The Worth of Writing

March 20, 2011

There's a lot of discussion going round the writerly portions of the Web these days regarding the price of e-books. I am still processing the pros and cons of the various points of view, and since I don't currently have anything for sale, I can't contribute my own anecdotal evidence.

However, I do know how much work I put into creating stories, and how much time it takes me to develop a novel or short story. And that's a non-insignificant portion of my time.

I'm currently reading the Nebula Awards Showcase 2010. It includes various articles about the history of Science Fiction and Fantasy. In Robert Weinberg's article "Early SF in the Pulp Magazines", he states:

Clayton Magazines began publishing Astounding Stories in January 1930 and attracted top authors with their word rate of two cents a word...

Which got me thinking. SFWA's 2011 qualifying word rate for professional story sales is five cents a word, $50 minimum. This seems low, compared to the rate 80 years ago. I decided to find out what that word rate should be if professional payment had kept up with inflation. Wolfram tells me that number is 26 cents per word.

Now, granted, inflation isn't the only pressure on pay rates, so the picture is not black and white, but it seems clear that SFF short story writing today is simply not valued as highly as it used to be. I can't say that about writing in general, since freelance non-fiction pays north of 50 cents to $1 per word. Here I'm just talking SFF short stories.

I'm getting all my numbers off the Internet, and I'm not a statistician, so my analysis below is most likely flawed, but a couple of sources tell me that the average annual salary in 1930 was $1368. If that number had simply risen with inflation, the average annual salary in the U.S. would be $18105 (again based on popping $1368 into Wolfram). A quick search reveals that in 2010, that number is actually somewhat north of $30,000. Where I'm going here is that salaries overall seem to have outpaced inflation since 1930.

So the qualifying pro pay rate for SFF stories not only is five times less than where it should be had it kept pace with inflation, but somewhere between eight and nine times less than if it had kept up with salaries in general (assuming my numbers above are somewhere in the right ballpark).

I'm fully cognizant that market pressures dictate the price that publishers can charge for SFF magazines and anthologies, and thus what they can pay writers. What does seem clear is that it is many times harder to make a living being a SFF short story writer today in 2011 than it was back in 1930. This is why you won't see many short story writers without day jobs.

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