13 October 2023

Eating My Words


Not accepted as a form of payment anywhere in the world.

I have told this story in various ways over the years, and it always makes people chuckle. So here I go again.

When I was freelancing years ago for The New York Times, I calculated that they were paying me under 50 cents a word for the twice-monthly, 750-1,000-word columns I wrote for the Sunday New Jersey section. 

I know that short story writers are accustomed to payment rates under 10 cents a word, but in the realm of journalism you tend to get paid better. Not far better, mind you; just better. Most writers know that there’s not much money in freelancing for newspapers, especially ones like the Times. Still, every month I could count on $1,000 income from this gig alone. And it was fun. I wrote about “destinations,” places to go and things to do in ye Olde Garden State.

One day my editor called with a weird proposition. They were running short, under-300-word reviews of local restaurants, and he wondered if I could contribute a few. I asked about payment.

“We used to pay about $50 each,” he said, “but now we have these coupons for pie.”

I’ve had hearing issues my whole life, and wear hearing aids. So I often second-guess myself and ask people to restate what they just said. (Not a bad practice for a reporter.) My editor explained that a fancy bakery near the newspaper had given them these vouchers and that they were using them as a way to thank people. An extra bonus, so to speak, to make up for the low $50 payment.

Or that’s how I heard it.

Of course, I misheard. Actually, instead of paying $50, these coupons were the only form of payment I was to receive.

There’s so much wrong with this picture. For starters, to write a decent restaurant review—even a capsule review—you still have to eat at the place. Ideally, you would eat there more than once, with guests each time. That’s how the pros do it; you bring as many appetites as possible so you can try different dishes. But by their action, my editors were basically saying that since they were unable to reimburse reporters for these meals, they were offering them dessert instead.

Like any brainless freelancer, I said yes and started working these capsule reviews into my reporting/writing schedule. I’d eat at a place incognito, then phone later to speak to a chef, manager, or owner if I had any questions about ingredients, menu items, or the restaurant’s history. If anyone asked, I’d say I was writing a review for the Times. It was true. They didn’t need to know that it was for the New Jersey section of the paper, how short they were, or the absurd writer compensation.

I did a bunch of these reviews. And because I had misheard the editor, believing the pie thing to be a joke or perhaps an extra thank-you, I actually invoiced them $50, plus expenses, for each review. They always paid. But after each one, I’d get a coupon in the mail for a free pie at the fancy bakery.

I had a stack of these coupons and collected a few hundred dollars before accounting caught on and my poor editor called, embarrassed, to explain the situation. I forget how we remedied the overpayment. I’m guessing they recovered the article fees from my later assignments, but let me keep the expense money. (They were always generous on expenses, covering meals, phone calls, and mileage for other stories I wrote for them.)

I redeemed the pie coupons infrequently, I must say. The pie shop was in an inconvenient location in Midtown that I rarely visited. The one time I called to claim a bunch of pies for a party I was about to attend, the baker-in-chief told me that I could only get two free pies at any one time with those coupons. To make things worse, the pies were a little on the small side. Stereotypical Manhattan meal pricing. Delicious, but minuscule.

It remains one of the strangest ways I’ve ever been paid for my work. And for a little while, perhaps a summer or so, I liked to think of myself as being the hit of parties when I showed up with two boxes of free pie and a story of professional debasement and exploitation to boot.

Now let us pray at the Church of Uncle Harlan. Apologies in advance if his language offends you. If it does, how dare you call yourself a writer? Get to a bar this very minute and practice cussing between rounds. I know you have it in you!

To which I would add, the writer must be paid in currency, not pie.

* * * 

See you in three weeks!



  1. A great many years ago, when I was trying anything to get published, I sold some jokes to Genesis magazine. Payment was a too-small T-shirt, which my pre-school-aged son wore for several years.

    Another publisher, for whom I was doing typesetting and paste-up on a freelance basis, paid in part with vouchers to use at a Mexican restaurant he owned.

    1. I think I would prefer the Mexican food vouchers to the shirt, but I have gotten more free shirts for various things (not editorial work) over the years that they have become quite common. One software start-up sent me a T-shirt and some blue-light-blocking glasses for acting as a beta user for some social media software they were creating for authors. I much prefer being paid cash. My mom always used to be tapped for focus groups that asked housewives like herself to weigh in on various products. They always paid. Not a lot, but even $10-$20 seemed munificent in the 1970s. Once they held a group on a Saturday and asked her to bring a child. She brought me. I ate candy, told them what I thought, and walked away with $5 at the end of the session.

  2. AMEN, HARLAN! I got paid in a sweatshirt once, for a humorous pamphlet for a friend that was selling sweatshirts and t-shirts for the entirely fictional "Caribbean College of Medicine". Actually, I wore that for a long time... But $50 would have been nice.

    1. Did you write copy for the pamphlet? A friend of mine is fond of saying, "Most of my clothing was won in contests." He was speaking specifically about T-shirts.

  3. Joseph, Michael, and Eve: Right on!

    Not long ago, someone I knew through a theater friend asked me to look at a play she had written and offer suggestions. I said, "Go to my website and look at the instructions for hiring me to edit your piece." She was stunned and asked why she should pay me "just to offer suggestions." I told her if all she wanted was free advice, she should ask her next door neighbor or the mail man.

    1. I think I recall you sharing similar stories about your editing work. The one I remember was a guy who wanted you to sign a contract drafted by his idiot lawyer that you wouldn't steal his work, and after you balked, he harassed you. Were you the SleuthSayer who had that happen to him? It's unbelievable how people expect work to be for free.

    2. Yep, that was me. And the guy didn't even have his 700-page ms as a word document. He had a TYPED version only. I wonder if he's still trying to find someone...

  4. Go Harlan! I love your story, Joseph. Pies, indeed. I have a 1000+ word article coming out in Readers Digest in Feb, and was a little chagrined to learn they only pay 50 cents a word for world rights (22 countries) - I'm pretty sure that's what they paid me in 1998 for a shorter piece. 25 years ago. And Steve - I get at least one request a month for 'free advice'. I now explain that I don't give advice to anyone unless they have taken my college course, as I inevitably end up teaching the entire college course for free to them after reading their work.

    1. I did do work for them once and I'm pretty sure it was also a paltry sum. But the pieces were short and my wife and I rationalized to ourselves that it might lead to further work. It never did.

  5. Joe, I once got paid $25 and a can of air freshener for a short story in an anthology with a crime in a bathroom theme. The book was titled Who Died in Here?. I still have the can of air freshener.

    1. Okay, I've never heard of being paid with an air freshener. Incredible. Where do these people get off? That takes the cake, er—I mean pie.

    2. Hahaha. That's awesome.

  6. Man, remember the dot com days? I did a lot of work for stock options. In hindsight, pie would have been a blessing hahaha.


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