How do writers get paid?

There’s a common misconception that writers get paid per word.  But if you look carefully, only amateur writers, bloggers and diploma mills quote how much a writers should be paid “per word.”  But we’ll get back to that later.

“Writing for a penny a word is ridiculous.” – L Ron Hubbard, sci fi writer, 1948.

L Ron Hubbard supposedly bemoaned the low pay of science fiction writers in a conference in 1948, but he was quoted in an LA newspaper thirty years later.  So, even back in 1948, a penny a word was considered low pay for a writer.  Well, the average salary in 1948 was about 1/20 of what it is now.  So, perhaps today he would have said, “writing for 20 cents a word is ridiculous.”

Science fiction was one of the lowest paying genres in 1948, and it still is today.  But, L Ron Hubbard was misleading when he suggested that sci fi writers get paid per word.  They actually get paid by rights, and those rights are only occasionally priced per word.

By rights

I know what some of you are saying to the above, especially those who dream of writing sci-fi “this or that sci-fi magazine pays per word.”  Well, they don’t tend to commission per word, they buy a set of rights such as “first serial rights” or “first American/British serial rights.”  And then, they pay per word for those rights.

How is that different?  As a writer, you’re not writing what they ask you to write, they don’t give you a theme, and the stories aren’t time bound.  You write according to your own initiative, and therefore if the first magazine doesn’t want it, it’s still marketable elsewhere.  Even if the first magazines does pay for it, they only get the rights to publish it in one issue of their magazine. You can still get royalties for your work by publishing it in an anthology, or by selling secondary serial rights or rights in other countries.

By royalties

Okay, so you’ve sold the first American serial rights to your favourite sci fi (or should I say favorite, as it’s North American?)  Well, the story is still yours to put in an anthology, adapt into a play or a screenplay, or expand into a novel.  When you’re writing novels and anthologies, you often get paid royalties.  In physical books, where the publisher does the marketing, print and distribution, the author often gets 10 to 15 percent of the cover price or sales price.  So, the more people who buy your book, the more you get.

By advance

If you’re working on non-fiction, or are a well known author, or your story is so great that the publisher has confidence in it (and is afraid of losing you to the competition), then you’ll get an advance on these royalties.  In other words, you’ll get paid a certain amount up front, and get royalties in addition if the book sells better than expected.

This is a risk to the publisher, but the publisher is taking a risk printing and distributing your book anyway.  Advances used to be standard practice, it’s the amount of the advance that differs.

By commission

In screenplays, many works are commissioned.  That means the writer doesn’t write a word until hired.  The commission might be to write an outline, treatment and two drafts.  The writer is still working generally as a freelancer, and has sold many of the rights, depending upon the contract.  (If you’re adapting Wuthering Heights, good luck on negotiating the book rights.)

Even with commission, writers normally keep a few points in standard contracts.  However, when commissioned, the writer might not be the originator of the story, and in some cases may even lose copyright.

By time

Mean annual wage for writer or author (or average wage): $72,120.  Median annual wage (or wage for the average writer): $61,820  (Source, the US Bureau of labour and statistics.)

Instead of being commissioned to write a certain amount of stories, or selling the rights to certain territories, or getting royalties depending upon how popular your book is, many journalists are paid for their time.  They are employees.

These writers are the ones who churn out the most stuff, because they don’t have to spend time researching markets, only the storylines.  So, an in house journalist may write multiple stories per day.  However, the quality of these stories is generally lower, not only because they are churned out so quickly, but because they merely reiterate facts that are fed to them.

Writers who are paid by time may only write an occasional story, and spend most of their salaried time interviewing or researching (if they are working in a journalistic capacity), or even negotiating on behalf of the company (if, for instance, they are working for an ad company.)  Some writers have a weekly column that they work all week on.

Most salaried writers are paid an annual salary rather than an hourly one.  In fact, I never seen a proper writing job that pays for a unit of time as small as an hour, it’s always been by year or at least by month. I don’t think salaried actually clock in and out like I used to at directory enquiries, and when they are writing those big pieces, their hours probably increase closer to the deadline.


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