07 Dec

Writing neepery: short story pay!

John Scalzi’s been talking about short stories: how much he’s made at them, and how some people try to pay insultingly low rates and some writers pay it, something he calls Writer Stockholm Syndrome, which I love.

This spurs thought about handling short fiction from Sarah Monette, Cat Valente, and Jim Hines.

Lots of good thoughts all around. Bill Schafer from Subterranean Press, however, makes a comment that rings true to me here in Cat’s journal when he says:

“what you really need to consier is setting a *minimum* you’ll accept for a short story” … “The writers I’ve known who did this — some certainly not as well known as John is — almost inevitably didn’t see the demand for their work drop much, but did see a nice bump in their income.”

Scalzi’s onto something with ‘Writer Stockholm Syndrome.’ I often say that no one can make as disastrous a bad choice as a smart person, because they sell it to themselves really well. Writers included. That’s why intelligent, but desperate-to-be-published people will create the most fascinating internal narratives about what they’re doing.

When asked about how to submit to short story markets, I have a little question that goes something like this:

“How much do you value yourself and how much do you believe in the work you just did? Are you hoping one day to make a living at this? Does this action put your work in front of a large group of people? Editors in the field? Does it help you make a living?”

I value myself higher, and adjust accordingly from time to time. When I started out, I valued myself rather lowly, and set the lower limit differently (writing was a hobby, I made a living elsewhere, I was trying to break in), but I think its important to have a cut point, where you say ‘below this, I will not sell my work, but keep it for later. I can rewrite it then, with better skills, or sell it when I’ve sold other things.’

When beginning after some false starts (I have my first check ever, for $8, on my wall), I set 3 c/w as my limit, with two exceptions, a pair of magazines that I knew editors and people in the field read despite the limited pay.

People I told this too told me to ‘work my way up’ and ‘practice my skills’ in lower markets. They’re still doing that, by the way. It’s horrible advice. They claim to value their own art, but their actions speak differently to me. Because practice means ‘trying to get better.’ Not lowering the basket and leaving it there so you can say ‘look at me, I can dunk!’ Unless you start raising the basket a bit each day I don’t see it helping. But strangely enough, most people don’t do this.

I noticed that valuing myself higher, and working for the higher rates, gave me results.

Now I look at how long it will take to write a story, figure out how much and whether the time matches what I need in order to make a living or I’m taking food away from my family’s mouths. And it isn’t 1/5 of a cent a word. Or 3 cents a word. Usually it’s around 10 cents a word. If I have an open invitation, I’ll keep things in mind, a two day or daylong short story is doable sometimes for less. But since getting sick, I no longer am able to pull a massive sprint to finish a story. It’s now a very slow, deliberate, week long thing. I don’t have that crazy all night energy anymore. So I’ve pretty much stopped working for less than 10 cents a word on fiction for the most part (and since I’ve made 25 cents/word to $2/word on nonfiction, that has made it easier to make this call).

It took getting sick to raise my personal rate lower limit, out of a desire to work smart/not hard with what resources I had. It was scary, because I turned down work. For three months there was a slight lull. Since then, work has picked right back up to levels previous.

I think evaluating your goals, and your levels of return for time and effort invested, is part of being a smart business person. It’s also an obligation to your art, for the more return you get for effort, the more you can block out time to do things on your own terms and at your own pace, without danger of burnout or substandard work.