How Writers Get to Be Slaves

writing, paying markets, speculative fiction, authors, paid to write, nonpaying writing sites Stockphoto: NickS

I haven’t talked about writing in a while but with the new year and the holidays out of the way I’ve been doing a submission blitz, as well as getting caught up on some reading for CZP. In my search for new or interesting or well-paying markets I’ve been going through (the best site for speculative markets) and (the best site for poetry and fiction with average response times listed). There are some things that have started to irk me, which have always annoyed me but continue to perpetuate a bad precedent.

Forget about the wage freeze in your everyday job; if you’re a writer, then Charles Dickens made more than you and the amount people are paid hasn’t changed much in decades. That’s a bit of an overstatement. Sure, we hear about the J.K. Rowlings and the bidding wars for manuscripts like The Horse Whisperer, but in fact most writers are not being paid more than they once were decades ago.

In fact, I’m pretty stupid because the best place to make money as a writer is article writing for magazines, where you can average $1-2/word. Speculative fiction has a professional rate of .05/word. A few pay more than this. Many pay less, such as .01, .025, etc. Then there are the “for the luv” markets, those that pay in “exposure.” I don’t send to these markets unless I make a mistake in reading the guidelines. Maybe if I was just starting out I would, to get credits, but the rule is: start with the highest payer and work your way down.

Should you be selling your first SF or fantasy novel you might get $6,000-$8,000 as an advance against royalties, and never see more. I’m talking about the big publishing houses here, not the small or independent presses, and not about ebooks, as I don’t have enough information. But guess how much a first novelist made thirty or forty years ago? The same amount. So if you compare payments to writers against cost of living, we’re making less and less every year. And people expect it all for free.

writing, authors, submission guidelines, nonpaying markets, paying writers

What would you give to have your writing seen? Creative Commons: Greg Gladman Flickr

While I understand the want and urge to publish a magazine or anthology (I want to edit one myself some day) I think that an author should at least be paid something for their efforts. I’ve stopped writing and submitting to the erotic markets because they now want to pay $25 for a story. It’s not worth it at all for me to write something new for that. Meager as it is, my limit is around .03/word though I’ve made exceptions for particular anthologies. For poetry, I’ve been paid anywhere from $5 to $100. I usually will look for $10 or more markets and of course starting at the top.

My first clue that a market doesn’t pay when looking at their site is that pay isn’t obvious. Yes, some say, we don’t get paid so neither shall you, with the perverse logic that everyone should suffer equally. But more often than not they say nothing, as if they’re embarrassed to admit they don’t pay. Just say it up front, folks.

My annoyance meter hit the limit when I looked at Not only do you have to hunt to see if they pay (you won’t find it) but they have their contract displayed. Enough magazines do this and it’s not a problem but they’ve even gone so far as to copyright protect their contract. Seriously? It’s quite the contract too for giving away your print and online rights for free and no promise of even a print copy in return for your work. The writer gets to edit, because they won’t, and warrant that their work is theirs, though short-story me gets everything with very little in return.

I emailed them and this is how the conversation went:

I can’t seem to find what you pay on your site. Could you tell me what it is for fiction and flash stories?

We don’t pay.
Thank you
So you have a copyright protect contract to protect your rights but offer the author nothing? Would you expect a shoemaker to supply shoes for your shoe store, or a farmer to give vegetables to your store without paying them? Think about it. That’s what you’re doing to your writers.

I won’t get an answer, because they don’t care. Writers are considered little better than slaves for these markets. The site is about what you’d expect for one that doesn’t pay its authors. The stories have grammatical, punctuation and usage issues though not a lot. I only read four stories, or parts of them, and the quality is (cough!) okay but an actual editor would have helped. Some are overly descriptive, some have talking heads, or banal or clichΓ© language. Oh well, short-story me is one in probably hundreds of sites that take advantage of hungry new authors. There are sites that don’t pay and take less advantage but the whole overofficiousness of the contract bugged me. This site does give writing advice but I wouldn’t recommend it for submitting. I’d start with the paying markets, after you know your craft.


Filed under Culture, fantasy, horror, poetry, Publishing, science fiction, Writing

7 responses to “How Writers Get to Be Slaves

  1. Too true….there is no living to be made from writing these days. I think social media has a lot to answer for! Great Poetry is available for free these days, and I admit to favoring free ezines rather than paying for similar quality work in paper form. I feel bad but a sign of the times.

    • colleenanderson

      Good point, Michael. Many magazines run on the free to read format, as does Chizine. But they pay their writers. Social media, and before that, computers, brought about the prevalence of writing but raising the signal to noise ratio. People could type but they couldn’t necessarily write.

  2. Few things:
    First, it’s true that writing today pays roughly the same rates it paid back in the Great Depression: but you have to remember that in the era of pulps, there was no competition from TV, video games or the Internet. Writers got paid relatively well because there was an insatiable market for the written word. That it is harder to make a living as a writer these days reflects the simple economics of supply and demand: there are more people who want to get published then there are readers left to read them.

    Second, people are often driven to write more by the anticipation of fame than the hope of fortune, so nonpaying markets allow people without hope of commercial success to at least see their material in print. Given how few paying print markets are left (when I started reading SF there were 60 SF publishers; now we’re down to what 6?) nonpaying markets are a viable alternative for these individuals. Professional writers like yourself can’t take a market that doesn’t pay seriously, but there is arguably a place for such for the talented amateur. Particularly, as is sometimes the case, if the press ‘pays’ by providing editorial support that many writers could not otherwise afford. (But as you point out, some nonpaying markets don’t provide even copy editing let alone developmental editing.)

    Third, you are seem to be defining “writing” as words in print. But print hasn’t been where the money is for decades. Screen writers are still doing fine, thanks, and video game writers and internet content suppliers and writers like Sean Stewart who — well, I’ve never quite figured out quite what the hell his company does, but its still ‘writing’, even if not always immediately recognizable as such. There isn’t a lot of money to be made in print these days, but then there isn’t a lot of demand for cuniform scribe either. Making a living as a creative writer is still possible, it just looks very different than it did 50 years ago.

    Fourth, I think our model of ‘payment’ has to change. In the old print business model, the writer wrote, the publisher published, and the consumer bought…it was pretty straightforward flow from producer to consumer. Now, with ebooks, that all changes. On the one hand the connection between producer and consumer can eliminate the middle man, and so reduce costs. But once an author sells a copy, it can be reprinted a billion fold. Everyone can access –and so increasingly expects to access — content free via the Internet. Web 2.0 is all about consumers collectively producing content — thereby eliminating not only the middle man, but the producer! Read Clay Shirky’s “Here Comes Everyone”. His analysis that anyone who used to make money from scarcity — he uses photographers who supplied stock photos as his example, but the same applies to writers — are just out of luck as content pours out of the masses. Like a room full of monkeys, wait long enough, and somebody will post Shakespeare to the web for you.

    So, what if we switched from a ‘piece-work’ payment model to a salaried one? For example, I could not come within hailing distance of my day job salary working as an editor. Supply and demand and simple economics: writers don’t earn enough off their manuscripts to allow them to hire me to produce better manuscripts. But. I do tons of “unpaid” editing because as a prof, each book I edit feeds into the ‘publish’ side of the ‘publish or perish’ equation. I very rarely get paid for any of the academic writing I do, but the fact that I have published means a career increment that pays far more than any magazine market ever paid. Similarly, there are a lot of blog writers out there who make decent money because they attract sufficient audiences that they can be paid not by the consumers but by advertizers. And there are arts funding models emerging, where consumers and patrons of the arts offer funding to allow novelists to finish their next book in return for signed copies, lunch with the author, and the knowledge that they contributed to the project. Admittedly, these ad hoc arrangements seem odd and its not clear where all this is going, but as the publishing world changes radically, its up to authors to figure out alternatives to the old publishing model which is collapsing.

    • colleenanderson

      Thanks for dropping by Robert. In response to some of your comments, the era of pulps there were movies and the beginnings of TV, depending on your decade. But yes, we have more entertainment factors and while actors are paid thousands to millions, writers on average are still paid lower. Second, actually there are more than 60 paying markets but it depends on what they pay. At the .05 cents/word and higher, for speculative fiction, there are at least 30. Some literary magazines would fit in here for those that will look at the speculative element. Still, a pro rate .05/word is not very much.

      Third point: yes, I did state that I was looking at printed works, not emarkets (which overall aren’t paying more either), and I was talking in general about fiction and article writing, but more specifically speculative fiction. Mark Shainblum pointed out that periodical writers no longer get $1-2/word, so if that’s the case it’s yet another erosion in the rates for professional writers. However, I feel that you’re arguing that it’s all right and expected for writers to make less. Sure there are the diversity of markets for games or screenplays, but as straight fiction goes, it’s not a pretty picture for the storyteller in general. Cuneiform scribes are just that, scribes. They’re not storytellers.

      There is hope in epublishing for those who can make it, like Amanda Hocking, but we do indeed have more signal to noise, meaning that while there is a chance for more good writers to get their work out there, there are far more bad writers and it will be like pulling a gem out of an ocean fo filter through the good and the bad.

  3. Preaching to the choir, Colleen!
    Though I must point out that the rates for published writing haven’t gone down in the last hundred years and more. It’s just that people whose work is being published in the cutting-edge media get paid more.
    I get paid the same amount that Laura Ingalls Wilder (the Little House books author) was paid in 1920, when writing commentaries and articles for newspapers. The difference between us as writers is that Wilder was writing for the only public media then available in Missouri — a newspaper.
    The rates Charles Dickens was paid for doing his enthusiastic public readings of an abridged version of “A Christmas Carol” are about what Canada Council has paid for the last twenty years for an honorarium at a free public reading. And those high-energy readings contributed to Dickens’ death from a stroke.
    As Robert commented above, as each new media for publication was introduced, it paid better than print media. The best modern writers to compare to Charles Dickens with his popular serial novels and his performance readings would be — as near as I can guess — ones on a par with Cory Doctorow and Jon Stewart of the Daily Show (who has a crew of writers assisting him). The likes of me as a writer just can’t be compared with a social phenomenon like Dickens.
    I take real encouragement from the knowledge that more books and magazines are being published now per reader than in Dickens’ time. Even newspapers are still being published. And that’s with all the new media being presented to the public via radio and tv broadcasts, the internet, films, games, and more. There is one helluva lot of writing being made available. Yeah, lots of the writers don’t earn a fair price for their work. It is easier to make a living as a writer when one does it like Robert does, as part of his work at a university.

    • colleenanderson

      Well, of course from Dickens’ time we see an great increase in population and in literacy, which would of course help. However, that a story writer hasn’t really had an increase in decades says something about the relative value of such arts. Sure, speech writers, screen writers, etc. may make more but the world of the writer devalues while everyone else gets raises. If we take it back ten or twenty years ago, before social media and full internet immersion, we find that it still wasn’t that fantastic for the average writer. Alas. But while there are more markets today, there is more competition, which is both encouraging and daunting. It takes a lot of perseverance. πŸ™‚

  4. filidhe

    I had two thoights as I rea dthe entry and the commentary that followed: the first is that we need to create and emphasize ways to differentiate signal from noise, and the second is that creative minds are needing new ways to market themselves and their work. You’re a solid writer: maybe find the right collaboration with graphic or performance media artists and the right technical team to get your newstyle works out there, and set your own price per word for that medium?

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