Counting beans…

Last time I wrote about rewriting, dead time, and some of the economics of freelance writing in the RPG industry. This time I want to delve into that a bit further, and this one is longer than I had anticipated!

Pay rates are one of those topics that many seem to want to talk about, and at the same time few people really want to talk about. Many creatives on Twitter and elsewhere seem to agree that pay rates in the RPG industry are low, but few people seem to want to talk about how much they earn or the rates they get paid at.

I get it, I often feel that getting specific about rates may annoy the companies or people I work with, and that could jeopardize my relationship with them, and make it harder, or impossible, to get work.

So, with all that in mind I’m going to run with what seems fairly common practice. There seems to be a broad-ish consensus that a rate of $0.03 USD per word is usual for many writers (or for those starting out), and that $0.04 USD is fairly standard overall, some publishers may pay up to $0.06 per word, but for the sake of this post I’m going to stick with a ‘standard’ of about $0.04. The reason? This matches with my experience, and most of the work I have done in the industry over the last few years has been at $0.04 per word. I have read of rates as low as $0.02 per word, and upward of $0.08 to $0.12 per word (with some few claiming or quoting higher rates still).

Rates appear to be different between larger or more established publishers (probably a legacy of tradition and industry standard), and indie publishers, and many of the latter are starting to shake up the standard. Shaking up the standard is a good thing in my opinion, though time will tell if this starts to influence the larger industry. Many smaller companies, especially those using crowdfunding, are building stretch goals around increased pay rates for writers and artists, which I think is a great idea.

So why did I not demand higher rates?

Many people on social media and in the indie industry particularly seem to argue that writers should expect, ask, or demand a higher rate of pay for their work. I can’t necessarily argue with that, though as a freelancer I would argue that many people feel fairly powerless in their capacity to set the terms and make demands. I believe these low rates have been fairly standard for more than 20 years, yes, this is patently ridiculous, and yes, I really agree rates should be higher.

So why did I work for a rate I believe is low?

Because it’s what I believed is/was standard. Because I felt that asking for a higher rate was likely to lead to no work. Because no-one ever wanted to talk about the rates they got paid, even when asked privately, and this wall of silence reinforced my belief that $0.03 per word was ‘normal’, and $0.04 per word was ‘a good deal’.

I want to emphasise this: no-one wanted to talk about rates, even when asked privately, even when many of these people were on social media talking about how the industry needs to increase pay rates for freelance writers. This meant that for a long time I felt like I had no idea what to expect, what was normal, what was standard, or what was exploitative. Thankfully this trend seems to be changing in the last few years, with more information available about what is standard for different companies. Many indie companies are very vocal about the rates they offer, and I would strongly advise following as many creators as possible – search #ttrpg on Twitter, and join Discord and Facebook groups as you find them.

So are the rates actually that low?

Yes. Compared to freelance writing outside our industry, the rates for freelancing in RPGs is low. If we assume that somewhere between $0.04 and $0.06 is standard, these rates are at the very low end of the scale for freelance writing. If I refer to an article about standards paid to freelance writers (based on the survey of over 500 freelancers) rates for RPG freelancers are low. Of those surveyed in the article around 30% of beginning freelancers get between $0.01 and $0.10 per word, close to the same percentage get up to $0.26 per word, and a little over 20% get up to $0.50 per word. This is for beginning level writers. The article from which is get these figures is here for those interested, and is well worth reading.

At what point do you stop being a beginner? After you have written for more than 5 books? 10 books? 20? After you have had 50,000 words published? 100,000? A quarter of a million?

Having written for more than 25 published works totaling nearly half a million words I would hope I am not still sitting in the beginners category, but the rates I am most often offered sit at the very low end of what would be regarded as low for a beginning freelancer as defined by the article I linked to above. I use myself as an example, and maybe it’s just that I’m no good, but there are many many writers out there who have written far more, published far more, and who sit close to me on the pay scale.

We all know the industry is small and that profits are thin. We know there are a glut of writers keen to work on the games they know and love. We know that consumers expect RPGs to be art heavy, full colour, glossy, and cheap. And we know that RPGs are a uniquely creative hobby, a fact that enables and encourages people who participate in it to be creators (rather than pure consumers), and perhaps lessening the need for a dedicated group of creators (feeding the number of people willing or capable of being creators). I do not believe any of the companies I have worked for are being exploitative, but I do believe that a number of industry related circumstances combine to maintain a relatively low rate of pay for the creatives that work in it (and at this point I mean writers, editors, artists, sensitivity readers, and other creatives).

So, can we have professional writers in the RPG industry? Or should we expect nothing more than slight compensation for what should be regarded as a hobby undertaking?

First and foremost I hope there is change. I think an increase in the rates for the creatives that generate the books and rules we love so much means that we would be encouraging a higher standard overall. A better rate of pay creates a body of people who are able to focus more time and energy creating the content we enjoy. We have managed to sustain our industry on low rates, and despite it, we have high quality writing, but people should be compensated for the work they do, and that compensation should reflect the skill required and the effort expended. While many will regard freelancing as a part of the gig economy, that does not mean accepting sub-standard rates, or that those rates should be set and remain the same for decades. Writers who freelance in the RPG industry are passionate about RPGs, sure, but they are also key components in creating content that drives the industry forward, whether that is through the work they put out, or the mechanisms and concepts they explore.

So what does $0.04 per word get me?

If I get paid what seems to be around the current industry standard of $0.04 per word then 1000 words is worth $40. If it took me two hours to write that 1000 words, that’s a rate of $20 an hour. If it took 3 or 4 hours, that rate spins out to $13.3, or $10 an hour. Chances are that those 1000 words took more than two hours to write, and included a number of hours of research, communication, and preparation in addition to the actual act of writing.

If it’s a new game line, I need to read rules, catch up with lore (that may be only a little, it may be a whole lot). I would regard this broadly as investing time, as it is knowledge and information that will remain useful after I have finished one piece of freelance writing. This is especially true if you happen to get a number of freelance pieces all related to the same game or game line. In this sense, time spent getting familiar with the rules and setting is defrayed over all the pieces you work on. Many freelancers in the RPG industry work on games they are already passionate about or know intimately, so whether the reading of rules and lore is something you count is really up to you and your situation. But for the sake of the story, let’s imagine that refreshing lore and rules for a specific 1000 word piece requires a half an hour. So writing for two hours, and general research for half an hour…

More than general research is specific research… common Chinese names, common Italian surnames, naming conventions, the structure of the UN Security Council, the names of different types of sails, common farming practices in the middle ages, how to make ink, the effects of lead poisoning on the human body, and so on ( I spent hours one night reading about microwave beam attenuation). These are little details that crop up regularly when writing. When we need to research, some of us make a note and come back, some of us pause, research, then continue… whatever your practice, the fact remains that while writing you will often need to undertake parallel research. This research takes time, is intrinsically linked to the writing process, and may take a small amount of time, or a long amount of time, depending on what it is, how important it is, how obscure it is, and so on. Some pieces of writing will require more research than others, some will require none, but this is time taken, and time means that the money earned is defrayed over a longer period, reducing the hourly rate. If I spend half an hour in general research, an hour in specific research, and an hour and a half writing for a 1000 word piece, then that is 3 hours spent for $40 earned at a rate of $13.33 per hour.

Edits, rewrites, adjustments, and addressing comments are all aspects of the submission process, and many freelance contracts will stipulate the number of rewrites or edits a publisher is expecting you to commit to. Whether minor or major, these things take time, let’s say they take an hour. I open the document, read the comments, make the minor changes required, save the document with the iterated document title, and send it back. An hour might be about right for minor adjustments to a short document, major changes may take longer, so let’s hope you got everything right (or about-ish) in the first pass. Now my 1000 words is sitting at about 4 hours of labour, and I’m making about $10 an hour…

Chances are though it took a longer than that, and complications, twists, a couple of minutes looking for the right word here, and the right phrase there, restructuring, tightening, changing a name, difficulty in research, extra time in writing, some rewriting, and so on can easily mean that 4 hours spins into 5 or 6 hours, or even longer. Every hour added reduces the rate earned: at 5 hours I am earning $8 an hour, at 6 hours I am earning $6.66.

Is it a rules set? Does it contain rules? Is it an adventure? Do you playtest? All of these things add time. I like to run through the adventures I write with my (very tolerant) local game group. A session may be 4-6 hours, add notes, add adjustments and rewrites (because there will be rewrites after you test), all of it adds up.

Now, all of this will vary significantly from writer to writer, some writers will be able to get the words written much faster, others will take much longer, some will write clean drafts, some will need to take time to rewrite and edit. Some will find writing background fluff drags and drags, and others will find that writing world histories absolutely flies. I tracked the amount of words I wrote for a year, and found that I am usually quickest when writing adventures, which I think reflects the fact that these usually follow a structure and flow. Whatever your process, whatever areas you are quick or slow in, however long it takes for you to get that 1000 words written, rewritten, researched, edited, etc… all of that combined earns you $40. Some 1000 words will come quickly, some slowly, some will require a lot of extra work, some almost none. Irrespective of all of that, the piece is earning you $40.

All of this raises questions… Could RPG books reconsider how game fluff is presented? Setting the rate per word is encouraging writers to do what, exactly? Where should money be spent when it comes to writing? Is a publisher happy paying $8, $9, or $10 per hour (or should they be)? Is a by-the-word rate a good way to structure a pay scale? Can our industry support rates at a higher scale? What needs to give if not? Is setting rates at x point encouraging a style or approach to writing, or discouraging another? Can our industry support freelance writers as professionals, and not treat it just as a hobby undertaking?

All of these and many more even better questions are relevant and important. They are not questions I have answers to however, thoughts perhaps, opinions maybe, but no answers. If you managed to read to the end, and you have any questions, thoughts, or opinions, I’d be keen to hear them, and will try and work them into follow up posts in the future. Email me at caradocgames@gmail.com, or find my on Twitter @caradocp. If you’re a freelance writer in the industry starting out, I hope this provides you with some information and areas for consideration. If you enjoyed or found this interesting in any way, feel free to head to the downloads page on this site, where you’ll find links to the the micro-rpgs I have released! Or consider supporting me on Patreon!

Word by word…

One chapter closes, another one opens… Well, not quite closes, but one chapter submitted, and I hope it is written well enough that I don’t need to revisit it, much…. This is the perpetual battle for someone who works as a freelance writer and gets paid by the word: the piece is done, it is submitted, please don’t let there be many edits!

Going back to rewrite, rework, edit, and change things is dead time. It’s time I don’t get paid for. It’s time I could be using to write something I do get paid for. So it’s something I want to avoid.

In the RPG industry a majority of freelance work is paid by the word, and rates are typically low. ‘By the word’ is what goes into layout, not what was submitted, deleted, swapped out, or altered. If I spend an hour researching, and then an hour writing 1000 words, I get paid for 1000 words, and that pay represents two hours work. If, for whatever reason, I need to spend another hour rewriting 500 of those words, I still get paid for 1000 words, but now that pay represents three hours work. The longer the piece, the more hours it represents, and the hours spent rewriting are hours that could have been spent on a new piece…

Now don’t get me wrong, rewriting is completely understandable. If I make a mistake, or get information, intention, tone, or emphasis wrong. If that’s the case then it behooves me to change it, make it better, get it right. I absolutely don’t have a problem with that! Making mistakes, or not following the direction given to you, lack of communication or miscommunication can all end up in extensive rewrites, and these need to be avoided. Poor communication or direction can also end up meaning work done needs to be redone. The result? I lose hours. Hours means words written. Words written means money.

In short: I don’t want to rewrite.

This may sound like I am happy with sub-par work, but I am not. I want to do the best I can, but I also need to balance the time I spend with the compensation earned for that time. I want to get it right the first time, or as close as I can. I want to ensure that the piece I submit is written cleanly, that it is good, and that it doesn’t need to be reworked or rewritten. I want to make sure the information I include is correct, and that it matches the tone and requirements of the publisher.

That is the nature of being paid by the word, because at some point the ‘by word’ rate is translated into money made given time spent.

What does this mean for me? It means I need to read the directions I am given carefully, and stick to them. It means it is better to ask too many questions about whether I have the right concepts or tone, than find out after I have drafted a piece of writing. It means I need to research: be familiar with the game, with the line, with the publisher, with the setting, and with any of the ideas that I am introducing, including, or referencing. It also means that I need to write well, or as well as I can.

I’m sure there is a further conversation to be had, that all of this will lead many people to to reflect on debates about quality and quantity in the RPG industry, but this is not that post. Just some idle thoughts about writing and rewriting, and the economics of being paid by the word…

NaNoWriMo

November is here again, and that means NaNoWriMo. The National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), lays down the challenge to write 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November.

Like the last four or five years, this year I will again be watching on with a sense of melancholy induced by my lack of participation. I have a range of good reasons: November is a busy time for my family, with a number of birthdays, and an anniversary. As a school teacher it is also the month during which I have school reports to write, and usually a school camp to attend. They are all good reasons, and the reasons why, yet again, I won’t be attempting NaNoWriMo, but it does leave me with a sense of sadness.

50,000 words over 30 days means around 1667 words a day. Each reason represents nights away from the keyboard, too many of those stacked up pushes the word count required per day into unattainable territory. Now, I wouldn’t wish away those reasons (well, maybe the reports and camp), but by the same token, I would dearly love to participate in the NaNoWriMo.

Why? Well, there is a drive and a strength that comes from participating in an activity to which so many others are committed. Of course, I could aim to write 50,000 words in any given month, it doesn’t have to be November, but NaNoWriMo is a Thing, and being a part of a Thing is a source of impetus, comes with a sense of community or belonging, instills a sense of shared purpose and lends drive.

It could be any other month, but November is the month, and for whatever reason it just doesn’t feel the same when pushed to some other time. Perhaps this is a thing I need to shake from my mind, just shove the mental hurdle aside and set a goal for February or March, or some other time of the year and have at it. Perhaps…

It’s a thought to come back to. For now I need to focus on getting my freelance writing done, my reports completed, and finish off my next micro-RPG: Corsairs. Everything I already need to get done is enough to contend with, sure, but I still look in on NaNoWriMo wistfully…

Horns of Dilemma…

Horns of dilemma… uncertainty… vacillation… indecision… unwillingness to commit… Is it one of these or all of these? It’s time for the rubber to hit the road, as it were, to make a choice and commit to it. I’ve been putting it off, easier to vacillate and make no choice than set goals, which have targets, which can be missed.

At the start of the year I wrote about wanting to write a novel manuscript. I still do. I also wrote about developing my role playing game, something I am still doing. But I have come to realise that I am too often using one as a distraction when the other is looking tough. Stepping from fiction to RPG and back again is fine, but I would like to actually get to the point where I have something or somethings to put out there in the world.

While maintaining my freelance work I have come to realise that of the two things above I can really only focus on one for now. I simply don’t have the time or mental acuity to get both done. So here we are: the horns of dilemma. Fiction writing or RPG development?

If I choose fiction writing I would be committing to write one or two short stories a month, as well as working on my novel. I’d be committing to build a reader base, starting an email list, probably completing some courses, and getting my work out there to magazines, and other publications. I would be looking at dropping my work on my RPG (though maintaining my freelance work) and focusing on getting a novel manuscript finished by the end of the year, hopefully three by the end of next year, and looking at options for either self publication or mainstream publication.

If I choose RPG development I am similarly locking myself into a commitment. I would be aiming to build my current big project up into a publishable piece, playtesting, blind playtesting, and looking at self-publication through Kickstarter. I would be looking at creating a range of smaller products, like zines, on a regular basis, for publication on DriveThruRPG and/or through a Patreon page.

Both are commitments, both are two to three years of focus, quite probably more like 5 or more. I can’t do both however, not at the same time. So we return to the horns of dilemma. I’m sure the easiest question to ask is: which am I more passionate about? To be honest I find it difficult to answer this question. I want to do both. But I can’t do both right now. I want to write fiction, I love it. I want to work in the role playing space, I love it too. Right now though, doing both is is more like forgetting one for a while and doing the other, and making little progress on both as a result.

Doesn’t this look sexy! I cringe, looking back. But Zev never outright said he hated it…

I’ve been working in the gaming space for years now. I wrote the old Z-Man Games newsletter back in 2008, and wrote some 20-30 issues over the following few years. I worked on miniatures games like Halo: Fleet Battles, and Dystopian Legions, for Spartan Games. In more recent years I have been back working on Role Playing Games, writing mainly for Modiphius on the Infinity The Role Playing Game line, but also a little for Star Trek Adventures, and more recently for Red Scar on their Devil’s Run line. In the RPG world I have had/will have more than a quarter of a million words published, over more than 20 books, and while it’s not a huge amount for many freelancers out there, it is experience.

As a result of this experience I ask myself whether choosing the RPG option from my horns of dilemma scenario is the easy way out. By which I mean something I find sits more in my wheelhouse, something I am more comfortable doing. Something where I find the words flow a little more smoothly. The actual next steps to getting my drafts to anything worth publication will be anything but easy, but I hope you get my meaning.

I also worry… If I choose fiction will I be disappointed I didn’t choose role playing games? If I choose role playing games will I be disappointed I didn’t choose fiction? I shouldn’t be, it’s not like I can’t later do the second if I pick the first now. But while it’s easy to tell myself that, it’s much less easy to not feel it.

So here I sit. A week of busy vacillation, of active uncertainty, struggling with this problem. Is it I don’t want to let one go? Is it I don’t want to actively commit? I don’t know. I do feel the growing pressure, however, of needing to make a choice…

Aimless Wandering…

Staring at a blank screen. All white. Waiting to be filled with words. What words though? A dozen story ideas percolate in the upper layers of my subconscious, grasping them is like grappling with fog. I know if I grab harder, push more, pin the thing down and try to examine it I’ll find the thread at its core to follow. But is it ready? Am I ready? If I pull at the thread will it unwind? Dissipate back into fog after the first few feet? Which to grasp at? There are too many…

For the first time in three to four years I cleared my freelance roster, I had no deadlines looming, no things that needed to be done. I was free to write… But what to write? For a few days I did little more than open a word document and wonder what I should use to start filling that blank page. Which story idea? Which would lead somewhere? I was at a loss. At a loss I turned to what was easy, the role playing game I am working on has a list of things that need to be done. The obvious answer to the sense of gnawing indecision was to start with the first bullet point and work down. I want to write fiction though. I have the lofty goal of writing a novel manuscript this year, and yet, faced for the first time in years with the prospect of having that time I found myself doing what? Idly wondering where I should begin and actively finding other ways to fill my schedule. Avoidance, in other words.

Since late last year I’ve been catching up with a writer friend of mine regularly, and we’ve been pulling apart each other’s work. After schedules pushed our meetings back this month we finally had the chance to catch up again tonight. It was nice to talk. It was nice to mutually lament the maudlin state of indecision and the generally felt lack of progress. The talking itself was spur enough to get me moving. I am reminded of a favourite quote:


“You can’t edit a blank page.”

Variously attributed to either/both Nora Roberts and Jodi Picoult.

I must pick something, and I realise now it doesn’t really matter what. I must pull at that string, whether it leads to fog or somewhere else entirely.

I came away tonight from that catch up with a sense of purpose renewed: just pick something. I have a number of story ideas, I might pull at a few and see what unravels. Maybe they will be worth following, maybe they won’t be ready yet. But at least I have some drive returned.

We didn’t have much work to share with one another tonight, but in conversation I recovered my drive to get words down, to start something, to get things flowing again… Maybe I needed the break, even if it was just a few days, to reset myself, to stop looking at the whiteboard schedule, now empty, and wonder ‘what comes next’, and just push forward with a few things to see where they lead. It was good to talk, and good to be reminded how important talking is. I have to stop now though, there’s a blank page calling my name…

Keeping Track…

Sometime in late September I decided it would be a good idea to track how many words I write on a nightly basis. Why? It’s a question I am still wondering if there is an answer to, I think I heard someone mention they do it on a writing podcast, or a social media post, or maybe I dreamed it… who knows.

I started tracking the words I was writing in October of last year, every night after I had finished my work for the evening I’d run a word count and plug the figures into a spreadsheet. I still am, and intend to keep going for the foreseeable future. Not everything I write is in there, copious emails go uncounted, which is a shame in some respects, but writing I do for my freelance jobs, for my own games, and my own fiction, all get counted and added.

Three and a bit months in and it has been interesting. I have found it variously depressing, uplifting, and informative. It has been a spur to action; to get the numbers up. It has also been affirming. One of my goals is to write a novel, and the question hangs like the sword of Damocles: but can you? Well, I knew I could get words on paper, but having some idea of how many has made a big difference to how I think about it. I have learned I can certainly write the required number of words for a novel, so that’s one tick.

Drilling into the numbers has been interesting, and from the outside it looks like no more than a bunch of numbers on a page; very nice, well done. What is has done is to highlight patterns. Importantly, those patterns relate to the types of writing I have been doing at the time. I know for example that I usually write between 1000 and 2000 words a night (in usually between 2 and 3 hours), when I am working on setting material for a role playing game. I know that when I am writing adventure material that rate increases. I know that when I write fiction, it typically decreases.

All of this is useful information that has given me a better understanding of what I am capable of given the tasks before me. I need to write an adventure? I know I can get the words down fast, but I also know that there is more pre-planning involved. Setting material and background? I can be more accurate about how long it’s going to take, but research is fundamental here. Fiction? Well, I really need to work to increase those numbers, but I am reasonably sure that the fact I do less of it than the other two is a factor in the word rate.

What it doesn’t show is also important, and perhaps there is an easy way to track these things, I haven’t given it much thought. It doesn’t show how much research and reading is involved. How much time I spent looking at maps of San Francisco. How much time I spent finding common Vietnamese surnames (and Vietnamese naming conventions). How long it took me to read about the structure of the UN Security Council. The hours spent finding out details about private military companies. Nor does it indicate the time invested into dubious searches about what materials are required to make various drugs and explosives (yes, I have no doubt I am on a watch list somewhere, probably all writers are).

Tracking the numbers has been informative, and I intend to keep doing it for a good while yet. Some of things I hope to learn include how the time of the year and the various things that happen at those times influence my productivity. January is quiet, everyone is getting back and getting moving. December is full of ‘Nights Off’ a short hand for anything that keeps me away from the keyboard, and at that time of year means functions, family, work and so on, in the build up to Christmas. I’m sure the availability of freelance work will influence my productivity as well, the last few years I have had jobs lined up months in advance and no time for anything else. How that fares into 2019 and beyond will be interesting.

Would I recommend doing something like this? Yes, I think I would. There are nights when I don’t hit 1000 and I feel guilty, like I failed some unspoken agreement. I have to remind myself I’m not racing anyone, and that even a night off, or a few hundred words is ok. It’s something. The last three months of 2018 saw me write about 76,000 words, and a lot of words are not included in that. That information is affirming. I have averaged about 25,000 words a month, and that’s not bad, not that I have a yardstick to compare it to, just my own little self. The point is to keep going, keep writing, keep practicing. The only way forward to improvement is effort, and I feel like I am growing and developing. Keeping track of the words has been something I have enjoyed doing, and while I can sometimes beat myself up over not hitting the invisible benchmark I set myself, it tells me I’m moving forward, and it helps me work out where my strengths lie, and what I need to push harder at.

Annndddd…. at this point in the post I have reached about 925 words… and yes, they will be added to my daily total.