The abysmally low payment terms for science fiction and fantasy short story markets have been a sad topic of conversation among writers for decades. Gone are the days when writing and selling a short story would pay your rent (unless you’re selling to Tor.com).
Rates for writing short fiction are even lower than those for modern magazines and newspapers, which may be hard to wrap one’s head around, but having written for both, I can tell you that magazine writers aren’t making out much better than we are.
Yet whereas I was paid just $250 for a recent article in The Atlantic, that piece only took me about four hours to write and edit. Compare that to the 20-40 hours it can sometimes take to write a short story, for which I’d be paid about the same amount (if I could find a market for it at all), and the economics of short fiction writing at the per-hour level can be even lower than that offered in the competitive freelance nonfiction market. This is the reason I encourage writers to start hedging their bets as they level up. Does writing short fiction make economic sense, or is there another way to bring in more in compensation?
I understand that it’s difficult to talk about hourly rates for specialized work because those rates often don’t reflect the years of experience one needs to do the work. The personal anecdotes and stories that we call on to create essays and short fiction take a lifetime to accumulate. That’s tough to put a price tag on – for us or for the people who buy our work.
I was struck by this recently while doing a ‘‘Where do my ideas come from?’’ video for a short story called ‘‘The Light Brigade’’. I found myself sharing the many real-life stories, anecdotes, experiences, and other things I’d read over the last 30-some years that went into building the worlds and people and concepts for this single piece of fiction. I was fascinated at the reminder that I was the only one who could have written this story in just this way. These were pieces of my life, all bundled up and remixed. It’s this unique blend of experiences that helps make up a writer’s voice. One can pay $50 for endless iterations of ‘‘5 Superfoods’’ blog posts that take an hour to write and sound the same, but there’s only one ‘‘We Have Always Fought’’, only one of John Scalzi’s ‘‘Being Poor’’ essay, only one of Roxane Gay’s ‘‘Bad Feminist Manifesto’’.
Like personal essays, short fiction is the sum of our life experiences, so how do we price that out fairly? At the end of the day, the value of our labor is determined by the grim economics of ‘‘How much will people pay for it?’’ and as we’ve heard again and again from book and magazine editors, the general public won’t pay a lot for short fiction from unknown or lesser-known writers (even so-called ‘‘Big Names’’ struggle to sell short story collections in what a publisher would consider a profitable number of books). The lack of commercial interest trickles down to how much editors will pay writers for these pieces. Which leaves us making $200 a pop. Is there a better way?
What a number of writers are increasingly doing through platforms like Patreon and Kickstarter is bypassing the general SFF reading public altogether and going straight to the people they know will pay fair rates for their fiction: their fans. This isn’t a new idea, of course. Writers like Catherynne M. Valente were writing and sending short story chapbooks every month back in the early 2000s that readers could subscribe to. Many blogs and ‘‘free’’ short stories hosted online by their authors include donation buttons, affiliate links, and even Google ads just like magazines would. Making $200, $1,200, or even $2,000 for a short story today is not unheard of using these methods.
However, let’s keep in mind that this pool of ‘‘true fans’’ also requires years to build. I’ve been publishing short fiction since 1995, blogging since 2004, and writing published novels since 2011 and have just now accumulated enough of a following to make writing short fiction an effort that pays me fairly. Many writers have given up short fiction all together once they started earning money on novels, which is a sad reality of the game.
One of the reasons markets like Tor.com are able to put out so many exceptional stories right now is because they pay the most for them (and also because they are now, alas, only selecting work from established authors. They recently closed their unsolicited slush pile). Magazines without support from a major publisher like Tor find themselves unable to pay fair rates for short fiction, and then complain that they aren’t getting many great stories. I have a lot of sympathy for the slush pile, having weeded through my own under a pseudonym many years ago, but that was also for a magazine that paid a bare minimum token rate. I was not expecting a budding genius to send in anything for $5 or $25 in compensation.
Do low paying markets still publish folks who go on to be great? Absolutely. I’ve done my own time in the pits making $25 or $50 a short story (and I’ve been known to accept $50 for reprints of very old stories that have already made the rounds a few times and essays that take me an hour or two, but only for folks I know).
What this whole ‘‘economics of short fiction’’ situation made me wonder is what exactly short fiction markets are for and whether or not they are worth a writer’s time. I’m the first to loudly state that if you can’t afford to pay your writers, you can’t afford to publish an anthology or magazine. Paying writers is a cost of doing business. Paying them fairly, however, is a matter of some contention. Is ‘‘fairness’’ simply how much people will accept, how much the market says it’s worth, or a wage based on how long it actually took to write?
Our views on labor in America are built on a history of indentured servitude and slavery, which is one reason that protections for workers have been so difficult to come by. We continually rank far below the rest of our peers in how we regulate big business and how it treats its labor. Before you get up in arms about how short story writers and essayists aren’t exactly coal miners, I invite you to interview freelancers on how they’re actually making a living (or not) right now. Writing may not be a physically demanding job, but creating valuable and entertaining content for consumers is a huge and valuable skill that big businesses understand and are willing to pay for. Super fans get this, too. General consumers don’t.
So when we’re plotting a course for the future of short fiction, I’d challenge writers to consider what they are willing to write for at different times in their careers. If you’re just starting out and consider your freshman effort worth $5 because it was a great exercise to engage in to help you level up, fine. But as you become more skilled and start building a fan base, consider that your presence in a magazine or anthology may be doing more for the magazine editor than it’s doing for you. Expect and ask to be paid fairly for the work you’ve put in and the lifetime of practice it’s taken you to get this far.
And if they can’t give you that, consider going to the people who can. As writers this business is difficult enough without undervaluing our own work.