Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Bemoan, Baby, The Life Of A Freelancer...

The South Shields-born scriptwriter and novellist James Mitchell - creator of Callan and When the Boat Comes In and author of some excellent Avengers episodes amongst many other credits - is one of yer actual Keith Telly Topping's heroes (for both literary reasons and geographical ones too).

He once said something that has directly affected this blogger's life and which I think of, often, in my day-to-day dealings with publishers. "Being a professional writer" he once noted in a piece in Radio Times "means that you deliver the goods on time, to the best of your ability and skill, for money. Craftsmanship and honesty are the key words. It's my family tradition. My father was a skilled man who took pride in his craft. So am I." Mitchell's father, incidentally, was a shipyard fitter, union activist and self-taught intellectual who eventually became Mayor of South Shields shortly after the last war.

Okay, it's not quite as catchy as Douglas Adams's infamous observation "being a writer means gazing at a computer screen until your forehead bleeds" but it's got a certain honesty to it that I really like.

I always like to think that I've tried to follow James Mitchell's advice in this particular regard in my own career. Like his father, mine was a skilled man (a shipyard riveter and then, subsequently, a silica furnaceman) who worked in back-breaking conditions for much of his life and never really had anything like the rewards that his toil should have entitled him to. Compared to him I - and, this blogger freely acknowledges this - am nowt but a soft limp-wristed nancy-boy who's had it easy. For that reason, if nothing else, I like to believe that - at least when it comes to the job that I've chosen to do - I have a certain work-ethic that continues the family's noble tradition.

But, remember the last bit of James Mitchell's definition of the writer's work-ethic. 'For money' he said. And, that's the truth of it. In the end, no matter what we do or where we are, or how much we enjoy it, we all work for money pure and simple.

That old whore money. It's the root of all evil, they reckon. 'Money is our madness.' 'Money doesn't talk, it swears.' Et cetera. Et cetera.

Now here, I have to put down on-screen what should be blindingly obvious to everyone with half-a-brain. I love doing what I do for a living. I am pathetically grateful to any diety that might be listening that I'm a full-time freelance writer and not still working nine-to-five (or, in my case usually eight-to-about-quarter-past-four) in an employment office in Newcastle as I used to. I long ago accepted the fact that I'm never going to be rich through writing. Just having enough work to let me pay my rent and my other bills, get the weekly food in and have a bit to one side to have a nice holiday once a year and to buy a few DVDs is pretty much going to be my ceiling for the rest of my life ... unless something weird happens like I win the National Lottery. Which is unlikely, frankly since I don't do it.

Added to which, of course, is the perpetual problem of being a freelance writer in the first place. Not only does one have to find the companies to work with but one is then entirely at the mercy of said companies in terms of when, or indeed, if, they pay you.

I have, I must say, been very lucky in my freelance life. Most - indeed, I should probably say almost all - of the people that I've worked for have, by and large, played the game. Including, I feel it necessary to add at this early point, the people whom I'm about to have a damn good moan about in this following piece. This is not, trust me, a specific game of point-the-finger at any individuals or even any collective organisation. What follows is, merely, a howl of frustration at one aspect of the life I lead and a warning to the curious that if you go down this road, there's a few things you should know in advance.

Read on...

Whenever one agrees to freelance for a publisher one usually does so under certain obligations; delivery of the work to an acceptable standard, to the terms and conditions under which it was commissioned, to an agreed word-count and by a specific deadline. See James Mitchell's comments above, basically.

And that's all totally groovy and, you know, 'tastic. I'm a professional scribbler, that's the field I operate in. Carpenters have, essentially, the same sort of deal with the people that hire them. "I want that coffee table eight-by-four and painted blue and I want it by next Friday."

The hirer, of course, has only - really - one condition to fulfill and it's usually tucked away at something like number seven on the list of terms and conditions in the contract of employment. It normally runs along the lines of: "Payment terms: To an agreed amount, within a maximum of thirty days from receipt of invoice." What that basically means is that you do some work for somebody, you send them a bit of paper that says "please pay me X amount of money for the job that I did for you as per our agreement of X date" and, sometime in the next thirty days, you'll get a cheque or a Bank Credit Transfer from them. And everybody's happy over a job well done.

What could possibly be simpler?

Of course, there are two small problems with this.

Firstly, companies never (or, at least, very seldom) pay within thirty days. On the contrary, they pay at thirty days. They wait until the absolute last day possible and then send the cheque. Now, given that most publishers are based in or around London, they'll stick it in the internal post mid-afternoon and confidently expect that the Royal Mail will get the cheque to its intended destination by 10am the next morning. And, it never does.

The other problem occurs when it never does (which it always never does, if you're following this). What, exactly, does the freelancer do then?

Does he or she wait for a day just in case there's been a hold up in the mail? In practice, yes, that's usually what you do end up doing. The main reason is that you don't want to piss off your employers by badgering them about something which - to them - will seem really trivial and unimportant.

But, hang on a minute, let's get this straight. You are not badgering them at all are you? You're simply asking for something that is yours by right and that you should have received according to the conditions of a legally binding document, before you had to go to the trouble of badgering them. It is the company who are in breach of contract. Not only is one within ones rights to badger them like Bill the Badger, one is within ones rights to sue their arses into the middle of next week. Like ... somebody called Sue the Suer. Probably.

But, of course, nobody ever does that. It's financially prohibitive for a kick-off but there's a much bigger reason. It's stupid! It would almost certainly mean that the company (or, more likely, the company's lawyers) will say to you "fair enough bonny lad, here's the money we owe you. Now, please kindly sod-off and never darken our door again." It's counter-productive, in other words.

Nevertheless, the frustration can build and tie a knot in your stomach and you start to imagine all sorts of paranoid delusions in which the company have deliberately engineered this exact scenario just so that you will lose your temper and say something in anger that they will be able to use as excuse to get rid of you. (My mother actually asked exactly that question this morning - "do you think they've done this deliberately?" - and if there's one person whom you'd never expect to be into conspiracy theories in a million years, it's yer actual Keith Telly Topping's dear old mam!)

Idiotic, of course. Large companies of this kind simply don't have the time or the inclination to indulge in those sort of head-games. If they want rid of somebody they will simply tell them that they're fired and have done with it. But ... nevertheless, such feeling still crops up every now and then.

Okay then, I can tell that you're waiting to hear specifics and I fully intend to give them to you. I will preface this, however, by saying that the company involved in this particular case, whom I have absolutely no intention of naming (for obvious reasons and some less than obvious ones), have always, in the past, and on most levels played very fair with me. They sought me out to do a specific job for them which I'm doing and thoroughly enjoying. I like the work and I like the commissions they give me which allow me to use my brain a bit more than some of the more straightforward and one-dimensional things I occasionally get asked to do by other employers. They've got no problems with me continuing with my BBC work or with the other freelancing I do. And, here's the most important thing I actually like them. In my meetings with them and in my occasional phone and e-mail contacts they seem nice, friendly and likeable people. There's just one problem, they seem to have a blind-spot when it comes to paying people on time.

For the last two accounting periods (which are four-weekly, roughly), my payments have been late. The first one was due to an invoice having gone missing somewhere between one desk and another in Company Central. It was only discovered when, two weeks after it was due, I queried it.

Fine, these things happen. Nobody's perfect and a bit of paper in an office that size can easily go astray. And that one was only a very small payment anyway. No harm done.

A month later the next cheque didn't arrive on the due date which was a Friday. Since leaving this for a day and then nothing turning up would have meant a whole weekend would have gone by before anything could actually be done, I e-mailed the finance department to find out if there was a problem and was told that the person who signs the cheques was off that week and would be back on Monday, would it be okay if it was sent then?

Again, I said yes that was fine. After all, what else could I say other than "I don't care if he's in the Galapogos Islands, I was due payment today and if I don't get it today I'm going to sue you?" Which, for reasons explained above (plus the fact that it's a hideous over-reaction) I didn't want to do. So, I bit my tongue and replied in the positive and, sure enough the cheque did, indeed, turn up. Eventually. On the following Wednesday. Because, as previously noted, virtually anything posted in London on a particular day will not make it to Newcastle by the following day.

It is, after all two hundred and seventy miles away. (The usual reason given by the Post Office for non-arrival of Newcastle-based post, incidentally, is that the carrier-snail employed to take an envelope towards its destination has had a blow-out on the M1.)

Which brings us to this month.

Now, here we hit a slight problem. This week, of all weeks, is one where I really couldn't afford not to have been paid (if you see what I mean). It was one of those weeks that you get, maybe once every eighteen months where literally everything, in terms of payment, is due at once within the space of something like four or five days: Rent, gas, electric, telephone bill, national insurance contributions, passport renewal, VISA, council tax, you name it, it's due and it's due this week.

That's the way it happens sometimes and, luckily, on the Friday before this week there was this cheque for eight hundred and forty quid due to me for work that I carried out in September and October. Marvellous timing.

Except that, of course, the cheque didn't arrive on Friday.

You just knew that was coming, right? I kind of expected it myself, if truth be told.

I e-mailed the finance department and was told that it had definitely gone out on Thursday. So, I thanked them and waited. It didn't arrive on Saturday either. Nowt much I could do about it so I spent the weekend planning out the fourteen visits that I would make on Monday after having cashed the cheque. Rent office first, then the post office then...

Monday morning. 8:45am. Knock on the door. It's my hard-worked postie with a couple of packages, a copy of Pirates Of The Caribbean 2 on DVD (nice!) and a couple of bits of junk mail.

But no cheque.

Was I angry? Actually, no I wasn't (which surprised me as much as, I suspect, it's surprising you,dear blog reader). I was actually ... upset. I'm mean, genuinely, upset. Because, like many people I suspect I really hate chasing people for money that I'm owed. A mate of mine makes a very good living out of it - he's a credit controller - but I loathe it. I find it embarrassing. I find it degrading and humiliating to have to go cap in hand to people and say in a Michael-Palin-doing-Arthur-Pwety-voice "excuse me, I'm very sorry to trouble you but that money which you owe me still hasn't arrived and..."

Like many people with little or no backbone, I will then find myself being pathetically grateful when said money eventually does turn up (late) and often end up apologising to those who've kept me waiting for my own gasping nature when what I should, actually, be saying is "it was YOUR BLOODY FAULT that I ended up having to make three phone calls/e-mails querying this, why the hell should I feel bad about it?"

Again, though, all of that paranoid stuff goes through ones head; has this been deliberately engineered to try and send me a message? At what point, exactly, should I bring out the "legal and binding contract" bit that'll almost certainly see me unemployed next month but will, hopefully, at least get this invoice cleared? Do I, and here's something that really does have potentially far-reaching implications, withhold my labour until the debt has been paid? Do I, in effect, say to the company, "yeah, I'll do the two articles to want from me this week. I'll do them just as soon as that payment's gone into my bank account"?

Dangerous ground.

Anyway, the long and the short of it was that yesterday afternoon I got a reply from the finance office saying .. well, saying "it's been sent" again essentially. That was pretty much it. Ball's now in my court, seemingly.

Tuesday morning. No post. I mean, not a sausage.

This time, I'd had enough. I e-mailed the company and informed them that this is now "beyond a joke" (I used those exact words, which I regret with hindsight as they seem flippant when what I really wanted to say was "look, I'm a fair guy, a reasonable but there's only so much of this crap I can take and you're testing my patience to the limit"), that the payment I was due to receive by - at the absolute latest - last Friday is now five days overdue and that they are in "active breach of contract." I stopped well, well, well short of threatening any legal action but I did explain to them that this is the third month in a row that my payment has not arrived on time and that I am,frankly, 'a bit narked by this malarkey'.

Concluding I asked, politely, if it would be possible for them to put a stop on the cheque that they claim to have sent on Thursday. (Now, I use to words "claim to have", I should add, not because I don't believe that they did send I but, until such times as the envelope arrives containing a postmark stating "16 November" I have no positive proof one way or t'other) And I further requested that they instead place the money into my account by Bank Credit Transfer. This, I did realise, would mean that even if they could do this today (which, it turned out they could), the payment would take a maximum of four working days to actually enter my account so that it could well be as late as Friday (or, if I'm really unlucky - and given my luck these last few days who would bet against it - next Monday) before I'm able to draw on it.

Several hours later I received a, frankly rather terse, e-mail stating that this had now been done. It also noted several suggestions re future invoices that involved Bank Credit Transfers instead of cheques (fine by me), having invoices in by certain days so that payment can be made ON certain days (again, fine by me) and one or two other bits and pieces. The impression that I got from the tone of the e-mail was that they were not best pleased that I'd been pestering their finance department for three days when they, clearly, had more important things to do. As I, kind of, always expected their attitude would be. After all, what's eight hundred and forty knicker to a multi-million-pound company? Understandable, I guess, if a bit predictable.

It was even suggested that the tone of my e-mails to them had upset them. Sadly, the one thing that the e-mail didn't include was one line that I had expected even if it wasn't meant. "We are sorry for any inconvenience that you've been caused."[*] Which one would, perhaps, have expected to have been the most common of courtesies. I replied, with extreme brevity agreeing to the proposals made. I didn't - and I'm proud of myself here - waffle on, apologise for having taken up their time, or express any gratitude for the BCT having been done today.

In the meantime, of course, I'm still carrying on working for this company and, indeed, was commissioned for a couple more pieces on Monday evening, right in the middle of all this.

I did I have to confess, for about five seconds, think about replying to this e-mail of commission from the editor with a note that said "yes, I'll do these but It might be oh, I dunno, four or five days late in delivering. You know what the postal system is like these days..." But again, that would have been childish and idiotic.

I'm a professional and one (should) always act in a professional manner when it comes to dealing with commissions. If someone has been kind enough to ask one to do something for them (and they are doing me a favour as much as I'm doing them one) then one should do what I've been asked to do, to the best of ones ability. To agreed specifications. On time. For money.

James Mitchell, his dad, my dad and, hopefully, every other freelancer that's even laid fingers on a keyboard(and, their various dads), would be proud.

[*] Just a quick footnote to add that shortly after writing all this up I did, indeed, receive a further e-mail from the company apologising for any inconvenience. And, I like to think (and I mean this genuinely) that they did that because they actually meant it and not because I had expressed surprise in my previous e-mail to them that they hadn't done so already.

Anyway, for any budding freelance writers out there. You have days like this, it's part of the life. You accept it, you make your point, sometimes (if you're lucky, as in this case), you agree to differ, kiss and make up and move on. It's a perpetual process though it's one that, unless you're really thick-skinned you never, quite, get used to.

But, if you want the life, you take the stuff that goes with it.

You didn't mention that, James Mitchell, you Godlike genius, you...

Current reading:
Carol Clerk: Pogue Mahone: The Story OfTthe Pogues
Terry Jones: Chaucer's Knight
John Fisher: The Tommy Cooper Story

Current listening:
The Pogues: Rum Sodomy & The Lash
Paris Angels: Sundew
Noel Gallagher & Gem: Live In Toronto (radio broadcast)
PIL: Metal Box
Goodbye Mr McKenzie: Good Deeds & Dirty Rags

Still waiting to receive from play.com:
The new Who CD (haven't got a clue what the hold-up is there)

And, finally, a quick shout-out to Clay and Kim in LA. Get well soon, kids (Kim more than Clay but, hey, if you can do two at once, why not?!)