This article is taken from the April 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
How to Be a Writer (Little, Brown £16.99), Marcus Berkmann’s invaluable guide to the perils of the freelance life, has an ominous little sub-chapter entitled “Getting Paid”.
Its highlight, or nadir, is the story of the occasion five years ago, when Berkmann was rung up by “a languid posh bloke from The Times” and asked if he would like to write a humorous column for Saturday’s paper at a fee of £500 (good money, by the way.) Feigning nonchalance, yet secretly delighted at the prospect of such largesse, Berkmann said that, yes, he supposed he could do this.
The piece duly appeared, unaltered, and it seemed to go down well. Ten days later, Berkmann telephoned his contact to see about payment. It was too late. Languid posh bloke had been sacked. Worse, no one could deal with the administrative chaos caused by his departure. Despite incontrovertible evidence of the article’s appearance on The Times op-ed page with Berkmann’s picture alongside it, no money ever changed hands. Half a decade later Berkmann confesses that he would quite like The Times to offer him work so that he can have the pleasure of telling them “pay me the £500 you owe me, or fuck off”.
The Secret Author remembered this cautionary tale the other week in the aftermath of his dealings with an American university called, let us say, Euphoria State. Would he like to read and write a short report on a manuscript about a major 20th century writer, with whose work he was intimately familiar, by a distinguished American academic which the Euphoria State University Press was thinking of publishing? Yes, he would, the Secret Author replied. Was there any money involved? After a certain amount of reflection, a fee of $200 was proposed.
How to extract that sum from Euphoria State’s finance department? It turned out that Pan’s Labyrinth was easier to negotiate. Forms winged back and forth through cyberspace. Bank account details were solicited. Order numbers were canvassed. Advice was offered by helpful employees on how supplicants might make their way through the finance department’s “portal”.
In the end, and having failed to jump most of these hurdles, the Secret Author simply lost his temper and advised Euphoria State that it could donate the money to a charity of its choice. Extraordinarily, this produced an email acknowledging the complexity of Euphoria State’s payment system and expressing sympathy.
In the old days, the proud contributor merely sent in an invoice
It was never easy to get paid by anybody in the world of light literature, but it started to get really difficult about ten years ago when technology began to allow for individual operatives in the finance departments to be replaced by computers, and newspapers or magazines started to outsource their treasury function to third parties.
Only the other week, for example, the Secret Author found himself engaged in a best of three falls with an organ called, let us say, the American Scrutator. In the old days, the proud contributor merely sent in an invoice. Now, suddenly, there is an online platform that wants to text passwords to your mobile, help you through the W-8 overseas tax form and generally waste your time.
The American papers are, it should immediately be said, much worse than their British counterparts — at least if your cheque from Country Life fails to come through, you can ring an office in Northamptonshire and (eventually) talk to a human being, rather than sending emails to a website address in San Francisco or Nowhere, Nebraska.
They also get incredibly antsy about withholding a per centage of the fee until the IRS is satisfied that you’re not a money launderer. Like Berkmann, the Secret Author is still extremely cross about $250 owed to him by the Wall Street Journal for a piece published three years ago which no employee from that august institution has ever been able to track down.
No doubt most non-writers reading this will immediately mark it down as an example of the sempiternal Grub Street whinging that distinguishes every novel about the literary life from Thackeray’s Pendennis (1850) to Anthony Powell’s Books Do Furnish a Room (1971). In fact, a more general point applies.
Admittedly, the rush towards portals and platforms is part of a wider anxiety about fiscal security. Another part of it involves a deliberate wish on the part of the media, eagerly abetted by technology, to bring in systems that are convenient to itself, however inconvenient they may be to everyone else — a prime example of what Kingsley Amis, in his later days, used to call “sodding the public”.
How fondly the Secret Author looks back on the week, long decades ago, in which his very first article was accepted by the Spectator. The piece in question appeared on a Thursday, and by 9:30 on the following morning a copy of the magazine with a cheque for £60 pinned to it had arrived in the post. They were better times, you know. They really were.
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