The world of authors has been shaken to its core by the weekend revelations that the Inland Revenue are fighting a court case against Richard and Judy, to close a 'loophole' which allows 'celebrities, authors etc' to claim agents' fees as an allowable expense. The Revenue look set to win, at this point, whereupon they intend to claw back the tax on these fees for the previous six years as well. To add insult to profound injury, the Revenue will exempt musicians and actors, because they 'need an agent in order to work.' But not writers. Oh no. We get the shitty end of the stick again. Richard and Judy will no doubt appeal to the House of Lords and that is when all hell will break loose. The Society of Authors is girding up its loins for a fight. And no wonder.
What price Labour's support for the creative industries now?
The problem with being a writer in this benighted country (and I'm talking UK here, and not just Scotland) is that the tabloid view prevails. The general public seem to think that we are all in the JK Rowling or Dan Brown class when it comes to income. Nothing could be further from the truth. Of course I'm talking about real authors here, and not those B list celebrities who suddenly decide that they would like to write a book, find an agent, publisher (and ghost writer) within a matter of days, and then spend countless interviews telling us how it feels to be a writer. Not half as pissed off as this writer, I can tell you. No. I'm talking about those of us who have chosen to make a career out of writing, and then spend the rest of our lives scratching to make a meagre living, and doing all kinds of other jobs just to keep the ravening wolf from the door.
So a few facts for Mr Brown, who really should know better. (And to think I rather liked him as a putative prime minister!)
Writer need agents just as surely as actors or musicians. A quick scan of a publication such as The Writers and Artists Year Book will show you that the vast majority of publishers (I think there are about three exceptions) won't even look at a manuscript any more unless it comes via an agent. Even the three exceptions have slush piles the size of Big Ben. Similarly, almost no TV or film company will look at unsolicited scripts, for fear of being sued for plagiarism. They have a nasty habit of sending them back stamped as 'unread' or not sending them back at all.
The world of creative writing is full of horror stories of writers who have signed contracts without the help of an agent, only to find themselves having signed away all kinds of subsidiary rights.
Our agents are our friends in times of need. Often they act as editors, discussing our work, shaping the way we write, and all of this unpaid until the time when they finally manage to place a piece of writing for us.
When we say that an agent helps us, we are not talking about large sums of money. We are talking about the difference between being offered £500 for an 80,000 word novel, and being paid £2000 with the help of an agent who then takes his or her 10%. According to the Society of Authors, the average working writer manages to earn around £5000 in any one year, of which Mr Brown - not content with his fair cut - is now looking to claw back even more.
As usual, people in the creative industries are soft targets and writers are softer than most. But if we take this one lying down, one wonders what will be next. Other small businesses should take note. If they win this one, the way is open to all kinds of other presently allowable expenses, accountancy fees included. The pen may be mightier than the sword but unless some fairly broad exemptions are made to this ruling, the only solution for many writers will be to do what most of us think about from time to time: give up the unequal struggle and head for a country like Ireland, which (although the tax breaks are not what they once were) actually seems to value its writers, according them a modicum of respect and enthusiasm which - from this side of the water - begins to seem increasingly attractive.