My friend Guy Walters wrote a ‘pulpit’ for the Literary Review – Britain’s least up-its-own-arse literary magazine – this month, pointing out how there is a strange assumption throughout some sections of the culture-media nexus that people who write books don’t actually need to be paid (it’s online here: http://www.literaryreview.co.uk/walters_07_13.php).
Here’s another example: I was phoned on Monday by a TV producer for an independent company that has a commission from Channel 5 to produce a 1 hour documentary on an aspect of the Third Reich about which I happen to know quite a lot. He wanted to know if I was prepared to appear on the film, setting the subject in context and talking about some of the key characters.
I do quite a lot of this kind of thing so I was happy to agree to it. We then got on to the mechanics of the filming. His idea was that I would fly out to Germany for a day for the shoot, which – again – I was happy to do: it gets me out of the office, apart from anything else.
It was at this point that he used a phrase which I must have heard two dozen times in the twenty years I’ve been writing non-fiction: ‘Of course, we’ll make sure your book gets a mention’. For those who are unfamiliar with TV producer code this means ‘we’re not planning to pay you anything’.
I pointed this out, told him my day-rate and there were a few seconds of uncomfortable silence.
‘We’re not really allowed to pay interviewees anything’, he ventured, ‘because it seems like we’re just paying them to say what we want them to say’.
This is rubbish: I do quite a lot of this kind of stuff and I am routinely paid for it. We talked for a few more minutes and we closed with the producer telling me he would try to work out what they could pay me and would ‘get back to me’. I haven’t heard from him since and I have no doubt he’s been phoning round trying to find someone to do the gig for free.
The point, as Guy Walters makes clear in his Literary Review article, is that if you ask a lawyer or a doctor to give you an expert opinion, you expect to pay them for it. So why not a writer?
The excuse is always that by appearing on TV, we’re getting a marvellous opportunity to promote our work, and that we writers should be grateful for that. In reality, if 10 people buy a copy of the paperback of my history of the SS on the back of an appearance on a documentary – and I doubt it would be many more than that – it’s going to make me about a fiver. It doesn’t stack up.
So, like Guy, I’m not doing any more freebies without a damned good reason. It’s a precarious enough career unless you’re J K Rowling and frankly we all need to minimise days when we don’t earn anything.