Saturday, October 20, 2012

Words Make the World Go 'Round

Today, I’m going to talk to you about word counts, why they’re important, and why you should stick to them. For those of you not in the know, we freelance writers get paid by the word, not the page or a flat rate. Words, are, quite frankly, our bread-and-butter. And the pay isn’t that great, either. Ten years ago, the going per-word rate for freelance game designers was 2 cents per word. Now, ten years later, the going per-word rate is, you guessed it, 2 cents per word. So, for a 5,000-word piece, I’ve made the princely sum of $100. There’s a reason we’re wretches.

Anyway, back to word counts. When you get an assignment, it’s always couched in terms of word counts. Well, where do I, your humble line editor, get this magical number? I get it by stat-ing out the book, usually as I write the outline. I generally dislike figuring word counts, because I have to whip out a calculator and make a whole bunch of hard decisions, like “how many words does it take to describe the planet Vulcan?” If you haven’t noticed yet, I don’t like doing hard stuff. Also, I have no idea what I’m doing most of the time; seriously. All I’m doing is guessing. You could pay a monkey to throw darts at a board at this stage (except monkeys work for bananas, and have you seen the price of those things? It’s cheaper to pay me). So, to keep me honest, game companies come up with their specifications sheet.

Ever wonder why a book is 256-pages? Or 96-pages? Why not 95-pages, or 130-pages? Neither did I when I was just writing. As far as I knew, I sent in my text, and book happened. For all I knew, little gnomes came out and magicked my words into book form. It’s not nearly as much fun as that.

First of all, every book gets classified by a type. Is it a core book? Is it a supplement? A module? Those things get an established page count. A module IS 96-pages. If it’s going to be a module, then those are the pages you’ve got to fill. If it’s 128-pages, then it’s not a module, it’s a sourcebook. You cannot deviate from these specifications, because that affects cost. The company’s product spec sheet tells you the size of the products you can produce, how many pieces of art you can throw in, the words-per-page, and a bunch more.

But why 256, 128, or 96? That number comes from the number of signatures in a book. Signatures are 16-page blocks of, well, pages. You know when you watch an old-timey movie, and they show that montage of the spinning newspapers that reveal the headline? Usually, behind the newspapers is a picture of a spinning press. That’s why pages are in 16-page blocks. Because books are printed on giant-ass pieces of paper.

The text gets broken down into 16-page blocks, which is printed on giant sheets of paper. That paper then goes to a machine that folds, and folds, and folds some more. Then, for good measure, it folds a few more times. And when it’s done, you’ve got a 16-page packet of pages. All those signatures then get bound together into a book. If you look at the binding on a book, you can actually see these bundles of pages all stuck together. Thus, 256, 128, and 96 can be divided by 16 (or rather, they’re multiples of 16, or whatever). So, a 256-page book has 16 signatures. A 128-page book has 8 signatures.

If I “break signature,” by using 98-pages, that costs more money. A lot more money. Mostly because you’re changing the production process. The printer has to stick two extra pages in every book, and you don’t get to use the giant sheets of paper or the magical fold-y machine for those two pages; they pay some schmuck to stick two extra sheets of paper in your book. So it costs extra money because you've complicated the production process. Same thing if you don’t use all your pages. You can either pay to cut them out, or just leave them in. (I remember seeing an indie game back in the late-90s that did just that. There were seven blank pages in the back of the book because he didn’t fill the signature and didn’t want to pay to have the blank pages cut out.)

So your editor knows that he has 128-pages to fill, because he’s doing a supplement. The boss isn’t going to let him make it 144-pages, because that increases his costs, and that means less money for hookers and blow. Now, each page also has an established word count per page. Remember, in a previous post, when I said this was 600-words per page at Last Unicorn? So, 128-pages times 600 is 76,800 words to assign. I could, theoretically, take that up to 700- or 800-words per page, but now I’m messing with two things: cost and readability.

Cost: At 600-words per page, at 2 cents/word, each page costs me $12. If I take that up to 700-words per page, now each page costs me $14. Over a 128-page book, the total cost for writing goes up from $1,536 to $1,792. That’s called “eating into profit margins,” and my boss hates that because it means fewer martinis at happy hour.

Readability: The more words I put on the page, the smaller the type I’ve got to use, which means it’s harder to read the text. I’m convinced Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition had such tiny type because either everyone over-wrote or they didn’t want to publish an 800-page book (which would have been 50 signatures, by the way). Seriously, that thing had to have close to 800-words per page. (It also may explain why Pathfinder is thicker than the Brooklyn Yellow Pages. Fun fact: It’s 36 signatures).

You now know how much fun stat-ing out a book is. Oh no, wait, there’s more. Take a look at any book and you should immediately notice stuff. If you don’t, don’t worry; you will by the time I’m done with you. The first page is the title page. That’s followed by the indicia. Indicia is just a fancy word for the page that tells you who wrote it, who published it, who holds the copyright and all that crap you usually ignore. Then you need a table of contents. Then there’s a page of “nothing,” usually a full-page piece of art (we’ll get to why in the next paragraph). Wait, that’s four pages gone already. Now I’m down to a 124-page book. Crap, I forgot the introduction – that’s two more pages. 

Wait? What? Why two-pages? Ahhhh, ever notice how every chapter in a book starts on a left-facing page and ends on a right-facing page? (Or vice versa?) That’s because you can’t have a book going all willy-nilly with that; it’s standardized. All the chapters in a book can begin on a left-facing page, or a right-facing page, but not both. You can’t have a book where chapter one starts on a left-facing page, and chapter two starts on a right-facing page. Which means a chapter must be an even number of pages. Two, ten, twelve – doesn’t matter, so long as it’s even, because then all the chapters begin on the same facing page. So when I figure out word counts, I’m doing it in even page numbers. Isn’t this fun?

I decide that Chapter One: Boring Editing Chores is going to be ten-pages long, which at 600-words per page comes out to 6,000 words (No, I didn't need a calculator for that, which is why I chose those numbers). Here’s where I get to you, the freelancer.

If I assign you 6,000 words, and you over-write and send me back 7,000 words, I’m now two pages over. My 128-page book is now 130-pages. My boss won’t be happy, because I’ve just eaten into his Prada budget for the month. Thus, I must cut stuff or find the space.

Cutting Stuff: Contrary to what you may believe, I hate to cut stuff. Well, I hate to cut good stuff. With an overage that’s close to the assigned word count, I can cut out some fat and make it fit. When I ask for 6,000 words and get 10,000 words, now we have a problem. I can’t just stop at word 6,000 and cut the rest, because there may be important stuff in there. So instead I’ve got to cut something from everywhere; I’ve got to go through the entire document and slash-slash-slash. I hate to do that because it affects the integrity of the work, and I have to struggle with “is this paragraph necessary, or is that one?” Did I mention I hate hard work?

Finding Space: This is, again, easier the closer you are to your original word count. I can find two pages if I have to. I can cut down someone else’s dreck, because while I hate cutting good stuff, I LOVE cutting bad stuff. Editors are evil that way. However, ain’t enough trimming in the world is going to get me to 4,000 extra words. If you stick me with 4,000 more words than I asked for, it is impossible for me to make room for it by adding more pages to the book (see, above, less martinis and Prada for the boss), and I must resort to cutting stuff.

As you can see, then, giving me more words than I ask for could quickly become a real problem for me. I don’t like writers who make problems for me. While I can’t send out the kill-bots to hunt you down, for copyright reasons, I can imagine all kinds of nasty ways for you to suffer as an NPC in my next book. You’ll find your name as an anagram for the person being savaged by rabid, syphilitic leucrotta. Oh, and I won’t give you any more work.

Have I mentioned I’m doing all this under tremendous time constraints? And that my boss is poking his head into my cubicle every half-hour asking “is it done yet?” And the layout guy is playing XCom on his computer because he’s waiting for my book to lay out? That all adds to costs, by the way. 

Anyway, you now know how your word count assignment was arrived at, and why. You should also have a good idea of why your humble, well-armed editor (who knows your home address) doesn’t want you to go over your word count. I didn't make the rules to this game, but I've got to enforce them. 

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