Some history and thoughts on short fiction pay rates

There’s been a little talk lately about professional pay rates for short fiction. Some of this was prompted by a candidate for office of SFWA suggesting in his platform that the minimum rate for a qualifying market be dropped from 5c per word to 3c per word. (These rates, and all other monetary figures in this post, are in U.S. currency.)

In a fundamental way, I don’t have a dog in this hunt. I’ve already sold enough stories at what SFWA considers professional rates to qualify as an Active member. On the other hand, I came to the conclusion long ago that I was never going to make any real money selling short fiction. I still write and sell, but money isn’t the motivation and I don’t see myself on a track that will ever allow me to earn a living at this. Consequently, pay rates are not the primary thing I look at when deciding where to send my work.

I’ll have more to say on that later, but for now that’s enough background. I should also add that, as an occasional publisher and editor myself, I think the idea of fiddling with the SFWA qualifying pay rates in some fashion is not entirely without merit. This isn’t really the place for details, but I could see the value in multiple tiers that give everybody (the market currently paying 1c per word, and the market currently paying 10c per word) some higher but attainable level to shoot for.

Enter Jack London, ca. 1900
But that’s not actually what I wanted to talk about. Mostly, I just wanted to share some history. Because when you look at history, pay rates for short fiction are extremely low today. I know this because of Jack London, who was not shy about talking about money matters (specifically how much money he was able to make).

In his memoirs of alcoholism John Barleycorn, London details the pay he received for various jobs he held or aspired to hold at the turn of the twentieth century:

“Out in the country, at the Belmont Academy, I went to work in a small, perfectly appointed steam laundry. … We sweated our way through long sizzling weeks at a task that was never done; and many a night, while the students snored in bed, my partner and I toiled on under the electric light at steam mangle or ironing board.

“… And I was receiving thirty dollars a month and board—a slight increase over my coal-shovelling and cannery days, at least to the extent of board, which cost my employer little (we ate in the kitchen), but which was to me the equivalent of twenty dollars a month. My robuster strength of added years, my increased skill, and all I had learned from the books, were responsible for this increase of twenty dollars. Judging by my rate of development, I might hope before I died to be a night watchman for sixty dollars a month, or a policeman actually receiving a hundred dollars with pickings.

Three dollars a day seems to have been the extent of London’s ambition as a working man. During a period of unemployment, London tried his hand at writing. He was able to sell his early stories for five dollars, seven and a half dollars, and one for forty dollars. (Unfortunately, London doesn’t give the length or titles of these stories, but it’s clear he’s talking about short fiction of lengths up to twenty thousand words or so.)

After a few sales like these, London got an offer for a post office job at a rate of sixty-five dollars per month – twice what he had made in most of his other jobs. And yet, with a fair prospect of making it in the writing game, London turned the job down. And why not? Selling a story for forty dollars brought him as much income as three weeks at the post office would. In today’s terms, three weeks pay at minimum wage would be $954. And remember – this post office job paid twice what London was accustomed to making. So that single short story sale brought him something like the equivalent of $1,908 today.

Enter Martin Eden, with more details
The comparison isn’t without complicating factors. There are a great many differences between the world of 1900 that Jack London wrote in and the world of 2012 that we inhabit today. But the fact remains that writing was valued much more highly than it is today when compared to other work. If we turn to London’s novel Martin Eden – practically a fictionalized autobiography in many ways – this becomes even clearer.

In chapter nine, Martin Eden (a stand-in for a young Jack London) writes and submits his first few stories. While researching the marketplace, he is “cheered to read in Book News, in a paragraph on the payment of magazine writers, not that Rudyard Kipling received a dollar per word, but that the minimum rate paid by first-class magazines was two cents a word.  The Youth’s Companion was certainly first class, and at that rate the three thousand words he had written that day would bring him sixty dollars—two months’ wages on the sea!”

Two cents per word – that’s a rate still frequently offered to writers today. To London, it meant two months’ pay on a laborer’s salary. To writers today, it means not quite a day’s pay at minimum wage. (Meanwhile, the dollar per word that Kipling reportedly was paid still seems a fantastic sum, only probable because of Kipling’s unparalleled popularity at the time.)

I suspect that most magazines would earnestly like to pay writers more. We’re no longer in the golden age of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when magazines were cheap, reliable entertainment for the literate working class. The economics of the times were completely different, and most magazines today don’t have anywhere near the circulation or advertising revenue to support the princely rates that Jack London and his contemporaries were paid.

But there’s something depressing about the idea that a “first-rate” publication over a hundred years ago would pay 2c per word, and that a “professional” publication today only pays 5c per word. (To their credit, some professional magazines pay more than that – Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, and Daily Science Fiction, to name a few.) And this brings me back to my original point about how I fundamentally don’t have a dog in this hunt.

Enter your humble correspondent, ca. 2005
When I received my first checks from professional magazines, I looked at the amounts and knew there was no career for me there. If I had been in Jack London’s shoes – if I had to choose between writing and that post office job – I wouldn’t have hesitated a minute and I’d be a post office man today. At current professional rates, I’d have to write and sell 400,000 words per year to make even a small salary of $20,000. (That works out to less than $10 per hour if we assume forty hour work weeks – somewhat less than the post office pays.) That’s the equivalent of selling a three thousand word story every three days. I like to think I’m a good writer, but I’m not that good.

So in a way, I was faced with the same choice that London was. But the two sides were so unbalanced that I never even really made a conscious decision – it was just obvious that one path wasn’t ever going to work. Today, I work a full-time job in marketing which uses up a lot of time and energy that could otherwise be devoted to writing. That’s why I don’t have a dog in this hunt – because the pay is so low that I didn’t even bother to bring one.

Of course, things are different for me. I don’t work the kind of back-breaking jobs that London was locked into – I don’t shovel coal thirty days a month for ten hours a day, and my job comes with a salary, benefits, and security that London could only dream of. I’m lucky that I can work a job that pays and treats me well during the day, and still have time to write. Compared to the average worker in London’s day, I’m lucky that I have the time and energy to write even as a hobby.

With very few exceptions, short fiction is no longer a winning game for those who want to earn a living at writing. It seems to still be a decent way to break into professional writing, but serious writers soon figure out that novels are necessary to have any shot at a living wage. (And even that’s a heckuva tough racket.) Often the past looks better because we have rose-colored glasses on. But when it comes to pay rates for short fiction, there’s pretty compelling evidence that things really were better once upon a time.

If you have an absurd system, you’ll probably get absurd suggestions
To be frank, this really leaves me wondering what the existing professional rate of 5c per word is meant to represent. What does “professional” mean in this context if the rate is pegged so low that it’s impossible to even make poverty wages by selling short fiction? And if the current rate is so absurdly low, is it any more absurd to propose that it be 3c per word instead?

No one wants to go backwards. No one wants to give up hard-won progress and see pay for short fiction shrink even more. But there are different constituencies at work here. For a writer who is only interested in short fiction and who never expects to make a living at writing (like me!), the rate is far less important than the prestige. Lowering the qualifying rate means a wider pool of prestigious markets. It means that I get more of what I want – more eyeballs looking at markets where I’m trying to sell my work, and more prestige when I do make a sale.

But for truly professional writers, the money is the thing. If pro magazine rates were 20c per word, would the economics start to change for me? Would I maybe be tempted away from a safe job to try to make it as a full-time writer? Would I put my dog in the hunt after all?

Maybe, maybe not. But the decision wouldn’t be nearly as easy to make. Double that rate and start paying 40c per word, and I’d be seriously stroking my chin. From the view in the trenches, it doesn’t seem likely that rates like that will ever be common, but I do think it’s worthwhile for SFWA to keep pushing in that direction. If short fiction can be made to pay well again, that’s the side SFWA should be on. If the market can’t support those kind of rates, then maybe it’s time to admit that short fiction is not a professional writer’s game.

Because let’s be honest here – when you get right down to it, 3c per word is barely more absurd than 5c per word. The only advantage that 5c per word has is that it’s been ensconced in the rules for a few years. The longer that these bargain basement rates are in place, the more folks there will be who are eligible for SFWA membership but who don’t see money as a significant motivator to write and sell short fiction. (Again: like me.)

With things the way they are, the organization is essentially encouraging folks with different priorities to join the ranks as full-fledged members. It’s certainly not the fault of those folks if they take the organization up on its offer, pay their dues, and then suggest changes that are more in line with those different priorities. In the long term, the qualifying rate either needs to go up substantially to make short fiction a viable money-maker again, or SFWA needs to admit that the day of professional short fiction is sadly over and disallow active membership on those sales alone.


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