Thursday, January 5, 2017

Who Decides What You're Worth As A Writer?

For those who aren't regulars on my sister blog, Improved Initiative, you might not know that in addition to blogging and writing fiction, I also do a lot of work for tabletop roleplaying games. You know, those things where people sit around a table, roll funny-shaped dice, and tell collective stories.

Ringing any bells?
What most players don't know is there are very few people who produce all the content in this little corner of the publishing industry. In fact, if you put them together in one room, all the industry professionals on the American continent will fit in one, large ballroom. And because there are so few people in charge of making so much stuff, freelancers (like myself) fill in the gaps. We write the rules, the flavor text, and the short fiction that fills up these books.

There's no shortage of work available, either. However, because the going rate for freelancers is .02 per word (and sometimes as little as .01 per word), those who write for games either need to create a lot of content, or they need to be doing something else on the side so their RPG work is all gravy atop their budgetary meatloaf.

It might not seem fair when you earn low wages as a writer, but before you complain that you're working for slave fare, take a look at the big picture. It's often pretty enlightening.

The View From The Publisher's Side

On the one hand, there was an argument made by Christopher Helton that says people who buy RPG books don't understand what they're actually buying. You see, back in the 1970s when Dungeons and Dragons was still new, most of the books came in simple pamphlets. Even the hardcover editions were cheap enough that kids could save up for them on their allowance, or get them as birthday presents.

You know, the OLD books.
However, as times changed, books became more expensive to produce. So expecting to pay the same cost for modern RPG books that people paid in the 1970s and 1980s doesn't make any more sense than expecting to pay a quarter for a cup of coffee, or a nickel for a candy bar. Or expecting to buy a paperback for fifty cents, rather than the $10 we all know a bookstore is more likely to charge. Inflation happened, changes in publishing costs happened, and if more readers understood that so much of a gaming book's $60 or $70 price went to paying the artists and freelancers, as well as the production costs, they'd realize that the publishers aren't making that much more today than they were in decades past.

That's one side of the coin. There is another side, though, and it's the side pointed out by Louis Porter Jr.

As he mentioned in an episode of his YouTube series Transparency Agenda Daily, publishers are more than happy to pay writers more money. Because writers are an investment in a polished, professional, marketable product. However, before a writer can expect a hike in their pay rates, they have to understand two things. The first is that a publisher is working within a budget; they cannot pay you what they literally do not have. So if you ask for a rate that is worth more than the whole project, they can't give you that. It's why you won't see an A-list actor starring in a C-list movie, unless they're doing a favor for a friend, or they really liked the script. The second, and the one that's more important where writers are concerned, is that a writer has to prove they're worth the cost.

If you went to Random House, right now, and asked for the same contract and rates paid to authors like Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, or J.K. Rowling, you'd probably be laughed out of the building. It's not because publishers aren't willing to pay those rates, since those are just three examples of authors who have publishers throwing money at them. No, it's because you don't have a track record to justify that kind of investment being made in you.

If you did, then the publisher would contact your agent, arrange a meeting, and start talks for your next book.

What Are You Worth?

It's all well and good to talk about people earning a living wage, and being able to cover all the necessities in life, but the unfortunate reality that many authors and publishers face is that those ideas really are luxuries. A project may pay so little that it's barely worth doing it, but an author who has rent due next month can't say no, or hold out for more money. A publisher may have great projects to produce, but because there's so little capital in their company they can't afford to spend money until after the project is released, and making something for them to spend on the next project.

And that, right there, is the crux of the matter. If you prove to a publisher that you can make money, then you have something you can bring to the negotiation table. If your record is good enough, you can even play hardball to get what you want.

Some negotiation tools are more unusual than others.
This is one of the harsh truths about the idea of being paid what you're worth. Because when most writers say that, they mean they want to be paid enough money that they don't have to work a day job, and so they can cover all their bills, and have a little savings at the end of the month. However, you need to look at your name, your brand, and your history, and ask if that's what you're worth in investment terms.

Are you skilled enough to produce content (RPG rules, novels, short stories, blog entries, etc.) in a way other writers can't? Do you have a following, or an audience? Do you have a noted history of making bank when you release a project, offering some assurance that if your name is on the cover then the publisher is going to see a return on their investment? Because those are the things that make you valuable in the eyes of a publisher. It's the reason many companies want to buy up the rights to existing self-published book series that have proven themselves when it comes to sales figures, and it's why Johnny Depp will always be paid more than someone who's never been in a movie before.

It isn't fair, and it isn't fun, but reality rarely is. And if you prepare yourself to deal with the situation as it is, rather than what you'd like it to be, then you're already one step across no-man's-land toward success.

Hopefully some folks found this week's Business of Writing post helpful, if not particularly uplifting. If you'd like to help support me and my blog, then why not head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, and toss $1 a month into my jar? It makes a bigger difference than you know, and it comes with some sweet swag! Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter, now would be a great time to click that follow button.

1 comment:

  1. Good information to have for all of us who have held aspirations for professional writing. I'd love to get paid to write on a professional level, however I already knew that being a writer won't necessarily pay the bills unless it's some sort of steady 9-5 job. Writing tends to fall into the "starving artist" category of of work if your looking to make ends meet on that alone.

    So for me, I run a blog as a hobby to share my enjoyment of my other hobby of playing tabletop RPGs. While I hold out hope of gaining a following that will help support me financially, or a sponsor of some sort, I'm not going to rely upon that until I start to see some sort of significant earnings. But that may well be a few years on down the line if I'm lucky.