Writing Basics: How to Survive on 5 Cents/Word (or worse)

Writing for tabletop games, RPGs in general, doesn’t pay fabulously well. Especially as a freelancer. The pay rates range from about half-a-cent-a-word on the lower end, to a ceiling of about 10 cents/word. An average is about 4-5 cents a word… and has been for this entire millennium.

Most of that is work-for-hire as well, so there’s no royalties, no residuals, and no opportunity to get a big payday when a project is a smash hit.

So, if you write 1,000 finished words a day, every day (which in my experience means writing 2-3k total words a day, so you have time for dead ends, revisions, and second drafts), AND you sell it all, AND you get paid for everything on time you’ll make… $1,500 a month.

With no vacation, sick leave, or benefits.

So, how does anyone survive on that amount of money?

Sorry, this is going to be a bit grim.

Don’t Quit Your Day Job

The fact of the matter is, most people who write for tabletop games don’t make enough money doing so to pay all their bills (and especially not to do that and pay their own health insurance, put money away for retirement, build an emergency fund, and so on).

I’m not saying it can’t be done. I AM saying don’t assume you can do it until you’re seeing evidence it’s true.

Especially as you first begin to write for money, I strongly recommend you make that a side gig. It can be a fun way to make extra money, and it can reduce the stress of knowing your nascent writing skills/fledgling career has to pay the bills.

When I first began freelance tabletop game writing, I just wanted to make enough money to pay for a Dragon Magazine subscription. That was a reasonable early goal, and it wasn’t until I was making more money writing than my 40-hour job I went full-time. I strongly recommend this path. Yes, it reduces the pressure to succeed, and some people thrive under that pressure, but it also gives you time to make contacts, build a reputation, and settle in to a new lifestyle.

Live Someplace Cheap

Telling someone the secret to surviving on a tiny amount of money is to move someplace cheap sounds like out-of-touch advice from someone who doesn’t have to do it, and I’ll happily acknowledge that it’s just not a realistic option for everyone.

It is, however, exactly what I did for the majority of my freelance career.

In 2001 I was laid off from a salaried position at Wizards of the Coast, just 14 months after I was hired, and just 3 months after I had sold my out-of-state house and bought a new one on the assurance my job was secure.

And, suddenly, I couldn’t afford to live in the Seattle area anymore.

Note that it wasn’t as expensive them, even relatively, as it is now. But I also wasn’t as well-established then, and looking at making it as a full-time freelancer my wife and I could see it just wouldn’t be possible if we stayed in our new home, hung out with our new friends… or kept our new house.

I could have gotten a non-tabletop game industry job and made ends meet. But we decided nor to do that.

Instead, we moved to Norman, OK, one of the cheapest places in the US to live, and a place where we had an extensive support network. An there we stayed for the next 13 years, as I worked at being a full-time tabletop/RPG writer, up until I was hired by Paizo in 2014 and we moved back to the Seattle area.

So it wouldn’t be an honest or complete list of options from me, if I didn’t include one of the main coping methods I used.

We moved someplace cheap, and stayed there almost a decade and a half.

Ask For More

Don’t be a dick about it, but there’s nothing wrong (BEFORE agreeing to terms and signing a contract) with telling someone you want more money for a project. The difference between 4 cents and 5 cents a word may not seem like much, but it’s a 25% raise.

See if you can retain any rights. See if they can revert to you after 5 years. See if you can get profit sharing. Don’t come back with these over and over on the same project, but do feel free to ask for SOMETHING if you think you’ve earned it. If you are doing your 4th or 5th project with the same people, it’s worth seeing if you can get even a minor raise. It doesn’t have to be a cent a word– if they are offering $55 for 1,375 words and they won’t go for boosting it up to $68.75, ask if they’ll just do $60.

Every. Little. Bit. Helps.

And if you are someone who hates asking for more, or are afraid even one request for a raise will cause a potential client to immediately drop you?

The industry will be happy to never give you more… to your significant detriment.

Write Fast

People who pay you to write for them have a legitimate expectation you’ll do your best work for them, regardless of what they pay you. Once you agree to a pay rate, you are agreeing to do a good job for that amount of money.

Within reason.

Writing is, in my experience, a task where I can ALWAYS do a better job if I have more time. If I have a completely finished draft, ready to go to editing and layout, and a publisher asks me if I could make it better if I had a new deadline and they were going to pay me the per-word rate again to make it better?

The answer is always yes. That’s literally what developers do. And even with my own material, I can always find ways to make it better.

Which means, I can always find ways to take longer than I can afford to.

I’m absolutely not saying to rush through a job or delivery a crappy manuscript. Not only do I consider that unethical, it’s a bad way to build a reputation and a career.

But I AM saying that there’s is a reasonable level of effort to be expected from you, and if you constantly go above-and-beyond, you are going to make it hard to write enough to make a living. If doubling your time spend would give you a 5% boost in quality, then that would probably be spending too much time on that project.

The other end of “Write Fast” is to see what you are doing in your writing time that doesn’t put words on the page. Does every trip to Google to look up poisons used in ancient Rome end up with an hour spent looking at TVTropes? Then you may need to set yourself a research timer.

Did you spend more time watching videos of anime space battle that writing about space battles? Then you may need to set yourself some rules on what constitutes “writing time.”

Don’t make yourself miserable, but do remember that if you want freelance writing to reward you like a job, you need to treat it like a job.

Make Your Leisure Writing Work For You

I am assuming here that you DO leisure writing. That there’s SOMETHING you write for fun.

If not, I have no idea why you want to be a tabletop game writer, and you can just skip this one.

Whatever it is you write for fun — campaign histories, fan fiction, descriptions of fabulous gay taverns in Waterdeep — try to find a way to make money off it. Keep it legal — don’t violate copyright to make a buck — but do consider what your options are. If you are writing material for a campaign you don’t own, see if you can rewrite it to be generic and set it up as a Patreon. Post it to your blog and have a Ko-fi.com tip jar. Save it as material to raid if you get a writing gig you can repurpose it for (assuming you haven’t published it some other way at that point). Gather it together into it’s own product and pitch it to publishers… or get into self-publishing.

If you are a writer, all your writing has value. Don’t overlook ways to monetize anything you have written. If you wouldn’t have written it anyway and posting it gets you $10 a month? That means you can cover one more $100 expense once a year.

Recognize Feast and Famine, and Act Accordingly

As a freelancer, sometimes you’ll have a (relatively) large amount of money drop in your lap at the end of a project… and then nothing for months.

Try to prepare for that.

Hold back money for bills you can predict. Try to build an emergency fund. If you have extra money, that’s a great time to buy in bulk if it’ll actually save you money. But if you don’t know when your next payday is, it’s a good idea to spend as little a possible. You don’t want to get a great deal on 40 gallons of peanut butter, then not have money for any other groceries–or gas, or rent–for 3 months.

Keep Track

I am not the person to tell you when it’s time to take a big risk, or give up, or move on, or take a temporary gig to make ends meet. Only you can do that.

But you need good data to make that call accurately.

So keep track of it all. What you made, what you spent it on, how long it took.

Maybe you discover you can write adventures much faster than campaign settings. Or that you spend too much on pizza delivery when you are on deadline. Or that you can save money on taxes with business deductions.

I don’t know. And if you don’t keep track, you won’t know either.

Build Relationships

Yes, relationships with publishers, developers, and editors, in an effort to be kept in mind for work. But also other writers (to bounce ideas off of, commiserate, or in case they become publishers, developers, and editors). People in your community who do freelance work (you never know what resources are out there, and local folks are good contacts to find out). Even fans… sometimes.

Your career is more than your skill. It’s who is willing to pay you for that skill, which means who knows you. And who they think will pick something up because you wrote it, which means who they think knows you matters too.

As an introvert with social anxiety I found this one of the hardest things. But I discovered that when people at conventions invited me out for drinks, they didn’t care if I drank or not. I could get a club soda. It was just an opportunity to network, hang out, make connections. I set my career back at least a decade by avoiding those opportunities for most of my career.

Be smart, be safe. But when you are safe and comfortable, reach out to folks, and make connections.

A strong community will pay dividends in ways you can never predict.

Post Your Thoughts, Ask People to Pay You For Them.

There’s always SOMEONE who cares what you think, and who looks up to where you already are.

Some of them will pay you if you post to a blog, and have a link to some way to give you money.

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About okcstephens

Owen K.C. Stephens Owen Kirker Clifford Stephens is the Starfinder Design Lead for Paizo Publishing, the Freeport and Pathfinder RPG developer for Green Ronin, a developer for Rite Publishing, and the publisher and lead genius of Rogue Genius Games. Owen has written game material for numerous other companies, including Wizards of the Coast, Kobold Press, White Wolf, Steve Jackson Games and Upper Deck. He also consults, freelances, and in the off season, sleeps.

Posted on February 6, 2019, in Business of Games, Musings, Writing Basics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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