Freelance writers/journalists in general, and wine writers in particular, are feeling the pinch. Our knowledge and opinions are, it seems, still valued but few (magazines, newspapers, publishers, bloggers) want to pay us what we (think we) are worth.
Writers like me have a default setting, that is to blame penny-pinching publishers. They in turn plead that having to compete with “the internet” has hurt/destroyed their bottom line, because the web is loaded with free-to-access influential TripAdvisor-style reviews/ratings which, we are led to believe, are written and given for free but which are not always accurate, let alone impartial. They may even, heaven forfend, be sponsored…
I buy the publisher’s argument, but only up to a point. I recently bought a copy of a well-known pocket wine guide, the latest (2016) e-book edition in fact. The first entry I checked was “organic wine” because this is–for want of a better term–my field of “expertise”.
“Organic wine prohibits sulphur dioxide” the entry read.
This was incorrect. Organic wine can have sulfur dioxide added in the EU, which by the way has more organic vineyards than the rest of the world combined. The EU has its own rules on organics and sulphur [sic] dioxide too, but so does the US where a completely different, and far more complex set of rules for “organic wine” and “wine from organic grapes” and sulphites applies. Did I feel like asking for my money back as a book buyer? Yes.
Did I feel like asking for my money back because I was chippy they did not ask me to contribute? No.
I have contributed to a previous edition of this guide (as a photographer, not as a writer), have written other books for the publisher, know both the series editor and commissioning editor, and the author, all of whom are people you’d easily classify as ‘beyond reproach’, both professionally and personally.
Mistakes happen. But I was surprised the publishers got such a key topic – organics and sulfites – wrong. A law change in Europe relating to “organic wine” and sulphites and which clearly states EU wines from organic grapes can contain sulfites occurred in 2012, well before the 2015 edition of the guide would have gone to press.
Had the publisher asked me to write the entry for “organic wine” (their entry comprises 21 words) they would (I think) have offered me around 50 pounds (maybe more, maybe less–that’s what they paid me for a small photo of a horse ploughing my rented vineyard in France they used a few years ago in a previous edition of this annual guide anyway).
I would have asked for enough space around 80 words (as opposed to the existing 21) in order to explain how and why “organic wine” and “wine from organic grapes” means different things in the EU, the USA and the Rest of the World when it comes to suites.
I contributed several entries to another book recently. I was not offered any money. As I was not offered any money, and as the person behind the book is held in high regard, I (wrongly as it turned out) thought all “minnows” like me would be in the same boat: we write for free so we can leverage the fact that we “have contributed to the multi-award winning [insert name here] book…”.
I am very bad at leveraging. My partner–a chartered accountant–tells me I must be the only bloke to have had his own TV series who has yet to launch his own range of wine glasses, decanters and drop stoppers.
If you don’t ask, you don’t get. I should have asked. But publishers who pay some and not others for doing exactly the same job could be accused of being misguided at best, or less than honest at worst.
Anyway, the point is I put a lot of work into writing my entries for this book–not every contributor was as fastidious as I was, I was reliably informed–and even suggested a brand new entry for this book. In fact, the publishers are even using the presence of the new entry I suggested in their global book-selling PR round. This is because the entry title in question has suddenly become a hot topic on Planet Wine right now (as I predicted it would). It’s a funny feeling knowing you “own” something you haven’t been paid for, when those doing the PR round are getting paid and a cut on sales of every copy sold.
Do I regret not asking to be paid? Yes, I do. But not because I need a few extra hundred pounds (the type of book in question pays shitty rates, way below what even the stingiest magazines pay).
I regret not asking to be paid because had I done so, maybe I would have triple- instead of only double-checked my facts. I had a lot of facts to check because trying to get accurate stats on organics from all over the world is a goat fuck.
My stat for organic vineyards for one south american country is, I think, wrong. But it may, in fact, be right. I know roughly how many hectares of organic wine grape vines this country has, but I think I goofed on what percentage this is of that country’s total wine grape vineyard–as opposed to its wine-and-table grape vineyard (te country has lots of table/juice grapes as well as wine grapes….). I think I am out by a factor of 40% or so. Would I have got it right had I been paid?
Perhaps, because I could have devoted even more time than I already did to the task in hand (around 4 days at least for my contributions as a whole).
But perhaps not. Getting accurate data is difficult; so maybe my stat is right after all–and a stat I saw about this country’s total wine-to-table/juice grape vineyard after the book had gone to press and which has put me in doubt of my own work was perhaps also wrong. And so no matter how much I had been paid or not been paid is irrelevant.
But I am really pissed off with myself about the doubt that is now in my mind. If someone reads what I wrote for no fee, and this someone really is in possession of the 100%, nailed-on correct-as-correct-can-be Argentina figures, they are going to think I am as much of a fucking idiot as the anonymous fucking idiot who was paid to write the organic entry to the wine guide cited above.
And what pisses me off most of all therefore is this. One can work for free–and get it right or wrong.
And one can be paid to write something–and get it wrong, or right.
Just like TripAdvisor? Yes, but only up to a point.
The contents of both of the books I have referred to–both dead tree and e-book versions–are only available to those who pay (TripAdvisor is free access).
So if someone is happy to pay for my (potentially) inaccurate work, I want to be paid for producing (potentially) inaccurate work; so I then have funds to go out and buy (potentially) inaccurate work written by someone else!