the department skewed heavily toward literature. There was only one fiction writing workshop. You were allowed to take it twice, which I did. The second time, my professor was a brilliant author named Doug Bauer. The next semester, I created a one-on-one tutorial, wherein Doug and I met twice a week, and I wrote a novel. (Smith is great about letting you choose your own adventure in this way.) That novel now lives in a drawer and will hopefully never see the light of day. But it was a terrific, educational experience for a young writer. Kurt Vonnegut also came to campus one year and taught a master class that I was lucky enough to get into. I remember his main rule was that every character you write should want something, even if it’s just a glass of water. He also encouraged us to create a piece of writing—a poem, an essay, a short story—and make it as perfect as possible, then throw it away and never share it with anyone. Creating just for the sake of creating. This was pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter. In our current culture of over-sharing, I like this idea a lot. (Though I’ve never been brave enough to actually do it.)

Do people think they see themselves in your characters? Has that created problems or are the generally flattered? On a couple of occasions, I’ve worried that someone might see herself in a character, and it’s never come to pass. Other times, I wasn’t even thinking of a person and he became convinced I was writing about him. You would think people would clam up around a writer and become very protective of their stories. But on the contrary, people are constantly telling me their secrets and encouraging me to write about them. (I usually don’t.) Back when I was working as a researcher for an op-ed columnist at the New York Times, I learned a valuable lesson: Most everyone wants to tell their stories. I believe it’s just a human instinct. For The Engagements, because I was writing about worlds unknown to me, I interviewed people who had certain things in common with my characters—several paramedics in Cambridge, a classical violinist, French women who moved to New York for love, and so on. The real-life inspirations for these characters were generous and happy to share what they knew.

Where do you write? I mostly write in a corner of my bedroom. I have a lovely antique desk set up by the window. My husband and I both work from home in our one bedroom apartment (and we have a large hound dog who may as well be named Procrastination—he loves attention and is far too cute to be ignored.) I dream of one day having a gorgeous beach house with a writer’s cottage in back. Basically, I want to be a novelist in a Nancy Meyers’ movie.

What is your fantasy day in Boston? I grew up in nearby Milton and though I’ve now lived in New York for ten years, Boston still has my heart. For me, the city is full of memories. It’s where I attended preschool in the North End, where my mom used to take us to see the Nutcracker each Christmas, where I rode the T into high school at BU Academy, where my friends and I spent hours strolling around Newbury Street. And every time I return home, there’s something new to try. Most recently, my husband and I checked out the food trucks in the South End. Loved that. My fantasy day involves a morning walk around Castle Island. A visit to the Gardner Museum. An afternoon Sox game, with seats in the Green Monster. Dinner at Sam’s and drinks at the Boston Harbor Hotel.

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Friday Five: End-of-summer Edition

Reading: Vogue (“the September Issue”). There are some good profiles of Texas State Senator Wendy Davis and Marissa Mayer if you are looking for content (but are you really?)

Watching: Ray Donovan on Showtime (why did I not really know about Liev Schreiber before?) It’s like an Irish Sopranos, but set in Los Angeles, and rife with so-bad-they’re-good Boston/ Irish stereotypes and Showtime’s characteristically un-subtle sex and plot twists. Jon Voight is awesome in it.

Oh hi, Liev. Where have you been all my life?

Cooking: Kale, like everyone else. This week, this salad (though I use Craisins, not dates).

Doing: Back-to-school shopping. Soccer cleats, three-ring-binders, pencil cases, pencil sharpeners (have not owned one of those in 20 years!), little boys’ underwear, backpacks, snack packs. And it hits me that I am no longer the parent of babies.

Listening to: Late August crickets. Which make me feel as if I am three or four years old and my father, in his scratchy green Army sweater (as in: actually given to him by the US Army during basic training in 1969), is carrying me home across some neighbor’s yards in Cape Cod from a cookout where I’ve fallen asleep on a couch or a spare bed. I was deathly afraid of crickets then and clung to him tightly, my head buried in his shoulder; now, just the sound conjures up the smell and feel of that sweater.

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