IWOSC at Forty: An Appreciation of “The Community of Us”*

Agent panel

By Flo Selfman, IWOSC president 2003-2016   wordsalamode.com 

When IWOSC was formed back in 1982, the founders were freelance magazine and newspaper journalists, as were most of the members in the early years. As an entertainment and literary publicist, I joined several years later; the idea of 200 journalists who might pitch stories on my clients was irresistible! Good move on my part: an IWOSC writer quickly got a client of mine a story in the Los Angeles Times.

(Double click on any of the photos to see a larger photo and start the slideshow)

Here’s how the founders described IWOSC’s beginnings:

In summer 1982, a half dozen writers gathered on a porch at a colleague’s home to discuss their careers. Each opted for self-employment over a steady job. They were all well-educated and accom­plished in their fields, but they knew that many publishers and editors failed to perceive indepen­dent writers as professionals.

This coterie of writers agreed that, as independents, they often coped with low or slow pay and extended payment terms. They lacked such elementary job benefits as health insurance or a credit union.  As they sat on that porch back in ’82, they began to play the old game of “There-ought-to-be. . .”

“There ought to be a way that self-employed writers could get busi­ness services at a reasonable rate.”

“There ought to be a way of getting respect for writers.”

“There ought to be a way of finding out what other writers are charg­ing for their work.”

There ought to be. . .

. . . an organization. One that did not require its members to sell to particular mar­kets. One that would help self-employed writers improve their lot in life. One that could approach pub­lishers, agency heads and editors to settle griev­ances.

A spark was lit from these conversations. The writers decided to create an organization dedi­ca­ted to the idea that they could deal with these issues and find solu­tions as a group. No self-employed writer need stand alone.

That’s how IWOSC started and grew. In its first decades, most of the members were freelance journalists, seeking respect, benefits, and a “water cooler.” (Pre-internet, writing was even more solitary than it is now.) Then, IWOSC had caucuses and special-interest groups (health writers, food/restaurant, entertainment).  We’ve always been about networking and education.

Our activities always included an evening monthly panel (occasionally a “panel of one”), then, as now, on topics of interest and benefit to writers (contacting editors; genres, such as architecture); a monthly Saturday morning seminar on all kinds of topics, from writing how-to (exercises, grammar, editing), genres (children’s lit, short story), to business (finding an agent, managing our money). Then we added satellite groups; after all, LA is a huge area and, with members all over the region, it was difficult to attend meetings. For a time we met every few months at the DWP building downtown; we held seminars at theatres in the Valley and at a children’s services agency in Pasadena. We held special all-day topic intensives (writing for psychology and mental health; how to do research).

We offered benefits to our members beyond writing: health insurance, a Jobline (then managed by Harriet Modler via two big, thick loose-leaf notebooks), Grievance Committee, new member mixers, volunteer opportunities (staffing booths at numerous book festivals including the LA Times Festival of Books, from 1996, its first year at UCLA, and every year thereafter, at no charge to our members), serving on the board or committees, writing for the newsletter, reading our work at twice-yearly “IWOSC Reads Its Own” events.

We taught…ourselves that each of us is a small business and we became businesspeople. We taught ourselves how to produce programs, line up speakers, write promotional copy, and moderate the programs (even if we feared speaking to a group) … and how to produce events, like our twice-yearly parties.

We learned … so much! How to network … how to approach editors … how to determine and ask for money … how to determine our worth … Later, how to prep our manuscripts, how to publish, approach an agent, market ourselves and our work, monetize our blogs, create our websites. Legal issues with IWOSC’s attorney Michael Klein, Ivan Hoffman, Jonathan Kirsch.

We learned … how to manage an organization. For many years, the IWOSC board held overnight retreats in interesting places like the Queen Mary, Altadena Country Club (thanks, Susan Carrier), and inns in Pasadena, Playa del Rey and Ventura. Once email eliminated the need for such lengthy in-person sessions, I conducted my board retreats at the historic Culver Hotel in Culver City – in Mr. Culver’s former private office! We had a buffet lunch, followed by afternoon meetings.

We learned … about the richness of LA’s historic sites (thanks, Laura Meyers, for opening our eyes) – our parties were held at the main Central Library downtown/Pershing Square/Biltmore Hotel; the Guasti-Buzby Berkeley mansion, historic West Adams; the Old Mill, San Marino; Zane Gray estate, Altadena (our biggest party to date; we even rented a Port-a-Potty!); the Schindler House (now MAK Center for Art & Architecture), West Hollywood; Will Rogers Park, Pacific Palisades; Lummis House and Heritage Square Museum near DTLA; CBS Studios, Studio City (thanks, Deb Shadovitz); Gilmore Adobe near Farmer’s Market …  and many more, several self-catered. My winter parties as president were at the downtown Biltmore. We took “research field trips” – to the LA Police Academy, the then-new West Hollywood Library, and Brand Library.

We shared … our appreciation of members with recognition at our parties. I jokingly said we needed to get “Stop Me Before I Volunteer Again!” T-shirts for some, like Anne Mosbergen and Steven Sanchez. Instead, I created the “Spirit of Sharon” Award to honor the late board secretary Sharon Gilbert, who epitomized the slogan, presenting the first award posthumously to her, then to Anne and Steven.

We shared … our knowledge and expertise…at meetings, satellite groups, on our Yahoo! Listserv, and now via our Facebook page, Twitter and Zoom.

As the years passed and times changed, so did IWOSC. Our members became authors who craved information about writing books, editing, publishing and promotion. We’re lucky here in Southern California because so many resources are available to us. We’ve had numerous publishing programs with leading experts, including our own member authors and other professionals (editors, publicists, designers). We offer all-day Marketing intensives. We’re the first to have annual Agents Panels, for years our best-attended events! Adding PALA (Publishers Association Los Angeles) as a special interest group of IWOSC brought additional resources, such as discounted membership in IBPA (Independent Book Publishers Association).

IWOSC has often been cutting edge: When the Internet (capital “I”) was still a frightening unknown, Laura Meyers brought a big TV set to a meeting, along with a classical music critic, and demonstrated this new phenomenon. The critic’s article had these things called “links.” If he wrote the word “Beethoven,” you could click on the link and up would pop a bio of Beethoven! Can you even remember how remarkable this seemed at the time?

Before we heard the term “chick lit,” for example, Gary Young, then IWOSC’s longtime Director of Professional Development, had scheduled a panel on the topic. And, before we ever heard the word “podcast,” IWOSC had its own radio show. And talk about pivoting! Right before the pandemic hit, Gary and Steven Sanchez got us on Zoom before we knew how critically important it would become!

We’re all volunteers, by the way (except for website and office admin) – and we will keep it that way.

We’ve contributed … big time to the LA Main Central Library, helping clean damaged books after the 1986 fire, and raised $10,000 to help the library rebuild its collections! IWOSC has donated thousands of books to literacy organizations. Later, we gave to the LA Library Foundation and to Sojourn/Ocean Park Community Center (which named a reading corner for Pam Leven). We donated Sharon Gilbert’s large collection of piano and voice music and biographies, with IWOSC bookplates added, to Crossroads School in Santa Monica; and to a fund honoring author Octavia Butler.

We’ve lost … too many dear members over the years including our devoted, adored, spunky treasurer, “Miss Moneybags,” Pam Leven, and, later, her husband (and life member) Bob Geddes. Rena Michel, our first LAT FOB volunteer coordinator. Harriet Modler. Bob Birchard, who produced/moderated our annual Mystery Writers Panels. Lisa-Catherine Cohen. Linda Lichtman. Joe Buff and his wife Sybil, who helped Roberta and me set up the LAT FOB booth for years. 

We’ve gained … lifelong friendships, important connections, indispensible knowledge.

At the recent LA Times Festival of Books at USC, author Craig Leener, who recently published his fourth novel, said to me, “Flo, do you know how many books I published before joining IWOSC?” “How many?” I said. He made a circle of his thumb and forefinger. “Zero,” he said. And I have a huge folder in my computer of similar comments. I’m thrilled whenever I see IWOSC acknowledged in our members’ books.

Some say life begins at forty. I say, Life – and IWOSC – just keep getting better after forty! May “the community of us”* continue to thrive!


Flo Selfman
Immediate Past President (2003-2016), IWOSC

*E.L. Doctorow

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