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Short Fiction Pay Rates

A week or so back, John Scalzi tore into Black Matrix Publishing for their short fiction pay rate of 1/5 of a cent per word.  Black Matrix responded, explaining that this is a “labor of love.” They never implied that they were a pro market, and isn’t a token payment better than none at all? (I believe Publish America uses the same rationalization with their $1 advance.) Scalzi promptly shredded their arguments.

Cat Valente weighed in as a “mid-career author” who writes a lot of short fiction.  Sarah Monette offered a third perspective, including examples of her own fiction which sold for fairly low rates, and a discussion of when and why she chooses to submit her work to semi-pro markets.

Looking at my own bibliography, there are two stories I received no payment for, and at least a half-dozen more that fall into the semi-pro category, whether that’s a $5 flat rate or a penny a word.  A careful reading will also show that this stopped around the end of 2003, after I “sold” a flash piece to a royalties-only e-book that, as far as I can tell, never sold a single copy.

Around 2004, I began submitting only to markets that paid SFWA pro rates (Then three cents a word. ETA: Current SFWA pro rate is 5 cents/word). Not because I was insulted by lesser pay rates.  Not because I felt exploited by the smaller markets.  But because my goal as a writer was to be read.

Publishing in those smaller venues was good for my ego.  Of course it feels better to be accepted than rejected.  But aside from that ego boost, those sales did little else for my stories or my career.  Sure, I could go out and buy a slice of pizza with my earnings.  But almost nobody read my work.

The contributors got their copy, so it’s possible some of my fellow authors glanced at my story.  Maybe.  (Authors, how many of you read every story in every contributor copy of an anthology or magazine?)  Aside from that?  Well, one friend in college did pick up a copy of World Wide Writer, so that’s something, right?  What’s World Wide Writer, you ask?  Oh, right.  They were a tiny startup ‘zine that died after two issues.

I don’t use pay rate as an absolute rule.  Sure I’d rather make $250 than $25.  But I sold a story to Andromeda Spaceways recently, and they pay significantly less than 5 cents/word.  On the other hand, they’ve been around a long time, put out a nice magazine, and have a good reputation and readership for a semi-pro.  There are a handful of others, publications that pay less than pro rates, but have earned a lot of critical acclaim or developed a broader readership.

In general though, minuscule pay rate correlates to minuscule readership.  I suspect there are more markets listed on the for-the-luv page at Ralan than there are readers for those markets.

When I started aiming for pro markets in 2004, several things happened.  I got rejected more.  I was forced to improve as a writer.  And eventually, as I broke into those markets, more people began reading my work.

Is Black Matrix exploiting writers? Token payment is better than nothing. (Chtulhu spare us from markets promising “exposure” as compensation.)  But there’s “token” and there’s “spare change I found in my sofa.”1 I don’t believe Black Matrix is trying to scam anyone.  But I won’t submit to them, and I wouldn’t recommend them as a market for new writers who want to build a career and be read.

  1. Deleted for unnecessary snark.

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.



( 90 comments — Leave a comment )
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(Deleted comment)
Dec. 7th, 2009 02:57 pm (UTC)
The minimum for SFWA pro rate is 5 cents a word.
(no subject) - jimhines - Dec. 7th, 2009 03:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mtlawson - Dec. 7th, 2009 03:13 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - mtlawson - Dec. 7th, 2009 03:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - temporus - Dec. 7th, 2009 03:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 7th, 2009 03:03 pm (UTC)
What does it mean by SFWA pro rate? The minimum recommended rate for a sale recognized by the SFWA?
Dec. 7th, 2009 03:13 pm (UTC)
Full SFWA membership qualification requires either one novel sale to a qualifying publisher, or else three short fiction sales to qualifying markets. One of the criteria for short fiction markets is that they have to pay at least five cents/word.
(no subject) - prusik - Dec. 7th, 2009 03:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - marycatelli - Dec. 7th, 2009 07:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 7th, 2009 03:07 pm (UTC)
I often have length issues (like a novella at 38K) that preclude most of the pro markets.

So there's more than just the $ factor deciding where stuff goes.
Dec. 7th, 2009 03:15 pm (UTC)
I thought one or two of the pros would take the longer stuff. FSF? I might be misremembering, though...

But yeah, I can see where you'd run out of markets pretty quickly.
(no subject) - j_cheney - Dec. 7th, 2009 05:29 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - swan_tower - Dec. 7th, 2009 05:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - j_cheney - Dec. 7th, 2009 06:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - swan_tower - Dec. 7th, 2009 06:03 pm (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - rachel_swirsky - Dec. 8th, 2009 07:43 am (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - j_cheney - Dec. 8th, 2009 02:23 pm (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 7th, 2009 03:17 pm (UTC)
Having people read your stories is definitely the most wonderful thing. Getting a response from even one person puts me over the moon. Remembering that, I try to leave messages for people whenever I read and enjoy their stories.

Authors, how many of you read every story in every contributor copy of an anthology or magazine?

In one case, I did read every story! And, due no doubt to the awesome editor, all the other stories were great. I felt honored to be in their company. (As it happens, it was the YA issue of Coyote Wild.) In most other cases, yeah, I don't read every other story, but I try to read at least a couple of others. Same with if a friend points me to his or her story somewhere--I try to glance at at least one other story. It helps me feel more grounded in what the various publications are publishing, and it helps me find some pretty great stories.

Dec. 7th, 2009 03:20 pm (UTC)
I always feel guilty for not reading my contributor copies. I'll try, but most of the time I end up reading some of the stories, then getting caught up in something else.

I'll make a point of trying to read friends' work, and I do try to read at least a few.
(no subject) - catvalente - Dec. 7th, 2009 05:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - spaceoperadiva - Dec. 7th, 2009 08:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Dec. 7th, 2009 09:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - spaceoperadiva - Dec. 7th, 2009 09:21 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
Dec. 7th, 2009 03:29 pm (UTC)
It's stuff I wish I had talked and thought about more ten years ago when I was first starting out, instead of figuring it out as I went. And I definitely think it's helpful to get different authors weighing in on how they decide which markets to submit to and why.
Dec. 7th, 2009 03:27 pm (UTC)
Interesting! Thanks. :)

-The Gneech
Dec. 7th, 2009 03:56 pm (UTC)
I've never really looked into SFWA and HWA. Although, I'm in a particular situation with all that: I write roleplaying game books for a living. Most of what I do is in the 3.5-4.5 cent per word range. However, writing is my sole source of income. I do about 60-90k words a month on average.

I make filler income with blogging (ironically, my blog pays me 5 cents a word plus a premium for hits,) and with magazine articles (which pay upwards of 25 cents per word.) Between my blog and magazine work, I do another ~20k of professional work per month.

So technically, despite the fact that I'm a full-time writer that makes a not-insignificant income from writing, I'm ineligible for any of these organizations. I'm not entirely sure why, but I feel there's something off with that.
Dec. 7th, 2009 04:45 pm (UTC)
Just to play devil's advocate, there's a difference between making significant income from writing and making significant income from writing science fiction and fantasy.

Nonfiction definitely pays better than fiction. I drool over what some of my nonfiction writing buddies make per word.

While you couldn't join as an active member of SFWA based on what you describe there, I'm pretty sure you could get an affiliate account if you wanted to. They do have a membership option for those who work in the field (nonfiction, editing, agents, etc), but haven't met the fiction requirements.
(no subject) - machineiv - Dec. 7th, 2009 04:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - marycatelli - Dec. 7th, 2009 07:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - nihilistic_kid - Dec. 8th, 2009 09:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 7th, 2009 04:06 pm (UTC)
For me, personally, it depends on the market. All my sales so far have been semi-pro, just for beer and burger money. Some semi-pro markets are quite good, some are awful. It's pretty easy to see which is which, I don't need John Scalzi telling me, because I can read them for myself.

I'd like to write for the pro magazines. However, when the pro mags reject, I go semi-pro. (My stories are somewhere between "not good enough" and "not what we're looking for.") It doesn't make sense to hoard the stories. I will simply write more--better ones--and keep submitting. Eventually, when I sell pro, the semi-pro credits can quietly slip off my resume. It's not something that I worry too much about.
Dec. 7th, 2009 04:41 pm (UTC)
Some of it is doing the research, like you say. Figuring out which of these markets is worth submitting to and which should be avoided at all costs, and the criteria there will probably vary from one writer to the next.

One data point on the hoarding, which I mentioned to Michael below -- I have several stories which I've trunked, then come back to later. I've been able to rewrite and fix those stories, and sold them to pro level markets. I'm not saying this is the One Right Way to do it, only that it's another path.
Dec. 7th, 2009 04:10 pm (UTC)
Here’s my two cents as an aspiring writer...

I agree with Scalzi about that particular market. That pay rate is bad joke. Otherwise, I lean towards truepenny.

My problem with taking a stand against submitting to markets not paying pro rates is that there are almost no markets left that pay at pro rates. Ralan lists 35 pro markets as of this morning. Six of those markets are children’s or mystery markets. That gives you 29 SF/F markets. Of those 29 markets, many are closed to submissions or possibly defunct. By my count, there are only 14 markets actually taking unsolicited submissions as of today (some will reopen after the holidays). Once you start looking at the guidelines for length or type of story, a writer is lucky if 5 of those markets are appropriate for a particular story. Each one of those markets receives hundreds of submissions for a couple of slots each month. Even if I wrote an exquisite story (not that I am at this stage of my writing career), I’m competing in that pile with seasoned professionals and their exquisite stories.

As an aspiring writer, I expect to win the lottery before I expect to be picked up off a slush pile at a pro market (and I don’t play the lottery). I know it does happen; that’s why I always start at the top. Once I get rejected, I move down the list to semi-pros and then the pay markets with a good reputation.

I would rather that one of my short stories got published in a market with 10 readers and a $5 pay rate than have that story die on my hard drive.
Dec. 7th, 2009 04:39 pm (UTC)
Ooh -- time to argue with Michael! :-)

I've never won the lottery. I've had stories picked out of the slush at Realms of Fantasy, Brutarian Quarterly, Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine, and Writers of the Future. (If you count WotF as having a slush pile.) All of those are/were pro-paying markets. It does happen, and you should expect it -- eventually.

"I would rather that one of my short stories got published in a market with 10 readers and a $5 pay rate than have that story die on my hard drive."

Third possibility: you trunk the story, then come back in five years, rewrite it, and sell it to a pro market for $300 and 5000 readers. This isn't a hypothetical; this is what I've done with at least a half-dozen of my older stories.
(no subject) - michaeldthomas - Dec. 7th, 2009 04:49 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Dec. 7th, 2009 04:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - prusik - Dec. 7th, 2009 05:01 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - temporus - Dec. 7th, 2009 05:27 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Dec. 7th, 2009 05:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - temporus - Dec. 7th, 2009 06:41 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Dec. 7th, 2009 06:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - temporus - Dec. 7th, 2009 07:13 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Dec. 7th, 2009 07:19 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - melissajm - Dec. 8th, 2009 02:04 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - margaret_y - Dec. 7th, 2009 04:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Dec. 7th, 2009 05:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - marycatelli - Dec. 7th, 2009 07:22 pm (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 7th, 2009 04:59 pm (UTC)
I ran a zine for over 11 years that paid well less than pro rate. Our mission statement was to welcome new writers and expose them to the publishing process -- we used a double-blind review system, every story was sent back with a critique, and we demanded revisions of stories that had promise but weren't quite there yet. Since I'm a university professor in "real life," I tried to bring a teaching/advising/mentoring component into publishing, just as I do in the classrooom. But I sure as heck couldn't afford to pay pro rates out-of-pocket. Moreover, I abhor advertising, and my efforts to secure an arts grant from which I might pay authors failed. So, should I have given up and closed down?

Heck no. My zine was the first to publish the works of several authors who have since gone on to publish in bigger markets and, in a few cases, sell novels. I'm proud to have helped them break in, and I'm delighted every time one of "my" writers drops me an email to tell me about another publishing success.

I think critiquing a publication just because its owner can't afford to offer pro rates is ridiculous.

Pro markets are scarce, as pointed out above. Pro markets often have very strict word limits, precisely because they're paying so much per word. Pro markets pit amateurs against, well, pros. And pro markets do not provide detailed feedback that will help amateurs *become* pros.

The better semi-pro and "for the love" markets fill those ecological and pedagogical niches in the publishing field.

We don't scoff at Little League, or junior varsity teams, or even varsity teams, just because they don't pay their players pro rates. We don't turn up our noses at companies that offer internships or entry-level positions that aren't paying top dollar. We don't scorn charities because they rely heavily on volunteer labor and offer less-than-top-market salaries to their paid employees. And we don't demand that small nightclubs or tiny local galleries pay equivalent fees to the struggling musicians or artists that they'd pay to chart-topping bands or famous painters or sculptures.

So why critique small pubs, just because their editors can't afford to pay pro prices?

Respect the labor of love and let writers decide where they want to put their efforts.
Dec. 7th, 2009 05:09 pm (UTC)
Can you show me where I'm scofffing, turning up my nose, scorning, or demanding that small pubs pay pro rates? I'd also like to know how you helped these authors to break in, because for me, the small press sales I made in the beginning did little to nothing in helping me build the kind of career I was looking for.

I'm not slamming those markets. I'm proud of the stories, and the editors poured their hearts into those publications. But in terms of helping me get noticed? Of helping me improve my craft? I'm afraid not.

When there are enough pro markets for me to keep a story in the mail for years without exhausting them all, I'd have to disagree with you about them being scarce. I definitely wish there were more, but I've been hearing people say the pro markets are vanishing for years now. Some of them go under, but I've also watched others come along to take their place.

I can understand why you're taking all of this so personally, since you edited a small press publication. But I'm not attacking you, or telling you that you should have "given up and closed down." I'm just telling you one of the reasons I probably wouldn't choose to submit my work to you.
(no subject) - jimhines - Dec. 7th, 2009 07:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 7th, 2009 05:50 pm (UTC)
I really think Black Matrix made a PR mistake. If y'all are broke, don't pay by the word. Pay a flat rate of $20, which no one around here sneers at. It looks way worse broken down into a per word rate.
Dec. 7th, 2009 06:07 pm (UTC)
That, plus the P.R. mistake of trying to argue with Scalzi online. I don't think that's quite up there with land wars in Asia, but it never seems to end well.
(no subject) - swan_tower - Dec. 7th, 2009 06:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 7th, 2009 05:56 pm (UTC)
For me, a market either has to pay professional rates, or be doing something pretty cool. Without one or the other of these, I tend to be hesitant to submit.

I also think--as with novel-length work--an argument can be made for waiting for the right market to come along, if it doesn't already exist. Having your work read 5 or 10 years from now may be better than having it disappear without a trace within the year, all told.
Dec. 7th, 2009 06:26 pm (UTC)
That makes sense. I know I've bent my "rules" for:

-Ooh, that sounds like fun!
-I like and support what this publication is doing
-It's a friend asking me for a story

Probably other factors, but those are the three that come to mind right now.
(no subject) - janni - Dec. 7th, 2009 06:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - (Anonymous) - Dec. 8th, 2009 08:35 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - stephen_dedman - Dec. 9th, 2009 05:58 am (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 7th, 2009 05:56 pm (UTC)
I think the new thing that I took away from your journal on the subject is the actual question of exposure. I've considered prestige, and I've considered cash. What I *haven't* considered is how many people are going to see the darned thing.


1. Yes, I'll take your dirty money.
2. Yes, I'll take your dirty prestige.
3. If all else fails, I guess I'll expose myself?

Oh dear...

Seriously, though, readership is a factor very worth considering. I suppose the best alchemy is a mix of all three of those factors.

Dec. 7th, 2009 06:27 pm (UTC)
When I was first starting out, I got it into my head that the goal was to be published, to be able to produce a list of short fiction credits. I figured out that some credits carried more weight than others, but it took a while for that to really sink in, and to realize that one of the reasons some credits didn't carry much weight was because so few people read them.

Exposing yourself is always an option, but some editors respond better than others, so be careful and do your research first :-)
(no subject) - temporus - Dec. 7th, 2009 07:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 7th, 2009 06:54 pm (UTC)
I'm a horrible person, but I always refused to even submit to markets that didn't make sfwa's minimal standards, and had trouble accepting publication in any of these other markets as actual "publication". The one exception to this would be the handful of mid-zine markets that passed my personal quality test. I submitted and sold a story to Electric Velocipede because John had a good rep in the industry. I picked up a copy and loved 90% of the stories in it, so I put it in my rotation.

Not to say that good stories don't appear in these markets. I just think it's worth an author's time to really evaluate what they want to get out of publication (ego or a career?) and plan their submission policy accordingly.
Dec. 7th, 2009 07:13 pm (UTC)
"I just think it's worth an author's time to really evaluate what they want to get out of publication (ego or a career?) and plan their submission policy accordingly."

Yes, that. I don't think everyone has to follow the same plan I do, but I definitely think it's a good idea to step back and think about what you want to get, and which markets are going to help you get there.
Dec. 7th, 2009 06:57 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the two cents on the topic. Enjoyed the post.

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Jim C. Hines


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