Short Fiction and You
Now, I'm not on Scalzi's level as an author--I don't make his sales or his money. But I'm fairly safely mid-career these days (average career length being five years I'm actually in the mature career category, but I look at it more as: I've progressed, I'm growing up, but I'm not living up to my potential yet, report card wise). Anyway, I find his post interesting because it's the opposite of how I think of short fiction.
See, I write a lot of short fiction. At any given time I'm committed to 3-5 pieces for a number of publications. Only once since I started writing short stories have I ever had a clean slate--that is, no requests for material, and free to write for any market I liked. This is why I haven't been published in the Big Three, or Strange Horizons, or Tor.com, or a number of other places. I never get to write anything that isn't immediately promised to someone else. It's a crazy world I live in, and Not Normal, I know, in the world where many bemoan the idea that one can't make a living on short fiction, but that's the situation.
The other part of the situation is that novel advances are few and far between. Especially given that I couldn't sell a book in 2008. I have to wait months for any major check. So short fiction is actually how I make a goodly chunk of my income--especially when you figure in the Omikuji Project, which is a short story per month as long as people keep wanting them. Short fiction, for me, pays the bills.
So it's funny--Scalzi talks about how little one gets paid for fiction per word and posted his per word rates, which are almost all higher than I've ever been paid for anything.
I've made 25 cents a word a couple of times. Once I got paid $1 a word for a textbook contribution (still fiction, a retelling of a Greek myth). But for the most part, I work for page-mine rates. 5 cents a word. I'm thrilled if I get 7 cents, ecstatic if it's 10. And occasionally, if I'm friends with the editor or it's for charity, I work for less than 5 cents a word. But for a long time, my policy has been: if it pays pro rate, I'll do it.
Because I couldn't afford not to. Still can't, really. I'm fighting to hollow out recovery time in between the 5 stories I owe various markets right now.
But look--5 cents a word, with my average short story being 5000 words or so, comes out to about $250 for a short story. Is that a ton of money? No. Is it a couple of bills paid, or a half tank of heating oil, or a third of my rent? Yes, it is. And it adds up. I write fast. It rarely takes me more than a day or two to write a short story, once I have it in my head (it's the getting of it in my head that takes time, grasping the idea, smoothing it out in my brain, coaxing it, but mainly getting the idea at all) and if the story's good enough it might make a Year's Best anthology for another $100, or maybe another $30, depending on the anthology. But all those small numbers add up, and if I write two short stories a month, which I usually do, plus Omikuji and whatever other freelancing things I'm up to at the moment...well, that's how you live from day to day.
Without short fiction, I'd have had to quit this gig a long time ago.
I can't even imagine getting 50 cents a word for anything I'd write. I've had two short fiction gigs lately that paid about 25 cents a word and I was over the moon about it. When it comes to short fiction, I almost always say yes, as long as it comes with a deadline and isn't a vague "send us a story sometime." It's a massive part of my working life--even though I never set out to be a short fiction writer and had to learn the hard way how to do it--just by doing it, over and over, until I didn't hate everything I wrote.
I do agree, absolutely, that as writers we must be paid for what we do unless we choose to forgo payment for reasons that seem right to the individual author. And as someone progresses in their career, what they can afford to write changes. It's only in the last year that I've even started to limit myself to pro rates--though I would never have accepted the fifth of a cent rate that started this whole debate. But for me, pro rate is a good, solid rate, nothing great, nothing spectacular, but solid enough to count on, and I work for it regularly. It's the bedrock of my ability to write full-time. Not as exciting as a novel sale, but without it, I'd be in freefall.