Blog celebrity and SF writer John Scalzi has put up several posts, regarding short SF&F fiction pay rates — including what he himself has actually been paid for some of his short fiction.

These, in response to news that a very-small press — which I shall not mention here — was offering one fifth of a cent per word upon acceptance for publication.

One fifth of a cent. That’s $0.002 for you Excel spreadsheet types.

At that rate, it would take 3,250 words to pay for a #1 meal at McDonalds.

Or 8,495 words to pay for a CD at a music store.

Or 25,000 words to pay for your average Wii video game.

Or 150,000 words to pay for the Wii itself.

Or 625,000 words to pay for a high-end TV to play the Wii on.

Or 125,000,000 words to pay for a house with a den in which to put the TV.

You get the picture, yes?

By non-fiction standards, the SFWA “pro” standard of 5¢ per word is very low. But does this mean that we, as SF&F fictioneers — not just writers mind you, fiction writers — should do SFWA one better, and allow ourselves to literally accept chickenfeed for our efforts?

I just got my first paycheck for my fiction. It was a cool $500, with a second $500 coming to me upon publication. That’s $1,000 for a single piece of short fiction, which for the story in question comes out to about 12¢ per word.

Or roughly sixty times what the unmention(able) small press — call them TeenyWeeny Press for the purposes of this article — would have paid me, for the exact same story.

How many of us would be willing to go into our daily jobs, and take one sixtieth of our normal paychecks, for the same amount of work?

I see no hands going up in the audience. Mine’s not going up either. And rightly so.

I understand that for a lot of fictioneers in this genre, it’s literally not about the money. Hey, I can dig that. I started out writing for free, and in the case of one particular project, I still write for free, because I love the project and I love the people working on it, and it’s been with me as a part of my fiction ‘journey’ for the last 17 years.

There are times and places where you will want to write and it literally won’t or can’t be about the money.

But these times and places probably ought to be few and far between. And if your goal is to “get somewhere” with your fiction, it’s unlikely you will get to that “somewhere” at one fifth of a cent per word.

Consider also what that kind of rate says about the venue in question. Does it say that this is a remarkable new venue, professional and fresh and ready to make its mark in the professional SF&F fiction world? I don’t think so, and I’d not be terrifically thrilled to name such a venue on my cover letter if ever I was published, precisely because the only venues that really matter on a cover letter almost always pay way more than one fifth of a cent per word. And no, you won’t get rich writing for Analog or Asimov’s, anymore than you would for TeenyWeeny Press, but then again TeenyWeeny Press probably doesn’t put any writers on the Hugo or Nebula ballot either, because venues that scream “small time” do so not just for themselves, but for the authors in them as well.

Doubtless this sounds like snobbery on my part, and for that I apologize. This isn’t about me rubbing one index finger down the other, in the faces of people who consider TeenyWeeny to be a legit market for their work. It’s about me rubbing my head and having a questioning look on my face, when it comes to me — as a recently-paid but still newbie author — considering where I want to send my next stories.

Let me stretch for an analogy. My wife used to do a lot of work in domestic violence. One thing she always used to tell me — and which she still preaches — is that people will treat you the way you teach them you can be treated. Too many victims of domestic violence do themselves double harm because they never put a hand up and say to their abusive partner, “No, this is unacceptable, and I will not allow you to treat me like this if we’re going to stay together.”

Now, you and I might argue that the abuser ought to know already — as a matter of common sense — that abuse is out-of-bounds. But the reality is, most abusers are clueless that they’re even abusing. To them, it’s just standard operating procedure to hit their partner or their spouse or their children, like that’s just part of the way the universe works. And as long as the abusee never says a word otherwise, the abuser will persist in the delusion that their behavior is acceptable.

Ergo, the abusee has taught the abuser that it’s okay for the abuser to go about his or her abusive business. Which is why many abusers respond with anger and even confusion, if or when their abusees ever stand up and say, enough is enough. For the abuser, it’s been months or years of smooth sailing, and suddenly the abusees are out of character and out of line for challenging what has been, until then, an acceptable status quo.

I said it was a stretch, but here’s my point. As fictioneers, are we willing to let ourselves be abused? Are we desperate enough for publication that we will allow ourselves to get paid pathetic rates for our work? Take pathetic contracts? Work with pathetic agents? Dean Smith recently put up his own great post about how the agent/author relationship works. Mostly because Dean sees agents abusing authors endlessly, and authors endlessly putting up with it or otherwise acting like it’s just normal, go along with it, it’s the way the world is. And Dean is saying, no. Uh-uh.

I look at the word rate issue in the same way. If you teach the publishing world that they can pay you crap for your work, why on earth would any of those publishers ever decide to not pay you crap? Every time you take a crap contract for crap pay, you’re saying, go ahead publishers, I can be had for crap! And I think we both know that deep down, you as a fictioneer do not think your words are crap. Not really. You love those words, right? Those stories? They are the children of your imagination. Why would you peddle them for less than what they are worth?

So as much as I’d like to be onboard with TeenyWeeny Press — and others like them — unless they’re a charitable non-profit looking to turn funds over to a good cause, I don’t have any interest in, nor do I see any value in, sending my work to them. Because they are clearly not willing or able to pay me what I think I am worth. Not even the baseline SFWA rate, which is essentially the Minimum Wage of the SF&F publishing world.

Go ahead and work for less than minimum, if that’s what you feel like.

Me? I’ve decided I like 12¢ per word. That’s a damn good rate. That $500 check looks damned good behind glass in a frame on my writing wall at home. I might not always get that much, but I sure as heck won’t settle for less than minimum, now. And hopefully not ever. Even if it means I’m not in print as much as I could otherwise be. Because as much as I’d love to be in print everywhere, all the time, I’ve long since grown out of the phase where being in print — or in any media format, for that matter — all by itself, is reward enough.

Dammit, I expect paydays now. Real paydays. Paydays I can mention to friends and other writers and have them say, damn, that’s a nice check.


6 thoughts on “Payday

  1. You might want to pick a different fictional name for your press. The check for my Analog story is on the account of Penny Publications, also known as Penny Press, which owns Dell and publishes four of the pro pulp fiction markets (Analog, Asimov’s, Alfred Hitchcock’s and Ellery Queen’s).

    Not 12c a word, no, but orders of magnitude better than 0.2 cents a word. 😉

  2. D’oh! Fixed, Alastair! (hat tip)

    Jordan, I should have mentioned that the check in the frame is a scan of the actual check. Which, by the way, slipped directly through my fingers and into my wife’s-AHEM, I mean, my business manager’s hands.


  3. No problem. And I agree completely with what you say. I’ll admit to a couple of non-pro sales, although still at a higher word rate than TeenyWeeny, but in future I’ll probably just start trunking stuff that doesn’t make it in the pro markets, unless there are extenuating circumstances.

    And sometimes there are extenuating circumstances. For example, I have an invite to an original anthology that splits the royalties – no telling what that will ultimately earn out at, if anything, but at this stage I’ll take the exposure, and the series has a good track record. Of course your sale is much, much better in both areas.

  4. Yes, I think that would be a great idea too. If SFWA explicitly stated that $0.05 per word was the MINIMUM acceptable, I believe it might help clear up confusion, especially for aspirants who don’t understand.

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