Mark Terry

Friday, December 04, 2009


December 4, 2009
John Scalzi has been on a bit of a tear the last couple days about a new SF short story market that's magnanimously offered to pay its writers 1/5th of a cent per word. John--and I agree with him--got all Scalzi on him and chewed the publisher a new asshole for being, well, a cheapskate and in general, offering fiction rates that writers would have thought was ridiculous 80 years ago.

In today's post, since he'd been going on about how you have to set a bar you won't slink under, he offered up how much he's been paid for writing short fiction. Okay, I would say, some of them as high as 35 cents per word (For the record, if I got paid 35 cents per word for one of my novels, I'd be a pretty happy camper) are pretty decent, even if they were compared to nonfiction.

Which brings us a bit to economies of scale, if you will.

As a nonfiction writer, I get paid per word, per hour, and per project (and, as Robert Benchley commented, perhaps). Mostly these days I get paid per project, just by the nature of the work I do. One of my trade journal publishers pays me $400 for an article no matter how long it is, but it generally needs to be 1200 words minimum, so let's say 30 or 35 cents a word is about what I get paid to write for them. Another regular trade journal publisher I work for pays me a flat rate of $750 per article, but those articles are pretty long, usually about 2200 words. That's unfortunate, really, although I probably do about 10 articles a year for them and they pay REALLY promptly.

There are other factors, which I mentioned on Scalzi's blog. I'm willing to write for relatively low pay rates (30 cents a word is about as low as I'm willing to go these days, more about that in a bit), for a couple reasons:

1. If it's easy. Because, you know, sometimes you're so familiar with the topic and you have such good contacts you can just call up 2 or 3 of your regular contacts, talk for 10 minutes, transcribe the interviews, then write the article in a couple hours. Voila, you've just earned $40 or $50 or $100 an hour, which gives the "per-word" rate a little different perspective.

2. They assign the articles. In some ways this goes back to an hourly rate. If you constantly have to do a couple hours of research to pitch a story idea (that may or may not get accepted, and some publishers really want detailed query ideas even when you've worked with them for years), it's cutting into your hourly rate. If a publisher--and my $750/article client falls into this category 99% of the time--e-mails me and says, "Can you do an article on X and interview, say, this person and this person, and here's a recent NY Times article related to the subject, and have it on this date, thanks," they've taken a lot of the work out of, well, work.

3. It's a client that sends me a lot of work. With these two article clients, in general, one, as I said, has me do about 10 articles a year, and they're a big publisher with multiple publications and I've made a lot of money from them doing a wide variety of things, and hope to continue to for the rest of my career. The other client isn't quite as wonderful about that, and pays on publication instead of acceptance, but they do publish whatever I write for them, and that's nice, too. Pretty hassle-free and I can count on a significant chunk of my income from the two of them.

4. I like the client. And to this I addend: to a point. Because although there's one client I occasionally write for (when they're solvent) for about $200/article, it's mostly because I like the editor, I started out with that pub a thousand years ago, and they're fairly easy to write for, because I'm something of an expert on the subject and don't have to go crazy tracking down 3 other experts for the articles. That said, I don't go out of my way to write for them (they're almost broke these days anyway) because, as you might have heard, time is money.

So what else? Well, I have a technical journal I edit and I'm paid a little over $1600 or so an issue. When I first started doing that (for less money) it took more time, but I've been doing it for 9 years now and have 3 more years on my contract and although I don't bother calculating it on an hourly basis, it's pretty streamlined and I don't spend a ton of time on it, so it comes out to a pretty decent hourly figure (most of the time). (There are other perks, too, like a pretty fully-paid annual trip to their annual meeting, which is at a nice hotel with good restaurants, generally in cities like Atlanta, Baltimore, Anaheim, etc).

I have a big client that's all "per project" work and those projects can range from $400 or $500 to pull together some data for a directory, to $750 for a short white paper, to $5000 to $20,000 for a report. This client routinely brings me anywhere from $30,000 to $60,000 per year and I intend to work my ass off to keep them very happy. The only real complaint I have about them is that my busiest years with them, I've decided, come on alternating years. That is to say, although I regularly write the same reports for them (and occasional new ones), those regular reports seem to come out every 2 or 3 years. So one year I make $30,000, then the next I make $60,000 (at the highest), and although that's awesome, just imagine trying to balance your budget when you're not sure if there's going to be a $30,000 annual difference in your income. Well, that's a freelancer's life, after all, but consider it, anyway (and you're all aimed at novel-writing anyway, where this type of fluctuation is about the norm, so enjoy your contemplations).

Is there more? Well, on a per word basis my best paying gig was $1 per word, which was awesome. And they assigned the topics. Unfortunately the editor moved up in the chain of command, the new editor worked with me briefly, then didn't seem interested in working with me further. Bummer, but that's also the life of a freelancer (and novelist, if everything I've heard about editors moving from house to house remains true). In general, when looking for new clients, I'll go as low ad about 35 cents a word, but am much happier when it's over 50 cents a word. On those rare instances when I work on an hourly rate (although it's part of my per project calculation), depending on the type of work, I'm aiming for $50/hour or higher. If that sounds high, it's because you've never worked as a freelancer or independent contract. Trust me, independent contracts in any field charge significantly more than wage slaves. But we don't get paid time off, holidays, vacations, retirement, or healthcare insurance.

So is there a point to all this?

I suppose I can think of a few.

1. Writer's can make money. It's out there and holding yourself and your clients up to a realistic pay rate is important.

2. Writing isn't like a normal job. You get paid for what you produce, not just for showing up.

3. Writing income is all over the board. Oh boy, is it ever.

4. I've heard people say that fiction can pay better than nonfiction. (Kristine Katherine Rusch recently said it on her blog). To-date, that's not been my experience, but I don't doubt it's true. And since Scalzi was talking about short fiction pay rates, let me give you my experience with this, which is also my experience with New York publishing. I've published two short stories. One went to an online mystery publisher (now defunct) that paid $20 per story. The second one appeared in an anthology which was published by Berkley Prime Crime. It paid, I believe, about $365. They're both about the same length, but I don't think it takes a genius to figure out which one I prefer to be published by.

But I'm hoping someday I'll see my fiction pay something even mildly comparable to my nonfiction. Hell, if I got $1 per word for one of my novels, that'd be close to $90,000 or more.



Blogger Natasha Fondren said...

Oh gosh, can I tell you? An agent contacted me a year or two ago, they'd started an online publishing venture which has worked well for them, but they offered advances for novels at like $100. They thought they were special, which I suppose they are, as most e-publishers are royalty-only. I was like, um, I get at least thirty times that for as many words and it's not even an advance... that's before the royalties I'll get later, LOL. She actually didn't believe me! I kid you not! She didn't believe me!

Like you said, per-word rates don't really work out... the essays I write once in awhile are about 75 cents a word plus royalties. Hmmm, actually, I'm remembering that that's an advance, not serial pay, so it's more like at least 75 cents a word.

However. The last essay took me, literally... three months of work away from my fiction, plus I read an eighteen-book series three times. It was FUN, mostly, and I learned a lot, but... like you said, it's not always the rate per word. I'm lucky if I made a penny per hour.

But it doesn't take the average writer three months of work to write 4,000 words of non-fiction, LOL, so the pay is better for people who are not me. :-)

10:47 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I'm not quite as hard on small start-up publishers with no money as Scalzi is. When I was doing the newsletter this summer I was trying to work out a deal with a guy to write a column for me (he offered, but I thought it was a good idea) and I had to tell him right out front, hey, I can't afford to pay you, but I can give your business ad space both on the newsletter and the website, which is worth more than I would have been able to pay him anyway. It never worked out, I think because he kept back-burnering and not meeting my deadlines.

That said, you've got to wonder about someone offering a $100 advance for a novel. Of course, my first publisher didn't offer advances and my novel advances have ranged from $1000 to $3000, so I'm not rolling in it by any means. On the other hand, if your advance is $1000, there's a good chance you'll get into royalties pretty quickly.

Me & my 2 collaborators are still battling with a nonfiction publisher over a contract and to my mind she's just not familiar with standard contract terms for writers. I've given a few talks to writers about getting published and one of the things I usually say is that a publisher is someone with money that wants to publish things. There's no particular requirement beyond those two things, and there's no bottom line for the money and there's no rule that says they necessarily have to know what they're doing.

6:12 AM  

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