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Dispirited but not defeated

I don’t know about you, fellow freelancers, but the past eight weeks have felt like “The Twilight Zone” when it comes to getting paid.

Only you know that the problem won’t end after a 30-minute episode.

At first, I chalked it up to The August Doldrums: you know, editors and publishers going on that elusive thing called “vacation” while you continue to sit, fingers to keyboard, filing assignments and checking accounts to see if those outstanding invoices have been paid.

Once the calendar flipped its page to September, I was ready to follow up. With nearly $9,000 of unpaid invoices, most of which represented work filed months ago, I set aside time in my hectic reporting and writing schedule marked “INVOICE F/U.”

That “F/U” is for “follow-up,” in case you were wondering. I know- the temptation to read a double entendre into that is real.

I always feel resentful about spending time chasing down money I’m owed. It’s time for which I’m not getting paid, spent on work for which I’m owed, taking time away from new work that could be getting done, asking for something I shouldn’t have to ask for because I’ve followed all the rules and have honored my end of contractual agreements. But I suck it up, send out inquiries, pull up and reattach invoices “for your quick reference and convenience,” and look at what kind of crazy mathematics I have to pull off to cover my own obligations while I wait to get paid.

But this September has, thus far, been particularly bad. A publisher who owed $3,200, separated into two invoices, paid one invoice but not the other. When I followed up, they were surprised. There was another invoice? Well, yes. Yes, there was. Another publisher lost my invoices: could I send them again? And a third promised, repeatedly, that “payment was being processed this week,” only this week turned into three weeks, and no, I still haven’t been paid.

The kicker came today, when, after filing an assignment for a reputable outlet for which I’ve written a couple times (and have two more commissions in the pipeline), I wrote accounts payable to check on the status of an invoice filed at the beginning of August. I double-checked our contract: net 30. They were past it. Where was my money? I wrote, politely, to inquire.

What ensued has been an exchange of emails that has left me dispirited and disgusted, but not at all defeated. Many freelancers don’t follow up on payments; others apologize for doing so (“Sorry to be a pest, but I just wanted to check on my invoice, dated months and months ago!”). After the series of exchanges below, I am, more than ever, determined to be both diligent and dogged in pursuit of compensation for my work.

I hope you will feel the same. I also hope you will share this widely. Don’t let others devalue your work. Don’t continue to contribute to a system that doesn’t compensate you for your product; I can think of no other profession that permits this. Feel free to lift any of the language of my own emails and edit them to fit your own situation as you seek the payment you are owed.
**
Email One: From Me to the Accounts Payable Department of the Publisher

“Hello-

My name is Julie Schwietert Collazo and I’m writing to check on the status of an invoice that was filed on or around August 5. The project was [description of project], which was assigned by [name of editor]. The total due was [$xxx.00]. I have not yet received payment for this project; could you please advise regarding the status and when payment can be expected?

Thanks,
Julie”

**
Email Two: From Someone in Accounts Payable Who Did Not Indicate His Position/Title

“Hi Julie: We are currently have a backlog with our freelance payments, we will get payment out as soon as we can. Please be patient and we’ll get you paid. Thank you!”

Upon receiving this, I stepped away from the computer to think. Would I write a “Ok, thanks!” email or would I let him know that no, this wasn’t okay? I thought about it for about 20 minutes and then responded:

Email Three: From Me to Untitled Guy #1 in Accounts Payable

“Hi, [name redacted]. Thank you for the update. Do you have an estimate of when the invoice will be paid?”

Email Four: From Untitled Guy #1 in Accounts Payable

“Not at this time. Sorry.”

Email Five: From Me to Untitled Guy #1 in Accounts Payable

“Dear [name redacted]-

This is an utterly unacceptable response, and one that I find disrespectful and unprofessional. I am not writing for a hobby; this is my profession. Like [name of publisher], I have bills to pay and not a single one of the people or companies waiting for payments from me would accept this type of response.

According to the contract with [name of publisher], it is clearly articulated that your obligation is to pay within 30 days of receiving the invoice. Please see the contract here, if there is any doubt as to that fact.

[I inserted a link to the contract, signed by both parties.]

If I do not receive payment by the close of business on Monday, September 21, I will pursue legal action.

Sincerely,
Julie Schwietert Collazo”

Email Six: From Untitled Guy #2 in Accounts Payable

“Hi Julie,

My apology for the delay in payment. Please understand that the AP team was in no way trying to be rude or disrespectful and we do appreciate the service you provide to our Company. I’d like to talk to you live if you are available this afternoon so we can discuss your invoice and payment. Please let me know if you are available after 2pm PST and if [my phone number, redacted] is still a valid number to reach you at.

Thanks,
[name of guy #2 from Accounts Payable, who also doesn’t indicate his title]”

Email Seven: From Me to Untitled Guy #2

“Dear [name redacted]-

Thank you for your prompt reply. I’d rather receive explanation and next steps/payment schedule via email so that we have mutual documentation.

Sincerely,
Julie Schwietert Collazo”

Email Eight: From CFO of Publishing Company to Me

“Julie,

[Name redacted] forwarded your email to me. I’m happy to jump on a call to discuss, but we will not discuss via email. Sorry if that is an inconvenience for you, but I’ve found email insufficient to discuss payment matters. Please let me know a good day/time/number to call you.

Best,
[Name redacted]”

Email Nine: From Me to CFO

“Dear [Name redacted]-

I’m not sure why you find email ‘insufficient’ for discussing payment matters; as far as I’m concerned, I only want to know when you intend to process payment and whether this problem with paying freelancers will continue, as I have another invoice I’ll be submitting for a work filed yesterday and I have two more assignments pending. If you are insistent that you must call, please be aware that I will record the conversation, which is legal under New York State law.

You are welcome to call me at [number redacted] anytime after 8 AM tomorrow. After tomorrow, I will be out of the country on assignment and without phone and Internet for 10 days, so I ask that this issue be resolved as quickly as possible.

Thank you.”

Email Ten: From CFO to Me

“Julie,

I’m sorry, we will not consent to being recorded. If you’d like to discuss payment without recording, please let me know; otherwise, we’ll tender payment when able.

Best,
[Name redacted]”

Email Eleven: From Me to CFO

“[Name redacted]-

I’m not asking for your consent. New York law clearly indicates I’m within my rights to record a call, with or without your consent.

It’s clear to me that you and your colleagues don’t intend to act honorably; you’ve made a clear-cut situation far more complicated than necessary, and your contract is absolutely clear about the terms of payment. If I do not near from you by tomorrow, whether by email or phone, with a specific plan of action and timeline for payment, I will initiate legal action.

Sincerely,
Julie Schwietert Collazo”

Email Twelve: From CFO to Me

“Julie,

I understand your frustration on payment (I would be frustrated if I were in your position). I would like to discuss it with you. Payment issues happen in business from time to time. When they occur, they are not necessarily (and absolutely not in this case) a function of dishonorable behavior or deceit. We had a significant partner file bankruptcy, which has created this issue. We are working through it. You will be paid in full. If you would like to discuss the timing of this, I am very happy to call you to do so. But, I am in California, which does not allow recording conversations without consent. I do not consent to being recorded. If you want to discuss your payment without recording, I am standing by to do so. If you do not want to do that, you will still be paid in full.”

Email Thirteen: From Me to CFO

“[Name redacted]-

I certainly understand that ‘payment issues happen in business from time to time.’ I’ve been a business owner and, of course, as a freelancer, I’m frequently in the unfair position of being put at the mercy of a publisher’s ‘payment issues’… though I doubt you or others on staff absorb the similar–and very real– tangible, literal costs of such issues. Nor does your landlord, electric company, or Internet service provider, I’m sure, wait until issues resolve for you to pay them. Yet [name of publisher redacted], like too many publishers, expects freelancers to bear the brunt of the effects of problems they didn’t create. And, unfortunately, too many freelancers don’t assert themselves because they’re afraid they’ll never get paid, or that they’ll ‘burn bridges,’ a ridiculous notion, considering that they’re not the one who caused the problem.

It’s not unreasonable to want to be paid according to the contract we both signed. In addition, what continues to confound is: (1) why you would feel it is at all ethical to allow editors to continue commissioning freelance content in the midst of such problems (which clearly don’t have a resolution), and (2) why you wouldn’t inform freelancers who are due money what the generalities of the problem are, detail how it affects them, and present them with a reasonable resolution, one that has a timeframe attached to it. That’s fair and professional business.

I am not willing to have an off-the-record phone conversation. You can expect to hear from my lawyer.

Sincerely,
Julie Schwietert Collazo”

and his final reply, which will not be met with a response from me, other than the one I’ve clearly indicated is my recourse:

“Understood. Please put him or her in touch with me. Happy to discuss with them.

Best,
[Name redacted]”

The Downside of Digital Projects

Apologies in advance; this first post of 2015 might be a bit of a downer. Nonetheless, for those of us who have at least one foot in the digital world–and most of us do–it’s worth talking about the downside and drawbacks of digital projects. Moreso, it’s worth talking about how to protect yourself and your work in the digital world.

I was already thinking about this before I met, earlier this week, with a colleague who is a digital content director for a major media brand. “My outlook is bleak,” she said, as we talked about click-bait articles that are sensationalized and not fact-checked and lamented how often digital “strategy” is determined by variables like number of social media followers rather than a writer’s or subject’s actual skills or interests. We talked about the never-ending to-do list of the media property she oversees, a site that could have way more views and engagement–the end-game of any website–but which is crippled by limited staff, micromanagement by people who pretend to know a lot about the digital space but have little actual fluency in digital media, and, she admits, her own flagging motivation.

The real reason I’ve been thinking about this subject though is because so much of my own digital work has been lost or is beyond my own control. Click on any of the links on my published works page and you’ll find that far too many of them generate 404 errors. As editors learn more about how user engagement works, they rewrite URLs or rename stories, and, poof!, my article is floating around in space. But maybe I can’t find it and fix the link (a time-consuming task even if it is discoverable) because the search function on the same website has disappeared completely (the elimination of search functions is one of the worst ideas ever, by the way).

Then there’s the phasing out and shutting down of platforms. If you’re one of those folks who crows about digital’s advantage over the supposedly dying medium of print, check yourself: have you been keeping tabs on how many online properties–even legit, big-name properties with big-time funding and old-school media brands behind them– have turned off the lights and pulled the plug? The New York Times regularly eliminates blogs it has invested time, money, and staffing in nurturing. So does The Washington Post, as my friend and colleague Tracie Powell reported recently for All Digitocracy. And my own former employer, Matador Network, recently decided to eliminate its community blogs, which were the platform many of its writers used to get started in the field. If writers didn’t back up their own work, it was scrubbed from the site and their servers. Fortunately, I’d anticipated that possibility and made print copies of all my past work a few years ago, but the investment of time was hours, as there was no native back-up system that writers could use.

Other downers? Digital editions of print magazines pull their archived issues after a certain period, decide to put them behind a paywall, or another publisher acquires them and they disappear from the Internet in a flurry of renaming and rebranding. Your work gets copied and pasted by someone who knows more about SEO than journalism, perhaps attributing your work to himself or herself or some invented “author,” and it gets more page views, praise, and pennies than your own piece did.

And those are just for starters.

Most recently, I’ve been confronted with a dilemma related to mobile apps. Back in 2010, I signed on to an app development project, the promise of which was that with a core group of talented writers, many of whom had bona fides from the print world, we’d be able to corner the travel app market, which was still young. For me at least, that promise wasn’t realized, and my app never made much more than $20 a month, a sum that never compensated for the time invested in the making and marketing I did for it.

Now the company that owned the platform upon which the app was built and maintained is defunct. When it folded, the ability for authors to access the back-end of their apps–the place where updating is done–disappeared while the business partners tried to figure out the answer to “What next?”. They still haven’t resolved the question, at least not for authors, who have been left hanging, along with their reputations. Our names are associated with guides that are outdated, yet we have no control over those guides. Several writers have pulled their apps from iTunes since they, like I, don’t want their names on out of date material they can’t correct. Others have said that the decision to scrub the considerable amount of work they did just makes them sick to their stomach and they can’t bear to hit the delete button because… where does all that effort go? {Please, don’t answer that question.}

I don’t sit around lamenting or worrying excessively about any of these scenarios or situations; after all, the bumps and jostles are part and parcel of figuring out a media landscape that is changing constantly. I haven’t even taken care of certain tasks that may be within my control, such as ferreting out those broken links and finding the new ones that replace them, because frankly, that’s not the best use of my time. I need to be generating new, paying work.

That being said, I do think there are certain precautions and protections that we can take when exploring new digital opportunities. Here are a few that come to mind based on my own experiences:

1. Get a contract. Read it.
For new and emerging media especially, it’s important that you temper your enthusiasm about the platform by ensuring that you’re holding it to the same standards of professional treatment that you expect of traditional media. If you’re offered the opportunity, for example, to develop an app, make sure that you receive, review, and sign off on a contract first. One important clause of that contract should address what happens if the developer goes bottom up. Where does your content go? Can you control it? What kind of money are you entitled to?

2. Ask about the monetization plan.
So many Internet ventures are launched on a wing and a prayer rather than a solid foundation and, crucially, a monetization plan (much less a viable one). For most players online and in the digital space, it’s getting harder to make money online, not easier. If you’re a writer or journalist who wants to make a living from your work, don’t accept “exposure” in exchange for some pay-off, whether that’s actual cash or equity, down the road. It’s rare for that pay-off to come. There’s nothing wrong with asking about a project’s monetization plan. You may not need proprietary specifics, but you do need to feel comfortable that the people steering the ship have a clue about what they’re doing and that you’ll be compensated appropriately for your work.

3. Back up everything.
Don’t rely on editors or publishers to keep digital proof of publication for you. If your work is destined for an online or digital outlet, find a way to preserve it. Maybe that’s a PDF, maybe it’s a hard copy of your article, or maybe it’s a screenshot or a file uploaded to the cloud. Whatever system works best for you, use it.

4. Keep in close communication with editors and publishers.
Keep an eye on your outlets, especially regular ones. When you notice that a site or platform is stagnating, ask about it. If you’re seeing gaps or problems, so is the average user/reader and these may foreshadow the twilight of the project. You’ll want to make sure that you migrate your own content (especially if you haven’t followed through on the preceding tip) before the site goes dark and your work disappears.

5. Confront content scrapers, then move on.
Content scraping–the act of someone else cutting and pasting your work and trying to pass it off as his or her own– is becoming more and more common. When you notice that your work has been stolen, confront the person who did it. Mobilize your network of readers and friends to call out the offending party on social media. And then move on. Otherwise you’ll spend far too much of your time on a battle for which the odds are not in your favor.

What advice do you have to add? Please share your tips in the comments.

What Are Your Writing Goals for 2014?

I used to think the last two weeks of the year were a frightening time for a freelancer: editors gleefully set their “On vacation! See you in the new year!” e-mail auto-responses; accountants throw their hands up and say “Screw it!” to whatever writer invoices remain unpaid once the clock chimes 5:00 pm on December 23; and the writer’s to-do list, meanwhile, becomes a tedious menu of tidy-up tasks. Which articles were accepted but haven’t yet been published (and why?). Who still owes me money? Close out receipts for the tax year. And so on.

I’ve always thought I’d like to take those last two weeks of the year–or a good two days, at least–and head off on a retreat, just me, myself, and I. (My husband laughs. He thinks I’m joking). The goal wouldn’t be to get spiritually centered, though that’s not a bad idea, but to get professionally focused by taking stock of the nearly 12 months behind me. What did I do right? What did I accomplish and of what did I feel most proud? How did I do financially? What could I have done better? Did I work smarter or harder (maybe both)? What did the answers to these questions tell me about how I could strategize for the coming year?^ In the absence of retreating, I do what most working parents do: keep changing the diaper, stirring the soup, and wiping a runny nose while thinking about these things in between preschooler questions like “Mom, what is a bullfrog?” and “Why is an egg called an egg?”.

*
All things considered, 2013 was a pretty successful year. My friend Lisa Rogak reached out to me to work with her on the Pope book, and as of this writing, it has been (or is slated to be) published in 14 countries. I broke into some new outlets (Bespoke, Delta SKY, Emory Magazine, GOOD, Outside.com, Porthole, and Relish) and strengthened editorial relationships and my portfolio by expanding work with other outlets (The Latin Kitchen, National Geographic Traveler). I landed a contract to solo author a guidebook and I did just the right amount of traveling. I’d sold more of mine and Francisco’s work as a package. Editors reached out to me several times rather than the reverse, and I had a steady amount of editing work straight through December 31. I’d referred several friends to editors for work and some got into new outlets or landed choice assignments as a result, which always makes me happy. In the midst of it all, I managed to send one child off to pre-school (in NYC, this is far more complicated–and expensive–than you might think) and to give birth to another one (in other words: Mama’s got to keep the cash flow, flowing). And I won a Society of American Travel Writers Lowell Thomas Award for an article I’d written. So yes, I was happy with the year, particularly since the last two weeks of 2013 signaled plenty of promise for the beginning of 2014, too. By the end of December, January’s work slate was full and several solid publications (another piece for Porthole, a feature and profile for The Magazine, a feature for Roads + Kingdoms, and articles for National Geographic Traveler and Saveur) were pending. And I was grateful.

That didn’t mean, however, that I didn’t see room for improvement. I was still spending too much of my life at the keyboard, when I wanted to be playing with my kids or having a meaningful conversation with my husband beyond, “Hey, could you pick up a package of diapers on your way home?” We were doing better financially, but not well enough to feel like we could move to a bigger apartment. I was still (at least in my mind) doing too many service pieces and not enough of the meaty, nuanced, and better-paying features I wanted to be doing. And I was still spending too much of my own money (though I had gotten much better about this) on research expenses. How could I better manage these aspects of the freelance life in 2014?

*
I wasn’t entirely sure how to answer that question definitively, but I started by making a list of the features I wanted to investigate and write in collaboration with Francisco, as well as the potential outlets where they could be a good fit. We’d had a few projects in mind for a long time, but hadn’t pursued them because the cost of doing so seemed a barrier or because I thought we didn’t yet have the portfolio to be able to pitch to the kind of outlets where these pieces could be published. The money was a reality; the portfolio excuse was just what recovering addicts would call “stinky thinking.” We clearly had a solid track record (and that’s why it’s so important to maintain a running list of your published work).

I got rid of the ineffective excuse, then, and started focusing on the money. I didn’t want to keep putting these projects off until some outlet came along, offering to pay expenses, and I didn’t want to bet possible future returns against research expenses accrued now… I’m not a good gambler. Then, a friend’s post about fellowships and grants for reporting popped into my inbox and the answer–so obvious it was embarrassing– was there. A lot of institutions have a lot of money for underreported stories. There’s a lot of competition, too, of course, but if Francisco and I could pull together proposal templates for a few of our top-pick projects, wasn’t it worth the possibility of having funding to spend some time filing applications? The process of doing so has been valuable in its own right, bringing the strengths and gaps of our ideas into sharper focus and helping us get structured and organized for future research and reporting. Soon enough, we’ll see whether the stories we think are important seem of significance to other people, too.

The lesson for you here is simple: Take a minute to take stock. What do you want out of 2014? What do you have to give? What have you been putting off pursuing in your writing or photography career… not because you’re not ready for it, but because you perceive (correctly or incorrectly) that some barrier prevents you from realizing a particular goal? How can you kick that barrier out of the way? Who and what do you need to support you?

Don’t just answer these questions in your head, though that’s a fine place to start. Put them on paper. As with your publication goals and financial goals, which I also recommend writing down so you can see them visibly, physically map out some of those larger project goals and put them in a place where you can see them. Keep yourself focused and reach out for help when you need it. A year passes so quickly. What do you want to be able to say about your work at the end of 2014?

*
For one excellent take on a freelance writer/photographer’s taking stock strategy, please see my friend Lola’s pie chart assessment of her pitching and querying from 2013. She has been tabulating the outcomes of her pitching processes since 2008 and her reflections are insightful.

File under: Don’t ever do this as a writer.

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photo: Zach Inglis
**
There is a reason you should never check your email before you have your first coffee.

Don't read email before you have your coffee. Don't send emails asking for information you haven't proved you deserve.

Don’t read email before you have your coffee. Don’t send emails asking for information you haven’t proved you deserve.

This morning, I woke to a message in my inbox from a writer I don’t know. She didn’t “introduce” herself (as in: “Hi, Julie, I’m _____ ____ and I’m a writer based in ______ who writes about _______. I found out about you through _________ and I’m writing because _________.”), but cut straight to the chase:

“I was commissioned to write a story about PR – any ideas or leads would be so appreciated!”

“PR” is Puerto Rico. I lived there for two and a half years and because I write about it often, I return there frequently.

This was, in fact, the second message I’d received from this writer. Last week she emailed to ask if I had any tourism board contacts on the island. In that message she said that she got my contact information from “Diana” (I know at least 4 Dianas, so I’m not sure which one she’s referencing, since she didn’t use a last name). She didn’t say why she wanted the information… much less persuade me why I should share it with her if I even had it (I don’t).

Writers, please don’t ever do this.

I’m extremely generous with leads, contacts, and ideas… if I know you, if I respect your work, and if I trust that sharing these won’t harm my own reputation. But if you’re effectively cold-calling me to do the work that YOU should be doing and you can’t even introduce yourself properly, don’t expect assistance.

In fact, don’t expect a reply.

I’m going to go have my coffee now.

Is there something I’m missing about Newsmodo?

Text & Screenshots:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
**
When I heard about the launch of the new service Newsmodo, which purports to connect freelancers with outlets that will pay to publish their work, I was excited and made a mental note to test drive the site right away. Besides the obvious benefit–getting paid for work–what interested me about the potential of the platform was its ability to connect the dots between me, a writer based in the US, and editors abroad. And what excited me even more was the “two-way traffic” structure of the site: we writers wouldn’t simply be pitching into the void. Instead, editors would also be trawling the site and looking for stories. The likelihood that I would connect with editors and publications I hadn’t even considered (and possibly didn’t even know about) for certain stories seemed high.

A couple weeks later, I signed up for an account (free for journalists; fee-based for editors, publishers, and producers) and decided to try the service with a story that was timely but hadn’t yet found a home. The first step of the process was simple enough: Enter a headline, assign the story a topical category, provide a summary, and tag the pitch with some relevant keywords.

Step 1 of the Newsmodo process for writers.

Step 1 of the Newsmodo process for writers.

Step 2 was simple enough, too: Geotag the article.

Step 2 for writers.

Step 2 for writers.

So far, the process was clean, clear, and efficient.

And then I got to Step 3.

Step 3 for writers.

Step 3 for writers.

Write the full story? On spec? With no guarantee that an editor will ever see or consider the piece, much less buy it? Why in the world would I do that (even if, as Newsmodo says, only 10% of your written story “will be visible in the Marketplace” as an extract)?

I canceled my upload and signed out.

I can see how the service might be of value to photographers and videographers, whose product is more or less sellable as soon as it’s produced (don’t get uptight, folks; I work in both of these media, too, and I know they require editing and time, too). But to write an entire article, especially feature-length, and throw it into the void seems like a colossal waste of time and energy for writers. And it doesn’t seem to achieve the function of weeding out folks who don’t write well; I saw several extracts on the site that were written by people who had clearly not performed so well in their language arts classes. In other words, there’s no vetting by the Newsmodo management that provides editors with the assurance they’re commissioning material from writers with bona fides of any kind.

There’s been a bit of breathless “THIS is THE future of new media!” hype surrounding the site’s launch, and I’m genuinely disappointed that it doesn’t actually seemed geared to benefiting writers. As well, there’s the issue of setting one’s own prices and Newsmodo’s commission, a 30% cut. While I appreciate the idea of a service that can connect me with editors around the world (and would be willing to pay a commission on stories I’m keen to have published abroad), the idea that a broker might eventually replace direct transactions between editors and writers will take some adjusting to. Finally, there’s the question of efficacy. The site is new, granted, but how many folks are actually selling pieces? And are editors genuinely interested in this kind of platform? Will they use it once the novelty wears off? These are questions that aren’t being asked in the pieces I’ve read about Newsmodo’s launch. (And I suspect that may be because the journalists covering the site’s launch haven’t tried the service out themselves).

Is there something I’m missing about Newsmodo? Have any of you used it? Would you? If so, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

“New York Literary Tea”

Text & Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo

**
I swear, I’m not intentionally reading 1930s-eras essays about the literary life in New York in order to glorify some era I didn’t experience, but between Fitzgerald’s earnings and this Jerry Felsheim entry, “New York Literary Tea,” part of the never-fully-realized America Eats project (and included in Mark Kurlansky’s The Food of a Younger Land), it’s hard not to feel that Depression-era New York was where it was at for writers.

Though Felsheim actually makes fun of the “institution” of literary tea in the piece (at which, by the way, no tea was served), what he isn’t making fun of–and what is lacking in the publishing world today, in many respects–is the impulse for industry members to get together and talk shop, even when it’s gossipy shop. These days, the higher up you are on the publishing ladder, the less you want to socialize in the manner of the literary tea… at least as Felsheim describes it:

Literary "tea"

Literary “tea”

“… Since the publishing world is concentrated in New York, literary teas reach their apex in that city. Their sponsors are usually connected with the business, a publisher trying to put over a new author; an editor celebrating the start of a magazine; or again, just a head hunter parading another celebrity. In Manhattan, literary teas are given upon the slightest provocation….

“…Literary teas are constantly in a state of flux. The uninitiated gravitates toward the author, the author toward the editor or publisher, the publisher toward the reviewer, and the reviewer, in desperation, toward another drink. Since the general rule of conduct is to seek out those who can do one the most good, magazine editors and big-name reviewers enjoy much popularity….

“… Ephemeral as all this may be, however, the modern literary tea has its points. It enables its devotees to renew old friendships and make new ones; it gives the publisher an opportunity to tip off the trade as to which writer he is going to push; it allows the ambitious young author to make contacts with editors; and it gives a great many people entertainment, not to mention free drinks, in the hours before dinner.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald on Writers and Money

What Fitzgerald made on his essays. Read it and weep.

What Fitzgerald made on his essays. Read it and weep.

As I tend to do with all overly hyped things, I’ve been avoiding anything related to The Great Gatsby film… though I confess to having read the absolutely eviscerating review in The Wall Street Journal and A.O. Scott’s exceptional meditation on the movie and much larger themes in The New York Times.

Somehow, though, I found myself checking out a book of essays by F. Scott Fitzgerald this weekend. Actually, it wasn’t coincidental; I was trying to track down the full source of a quote I’d read recently. I wanted to read it within the context of the complete essay.

And so it was that I spent a lazy, rainy Sunday in bed, reading a pair of Fitzgerald pieces about money in My Lost City: Personal Essays, 1920-1940. First up: “How to Live on $36,000 a Year.” The essay is totally tongue in cheek, but as my mother has said to me over and over again throughout the years, “Many a truth are spoken in jest.” In this essay, Fitzgerald explains that he and his wife find it impossible to live on just $36,000 a year. They’ve moved out of NYC proper and into the suburbs, where enterprising city butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers have decamped to take advantage of the status-conscious nouveau riche. The Fitzgeralds must, of course, employ help. And they must make frequent trips back to the city they’ve left in order to remain cultured. At the end of each month, they find they’ve spent $3,000 and can’t rightly account for at least $1,000 of that sum.

Keep in mind, this was in the 1930s. $3,000 was a lot of cash. $36,000 was practically mogul money… especially for a writer.

The essay is funny but also likely to be uncomfortable for many writers, who are notorious for having “money issues,” for being resistant to budgeting (especially when it comes to denying oneself an expense that might produce a story), and for regularly cashing in the meager savings one has managed to accumulate. It’s also oddly poignant to see, through Fitzgerald, how much time we spend waiting to be paid, and how much we pin our hopes and financial plans, such as they are, on the expectation of a particular financial return (that, of course, rarely materializes) for a work that’s “sure to be successful.” At the end of the essay, Fitzgerald is not just broke; he’s in debt. Zelda suggests that “[t]he only thing you can do… is to write a magazine article and call it ‘How to Live on $36,000 a Year.'”

The article was, by his account, received so well that he believed (rightly) it was worth anthologizing. It also warranted a follow-up essay, “How to Live on Practically Nothing a Year,” because, of course, Fitzgerald is now broke and forced to economize.

Well, sort of… to economize in that New York City writerly sort of way, which is to say, subletting out your own home and moving somewhere cheaper for a season. Having heard about the affordability of the French Riviera, the Fitzgeralds pack their suitcases, withdraw $7,000 from the bank, and quite literally set sail. Living frugally on the Riviera, of course, isn’t any easier than living frugally on Long Island and to no one’s surprise but their own, they find themselves broke by the end of the summer.

If it all feels familiar, well, it probably is.

An appendix at the book’s end details the sums Fitzgerald was paid by each of the magazines that originally ran the essays included in the collection. What’s interesting (and disheartening for modern readers who are also writers) is that Fitzgerald really was making bank. Rates have hardly kept apace with what he made between 1920 and 1940… much less been adjusted for inflation and cost of living.

Bottom line: these essays are great. Spot on. Uncomfortably so. Get the book, read the essays, and then, maybe, think a little bit more about your own finances. How can you, as a writer, be more financially responsible?

I mean “me,” of course.