Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Kill Fee

One day when we still received mail from the mailman, I received a letter from The New York Times and inside was a note from James Greenfield, the managing editor, (and the man who gave the go ahead to publish The Pentagon Papers) telling me that the paper of record was going to give me a “kill fee” for an article of mine that they had rejected.  On first reading it sounded as if they were hiring me to off myself so I would stop bothering them with my annoying ambition.   Here, take this money and go shoot yourself.

That wasn’t it but it may as well have been because when I found out what a “kill fee” was, I wanted to kill myself. “The writing is nice but this is not right for us,” said the note.  “Attached is a kill fee.”

I have never writhed physically, spiritually and mentally as much as I did as I read that note. It was as if I was wearing a scratchy wool turtleneck two sizes too small.  I remember standing on the second floor of my house and looking down at a giant Schefflera tree that was growing through the house and feeling desolate.  This is how I interpreted the kill fee:  “We don’t like your writing.  We don’t much like your thinking or your topics or anything about you.  To forestall any pleading or whining and to thwart any attempt on your part to contact us again, we are paying you to go away.”

This happened a long time ago and since then I’ve had several pieces on the Times’ Op Ed page but I still remember the “kill fee.” We all feel stupid when we trip or fall.  We feel inconsolable when there’s a break up and ghastly when we inadvertently hurt someone we love but the “kill fee” letter was a singular moment of humiliation.  I thought about it when I saw Ann Curry on her last day of the Today Show. 


  1. I've come to the conclusion that publishers and editors are a bit like finding a mate. When they say it isn't a good fit or your writing is not for them, it doesn't mean you won't trip the trigger for someone else. I've been in the industry since 1984 and it's a tough one. But there is always someone waiting for the exact type of writing you do so I wouldn't let that kill fee continue to eat at you. (But I do feel greatly for Ann Curry - I love her and think she was used as a scapegoat. I hope she lands somewhere else fast because her fans like me miss her!)

    1. Thank you for your insight. I, too, feel for Ann Curry. I think the Today ratings will continue to erode.

  2. i didn't know about 'kill fee' until reading this. but reading this now calls up instances i remember where i felt there was a sort of 'kill breath' going on. someone holding their breath, hoping i and my otherness way of thinking would go away.i rarely have the tv on, but did follow curry's story, thinking to myself, really? must we treat people in this way?