Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Let's Talk About Money

We are the warriors.

We’ve seen terrible things.

We’ve developed iron discipline, ruthlessly suppressing our emotions and impulses in order to survive the cut and thrust of the brutal onslaughts that come for us. We are the unsalaried.

(Game of Thrones reference? No? Please yourselves.)

Being a freelance writer is tough. Being a freelance anything is hard enough, with all its variables and uncertainties. But scraping a living with your jokes, word power and/or storytelling ability is doubly difficult.

Now, even though professional writers talk about little else, I don’t write about money very much, partly because I do okay, having worked in television and radio for at least a decade and lived off the proceeds. Also, writing is an impossibly luxurious thing to have time to do, let alone be paid for it. I’m never sure the casual reader has any sympathy for us literary types. My father was a farmer all his life and in all previous generations that would have been my lot. So I’m just happy to have a job that takes place indoors.

I have written about money before, like back in 2010 where I wrote, with unusual clarity:
“The fact is that if you're a writer, you will write. No-one will be able to stop you. And nothing else will matter to you. Getting paid is great. And is essential every now and then. But the money is always secondary to the project - or at least it should be. If you're a writer, money is something you need to help you write - like a decent word-processor, a chair and some drinkable coffee.”
So why now?
The incentive to think about this again came from Robert McCrum’s interesting article in The Guardian about the troubled times that novelists now face – or at least a reversion to the norm now the fat-cheque feeding-frenzy has subsided.

Do we feel sympathy for literary novelists? Well, a bit. Someone enjoys those books. (Rarely me, sadly). But I can imagine the frustration. It’s very annoying to be part of an industry where the only person who’s actually creating the work is the only person who’s being chronically underpaid. (I wrote about this in another post in 2011, which is my third most popular blog posts, mainly because of the Harlan Ellison clip at the bottom, which is well worth watching if you haven’t seen it.)

Writers aren’t interested in money. They’re interested in writing. And the biggest frustration is that everyone’s getting paid but the writer. The only way to make a living in the media is to not be a writer. If you want to work with stories for goodness sake don’t write one. It’s financial madness. The only jobs that make financial sense are all the salaried ones surrounding the writers. Be an editor. Or an agent. Or be on staff at a literary festival. If you want to work in TV, work in 'development' on 'formats'. And become an executive. Whatever you do, don’t write. You probably can’t afford it.

Coming soon from Piqwiq
I think writing books is even more ruinous than writing TV or Radio, although maybe that’s just my own experience. A few years ago, I wrote a novel called Crossword Ends in Violence (5), a comedy thriller about crosswords, D-Day, codes, chess and Bletchley Park. It’s sort of Robert-Harris-meets-Terry-Pratchett.

The novel took me about six months to write, spread out over a two year period. On an average wage, that’s about £12k of labour (ignoring the fact I have a degree, live in Hammersmith etc etc). My agent – who is experienced and works for a good agency, especially for books - was unable to find a publisher. Apparently it's neither a comedy nor historical fiction and therefore unpublishable. You can't do both. There is no market for funny history, which is odd given Blackadder, Horrible Histories, Monty Python, Dad's Army - and my own Radio 4 sitcom Hut 33 about code breakers and Bletchley Park. Still that's what they said.

Do I regret writing the novel? Not entirely. I wrote the novel because I wanted to. I had to. And now I’ve got the chance to do something interesting with it – which is e-publish it for Kindle via Piqwiq. (Available soon).

Working for Free
Writers are often happy to work for free. I write this blog and get almost nothing out of it financially. It helps me organize my thoughts, establish a reputation and plug the occasional book I wrote once in a blue moon. The fact is that I love writing about writing. It’s a heck of a lot easier than writing situation comedy, which is what I’m paid to write.

But my decision to work for free is my choice. Being asked to do so, especially by someone on a salary, is infuriating. Writers hate it when, as is so often the case, they are the only person in the room not being paid for the thing they do, especially when the only reason everyone’s there is because the writer has written something. Joanna Harris has written about it on her blog with regard to festivals.
Festivals never question the fact that they have to pay for room hire; catering; advertising; transport; photography; insurance; sound and lighting. All these things cost money. Everything has to be paid for, in fact, except the people whom the audiences are coming to hear - that is, the authors themselves. 
I'm getting the sense that it's so bad that many writers don’t feel like they're colleagues of the salaried publishing/producing types. They don’t even feel like the tradesmen who come in the back door and have to take their shoes off. No, tradesmen are paid. Writers are feeling more and more like animals to be herded and crops to be harvested. Something from which other people can make their living. It’s horrible.

Again, I stress that I’m fine and very luck to be skilled in an area and medium with pays well. If I had the equivalent skills at poetry, I’d be making a tenth of what I currently earn. So I am lucky. I realise that. But if we talk about being lucky too much we can easily overlook a writer’s talent and experience. Being a good writer is a craft to be learned, practised and honed.

Too Many Competitions
One problem is the media has so many scriptwriting competitions that it makes it look being a writer is not a job or a trade. It’s winning a competition. "You could write the next Only Fools and Horses!" Argh! No. Writing a sitcom is hard. Writing one script can be fluked. Writing six takes talent, skill and experience.

It’s same in the music industry with all of these tiresome talent contests where a range of musical skills, like song-writing, mixing, editing and just being able to play an instrument, is being overlooked by as the shows focus only on the voice and the stage presence of someone who's walked in off the street and has an interesting life story.

Week after week on these contests, they sing songs written by skilled songwriters who’s work has stood the test of time. Usually two middle-aged men who spent years churning out songs from a studio in Motown, or a little known singer-songwriter who spend years in Nashville learning her craft.

Competitions have their place - they're mostly TV shows rather than anything else - but when this seeps into the writing world, it gives the impression to newbies and ignorant execs that anyone who writes professionally should thank their lucky stars they’re getting paid at all. Writers regularly feel very patronised by the salaried who hold out the hope of a career because they don't actually have any development money to pay the writer for their time. This is not how any industry should work, creative or otherwise.

Too Much Competition
The problem is, of course, that there are too many of us; wannabee screenwriters and novelists as well as actual screenwriters and novelists. And yet producers (and book editors?) are constantly moaning about the lack of decent manuscripts. I wonder how that can be.

So, how about investing in people, rather than waiting for scripts to come to you? That's how the American TV studios do it. They offer writers deals and put them on contracts: because it makes financial sense. But not in the UK. The excuse that’s often given is that times are tough. The internet’s killing everything. No-one’s prepared to pay for content.

This may be true about lousy content. But people are prepared for pay for decent content. And they do. Tens of millions pays for their licence fee. If the content of the BBC were uniformly awful, people wouldn’t pay it, or would throw out their TV, or the licence fee would be scrapped. But they pay for the content because, ultimately, the BBC isn’t all that bad.

People also pay willingly for Sky. In their millions. And on top of that, they pay for DVD boxed sets, HBO, Netflix, Amazon Prime/LoveFilm, iTunes and cable. People will pay for content. I'm hoping they'll pay for my novel. Can we stop using this as an excuse for a reluctance to invest?

You can have compelling, must-see content. But the people who will give you that aren't the development producers, festival managers or editors - it's the writers. The unsalaried. 

You wouldn’t expect your watercooler to be replaced by a guy for free with the promise of a chance to bid for providing water in the future.  You wouldn’t expect your boiler to be fixed for free – with the promise that he might win a boiler-fixing award, which would really help his business. Why would you treat a writer this way? The writer is crucial to your business.

If the writer wants to work for free, that’s their choice. Not yours.

So, to all salaried people in the creative industries, on behalf of the unsalaried:

Pay the writer. Properly. On time.


Now watch that Harlan Ellison clip again (NSFW). And cheer.


  1. Great blog Jam, which reminds me of a project I'd like to discuss with you. I want to get a series of books published under a new LCM imprint. Would you have time to write me a 5000 word blog on being a Christian in the workplace...;)...?

  2. Become your own executive. Form your own company with partners and sell direct to the commissioners, work for yourself and take the skim, or plough it into what you love. Its the only way to cut out the chaff. Writers in the TV business need to be producers as well or they will get shafted.