Saturday, March 23, 2013
The Beatings Shall Continue...
Before we start today’s session, I want to begin with a clarification. In my last post, I facetiously made reference to pictures of Sara Bakay’s belly button. Since then, I’ve been inundated with requests for these pictures. In fact, one person found my site by actually Googling “Sara Bakay’s navel”. Who knew there was such a demand? Anyway, let me be clear: NO such pictures exist.
Getting Sara to take pictures wearing a skirt above the knee is hard enough. There aren’t even vacation photos of her at the beach in a bikini; she’s always wearing something. I honestly believe, at this point, that she wears those old-timey bathing suits from the 1920s…. And if those pictures did exist, I would be the LAST person to see them. So stop asking. It’s not going to happen.
(I even suggested racier photos as a stretch goal for her IndieGoGo campaign. No dice. One of Sara’s most admirable qualities is her integrity. She also punches really hard.)
On to business. The most popular topic on this site is the freelancer advice. Seems you guys want to know how to break into this business, and what to expect once you do. So I thought today that I’d discuss pay rates in this industry. What can you expect for all your hard work?
Expect to be screwed.
In this business, writers get paid by the word. Your editor has carefully figured out the size of the document he needs, based on page count and budget. Thus, for a 128-page book, he might decide the magic item chapter needs to be ten-pages long, at 600 words per page, and he can only afford to pay $0.02 per word.
Do you know what the average rate was in this industry for freelance writing twenty years ago? That’s right! Two-cents per word. Ten years before that, circa 1983? Yup, two-cents per word.
You’re not exactly going to make a fortune in this business. You’re not even going to make a living wage. The freelancers I know have significant others who work day jobs and support their RPG-writing loved one. That means, to a certain extent, Paul’s wife supports your hobby by making sure that Paul is housed and fed, and can take the time to write for you. The other category of freelancer is the one that works a regular job, then comes home, scarfs down dinner, and starts writing. They’re working two jobs, because they love gaming. Or, they’re some combination of the two. Paul, for example, works for Verizon (Hi, Verizon!) and gets support from his wife (Hi, Brenda! And thank you!)
When people in the business tell you “don’t quit your day job,” we mean it.
Ok. So you know you’re going to get paid crap wages, and you know you’re going to work your fingers to the bone. You decide to do it anyway. Woo! I’m a freelance writer! What’s next? First of all, you’re going to hand in more words than the editor wanted. That’s natural. You’re getting paid by the word. The more words you write, the more money you make. I’ve gotten manuscripts that were double the word count for which I asked. Nice try. I have a budget.
So I’m going to ask you for revisions. I’m even going to ask you for revisions if you’re right on your word count target. Because I’ve got four other books on my desk demanding my attention, and I don’t time to re-write your over-written, turgid drivel filled with “wills” and “verys” and “to bes”. So I get you to re-write it. Do you know what that does, economically speaking? It lowers your pay. In other words, if you have to write the same word twice, that two-cents per word actually becomes one-cent per word.
But you don’t care. You’re working in the hobby games industry! Woo! So you re-write your manuscript. This time, it’s approved. Honestly, the editor should probably send it back to you for a third pass, but he knows you’re not going to work for 33-percent of a penny per word. And besides, if you didn’t get it right the first two times, it’s just more efficient at this point to fix things himself.
Confession time: I’ve rewritten up to half a chapter myself because the writer just didn’t get it. More than once. When my mom asks me to point out what I wrote in a book, I have to flip through it and say “this paragraph here” and “everything under these three headings there.”
Back to you. You’ve submitted your manuscript and it’s been accepted by the editor. All you have to do is wait for the money to roll in! Wait. Hang on. Was the manuscript accepted by the editor? See, approval is a tricky concept, because it’s tied to your contract (you DID get a contract, right?). Every contract I’ve seen has stipulated a certain amount of money upon acceptance, and the balance 90-days after publication.
Once your editor says your manuscript is accepted, he owes you money. I’ve had editors tell me that my work hasn’t been accepted, even though it’s been developed, edited, and is in layout. If that’s not “acceptance” I don’t know what is. Ah, but if the editor tells you it’s accepted, then he owes you money. Often, it’s money he doesn’t have. So it’s a fungible concept.
But ok. So you might not get your 25-percent upon acceptance of the work. At least you’ll get your money 90-days after publication. Ever wonder how we came up with that number…? It happens to be the amount of time distributors have to pay the publisher. We’re waiting on our check from Alliance or Chessex, so we can turn around and cut you a check. Only problem is, distributors are notoriously late on paying their bills. They’d much rather hold on to as much money as possible so they can cover the costs of the next YuGiOh expansion. Because that makes them more money. They don’t care if Studio Manta gets paid on time if it means they can cover the next Magic: the Gathering release. (This is also one of the reasons we say that the TCG business killed the RPG business. It simply sucked up all the money.)
To summarize: You’re going to get paid crap wages. You’re likely not going to get that 25-percent upon acceptance. And you’re going to get paid late on the balance. Every freelancer I know spends at least half his time chasing down money he’s owed. But you don’t care! You’re working in the hobby games industry! You love games. You get to engage with your hobby in a new way. Other people will read your work!
And this is where we come to one of the economic reasons for why wages haven’t risen for freelancers in 30-years. YOU. You’re willing to work for such low wages and take it in the shins on payment because you so desperately want to work for the hobby games industry. Why should a publisher pay five cents per word when he can get a newbie to work for him for $0.02/word? New, inexperienced talent drives out the experienced talent, and keeps wages low.
Now, a lot of this has changed, to be honest. The advent of Kickstarter and print-on-demand and .pdfs have lowered cost of goods and increased funding. However, margins are still thin. Print-on-demand has a higher cost of goods for the publisher, so he’s making less money on each book sold. And you all expect your .pdfs to be around $1.99. Kickstarter has been about the only bright spot when it comes to increasing freelancer wages (I’m hearing numbers like $0.05/word being bandied about). If the publisher doesn’t jet off to LA to try to sell his IP to Hollywood.
Let’s go back to that 10-page, 6,000-word magic item chapter you were writing. Yeah, you’re going to be asked to write a second draft. And you’re going to be paid late (and in some cases, not at all. I didn’t cover that fun fact). And if you complain about it, you can always be replaced by some fresh-faced, eager newcomer who’s willing to put up with this because writing games is kewl. All for… wait for it: $120.
Have fun storming the castle!
* And if you made it this far, I’ll let you in on a little secret. There are many good, quality publishers out there who pay well and on-time. Green Ronin, Paizo, Wizards of the Coast, Pinnacle, and Eden Studios come to mind immediately. And if your company’s name isn’t on that list, don’t email me. I’m sure you’re on the up-and-up. I’m just trying to frighten the younglings here with the worst-case scenario. Which will totally happen to you if you’re a freelancer. No, I’m not kidding.