My Short Fiction Rates

As I’ve been blathering about short story payment rates over the last couple of days, I’ve been getting inquiries via the e-mail channel about what I make when I write short fiction. Fair enough; I’ve talked about what I’ve made before in a general sense, so I’ll detail the short fiction part of it for you. But behind the cut, as I suspect some people are now officially bored with the topic, and some others might simply find me talking about what I make a bit obnoxious.

(Click below to read more…)

First, I’ll be blunt about it and say that I generally don’t write a whole lot of short fiction because they pay scale just isn’t there. In the non-fiction work I do, over the last few years the lowest I’ve been paid was 37 cents a word and the highest (when I was doing corporate consulting) was about $15 a word, so even the lowest-paying non-fic gig I’ve had pays four to six times better than the standard rate for the “Big Three” science fiction/fantasy markets and seven times better than the SFWA “pro” rate. So as a full-time writer, it simply doesn’t make any economic sense to invest a lot of time into short stories. So when I do short stories, I’m typically doing them for one of three reasons (or some combination of the three):

1. I want to work on and improve some aspect of my writing, i.e., the short story as writing lab;

2. The short story is commissioned at a higher-than-standard rate;

3. I’m using the story as a charity vehicle.

With that in mind, here’s what I’ve been paid for short fiction over the years. In more or less chronological order:

Alien Animal Encounters (2001): Five cents a word. First short fiction sale, to Strange Horizons.

Three Christmas-themed stories (2003): I wrote these as a fund-raiser for Reading is Fundamental and raised about $700. The total word output was about 10,000 words, so that’s about seven cents a word, although none of it came to me.

New Directives for Employee – Manxtse Relations (2005): Part of a chapbook that came with the limited hardcover edition of Agent to the Stars. Bought as part of an overall deal for the book, so it’s hard to say how much I was paid per word for it. The book did well, however, so I’d hazard that in the end I got something like ten cents a word for it.

Questions for a Soldier (2005): Chapbook from Subterranean Press. 30 cents a word, plus I sold it as a reprint for $500, which is another ten cents a word.

How I Proposed to My Wife – An Alien Sex Story (2007): Chapbook from Subterranean Press. 30 cents a word.

The Sagan Diary (2007): Hardcover novella from Subterranean Press. This one has an interesting history. In late 2006 I auctioned off a self-printed galley of The Last Colony to benefit the Mike Ford Book Endowment at the Minneapolis Public Library, and joked that if someone bid $5,000, I would write them their own short story. Bill Schafer then promptly bid $5,000 and asked me to write something in the Old Man’s War universe for him. Thus, The Sagan Diary.

As far as I was concerned it was meant to be a work for hire and Bill could have done what he liked with it, including (as he eventually did) turn it into something Subterranean Press could sell, without any additional compensation to me. However, I will note that Bill did not consider it a work for hire (I have the copyright ownership to prove it) and once his initial investment was earned out, started paying me royalties. So the work had two revenue streams, one as charity and, later, one to me. As charity, it earned about 40 cents a word. For me, it’s earned roughly $1.66 a word (it sells well).

Pluto Tells All (2007): Published at Subterranean Online Magazine. Ten cents a word.

After the Coup (2008): Published at Tor.com. 25 cents a word.

Denise Jones, Super Booker (2008): Published at Subterranean Online Magazine. Ten cents a word.

The State of Super Villainy (2008): I was paid ten cents a word for this by Subterranean Press but then asked if I could take it back to use it as a fund-raiser for SFWA member Vera Nazarian, who was encountering a spot of trouble. Bill Schafer agreed and further offered to match donations up to the first $1,000, and I published it on my Web site, raising $4,000 total to assist Ms. Nazarian. So as a charity vehicle it earned 50 cents a word.

The Tale of the Wicked (2009): Published in The New Space Opera 2 anthology. I owed co-editor Jonathan Strahan a story after stiffing him on another anthology, and thus would have done this one for free as recompense, had he let me. He did not, that magnificent bastard, and forced me to take the money. Well, okay, I didn’t put up much of a fight. Six cents a word.

Judge Sn Goes Golfing (2009): Subterranean Press chapbook (at the printers now!): 37 cents a word.

I think that’s all my short fiction to date (The God Engines, which is a novella, has a deal that is book-like in its structure, so a per-word rate is not relevant on that one).

To be clear, and so no one else makes the obvious point, I am an extreme outlier; with the exception of “Alien Animal Encounters” I didn’t write or publish short fiction prior to being a novelist, which I think has made a difference in the amounts I am paid. Also, I publish the majority of my short fiction with one market, with which I have a strong business relationship (which is, I’ll note, based on my work doing very good business for it). I am able to make better than standard rates, so I do.

That said, I also make better than standard rates because I choose not to make less — or if I choose to make less, I generally choose to make nothing and use the work for charitable goals. This goes back to what I mentioned earlier about placing value on one’s work and time. These are the values I place on my short work and my time writing it: to do well for me or to do good for others. Otherwise, I’ll just write some non-fiction. Or blather on my blog.

Update, 3:15pm: The fabulous Cat Valente has further thoughts on short fiction and the payment thereof. Also, I missed a short story in my accounting and account for it here.

47 thoughts on “My Short Fiction Rates

  1. Pretty decent rates as far as short fiction goes, average to meh if they were for nonfiction, although I’ll do some stuff for 35 cents a word nonfiction if it’s:

    A. Easy
    B. A client I like working with (to a point)
    C. A client that assigns me work rather than asks me to do the preliminary research to pitch ideas
    D. If it’s a client that sends me a lot of work.

  2. Well speaking as a non writer person It’s very interesting to get a glimpse into the industry like this. I never knew you got paid by the word.

    So are you ever given a word limit? I look at the Harry Potter series for example and the books just kept getting thicker. I assume that the popularity of the series gave Rowling free reign to write as she pleased, but knowing that payment is by the word puts a very different perspective on things.

    Has an editor / publisher ever said “well its a great story John, but you need to cut it back 1000 words or so”?

  3. So, how much do you make per word for your blog? :)
    It would certainly be interesting to consider how much incremental income you make from people reading your blog and then buying a book (or books), particularly with small-market offerings that won’t spend much or any time on major bookstore shelves, but sell out because you mention them on the blog.

  4. I’d note that writing short fiction is also, for many people, a much harder task than writing longer fiction — and the SALABLE short fiction window is fairly narrow. Technically all of my Jason Wood stories (several of which were stuck together to make _Digital Knight_) were “short” stories, but they were between 12k and 20k words long — which almost no one wants to take, especially from an unknown author.

    Thanks for this last sequence of posts on pay rates, publications, etc. It’s good to keep reminding people that if you want to make money at writing, that you have to be willing to say “and there’s some point that I’m NOT making money, and I’m not going below that.”

  5. GL2418, Harry Potter etc. isn’t short fiction; can’t imagine JK Rowling was paid by the word. From my admittedly weak understanding of the business, anything that is sold on its own in the bookstore typically is paid by royalties, while anything you sell in a collection (or in a magazine or something else where royalties would be complicated) is usually a one-time payment, which is where the per-word comes in. (Perhaps John will grace us with a more thorough explanation, or a link to the blog post that explains it, as I don’t see a link up in administrivia :)

  6. Joe M:

    Whatever has been incredibly important to my career for a number of reasons, but indeed it’s hard to put a “per word” amount to it.

    GL2418:

    Most publishers in short fiction have preferred lengths and state them in their submission guidelines. Likewise in my book contracts I usually have a target length specified, and the work is not supposed to be more than 10% away from that in either direction. But I’m not paid per word with the books.

    Mark Terry:

    Yup. Not counting the Sagan Diary outlier, the high end of the fiction rates is on par with the low end of my non-fiction rates.

  7. On a slightly differently topical topic, is there a suggested ‘starting’ word count for new writers? IE, if you’ve never written fiction professionally, and want to write something and see if someone will accept it at a mid level journal, is there a good word count to aim for? I imagine different lengths of stories have different difficulty levels, not just in ‘how long’, but often in ‘how short’ as well (which for most aspiring writers is probably the more pertinent issue) and in what sorts of plot/character development/etc. is expected.

  8. @GL

    Well, novels are different. Books follow the adavnce/roylaties model. Rowling could write as she please because the publisher simply jacked up the prices on the book. An editor certainly could call for cuts if the novel is too long, but it’s not to save pennies per word.

    We’re talking about non-novel works, which generally follow the pay-per-word model. Here, the editor of the publication sets a max word rate. and that’s how he keeps it within his goals.

  9. I wonder how it would work if you translated it to per-hour, rather than per-word. Per word is a bit misleading, because it implies you get equal value [ie, equal time] from each word; I imagine there must be a certain start-up cost to writing a 100 word piece, that makes the time spent per word much higher.

  10. Joe M:

    Well, it seems like that wouldn’t really work, since the writing process (and time involved) is different for every author–and you’re being paid for the finished product, regardless of the amount of effort that went into it. That’s how I perceive it, anyway.

  11. So we’ve seen an example of a ‘bad’ publisher, what’s an example of a good one or two for short story writers?

    What about people like me, that want something written, but don’t have the talent, but do have the money? do we go to a publisher and talk to them? Should I just contact random author’s agents?

    It’d be nice if there were a clearing house for authors and whatever I qualify as to get together and get some writing done.

    For example, one of my sites is http://www.chooseyourownadventures.com which is NOT the official CYOA site, but is instead my own lame attempt at the story format. I’d love to get some good stories up there though, but don’t know where to turn :(

  12. Thanks for the link to the Creative Sampler. I’ve read many of them but some I haven’t and some I don’t even remember having heard of. (Not that I obsessively stalk you and know everything you write, but I’ve been reading Whatever for a few years so I generally notice when you mention them here.)

    Off to read “After the Coup” now. Uh, I mean, off to do productive work for the day. *shifty eyes*

  13. I’ve never been paid per word for short stories, non fiction (in books or periodicals), or book length fiction. I worked for several years as a freelance columnist for a newspaper. I was given a word length (inches) and paid the same rate regardless of whether it was 100 words longer or shorter on any given week. But the target would have equaled about 15 cents a word, then later I got a raise that would have made it 25 cents a word.

    I’ve also written non fiction for anthologies that averaged out to between 10 and 12 cents a word — again, not being paid “per word” but being told what the acceptable length range was and what they were going to pay me. Some of these deals were flat fee, some included royalties.

    I’ve only just signed my first short fiction contracts, but none of these were “per word” either, and the stated ranges of length were between 6-13k, which would really mess with your “per word” rate if you figured it like that. You write a short story, you might get 10 cents a word, but if you write a long one you’re down to 5.

    Finally, per word on a novel is going to range a lot. Standard Harlequin category first timers are going to get something that comes out to about 7 cents a word, with royalty backing, and tha’s not bad. Other first timers, to judge from Tobias Buckell’s research and standard manuscript length, are making more like 4.

  14. thanks for the depth of sharing as we all have a much better perception of the trade/art. I also so, agree with you on your comments that catalizied this thread. I hope to eventually publish, but, my painting and day job are the present focus. I will continue in the meantime to enjoy your blog & writtings.

  15. Steven:

    So I did. The initial rate for that one was about 10 cents per word, but additional sales of the METAtropolis anthology substantially upped that; the sale of the anthology to SubPress, for example, added an additional 10 cents/word to the tally.

  16. Wait . . . fifteen dollars per word? What kind of consulting pays those kind of rates for straight up text rather than meetings, face time, consultation, etc. because I clearly need a career change . . .?

  17. Crunchbird:

    It was a one-time, very short term, very last-minute gig; I was basically swooping in and saving someone’s ass. Generally speaking my consulting pay was rather a bit less, although still quite remunerative.

  18. Joe M@5
    Ah yes the title did say “Short Fiction” didn’t it? All these literary buzzwords makes my head hurt. Well actually I’m just not paying full attention.

  19. Not that I doubted you, I was just sad to see you leave it out.

    (I always forget the title and re-find it when I want to pass it on to friends by searching for “john scalzi first squid on the moon”.)

  20. Dear Fiction Writers,

    Consider writing some non-fiction prose as well. It may not tickle your fancy quite as much — but it pays better. Plus, it will make you a better fiction writer.

    John, your “keep your day job” recommendation is spot on.

    Signed,
    An editor for a tech mag…

  21. You know what? I was wrong about that. I did three non-fic anthos, and the last one they did switch to per word. It was the same average “rate” though so I didn’t notice the dollar or so more.

    Here’s the thing about writing for newspapers. You learn to hit your target.

  22. If I made 5 cents/word for one of my stories, I’d be ecstatic. I was happy when I was offered 1 cent/word for a story I wrote. Unfortunately, that zine went out of business before they could publish it.

    With 147 zines dead or on long term hiatus since 2008, I’d say it’s a buyer’s market for stories.

  23. I was really impressed with you helping out Vera Nazarian last year, and delighted to hear the overall total you were able to send her.

    Unfortunately the Banks have screwed her over once again, as she notes on her LJ
    I need your help, but she’s not asking for donations, just for fans of Jane Austen mashups to get notified that she’s written a fun parody, too.

    MANSFIELD PARK AND MUMMIES: Monster Mayhem, Matrimony, Ancient Curses, True Love, and Other Dire Delights

    Considering she’s been nominated for the Nebula twice now – and the excerpts I expect this to be a fun read, and a real help to her if enough people get to find out about it.

    I came across this via Sherwood Smith’s LJ, but was also one of the readers who donated to you.

  24. Didn’t we pay you eight cents per word for that one? And, no, of course I wouldn’t let you do it for free. It was generous of you to offer, but crazy!

  25. Thanks for pulling back the curtain on the “how much?” question, John. But I’m curious about “how fast?” How long did it take to write some of these stories?

  26. Irrespective of the figures involved, kudos to you for being willing to share the info. This is extremely helpful for new/unpublished/minimally published writers.

  27. Hi John,

    For aspiring writers who write short fiction, the traditional advice is is that you start with the highest paying market and work your way down. That makes sense.

    But here’s my question: Suppose a writer has worked his/her way through all the top-paying markets, when should that writer take a story off the market? At what point should the writer say, “If this isn’t good enough to be published there, it isn’t good enough to be published anywhere”?

    Thanks.

  28. Jeff,

    There is an awful lot of “churn” in the fiction market. By the time one burns through all the pro-paying venues, often sufficient time has elapsed that some other genius who slipped and fell in a supermarket and decided to start a magazine with his or her settlement money is ready to go with a magazine or well-paying anthology from an independent press.

    There are also the semi-pros that pay fairly well (say the former pro-rate of 3¢ a word) and that may even cough another two pennies for something if they like it and a writer asks, and even for relative nobodies (like me) certain minimums can be set.

    I wrote a story for a new webzine earlier this year—it’s not a “professional” magazine by any measure, but I was asked for a story and presented my rate card: flash fiction for $50 or short story (which would be quite short, actually) for $100. They chose the flash fiction option, liked the story, paid, published it, and have since used it (and a similarly solicited story in their second issue) to encourage higher quality submissions.

    Then there are, as you know, the prestige venues that have already been mentioned (.e.g, LCRW) and a couple that have not (e.g., Flurb). They pay only a little but as they essentially act as an internal bulletin for certain parts of the field, are worthwhile to publish in.

    Then there are the out-of-field venues worth trying, at least for certain sorts of SF/F/H anyway, that pay well.

  29. Interesting info. I’ve been writing non-fiction magazine stuff and supporting myself for almost 20 years. Plus a number of NF books and “word whore” advertising or tech writing that comes my way. Wanting to write fiction, never doing it. The excuse to myself has been “no time” but I think the reality is the uphill part of it (all over again in my case), working for little or nothing and taking away from stuff that pays the bills. All the years freelancing has been great training in the work ethic and I can put words together under pressure. Not really sure how much all that buys a person in the fiction arena. After reading this, I have an inking… maybe more than I thought.

  30. Jeff @39. What I’ve advised a few writer friends to do in such cases, if they feel they have a good story on their hands, is put it aside, and use it as an original in a short story collection, where a decent amount of original material can add a few thousand dollars to an offer from a small press.

    Best,

    Bill
    SubPress

  31. Diana@31:
    Here’s the thing about writing for newspapers. You learn to hit your target.

    And if you take a while to learn, a good editor can quickly provide a masterclass is sending your ego on permanent vacation. :)

  32. Bill@32:

    Sorry for the topic drift, but in the context of recent threads, thanks for giving me a lot of pleasure over the years while proving that “small press publisher” and “exploitative douchebag” don’t have to be synonyms.

  33. John,
    I completely agree that you need to be paid what you think your work is worth. That said IMHO it’s a shame you don’t do more short stories as that’s the format that brings out the best in a writer. There’s something special about telling a good story in but a few pages as opposed to the length of a novel and the novels of yours I’ve read cannot be easily reduced to short stories (unlike some authors I will not name). However, were you to look at my library, the books that show the most wear are the short story collections. They are what I most frequently reread.

  34. A couple of years ago I actually set aside a couple of bookcases specifically for short story collections and anthologies. Given the number of them we publish, I don’t think it’ll come as as surprise how much I value the formats.

    Bill
    SubPress

  35. Dean Smith and Kris Rusch suggest that you never take it off the market, ever. Keep sending it out — you will have to get creative about what constitutes a “market” after awhile — just as long as it pays.

    Me? I just got the first of two checks for a story I wrote early in the summer. When the second check arrives, that story will have earned an average of 12¢ per word, which is substantially above “pro” SFWA rate, but well below what Scalzi — as well-known bestseller — can command.

    Generally, once your name becomes a Name, things that were once rigid, become flexible, even liquid.

    For myself, I write short fiction because a) it’s good practice for me and b) if I fuck up a short story, it doesn’t hurt nearly as bad as fucking up a novel — that feels fifty times worse — and c) it’s a way of increasing name recognition, such that editors pay (a little) more attention, when that inevitable novel manuscript hits their desk.

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