Years ago, when I told my agent that I had written a book, she said to me: “Hey, if you wanted eight hundred dollars, I would’ve given you eight hundred dollars.”
But I published it anyway – and a second one, in fact – and though she was wrong in the specifics, she got the general gist of the compensation right. Put it this way: both books got a nice reception, but neither one gave me any tax trouble.
They were both published first – and primarily – in the UK. I like the sound of this: I’m published primarily in Great Britain. They “get” me, overseas. I’m really more of a continental voice.
But truthfully, the reason I’ve been published in the UK is because they’re the only people who will publish me. I mean, they asked. Look, I’m a writer: if you ask me to write something and you offer to pay me, I’ll probably do it.
But the fun of writing a book is the book publicity tour, where for five or six solid days a writer – a person who usually lurks around not-so-recently bathed, grumbling and muttering to himself – is treated like, well, an actor. Not a lead, but a character actor. A second billing shared-card actor, but still: there are events – signings, book parties, radio interviews, that kind of thing. For five or six days, people ask you questions about your work that suggest that they have actually read your work, that they actually care about your answer. And then someone gives you a sandwich. It’s nice.
In the UK, though, it’s even better because it’s all based in London, so you shuttle around that town to various studios and events and because it’s Britain, someone is always offering you a drink, and because of the long tradition of British writers, no one expects even the mildest amount of sobriety or restrained behavior at all, so when you politely decline their offer of a beer or tankard of wine by pointing out, politely, that it’s nine-thirty in the morning, they’re thrilled because it means that you might actually make it through the interview, unlike the last writer they had on the show.
And also: British journalists and critics are so reflexively withering and nasty towards every successful British person, they reserve all of their fawning adjectives for visiting American hacks. Which is nice, if you’re one of those.
I’ve told you this because I want to tell you this story: when my first book – a memoir of my early years as a television writer in Hollywood -- came out in the UK, my book tour overlapped another American writer’s tour: Jerry Stahl, a fine writer, had just published his book – a memoir of his years as a television writer in Hollywood, during which he was addicted to heroin. Our two books differ in a lot of ways, but in this way in particular: there’s no heroin in mine. It was purely coincidental that two American television writers had written two different memoirs and were touring on overlapping dates. But a small, local London newspaper somehow sloppily got the books mixed up, and so the piece they wrote about me opened this way: “While Los Angeles burned in the riots of 1994, twenty-three year old Cheers writer Rob Long was in South Central LA, scoring a dime bag of Mexican brown junk to slam between his toes, the only thing that enabled him to write lines for Woody, Sam, and TV’s beloved Norm.”
I was actually out of town for the riots, doing, if possible, the opposite of shooting up heroin. I was fly fishing on the McCloud River in the foothills of Mt. Shasta.
But libel laws in the UK are awfully strict. If you say something about someone that’s false and damaging – even if you did it without malice – you’re liable for some hefty, hefty damages.
When everyone at the publisher realized that a dreadful mistake had been made – a realization that came merely by glancing in my direction: I’m so obviously not cool enough to ever have been a heroin addict – they contacted the editor of the mistaken paper, who, after changing his pants, offered up a lot of compensatory goodies: free ad space for the book, a profile, that sort of thing. All of this went down during a very busy book tour day, so I didn’t really catch up to the increasingly frantic messages from the newspaper publisher until late in the evening.
“You’re a very rich man,” someone at the book party told me as I recounted the day’s drama. “How much are they paying you?”
I hadn’t thought about that. The messages from the newspaper’s management made it clear that this was a small local paper, with a threadbare budget. Any kind of payout would be unthinkable.
Which suited me fine, to be honest. I settled for a nicely-framed copy of the article, which I keep hanging on my office wall, without comment.
Because although my career is puttering along nicely right now, this is Hollywood. I know it could all fizzle out. Wait: it will all fizzle out. That’s what things do. So in a few years I may have to check myself into rehab, just for a little attention jolt, a little buzz. And when I do, I’ll need backup material. You know, for the press release.
I spent thirty-seven years as an international airline pilot, and have been raped, but not kissed, by mini-bars all over the world. Vegas is not the worst. Try t. Petersburg. 1,350 Ruble ($25) bad beer but 500 Ruble Vodka, also bad. Dubai is the highest. They seem to think that everyone there drives a Lambo and has gold bathroom fixtures. Now, I write novels. Much cheaper.
I get it! Given that British libel laws screwed Johnny Depp but benefited Rob Long, it is therefore better to be treated like a character actor than to be a lead actor in London.