Tuesday 10 September 2019

Writers' Pay

A writer friend recently told me that they had been offered $1800 to write a 30,000 word novella for a successful franchise of books. That's a one-off payment, no royalties.

A traditionally published author (and this writer has been traditionally published) normally puts out one book a year if they are lucky enough to have ongoing contracts. Some famous authors are unable to manage this rate.

A fantasy book can vary in length but let's call 120,000 words typical.

Note that it is harder to write four 30,000 word novellas than one 120,000 word book. Just like it is much harder to write thirty 1,000 word short stories than one 30,000 word novella. Each of these things requires a new idea, a beginning, middle, and end. An arc. A plot. A reason to exist.

But even if 4 x 30K word novella = 1 x 120K novel, then this still means for a typical year's worth of writing my online friend was being offered $7,200.

It's not possible to survive on $7,200 a year in a first world country.

$1,800 for 30K words is 6 cents a word. The better paying fantasy magazines pay 10 cents a word. Nobody suggests that a living can be made from writing short stories for them - even if placing every short story you wrote was a given rather than a gamble at fairly long odds.

The men and women who work at the publisher who offered my chum what is effectively an annualised salary of $7,200 all have jobs that pay well above the minimum wage. They can cover their mortgage and food bills, run a car etc. In the US they will have health insurance.

So, why pay so little? The person commissioning the writers will point to this:

There are, they will note, hundreds of other writers who will say yes if you say no. Toward the end of the virtual queue at their desk are people who will actually write the novella for nothing just so they can say they've been published and point to a book with their name on it. Right at the end of it there are probably people who would PAY THEM for the chance.

It has to be noted at this point that if the publishers also had a hole they wanted dug in the carpark outside their office then at certain points in the economic cycle they could assemble a similar real queue of itinerant workers and walk down that offering lower and lower wages until they got a refusal, then go back to the one before.

Of course, we have labour laws to prevent that kind of exploitation. Specifically the minimum wage.

The flipside of this coin is that lots of people like writing, whereas rather few people like digging holes. So this over-supply of talented labour combined with the enthusiasm for the work creates a situation where people are earning $2 an hour writing novellas for companies that make millions and pay their regular staff a living wage.

It's an old conundrum about where something that many do as a hobby turns into something that you should be able to make a living from. It's complicated by the fact that at the very top of the game you can make a ton of money. Many might point to something like golf or tennis, played by millions for fun, played by many very talented people for peanuts, and played by a few hundred people for large sums of money.

With that comparison it seems reasonable. You're gambling your time against the chance of making it BIG.

But I'll return to this business of franchise writing. Here you really are more like a regular worker. The publisher owns the IP, you will get zero or minimal royalties, and so there's no breaking big. The novella my friend could have written might have sold a million - he would still just have his $1,800. At what point is it just exploitation with the illusionary carrot of "exposure" dangled before the writer? At what point should they get paid a decent weekly or monthly salary for the agreed period?

I've no answers really. I wrote for fun chasing $10 and $50 a story in magazines (and not getting that many hits). And now I write for a living and make a decent amount of money. It's that middle ground - which thankfully I was lucky enough to vault over - where writers devote a serious amount of time and effort for very meagre returns, that prompted this blog post. If nothing else it lets readers know what's going on under the hood.

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  1. It's a bit more complicated than that, in both directions. Modern self-publishing runs on publishing MANY short novella-style books in one year, and so one could make considerably more than the $7200 you mention. (I am a part-time pro writer with a full-time regular job, and I average about two 120k novels per year; writing full-time I could easily triple that).

    Still, that is only somewhat over 20k per year, and you really can't live decently on that in almost any first-world country.

    The real problem is that we don't VALUE creative work of that nature. And those who write are eager to be published, so they are willing to accept cheap or even no pay against the chance of getting their name on a published work.

    The hole-digging example isn't isomorphic because there's an objective way to determine whether your hole was dug well, whether it meets the requirements for all three dimensions, etc. Moreover, almost anyone can tell that digging a big hole in a parking lot is hard work, even if not terribly COMPLEX work, and understand that very few people would ever do that for free. The entire process of hole-digging is pretty objective, and thus you can write pretty clear laws on hole-digging.

    Creative writing work? Not so much. Given that there isn't a single piece of literature that you can't find equally scholarly, or equally "regular guy", references both praising it to the heavens, and slamming it to the pavement, there's no real objective way to say "this is a good article/story" outside of pretty trivial areas (spelling, use of grammar outside of dialogue, etc.). Because of this, people underestimate the amount of work involved in writing effective stories (and the self-publishing glut hasn't helped matters).

    A lot of writers also just plain LIKE writing, so getting ANY pay, or just your name up in print, is a BONUS. They'd write anyway, and now they get an additional perk. This means that there's a fair number of pretty competent writers that just don't treat it AS a business, but as a hobby that they can sometimes get money, or ego-boo, from.

    If there's enough of those, there's REALLY not much pressure on the publishers to go to the possibly-more-skilled-but-far-more-expensive pro that takes their work seriously both in the craft sense AND in the business sense.

    I'm not sure there's a good solution, really, especially given that a lot of people's attitudes on the FINISHED product is ALSO to devalue it. How many people hit a paywall for news they want to read and say "eh, okay, I won't read it"? How many people pirate stories and books and TV and so on? They don't recognize that their work is devaluing the stuff they profess to want. And a lot of them think that the publishers are the ones actually profiting, and don't realize that lack of OFFICIAL sales is what kills an author's career.

    It's tough.

  2. This has a massive correlation with American College Football. The Freakonomics podcast did a fascinating episode on it, I highly recommend a listen.

  3. $1800?

    I'll give them a couple of sentences. Short ones.