Writing Basics: How Much Will You Make?
New freelancers often wonder how much money they can make writing tabletop game material (or editing, or art, though those are different fields than where my primary experience lies). They’ll ask how they get paid, maybe inquire about a per-word rate, or flat fee, and think they are done, But knowing the per-word rate of a project is the beginning of figuring out how much you’ll make doing it, not the end.
And let me start by saying not everyone cares how much they make, and not everyone is going to depend on this money for their livelihood even if they do, and none of that matters when discussing what is reasonable to pay. Work deserves to be compensated, and you deserve to know how hard you are working for the money you make.
I don’t know that there is an “industry standard” for tabletop RPG writing. At this point in my career I am usually writing for 10 cents/word or a goodly cut of all income from a project. Over the past 20 years I have written for as little as 1 cent/word (counting only things that were non-charity, paid projects), and as much as 35 cents/word, but those are both outliers. (Before that I once took a project for 0.1 cents/word… I didn’t know any better. And that’s not my worst experience, to boot.)
Most people I am willing to work with pay no less than 3 cents a word, even to new writers. So, for purposes of this article, that’s the number I am going to go with.
But even knowing a project pays ‘3 cents a word’ doesn’t tell you how much you are making, until you know how many words it is, and how long that will take you, how many revisions you’ll be asked to make, and how long you have to wait to get paid.
If you can do 2,000 words in a 2-hour evening run? That’s $30/hour.
If it’s 1,000 words over 4 hours? That’s $7.50/hour.
But if revisions take just as long as the writing? Your hourly rate just got cut in half. And you’ll likely be paying self-employment tax (in the U.S. anyway, basically another 15% cut out of your income), and you won’t get any benefits as you would for a full-time hourly staff job, and if you have to wait until it’s published to get paid you may miss out on the potential for months of interest (whether by putting it in savings or paying off a credit card cost), or both.
Some of those answers you won’t know until the project is done. You can ask a company if they expect to request revisions (and definitely check your contract to see if it asks for revisions), and you can ask other freelancers what their experience with that company is in that regard (and on other issues too — it’s worth knowing if a company has a reputation for paying late, or killing projects, or changing the remit partway through… if you can, find fellow freelancers you trust and talk to them). But ultimately, any given project may be the exception to the general rule.
It’s also worth finding out HOW you are getting the money. By check? By PayPal (in which case, is a fee coming out of it, and if so who is paying that fee?) By international wire transfer from a different currency? Find out, and get it in writing. It can make a huge difference, especially if different currencies get involved.
The math is even more variable for things that pay your a percentage, and there are even more elements that can change things. Is your percentage of the cover price, or the cut the publishing company gets? this is a huge difference. for example, if it’s a $5 pdf on DriveThruRPG, and you are getting 25%, you need to know if that is 25% of the $5 cover, or 25% of the $3.25 the publishing company gets after DriveThru takes their 35% cut? Also, are you being paid off gross (all the money that comes in) or net (the profit, after all other expenses are paid), or some hybrid number (such as all the money the company takes in for sale price, but none of the money it takes in for printing POD copies or for shipping)? Are you paid monthly? Quarterly? For the life of the product, or just for the first year of sales?
And it wouldn’t be fair not to mention here that some publishers, writers, and pundits think percentage payments are unethical. I’m not one of them, as long as the freelancer is well-informed when making their decision. But I WILL say that since a percentage asks the freelancer to take more of the risk on the project (since sales could be dismal), I recommend only taking a percentage that you believe, based on your own market research, will on average pay more than the flat rate you would accept for the project. I take percentage projects myself fairly often, but am most likely to do so when I have more creative control. If I pitched the idea, or I am developing it to my taste, or it’s a case where a publisher has told me they’ll pay me for anything I ant to write (rare, but it has happened from time to time in my career), I am more willing to take the risk with the publisher, as opposed to when I am given a hard outline and have fewer creative choices to give input on.
On the question of how fast you write, that answer may not be the same for you for every kind of project. I can write new rules content and essays (like this one) MUCH faster than I can write long adventures. Short adventures seem to be an average between those two. Worldbuilding varies for me wildly–sometimes the ideas and descriptions flow easily, and sometimes it’s a grind. And the better I know a game system, the easier and faster all the writing is for it.
You should also make sure you aren’t having to spend money in order to do the writing for a project. Nowadays every company I work with will at least give a freelancer free pdfs of their material that is related to a project. but for licensed properties, this isn’t always as clear. I have had licensed projects I worked on that required me to have some geek encyclopedia not published by the company I was working for, and which they could not get me free copies of. I always increased my asking price by the amount buying such things would cost me, or made sure they were things I could borrow off a friend, or get from the library. If there are free resources, such as fan wikis, make sure your publisher considers them authoritative before depending on them.
You also have t consider if your writing project requires you to do any non-writing work that doesn’t pay any extra above the per-word rate. It’s extremely common for adventure writers to have to do sketches of maps of the locations within their adventures. Not final cartography, but maps with enough detail that the cartographer doesn’t have to make any decisions when rendering final version. This generally doesn’t result in any additional pay above the per-word rate, so if it’s 3 cents per word for 10,000 words plus three full-page map sketches, you are doing more work for the money than if you got 3 cents per word for 10,000 words with no sketches. You may also have to provide an outline, or multiple outlines, which create additional words you are writing you don’t get directly paid for. If the outlines are part of your normal process of writing that’s fine, but if they aren’t be sure to think about how long they took you when considering how much you earned.
It’s much less common, but sometimes publishers also want writers to do interviews, blog posts, marketing text, and so on. Some of those things you may see as career opportunities (the publisher likely isn’t making any money off you doing an interview with someone, and it can be good for your own visibility), but it’s worth knowing if those things are optional opportunities for you, or considered mandatory part of your job, which you should then count against the time it takes you to earn that assignment’s money. (Of course you don’t count any promotion you arrange for and do on your own against the money the publisher pays you — that kind of self-promotion is just part of being an active freelancer.)
Only when you know how much money you’ll get, how long it’ll take to get it, how long it took you to write a draft, how long you spent on revisions or outlining or mapping or art orders, and how long any mandatory promotions you engage in took, can you figure out how many hours you spent earning your per-word, royalty, or flat rate. You may not want to bother to do this with every project, but it IS worth tracking from time to time so you know if there are things that earn you more per hour, even if they have a similar or lower rate for the whole project.
And, of course, when talking about how much you can earn as a freelancer on top of knowing how much you make per hour, you have to figure out how many hours you can spend on it in a month, and then if you can fill all those hours with work at a rate worth your time.
But those are sub-topics for another week.
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Like all my blog posts, this one is supported by the backers of my patreon! In this case this post is specifically sponsored by the fine folks at the Know Direction network, who have podcasts, articles, news, and convention recordings about the game industry and general, and Paizo, Pathfinder and Starfinder in particular! “Pathfinder News, Reviews, & Interviews!”