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.

 

Screenwriting is the most competitive profession in the film industry

Reading the trades, I discovered that only about 1100 writers worked on films in Hollywood last year.  Sure, more than that worked on TV, but most elite members of the WGA only work about one year in three (if at all).  And, when they do find work, their pay is still less than many less glamorous roles.

(I know Squanto.  You were unemployed long before I made that discovery.) Continue reading Screenwriting is the most competitive profession in the film industry

Irony

Catalan and Portuguese flag superimposed on our 1812 timeline page
I made this image with the help of technology. It cost me a man hour, based on a blog that cost me longer, but I don’t know how much of the tech was devoted to me.

The following post is filled with #irony making it #ironic . It’s not meant to be useful, any utility is purely accidental. Punctuation is intentionally misplaced to suit the hashtag.

You know one of the most ironic sayings ever? “A picture is worth a thousand words. ” That’s seven words long. Try drawing a picture that says over 142 times that. (Use a calculator to do the math.) Some pictures are worth a thousand words, but those are either powerful pictures, or lame words.

Another ironic thing: I recently received an essay about the importance and power of stories. The essay was structured in such a way that it didn’t tell a single story. Okay, so it tried to conjecture on the key themes of a few stories, maybe even hinted at a few plots, but it didn’t tell one. If stories are so powerful, why was it written as an essay? Continue reading Irony

Beaumarchais and the first writers’ strike

You may have heard of Beaumarchais. He was a watchmaker, publisher of Voltaire’s works, gun runner for the rebels in the American Revolution, but most notably a playwright of works such as The Barber of Seville (which Mozart adapted into an opera.)

In Beaumarchais’s time, writers were not well paid. The theatres of Paris held a kind of monopoly, or cartel.  They colluded together to keep writers fees down.

The Barber of Seville was one of the hits of 1775, and continued bringing in audiences after that.  But, despite the money that the theatres got from Beaumarchais’s popular play, his remuneration wasn’t very high.

So, in 1777, Beaumarchais led the other French writers in a strike. If they didn’t get paid more for their successful plays, they wouldn’t write at all.

This led to a scarcity of plays, and forced theatre owners into negotiations.

Theatre owners now paid royalties, instead of just a flat fee for plays.

3 ways to work with a writing partner

Ptara logo above wordcloud artwork

Or, “Three Ways to Collaborate on a Screenplay.”

A lot of people offer advice to screenwriters. We don’t. We write scripts in house, produce our own stories, and provide services to film production companies. So, screenwriters are not our target market.

So far, apart from a few student projects where working as part of a team was part of the grade, I tend to write alone.   I’m not looking for a writing partner, and unless I were hired to work as part of a team I don’t know if I’d work with one.

However, if you do write screenplays, and you have found your writing partner, I can tell you what seems to work for others.

1. Taking turns.
I found this one reading Joe Eszterhas’s autobiography. He did this with a friend and said it was a lot of fun. The resulting film wasn’t one of his biggest hits, but oh well. Taking turns is as simple as it sounds: One writer writes one draft, then sends it to the other writer for the next draft, bouncing it back and forth until they’re both happy with the final result.
2. Alternating scenes.
I also read a book by two comedy writers who’s movies I enjoy, called “writing movies for fun and profit.” I laughed at Ben Garrant and Thomas Lennon’s films (the Pacifier, Night at The Museum, even Balls of Fury), but their scripts were much better than that book. Some jokes just have to be performed to make sense, I suppose.

Anyway, since the book is mostly written tongue in cheek (their films grossed a billion worldwide perhaps, but they’ve only seen a tiny fraction of that), I can’t be sure that this is really their working method, but it might work. First, you sit together in a room, and rack your brains until you come up with an outline. Then, each writer writes a scene for part of that outline. They claim the outline is the hard part. After you’ve written the odd scenes and your partner the even scenes, you switch and polish off the other writer’s work.

3. Lyrics and rhythm.
I often hear teacher of music composition express doubt that creative collaboration is possible. When confronted with great collaborators, they assume one artist wrote the lyrics and the other composed the melody, or something like that.
This can work in musicals, as illustrated in Topsy Turvy, and sort of reflects the way the famous 1930s Wizard of Oz was written.With a non-musical script, it’s a little more tricky. But, it can be done. French films have two kinds of writing credits, one for the story line or treatment, and one for the writer who does the dialogue.

Now, before you approach me or anyone else with one of these, consider that all work best if you know your writing partner well, or if you have an existing working relationship with the writers. Do you share the same taste in films and stories? Do you have a story that you both want to tell in the same way? If you’re not on the same page, it probably won’t work.

Also, unless you’re both loaded, you’ll probably need some money to sustain yourselves while writing, or extra patience while your partner tries to find time to write. The reality is multitasking celebrities usually get ghost writers to write for them, and even a full time screenwriters would normally take 3 months, 6 months, even a year to complete a script. The mythical stories about someone writing a draft in three days leave out all the months that went into preparing that first draft and the additional months that went into writing the more careful second draft.

Screenplays

Are you looking to develop an original script?

Ptara’s a script writing services include writing outlines, treatments, and fixing dialogue to a good first draft.  By first draft we don’t mean that we just send you a rough set of words, but we work on the script until we feel it’s ready.

 

Consensus or Group Think?

Usually, when people talk about “group think” they are condemning bad decisions. Yet when they talk about “consensus” they are implying that the group or crowd must be right.

When good leaders make bad decisions because advisers not only fail to speak up, but fail to even consider that better options may be available, that’s Group Think. When two people share the same view, and everyone else is afraid to speak, that’s Group Think. Group Think is when people not only fail to challenge the consensus, but fail to consider that the consensus may be wrong.

Look at almost any war, and you’ll find that the consensus behind at least one side’s leadership was wrong, and went largely unchallenged. However, war is politics by other means, and I do not wish to discuss politics.

Before getting into heated political mud fights I may wish to forget, I’ll talk about a “non-political” area, one where I’ve wasted time in debates that have turned ugly: film theory. Continue reading Consensus or Group Think?

Hey Stupid!!

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“Hi, I’m stupid.”

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I’m with stupid.

We’ve seen it again and again. Workplace “scandals” that involve public spats, arguments over bad management that end in someone getting fired.

Some “gurus” claim this shows a lack of “emotional intelligence.”  I think it’s more to do with economic intelligence.  But, if you need a primer in emotional intelligence, here you go.

Emotional Intelligence primer

Continue reading Hey Stupid!!

What is a genre? (film, theatre, music)

Aristotle spoke of a certain number of arts, but it’s not like he invented the “muses.”  To him, theatre had two main “genres”, comedy and tragedy.  There were similar arts, such as “epics”, which also told stories.

To summarize, a tragedy had a great man falling from a great height, and a sad ending, and a comedy had someone come from nowhere and achieve a happy ending.  The other “rules” of genres were merely conventions or expectations.  (When I’ve used the words “rules” in the past, I usually meant conventions.)

The DK book of Shakespeare also includes histories, romances, and “problem comedies”.  Shakespeare himself spoke of Tragicomedies and other hybrids, but they were basically three genres of history, tragedy, and comedy. Continue reading What is a genre? (film, theatre, music)

Happy Birthday to you, James William Tate

You may have heard by now that the Happy Birthday song is in copyright.  Or is it?

One of the longest copyright disputes revolves around “Happy Birthday” and whether you can use that song in your films and videos, or in live concerts and plays.   “Happy Birthday to you” has been around so long that almost no one knows who composed it.

I bet some of you might even be thinking that James William Tate had something to do with it.  Sorry, he didn’t. Continue reading Happy Birthday to you, James William Tate