When you write a story, how much should you sell it for? Whatever the market will bear, right? It’s a capitalistic society, so we can make a ton of money! Huzzah!
Well, it turns out that a lot of writers (including me) will sell a story for whatever the market will give us, not what it’s worth by any reasonable standard of the work we put into it. Take a look at standard royalty rates: anywhere from 7-12.5% gross, right?
Why is it that low? Because as writers, we all know that what publishers do is at least seven times more important than what we do: without publishers, there would be no product! And we all know that most of us won’t make the publisher any money–we won’t earn out our advances. Poor, poor publishers, doing all this for…well, what turns out to be nice profits in 2010, and will probably be better in 2011. They’re so noble, giving us the chance to get published–not!
I’m not saying that it’s a bad idea to try to get published rather than doing it yourself. That’s a decision you have to make yourself; there’s a lot of cachet in getting published, and it does build a resume that will help with other freelance work. So I can’t say that I won’t be tempted by a low advance and crappy rates; I have been before, and I will be again. However, know that when you’re considering a publisher, even a big publisher, you may not be getting paid minimum wage to write.
My guesstimated numbers:
Number of words/hour on average first draft: 1000.
Words edited per hour for cleanup (NOT including client changes/revisions/copyedits/etc.): 2500.
Time taken to write/edit 10K: 10 hours writing + 4 hours cleanup = 14 hours (if everything goes smoothly, and not including submission time, and not including research/brainstorming time).
For self-employed people, you have to take the hourly wages x 2 to get about the same take-home pay, due to taxes and hours spent doing non-production tasks, like managing your business. Working for the man means you get paid to answer emails from your employer. Working for yourself means you don’t.
Minimum wage in Colorado: $7.36/hr. Self employed: $14.82 Skill level: can’t spell, cardboard characters, unbelievable plot, could be outsourced to a monkey.
Average wage of HS graduate*: $25,000 women/$32,900 men ($50K women/$65.8K men–$25/hr women, $32.90/hr men). Skill level: can spell but can’t handle grammar, has read a few of the greats in HS English, has one or two decent strengths, has no idea why things work or don’t.
Average wage of college graduate: $40,100 women/$51,000 men ($80.1K women/$101K men–$40.10/hr women, $51/hr men). Skill level: spelling/grammar proficient, can think analytically about a text and is aware of genre requirements, is decent at all areas of writing with a few real strengths, is starting to recognize personal style and audience.
Note: we still haven’t hit the skill level (or pay grade) of a professional writer yet.
I’m going to guesstimate my average book length as about 85K, and my average story length as 4K.
Short story (4K):
Time to write: 4 hours; time to edit: 1.6 hours. Total: 5.6 hours.
Minimum wage: $82.42 (just over 2 cents/word)
HS graduate: $140 women (3.5c/w)/$184.24 men (4.6c/w).
College graduate: $224.56 women (5.6c/w)/$285.60 men (7.1c/w).
Note: still not to pro writer skill level yet.
Conclusion: assuming that writers are fast and work cheap, and the editors ask for no changes or help with promotions, semi-pro rates should be 7.1 cents/word.
Pro rates should be more than that; the fact that pro rates are generally defined at 5c/word implies that pro writers are more skilled than a monkey but are only writing at the same level as a high-school graduate.
Time to write: 85 hours; time to edit: 34. Total: 119.
Minimum wage: $1751.68
HS graduate: $2975/$3915.10
College graduate: $4771.90/$6069
Again, not to pro writer level yet.
Conclusion: assuming that writers are fast and work cheap, and the editors ask for no changes or help with promotions, an advance at a smaller publishing house should be $6K. Advances at large publishing houses should be proportionately larger. Advances for books requiring research should be proportionately larger.
But wait! The publishers are taking all the risk, right? No.
The writers are taking the risk that the publisher will ask for edits (and they will); they are taking the risk that the publisher will ask us to do promotions (and they will). If the publisher is taking all the risks, the writer should be paid hourly for those tasks–at $101/hour, for smaller publishing houses and more for larger houses.
If that work is worth nothing, then writers with platforms (or track records) are not worth more than writers without platforms or track records, and that is clearly not the case. The writers are also taking the risk that the publisher will screw up somehow on the book. The writer is investing in the publisher as well: if the publisher isn’t making money for the writer, why? Is the publisher incompetent? The publisher thought the book was good enough to make them money, or they wouldn’t have bought it. Or shouldn’t have bought it.
How important is the writer to a book?
Is the writer more or less important than the publisher when it comes to a project?
Let’s (generously) say that the publisher and writer each contribute about half the value of a book, that what they do is equally important to the success of a book. Then why aren’t writers making 50% net, with net being “retail minus the physical cost of the book, if any, and bookseller discount”?
Because the publishers will pay us whatever we will put up with; that’s capitalism for you. They can make a ton of money! Huzzah!
I mean, I can’t blame them: wouldn’t you?