By the time you read this, I’ll have started my annual mini-vacation that marks the end of each calendar year. Time off helps keep my writing engine tuned up and my thoughts in the present rather than the past or future. At the same time, looking back and forward—if only for a few hours—is another important ritual for balance. Considering past and future goals is critical for goal setting. What worked? What do I want to achieve next?
ASJA does this too, in the form of our annual end-of-year column. In the whir of everyday tasks, program support and growth, and short-term initiatives, it’s easy to lose track of the details. Stepping back to consider the full picture pulls those details into focus, which helps inform our goals. Each time I write this column, I discover something I’ve forgotten and learn something I didn’t know. And I’m reminded of how deep ASJA’s programming goes, as well as all of the elements required to get that programming to our members. Perhaps you’ll notice a few things that went under your radar and be reminded of the ways in which ASJA can help your career as a freelance writer.
Last January, we formally launched our Virtual Educational program, led by Natasha Serafimovska and Karen Blum and featuring 12 webinars and masterminds. Our masterminds are offered only to members, while webinars are offered for a small fee to non-members, as well as to members (for free).
Spanning such topics as “Secrets to Book Publishing” (led by Susan Shapiro) and “The SEO Secret Sauce: Think Like Google” (offered by Tom Gerencer), webinars presented cutting-edge training and information, accessible from anywhere in the world. Our two masterminds were “Develop and Enhance Your Writing Coach Business” (from Rebecca Webber) and “Become an Idea Machine” (from Jack El Hai). Attendance to our hour-long webinars is not capped, and attendees’ video and audio are turned off. Masterminds are longer, more intimate events, with fewer attendees and video/audio interactivity. Check www.asja.org in January 2022 for recordings of past webinars (free for members). Masterminds are not recorded.
Meanwhile, our Client Networking program, led by Wendy Helfenbaum, offered four Virtual Client Connections events and two Virtual Pitch Slams. A whopping 155 members participated in VCC programs this year. The crowning jewel of the 2021 Client Networking program was our Teleconnections event, held in May after our virtual conference. Sixty-one editors, clients, and agents met with members, who pitched story and book ideas, as well as introduced themselves as important assets to publications and companies. We’ve heard from dozens of members who have landed thousands of dollars from these events in 2021.
Unfortunately, we were unable to host our annual conference in person. Instead, Kristine Hansen led our second virtual conference in 10 months. Nearly 400 people attended at least one session. The flexibility of hosting an online conference meant that attendees could register for individual sessions, tracks, or the entire conference. We learned from our first virtual conference (offered in 2020), and shortened the time-frame from three months to three weeks, while employing a conference platform, which streamlined access to sessions and promoted greater networking between attendees. In the summer, we began planning for our 2022 conference in Jersey City, our first in-person conference in two years, led by Jen Billock and Judy Nauseef. Registration will open in January.
Going forward, ASJA will alternate virtual and in-person conferences. In even years, we’ll meet in person, while in odd years, we’ll host our annual conference online, as well as an in-person regional conference.
After two years of planning, we finally launched our newly designed website on October 1, under the leadership of Darcy Lewis, Kellen staff, and Think33. The launch was not without growing pains, in part because of the enormous changes we had to make. Not only did we redesign the site, but we also moved to a new Account Management System (AMS). The result is much-improved navigation, easier access to program information, and simpler sign-up processes for events, like webinars and our conference.
We’ve entered phase II of the website development, which will bring even more improvements, including beautiful member profiles, a new Paycheck tool that members can use to report and find information about publications and clients, and easier systems for running and signing up for our Client Networking programs.
There were some downsides to the new website. Some of our members had difficulty registering for the new site, and our staff worked overtime to assist them. In addition, we were running programs like VCC while the site was being built, which meant more work for our volunteers. We also had to say goodbye to Forums, which were an important aspect of our website for many years. Instead, members are finding online community at our members-only Facebook page. (Members only need to ask to join the page to be included.)
Change is difficult, and we continue to refine our site and processes to make it easier for members to access programs, as well as research markets and showcase their work. Look for more improvements throughout 2022.
The board began working on diversity initiatives at the end of the summer. We’ve met with other member organizations, including the American Society of Travel Writers and the New York Society of Non-Profit Executives, who have already dived into such initiatives. In December, a small taskforce of board members met to discuss steps for formalizing our diversity efforts, so that we can be more inclusive of underrepresented writers (including writers of color, queer writers, and disabled writers), as well as attract members who are from underrepresented groups.
Meanwhile, VCC continued to offer special opportunities for members of color and queer members to sign up for appointments before all other members do. With this approach, the committee was responding to requests from editors who wanted to work with underrepresented writers, as well as the clear and historical disadvantages these writers face in the marketplace. The response to this new approach has been positive.
We are not sure of our next steps in our diversity initiatives, but the board will keep membership posted in its progress and approach. The underlying reasons for outwardly addressing diversity include to acknowledge the lack of diversity in the publishing industry as a whole and take steps to make changes.
Congress and the administration continued to threaten the livelihood of our members with the PRO Act, which would classify employees using the ABC Test. Because many freelance writers (particularly journalists) fail one or more prongs of the test, ASJA asserts that the measure would prevent our members from working as independent writers for newspapers and magazines in particular. In fact, many companies and publishers have already made changes to contracts and contracting policies in an attempt to avoid hefty fines, if the law were to be enacted.
We persisted in our lawsuit against the state of California over its anti-freelance law, AB5. We have not been successful in the courts, but we continue to assert that AB5 is a threat to the constitutional right to free speech.
ASJA owes an enormous debt to seven members in particular, for their valiant efforts in the face of these threats. Kim Kavin, Jen Singer, Karon Warren, and Debbie Abrams Kaplan launched Fight for Freelancers, a nation-wide grassroots effort to stop the PRO Act. Randy Dotinga lobbied in California to have freelance journalists exempted from AB5. And Milt Toby and JoBeth McDaniel worked with Pacific Legal Foundation in our court case against California. These seven members were awarded ASJA’s Exceptional Service Award, which is offered only periodically, when members have gone above and beyond to support freelance writers and ASJA members.
Governance and Organizational Structure
Arguably, ASJA made our largest strides in 2021 with changes in how we are structured and governed. Under the leadership of Milt Toby and with the help of an outside law firm, we rewrote our outdated bylaws, and in June, the membership voted to approve them. While our previous bylaws were working fine, their structure was old fashioned and included many items that are better suited for a policies and procedures manual. We were able to trim our bylaws considerably, making them more flexible and easier to follow. Next up is to tackle a policies and procedures manual.
At the same time, we reincorporated in a way that streamlines our accounting processes. We maintained two entities: a 501(c)3, which allows us to receive tax-deductible donations, as well as our 501(c)6, which allows us to lobby on behalf of professional independent writers. The accounting for these two parts of our organization is less complex, however, making our monthly and annual statements clearer.
Another big change for the board and staff is our new fiscal year. After many years of running our accounts from July through June, we switched to a fiscal year that coincides with the calendar year. Membership has always expired at the end of the calendar year, making this another great change for our accounting systems. (Members get a two-month grace period to renew, so if you haven’t renewed yet, you have time. And when new members join in the middle of the year, their dues are prorated.)
We also reinstated our Annual Membership Meeting in June, during which we gave an overview of initiatives from the board and committee chairs. Because of COVID, we held this meeting virtually, but we’re excited to host it live in Jersey City in May 2022, during our in-person conference. Hope to see you there!
In July, James Brannigan became ASJA’s new executive director. James has been with ASJA for many years, most recently as associate executive director. After our previous ED, Holly Koenig, was promoted at Kellen, James stepped into the position. His understanding of ASJA’s unique dependence on volunteers is critical, and he’s been a joy to work with.
Ian Clements also joined the staff as membership coordinator, after James Cafiero left Kellen for another position. Ian has been an integral part of our current membership drive, as well as our move to a new AMS. And Brittany Marinovich joined us as our meetings manager, just in time to secure our new conference venue in Jersey City. She’ll work closely with volunteers and staff to help us put on our 2022 annual conference.
Of course, there were many other changes and accomplishments at ASJA in 2021. We’re in the midst of our membership campaign, led by interim chair Jennifer Goforth Gregory, encouraging qualifying freelance writers to join, lapsed members to rejoin, and current members to renew. Since October 1, 2020, 57 new members have joined ASJA, and that number will rise throughout the coming months. With our new website and growing virtual offerings, as well as efforts to be more inclusive of writers of color, queer writers, and disabled writers, we expect to attract many more new and returning members.
ASJA is the voice and career resource for independent, entrepreneurial professional nonfiction writers. We hope you’ll join us in even greater efforts in 2022.