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.
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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.