One day, a publisher wrote to me; I replied

One day, a while back, a publisher (who had best remain anonymous) emailed me with a proposal to write some brief contributions for Yet Another Dull Encyclopaedia of the Roman World. At the time it angered me so much I sent back a rather (for me) unusually long reply. Here it is, unedited except for masking a few key names.

Dear JJJJ,

Thank you so much for your invitation to contribute to what I suppose we shall have to call the XXXX. I was particularly intrigued that you had managed to both flatter me as a potential ‘expert contributor’ and insult me by proposing to pay me £50 for 1333 of my carefully crafted and referentially rock-solid words. Given that the writing, almost-inevitable rewriting, and proofreading of these 1333 little chaps would, at the most conservative of estimates, take two days of my time, I have calculated a daily rate of £25 lurking in there. As a self-employed writer – please don’t be offended at this – I’m afraid I see that as an insult.

You should by now be beginning to suspect that I am not instantly going to accept your offer to contribute to this august volume, but (this must be your lucky day) I am going to do better than that and offer you A Piece of Advice and A Warning.

First, however, I have to decry the niggling annoyance that you are not proposing to give writers of less than 25 offerings a free copy of the book, but rather offering to sell them copies at 50% of the cover price (which, as we know, is not 50% of the unit cost). So, if I want my very own copy of the XXXX (leaving aside whether I would indeed need a work of reference that devotes only 500 words to an important source like Vegetius), I will have to fork out £97.50; I could of course offset my £50 honorarium against that, but it still comes down to the fact that you have just written to ask me to pay you £47.50 for the privilege of writing 1333 of those jolly little words to help you sell your book! Now, I don’t know what YYYY pay their staff these days, but I’m pretty sure they don’t charge you for the pleasure of working there.

So, to A Piece of Advice and A Word of Warning. I should preface these by noting I have worked in publishing as a writer, publisher, print buyer, marketer, editor, copy-editor, proofreader, indexer, typesetter, designer, and illustrator for more than 29 years, starting out in what used to be called self-publishing (and subsequently in various guises for various more-or-less mainstream publishers), so I have what might be described as a Teiresian perspective on the industry.

A Piece of Advice: never, ever, put your potential author’s back up by proposing a deal that, by any stretch of the imagination, sucks. It just says ‘we don’t value you’ in 48pt bold pink Comic Sans. One of the few endearing qualities remaining in publishing, since it became A Business, has been the author’s free copy. We, sad creatures that we are, would hand over our nearest and dearest in exchange for a free copy; even to the point of writing 1333 poorly paid words. But to expect payment for a copy of what we write? Seriously…

A Word of Warning: somebody somewhere in your organisation needs to consider very carefully your business model for this volume. Who is going to buy the XXXX at £195 a shot? Speaking as a punter, not me, that’s for sure (even before you proposed I contribute to it; I thought £95 for the BBBB was a rip-off); I’d point out that Wikipedia has a fair shot at Vegetius, for instance (not least as it is based on c.500 words of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, which has not aged too badly with regard to Veg, as we call him in the trade). You see, I can’t afford £197 for a reference book when I, as a writer, am paid so poorly. Moreover, if it is going to cost so much to produce the book and yet you are paying your contributors next to nothing, I would suggest you have stern words with your print buyer, and see if they cannot acquire dead trees more cheaply. But of course, we all know that the real reason the book will cost so much is that you are scavenging the academic market, using the model pioneered by (in the days of yore) WWWW and the likes of (nowadays) ZZZZ. However, some waking and coffee-smelling may soon be required as university libraries (oops, forgot to mention I worked in an academic library for two years!) are soon not going to be able to afford, let alone justify, such luxuries. A smart move would be selling it for £25 a pop (called pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap, I believe – have a word with that print buyer of yours) and flog them to all those people out there who find the world of Late Antiquity sufficiently interesting that they would indeed hand over their money willingly… but I doubt you’ll do that. Books like the XXXX are brachiosaurs wandering into the tar pits of modern publishing, seemingly oblivious to their surroundings and, ultimately, doomed. You didn’t hear it here first, but it remains true. You see, there are these little things called the internet and ebooks…

So there you are, JJJJ, I’m afraid I shall have to turn down your kind offer reluctantly, but would point out, by way of compensation, that I have given you 955* honed and embellished words for free and – best of all – I have not had to pay you for writing them; instead it has served to dissipate my anger at being so grossly (yet, I’m sure, unintentionally) offended on an empty stomach.

Best wishes,

Mike Bishop

*The word count was of course accurate before my expurgation of the original text.


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