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Short Fiction and You
John Scalzi, Duke of the Internet (I think the hierarchy behaves much like a court where the monarch is perpetually away), posted an entry about what he gets paid for short fiction, and his thoughts on same.

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.

I dont particularly prefer short stories, but I make a point of buying the anthologies that come out because I know the people in it, and the erratic incomes of writers. Its cat food/heat/rent/survival for some, and not everyone will wait another 6 weeks before the big check comes.

I prefer short stories and have placed a few in slicks that paid $1000-€1000 and it's great, but those same slicks have also published my non-fiction for $1.00 a word. Naturally, the stories have mostly been over 1000 words, but I don't consider this money lost on the margin because writing short stories is enjoyable in a way that writing non-fiction is not. That's a qualitative difference, the way homemade fried chicken is differently good though just as good as a nice lamb shank with orzo at a favorite restaurant. (It's also much more enjoyable than writing a novel chapter of equivalent length, but I dislike writing novels.)

I've also lucked out with reprints: $50-100 here and there for podcasts, sometimes mainstream rags or Greek or German magazines pick something up for as much as I originally received ($100-$1000), etc. And stories lead to solicitations in a way that non-fiction does, so once one turns the corner and can publish much or all of what one writes, one has many more opportunities to write short stories without spending too much dead time exploring the marketplace and collecting rejections. Then a collection or two from a small press brings in a grand or three and sometimes some college student with dreams of Hollywood stardom scrapes together a few bucks for an option and and ...

do you know what escape pod/podcastle pay?
just curious. i think it is by the story rather than the word, but i know they do pay.

also my two cents? you write WAY beter than john scalzi.

As a Californian, I basically went, "Holy crap!" at your rent, and was so blown over that it took a while to sink in that you get paid 5-7 cents a word for some of your stuff. I had no idea what market rates were for short fiction. Scary.

Holy crap because it's low or holy crap because it's high?

It gets even more complicated when, like me, you get paid in a currency that is not that of your country, so you are hit with bank charges, often twice. On the other hand, I also write non-fiction, and for most of that I was not paid at all, but it was a condition of my job that I continued to publish it. I was first published in 1987 and I think my lifetime earnings from fiction and non-fiction together are around £8000. Which is something on the order of £360 a year. I'm afraid I don't know exactly what that is in $ -- around the $550 mark, probably.
The fiction makes up more than half of that total, although I didn't start publishing that till 2007.

It is interesting to me that I should read this today. Oh, universe, how odd you are. I shall mull it over.

Context? Haven't read much LJ today.

Hmmm. You're getting paid about what translators get paid. It's crap money and you have to work bloody hard for it. I didn't realize that short fiction paid so poorly...*goes to find C. Valente books to buy*

If Scalzi is the duke of the internet, I think Neil Gaiman might be the crown prince.

I think Neil Gaiman is the God-emperor of the Internet, myself.

I don't think $250 is a ton of money, but it's a sizeable sum.

I am not sure about the SF/F writers in the US - but folks in Singapore are not paid much too. A lot of us freelance as writers. And yes, the small sums do add up and mean a lot of us.

It's not a ton of money. But it adds up, and pays some bills, for less work than a novel, and is pleasurable. I'm not saying I wouldn't like more, but I don't often get more.

It's interesting to read this in light of my having spent the evening wrangling with one of my writers about me offering a journalism assignment rate that works out to 60-ish cents a word. (He felt that was insultingly low; I think it works out to about $35/hour, which strikes me as in the ballpark for what workhorse journalists of the non-Big Name type can reasonably charge.) The entire market for paying writers of any kind is changing so fast it's hard to figure out a reasonable economic value for the work.

I think both of your numbers are amazing, there. :)

Five years is the average career for a novelist?


Unasked for advice. Cat, what you really need to consier is setting a *minimum* you'll accept for a short story, which is a bit higher that the $250 you seem to average, but one that is not a ridiculous increase. I'd suggest $350-$500. The writers I've known who did this -- some certainly not as well known as John is -- almost inevitably didn't see the demand for their work drop much, but did see a nice bump in their income.


I think the question more to the point is either:
"If a $0.05 market will publish it, maybe a larger market will too, so why shortchange yourself?"
"If you suck, why not get paid a little for sucking, instead of nothing at all?"

It's been most interesting reading various people's opinions on all this.

Thanks for sharing :)