No Further Errors


Angels and ministers of grace defend you: I’m back. That’s me on the R.S. Thomas trail, in his pulpit at St. Hywyn’s in Aberdaron. Years ago I set a scene in this church, having only seen the outside of it in photographs, and it was a real pleasure to finally visit. I often find myself grabbing people by the lapels and quietly recommending they read Byron Rogers’ R.S. Thomas biography, The Man Who Went Into the West. Consider your lapels grabbed. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know who I’m talking about (here’s one of his poems either way), he was quite a character, and you’re always in safe hands with Byron Rogers.

So I’m still here, just, and this seems like as good a time as any to deliver my Annual Report. Things are still messy, and most of it will be a familiar howl of rage about unreliable bookkeeping, so please take the opportunity to move along if that doesn’t sound up your street. It’s all very niche. I’ve kept it to a relatively modest 4000 words, but that’s still far too long for anybody who isn’t obsessed with the minutiae of publishing disputes. If that’s you, I strongly recommend you bail out while the going’s good. For those of you who do read on, I hope this medically necessary release of pent-up fury also provides some entertainment. It is, after all, a very strange story. Film rights are available.

I’ll start with the rotten stuff, and once I’ve had enough of sounding like a broken record I’ll get on to more upbeat topics – including yet more reading recommendations and the eagerly awaited announcement of my coveted Book of the Year award.

Here goes. [And apologies if you’re seeing ads. I’ll save up for an ad-free plan].

Some of you may remember that a few months ago I treated the world to an interminable account of the slo-mo shitshow that is my near-decade-long effort to get a clear picture of my first eight titles’ financial histories from Canongate Books. At the heart of it was the discovery that two large amounts of money due from Timoleon Vieta Come Home had got lost on the way to my bank account; it also touched on the Indiana Jones-esque struggle I had in retrieving them. This piece seemed to strike a chord, and I was able to fulfil every writer’s dream of moaning about their publisher in front of an arena-sized crowd. Let me see your hands!

Unbelievably, yet still somehow predictably, things have gone from bad to worse. More missing money has surfaced, and two more of my beloved books (Anthropology and The Little White Car) have been dragged through the nettles. They paid the latest shortfalls without an explanation for the money having been missing for such a long time, without a word of apology, and without – drum roll – a penny of interest. All this despite the lion’s share dating back to a missed foreign rights payment from fifteen years ago. 0% over fifteen years!!!!! They couldn’t have found a better rate at DFS. After everything that’s happened, in real terms I’m still out of pocket. What a bunch of [I’ll leave you to finish this sentence. Let your vocabulary run wild].

The extent of their explanation for both of these sums was: ‘An overseas rights payment was received, and the author share of £x is remitted to you.’ I had to dig further to find out where in the world these payments had come from, and when they had been due [2004 and 2016, timespan fans]. I don’t know whether this money had been received at the correct time and had been resting in their account ever since, or if it had only just been collected. They didn’t say, but either way it’s hardly ideal. They placed these bland bombshells amid some quite reasonable explanations of straggling e-book royalties; perhaps they thought I wouldn’t notice.

The sums involved are less spectacular this year, hundreds rather than thousands, but the relative amounts are beside the point. Not that they see it this way: last time around, the boss tetchily dismissed as ‘negligible’ the Timoleon Vieta Come Home royalties that I would have received over the preceding few years had they been paying me properly. They may not have been Harry Potter level, but they would have been useful dollops of income nonetheless. One man’s negligible is another man’s coins for the gas meter. I suppose some people are fortunate enough to be unable to grasp this.

When the initial chunks of missing money were admitted to, my main contact was quick to insist that the books’ histories had been comprehensively inspected, grandly declaring: ‘I can confirm that our finance team have been through the accounts for all eight of your titles that we have published since 2003. We can find no further errors.’ This felt like a door slamming in my face. Not having been born the day before, I knew it couldn’t be the full story. No way could they have been through so much data in any meaningful depth in so short a time [as well as their own UK and US editions, they also handled subsidiary rights. I’d set up these deals without an agent, so Canongate Books effectively worked as both management and record company: an arrangement doomed to failure without solid accountancy and open communication]. I’ve asked around the biz, and the consensus is that it takes æons to thoroughly inspect years of international accounts; it’s a specialist job and a colossal ball-ache, yet my questioning of this grand declaration was batted aside by the top brass as though it were histrionics. It’s unsettling to have your intelligence insulted so brazenly, and before a growing audience [their cheeks round with unmelted butter, they stuck to their Oooh-we’ve-looked-everywhere line in front of my new agent and the Society of Authors]. Being on the receiving end of such eerie treatment really does make you question yourself, and I spent a lot of time wondering whether I really was Foolish and Deluded and an Author of No Brain at All. I’ve been vindicated yet again; it wasn’t groundless melodramatics, the accounts hadn’t been checked with anything like the requisite assiduity. For them to ‘confirm’ that they had been was, to put it politely… [I’ve tried and tried, but can’t find a way to put it politely. Feel free to have a go yourself].

I first voiced my misgivings about their accounting in early 2010, so they’ve been dragging this out for longer than The Beatles were together [and considering money’s been going missing since 2004 we’re halfway through Wings as well]. From day one, their reluctance to engage has been profoundly creepy, and so has the way they’ve consistently tried to shut this down on their own terms, without any scrutiny from outside their inner sanctum.

[Seriously, publishers – I know I’ve said it before, but everything goes to the dogs when the sums don’t add up. Paying your authors correctly is central to what you do; though it may pain you to hear it, it’s even more important than swanning around book festivals in a Panama hat. If you’re ever found to have made error after error, and have even tragicomically described some of your own bean-counting as ‘bogus’, you shouldn’t blame the underpaid author for feeling that you’ve forfeited the credibility to police yourselves. You really must do what you should have volunteered to do straight away and commission an external audit. It shouldn’t be up to the author to chase this. It’s hardly their fault that you’ve lost your grip on cash flow, and you can’t realistically expect them to be content with a ham-fisted in-house whitewash in lieu of a credible investigation. Facing up to your responsibilities may not be cheap, but when wayward accounting comes back to haunt you there’s going to be a price to pay. And besides, it’s not as if you won’t benefit from this process – it’ll help you to work out where things have been going wrong, and how you can stop this from happening again. As it’s very unlikely that a lone author would have been on the receiving end of so many irregularities while nobody else had, it will also give you a valuable opportunity to widen the investigation and find out whether anybody else had been underpaid over the years, and if so to return their money with fulsome explanations and heartfelt words of contrition, along with – all together now – appropriate interest. All this would help you to make sure you’re on top of your own finances before, say, buying out any other publishing houses. If you look at it that way it’ll be money well spent, and the expense of the exercise can easily be recouped by indefinitely cancelling all management pay rises and bonuses. You may have to suffer the ignominy of withdrawing from one or two of your truffle syndicates, but don’t blame the authors for this. They aren’t the ones whose bookkeeping is all over the shop; they are guilty only of having had faith in you to be running a tight ship moneywise.]

I’ve lost count of the times the grandees of Canongate Books have huffily insisted that my accounts are in order, only for a wad of my wages to be found down the back of their sofa. Sometimes it’s a few quid, sometimes hundreds, and sometimes thousands. It’s become farcical, and I can’t help wondering whether there’s any more down there. Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t. How could I know? If I hadn’t gone in with a chainsaw and a thousand-yard stare, stacks of my earnings would never have reached me. And since the headline figures are still throwing up discrepancies, heaven only knows what could be lurking in the depths. Not great wealth, I know that, but possibly some more money that is mine, not theirs.

They are too maddening an entity to deal with directly though, and experience has taught me that there’s no point when so much of what you get back is either silence or hogwash, so I’ve been getting myself lawyered up. We’ll see how that goes – maybe Judge Nutmeg will get to the bottom of it with his Wheel of Justice. It’s early days, and these things take time. [***UPDATE***  – thanks to one thing and another – not least this contract being subject to Scottish Law, my adventures in litigation have ground to a halt. It’s back to brute force and ignorance.] It took the Sex Pistols until 1986 to sort out their finances with Malcolm McLaren. He could have wound it up years sooner, but chose not to. I don’t know what it is with these bushy-haired impresarios, but they seem hell-bent on making life unnecessarily complicated for everybody, themselves included, while, in their obduracy, turning what ought to be a swiftly-dealt-with private financial squabble into a never-ending public pantomime. Under coherent and humane directorship, a mortified Canongate Books would have taken steps to end this fairly and unequivocally the moment the first batch of missing money was discovered. Instead they erected a wall of gammon around the heart of the matter, got all defensive, bamboozled me with baffling and sometimes conflicting figures, insisted they’d looked everywhere when they clearly hadn’t, tried to get away with paying a rotten rate of interest, and did all they could to bundle me out of the building with reams of pertinent questions unanswered. This pile-up left me with the choice of either curling into a ball or going apeshit. It didn’t require a great deal of deliberation. In their wisdom, the senior managers appear determined to string this out for as long as they can. It must be very odd for any normal people who work there to watch the paisley-clad plutocrats at the top table carrying on this way. The more I think about it – and I think about it all the time – the more of a cheese dream it seems. I’ve viewed this from every angle, and every time the way they’ve handled this looks heroically indefensible. What do they teach them at those horrible schools? There must be a reason for their modus operandi. Maybe they’re enjoying it. As the man said, people are very strange these days.

I told you I was angry, and that this was going to be long, so no complaining.

Having payments still coming in from The Little White Car was particularly jarring, as I’d retrieved that title’s rights in high dudgeon a few years ago after finding, by chance, that Canongate Books’ US arm had put out a completely distinct edition without telling me. They wouldn’t explain how that edition had come to be, or why I hadn’t been told about it: all the more reason for the forthcoming audit to be thorough and global. While I’m here, it’s worth emphasising that as bizarre as all this seems, I’m not making it up – I’ve taken pains to make sure it’s all there in our shared paper trail, even the stuff that reads as if it’s heavy-handed satire: the bogus line, and the negligible one, and their shimmering centrepiece: We can find no further errors. [It’s a good word, bogusBogus. To camera: Bogus.]

I’m not the only author to have been on the receiving end of financial irregularities. At the other end of the pay scale, over at Hesperus Press, Jonas Jonasson discovered that things were not as they should have been; in this article he puts very well the disorientating feeling that comes with such a situation, and how sad it all is. [It’s a particular kind of awfulness to think of the good people I’ve worked with at Canongate Books over so many years. I had dealings with tons of awesome humans – hard working, talented, communicative, conscientious, and a good laugh down the pub – none of whom would have had anything to do with this shambles.] Hesperus author Roma Tearne’s comments about the resultant uncertainty resonate too: ‘More than anything I want the book to live.’ It’s not just about losing money; the real heartbreak lies in watching a book, or books, that you’ve poured everything into being torpedoed. Jonasson talks of a feeling of helplessness. [Seriously publishers, are heartbreak and helplessness really things you want your authors to be feeling because of what you’ve done? If you ever find yourself causing that kind of damage to the people who entrusted you with their work, the least you can do as functioning humans is cooperate – as in really cooperate – and allow them to put it behind them and carry on.] I can’t find any reference to a resolution to Jonas Jonasson’s difficulties, and Hesperus seems to have weathered the scandal. I suppose something was signed, and we’ll never know what really went down or how it all ended. I hope he had enough royalties from other territories to keep him on top of his bills while this was going on. I also hope he retrieved his money and received substantial damages to compensate for the legal costs, the aggravation, the anxiety, and the wasted time. Dear God, the wasted time…

On to more positive topics now. There’s not much to report, as my life outside this battlefield consists of little more than the day job and domesticity. Neither are bad things, but I’m afraid they won’t make for riveting reading. The home-made sauerkraut’s going well; our micropond has attracted newts and frogs; I’ve been making surprisingly successful fake meat  from vital wheat gluten flour; I’m back to reading Viz – things must have been really dire to have missed Viz for so long. We also spent a lot of the recovered money on having the front wall of our house repointed. Most of the mortar was original, from the 1890s, and some of the stones were so loose they could be pulled out by hand. Yikes. So if nothing else, fighting the Crab People has stopped our house from falling down.

Glamorously, I’ve made my recording debut. Last year I saw the legendary Jilted John at the Dancehouse in Manchester, and the show has been released as a live album. Listen closely and you’ll be able to make out my voice, admittedly among a couple of hundred others, chanting ‘Yeah yeah, it’s not fair’ and other classic lines. [Many years ago I pinched the title of Jilted John’s LP to use as a subtitle for a US edition of Anthropology: 101 True Love Stories.]

Writingwise, there’s nothing to report. I used to pride myself on my productivity, but it’s been years since I wrote anything of any consequence. I’ve twice started making notes for new books, but both times a new twist in this horror show landed on the doormat and the magic was lost. It’s a delicate thing. Morale is such that the moment I put pen to paper, apparitions of the disembodied heads of the people I’ve been dealing with at Canongate Books start floating before me – transparent, bobbing up and down, cackling, and chanting: No further errors! No further errors! We can find no further errors! I only know what two of these people look like, so the others are just skulls with lasers coming out of their eye sockets. It’s hard to focus with all that going on. What keeps me fighting is knowing that the only way I’ll ever be able to get back to the work I love, to vanquish the floating heads and rebuild from the ruins, is by having this ludicrous debacle brought to a close. While it’s still in progress I can’t see beyond it. It’s like always having a wasp crawling across my face. I’ll get it dealt with if it’s the last thing I do, but whether I’ll still be able to string a story together I have no idea. All I can bring myself to write these days is a joyless annual bulletin about accounting difficulties. I used to write things that were worth reading. Thanks for ploughing through this, but it’s not exactly Little Hands Clapping. Requisite assiduity, for crying out loud. How do you claw your way back from that?

One positive aspect of all this is that I’ve sidestepped writing any clichéd midlife crisis fiction. Often an author of a certain age will wake up one morning consumed with an urge to commit a done-to-death outrage: modernising Greek myths, perhaps, or writing an excruciatingly over-researched novel based on an episode from the life of Henry James. I like to think I wouldn’t have joined them, but who knows? That sort of thing wins the Booker Prize, but I still wouldn’t want it on my conscience.

Another upside of having my spirit crushed to the point where I’m creatively incapacitated is that I have a bit more time for reading: mainly slim volumes by reliable authors (you know the drill – Poirot, Wodehouse, Mapp & Lucia, John Wyndham, Muriel Spark, Cornell Woolrich, Chekhov, etc.). I recently had the pleasure of visiting Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath, and came away with a copy of Doctor Glas by Hjalmar Söderberg. I can’t work out why it’s taken so long to find this – the short-novel-in-which-a-lonely-man-encounters-the-beautiful-wife-of-a-ghastly-vicar is one of my favourite genres [see also A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr]. And anybody who ever finds themselves in the company of children should investigate the Mr Gum audio books. They’d been in the wilderness for a few years, but Andy Stanton is back reading them again, and they are just tremendous.

Now here’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for: my Book of the Year is – consider your lapels grabbed once again – Cards of Identity by Nigel Dennis. I’m six decades late to the party, but if you’ve not read it, please do. I can only remember the funny bits, but they are really, really funny. I’m always on the lookout for true comic fiction – proper clutching your sides stuff – and it’s quite hard to find. This is at the top of the A-list, with a killer line on every page. This stone cold classic seems to have been out of print for years, but copies can be found. Get yours before they become too expensive.

In other book news, I’ve just this moment discovered that Patrick Hamilton’s long-lost first novel Monday Morning has been reissued. It came out last year and nobody told me. This is what they mean when they talk about social isolation.

[It’s not a book, but towards the end of writing this I watched Underestimate the Girl, the Kate Nash documentary. If you’ve made it this far you must be morbidly fascinated by the festering giblets of showbiz, so it’ll be up your street. I empathised with a good many of her experiences, and admire her for her resilience in the face of continual aggro from people who were supposed to have been on her side. For now it’s on the BBC iplayer.]

Thanks for putting up with this – particularly all the adverbs and emotional punctuation. I’ll be back in due course with, most likely, more monotonous whistleblowing [they love a bit of whistleblowing at Canongate Books. Hmmm… maybe that’s why they’re dragging this out. I wonder whether they would pay me a fortune to not write a book about it all?]. The blockage is at the top of the company, and I can’t see them cooperating to any meaningful extent until they are left with no choice. It’s my mission to get them to that point, but there’s no saying how long it’ll take. It’s a shame because it’s the 20th anniversary of Anthropology next year, and that should have been an excuse for fun, frolics, special editions, and an eighty-six city hologram tour; instead I’ll be gnashing my teeth while it languishes out of print along with all but one of my books. Ugh. Maybe I’ll be able to get something together for its 21st. Or its 50th.

[When I do finally assemble the Annotated Anthropology, much mention will be made of its four main guiding lights when I was writing it in 1997 and 1998: Little Tales of Misogyny by Patricia Highsmith, The Sadness of Sex by Barry Yourgrau, the songs of Stephin Merritt, and the songs of Daniel Johnston. Here’s the first Daniel Johnston song I ever heard, on Andy Kershaw’s Sunday night show in 1993. It still gives me the shivers.]

You’ve hung around too long listening to my hard luck stories. I’ll finish on a jaunty note. I’ve put a few more short films of my stuff on the Film Club page – including this little beauty by the Ukrainian director Elena Maksymenko. I often feel I wasted my time writing all those books. Things like that remind me that I didn’t.

So there we are. We’ve made it through. What shall I do now? I dunno, maybe I’ll have a try at one of those Henry James novels. These are desperate times, after all.

It was a cool, crisp morning when Henry James awoke in his bedroom at Lamb House in the East Sussex town of Rye. ‘Gee whizz,’ he thought to himself, because it turns out he was actually American, ‘I wonder what I’ll get up to today in this historic Cinque Port. First I’ll have a bowl of Froot Loops, then maybe take a stroll over to Ypres Tower, built at the behest of King Henry III in 1249. Yes siree Bob, that would be swell.’

Bloody hell – this stuff writes itself. No wonder they’re all at it. Booker Prize here I come…

He looked around the room, which one night in 1726 had been slept in by no less royal a personage than King George I. ‘Now then,’ he mused, ‘it’s kinda cool and crisp this morning so I’ll need to keep my head warm. I’d better wear my square velvet cap.’ As Henry James placed his square velvet cap upon his head, little did he suspect that this would be no ordinary d…

Oh no. Right on cue, here come the floating heads. No further errors! No further errors! We can find no further errors!

There goes the Booker. I’ll add the lost prize money to the final bill…

Bogus, dudes.

Happy reading.