Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Comparing Accounts, by Julia Jones

Herbert & Margery Allingham
Herbert Allingham in 1913. Professional writer. Still calling himself a journalist rather than an author, living in apparent style in a redundant Essex rectory. Rent £50 pa, no running water and trouble with the drains (serious, typhus-threatening trouble which his older daughter, Margery, had been lucky to survive). Separate accomodation for the children. Employment for various locals – a gardener/handyman, a cook and a maid. New baby due in the summer and a succession of governesses for the older two children who would soon be packed off to weekly boarding schools when they'd driven the last one away. Friends and family coming down to Essex from London and staying days or weeks at a time. A donkey cart for transport – plus stroppy attendent moke.

How could Allingham afford all this? He had started the new year in full flow, writing three different serials for three comic-and-story papers owned by the Harmsworths' Amalgamated Press: that's three separate weekly instalments of approximately 4,000 words each, for which he would earn between £12 and £16 per week. Two of the serials were nearing their end and soon there were leaner months when fewer words were produced and only £4 or £5 arrived from the AP each week. Allingham was fortunate in that he was usually able to supplement his household income by writing promotional copy for hair products and indigestion remedies, thus regularly earning an extra £20 per month from an advertising agency run by his father and brothers. After the new baby was born in June 1913 he assisted his wife Emmie as she wrote her first weekly serial, A Work-Girl's Love Story for the Allingham family paper, The Christian Globe. This earned them £54 but wasn't paid until the following April.

"It's hard to earn a living"
By 1913 Allingham had been working continuously for the Amalgamated Press for five years and was building up a stock of long drama-stories and a good supplier relationship. 1913, however, was the first year in which the AP editors began systematically reprinting Allingham's serials instead of commissioning new work. They were always retitled and there were sometimes name changes for the hero and heroine. It was all legitimate business as Allingham retained the copyrights but the stories were, of course, much cheaper second time around. Good for the Amalgamated Press: not so good for the author. His income that summer fell to around £40 per month, instead of £60 - £70 and it must have been a financial relief when his AP editors commissioned a new serial, Human Nature, in the autumn of 1913. This, though he didn't know it, would run until the spring of 1916 (with a major change of direction in September 1914 to accommodate the outbreak of World War One).

Advertising copy for his father's agency and serials for the Amalgamated Press earned Allingham around £750 in the calender year 1913. By the standards of the time this was a lot. Not so much with a rectory to support. When Allingham and his family had first moved out of London in 1909 he had earned £550 partly from the Harmsworths and also from a wider range of low paid journalism and copy-writing. Devoting himself to his new bosses had initially proved worthwhile: Allingham's popularity sent circulations up: his editors were encouraged to start new papers; he was encouraged to write new serials. He even negotiated a pay rise. From just under £600 in 1910, his income had jumped to £1100 in 1911 and £1200 in 1912.

Allingham never saved any money. His family grew, the household grew. The unforseen drop in income in the late spring of 1913, when the AP editors began buying his reprints instead of commissioning new work, could have been a disaster. In fact he saved the situation towards the end of the year by negotiating with a firm of publishers' agents who smoothed the way to deals with the periodical publisher John Leng, a Dundee-based company that was already imperceptibly merging with its competitor D.C Thomson. Allingham never enjoyed working for 'the North'; they drove a harder financial bargain than the Harmsworths and he found their editors duller and more dicatatorial. Nevertheless, in the difficult years ahead, this steady alternative income stream would keep his family solvent. In December 1913 an additional £250, paid as a lump from the agents, bought Allingham's annual earnings back to the magical £1000.

I start 2013 with a dual perspective. I completed and published Fifty Years in the Fiction Factory: the working life of Herbert Allingham, 1867-1936 in October 2012 then moved, almost immediately, to selecting and organising the blogposts that comprise Sparks: a Year in E-Publishing, The Authors Electric Anthology 2011-2012. Here are two small slices of publishing history both presented from the writers' point of view. (One of the justifications for Fifty Years is that Allingham's working life represents many other anonymous and forgotten writers of his period.) The differences between Allingham's experience and the contributors to Sparks are glaring and they are not primarily financial. It may be true that few members of Authors Electric are currently able to employ cooks and governesses but one only has to read through the Notes to Contributors section of Sparks to realise how many of us are earning our livings via a mixed writing economy -- occasional journalism, a few contracts with commercial publishers, rights sales, forays into editorship as well as what we hope will become the growing market of independent self-publishing. I will freely admit, for myself, that I am the Emmie to my partner's Herbert and were it not for his regular freelance journalism (no, he doesn't write advertising copy for indigestion remedies) we would almost certainly have to dispense with the donkey cart.

During a long wait in the doctors surgery this morning with one of our children, I amused myself by running through the Sparks table of contents and considering Allingham's comparative position on each one. No, he didn't have to multi-task as we do: his job, once he was committed to serial-writing, was to plug on day after day, never get ill, never take a holiday, please his editors and deliver on time. There was no thought that he might write 'for himself'; neither was there any direct contact with his readers. His job was to entertain people who he would never meet (either virtually or in person) and who would never even know his name. No blog-tours, Facebook promos or school-visits for Allingham. Writer's block would have been an unthinkable disaster and Multiple Publishing Disorder would need to be kept a closely guarded secret.

There is one aspect of similarity that we might like to consider and that is the power of our principal e-publishing customer. Allingham was born in the year Karl Marx completed the first volume of Das Kapital and it was illuminating to observe the periodical publishing world evolving through the stages of capitalist accumulation and centralisation until, by the time Allingham was comfortably ensonced in his decaying Essex rectory, the 'genie' of the Harmsworth Amalgamated Press (to use the words of his fellow writer, school story supremo, Frank Richards) had 'overspread the whole horizon' and almost all the alternative periodical publishing houses had been taken over or forced into liquidation.

Asteroth by Adam Price (Sparks)
I came home at last from the surgery and checked my emails. There was the regular update from Digital Book World Daily Another Contender to Knockout Heavyweight Amazon? The writer of the article seemed hardly able to stifle a disbelieving yawn. And the second leader? Meanwhile, Amazon's Stock Price Hits All-Time High and the third Amazon Making UK Indie Authors Rich.While this brings glorious optimism (and while Susan Price's 'Mighty Amazon' remains one of my favourite Sparks contributions) we might just remember Herbert Allingham in 1913 (if we haven't already read Brand Loyalty by Cally Phillips) and reflect that, for all the Nooks and Kobos, there isn't yet a John Leng / DC Thompson fall-back alternative in the indepedent e-publishing world. Perhaps we'd all better hang on to those nitty-bitty alternative sources of income. Anyone need a hair-restorer promo written?




6 comments:

Bill Kirton said...

A pleasure to read. I was noting some of the parallels with today myself as I was reading but your eventual linking of Allingham's activities with those of the Sparks contributors gave it an even sharper focus. I myself am at present earning money by setting aside the WIP and writing DVD scripts about cleaning up oil spills. Oh frabjous day!

julia jones said...

That's a pretty slick fall-back! Thanks Bill

Mark Chisnell said...

Great job, Julia, things change, but they don't really...

Lydia Bennet said...

great post Julia, very interesting. My daughter, jobseeking, was just showing me a job ad for a 'creative writer' but it was to write copy for marketing an unnamed product by an unnamed company, all very vague. What products would we be willing to do this for? Personally I'd not do anything involving getting people to borrow money at huge APR for starters (nicholas parsons and carole vorderman, hang your wealthy heads in shame). I'd advertise Weetabix, though because I eat them every day! Interesting how back in the day Allingham and others would write anything in a workmanlike way regardless,in one way praiseworthy lack of diva behaviour and pretentiousness, in another, perhaps blinkered. I might do my next blog as a continuation of this thought...

Ann Evans said...

Really interesting and enjoyable post, Julia. Fascinating to see what the going rates were back in 1913. And as Mark commented, things don't really change in the writing business, it's still full of highs and lows.

CallyPhillips said...

Hi,
Coming late to the blog because I'm back in the 19th century all day these days (thanks in part to Allingham) The insights from FYFF are a daily boon to me as I plough through periodicals and learn more strange and startling things about 19th century publishing wars. Currently trying to find out the religious persuasion of Thomas Longman 1880s!

Then I read this blog and realise I'm earning less than Allingham all those years ago. Ouch! So we don't all become ebook millionaires then eh - no one told me that LOL.

And the final thought is that the writing for hire world of Allingham is very much like the world of tv writer today and quite different from that of the 'literary' author or novelist. I became a 'screenwriter' in the 1990s because when I did my research I worked out it was the ONLY way I could earn a regular living as a writer (journalism wasn't for me) and so it's proved. I've managed to go downhill all the way. A good spell writing for 'advocacy' notwithstanding I have only turned to fiction when I don't 'need' the money any more - which in the event is just as well!!! But it's good to remind ourselves that yes, nothing really changes in the larger picture and if we could only remember that most of what we do/think/are doesn't amount to a 'hill of beans' we might be better off emotionally if not financially!
Thanks Julia. For FYFF and for your posts. Keeping me on track. Now. Back to 19th century for me. Can't say I'm sad, infinitely preferable to 21st cyberspace!!!