The Case For $0.01/word Being Bullshit
The wheel of discourse turns and ages come and pass and inevitably we circle back to "actually it’s fine to pay people shit wages because otherwise you’re gatekeeping who gets to make art". It’s bullshit and I hate it.
This particular round of discourse was prompted by a publisher with a track record of low-five-figure Kickstarters putting out a call for submissions for work. They would pay $0.01/word in exchange for owning all the rights to the work in perpetuity, with no royalties or other residuals paid to the writers creating the words which they intend to profit from. This is disgusting.
$0.01 per word – a cent per word, or 74% of a single penny in pounds sterling, which is the currency I pay my bills in – is a fucking insult. If you want to hire people to make products for you that you then sell for a profit, you need to be paying more than this.
To demonstrate just how bullshit this wage is, I decided to go back through all of my solo projects to date. I started publishing on the DMs Guild back in September 2016. I had no audience whatsoever, nobody knew who I was, I released products under a Pay What You Want model, and I’m still positive that I’ve rarely earned less than $0.01/word. And if a solo creator can earn that on their own with no "help" from a publisher, then what is the publisher bringing to the table?
I’m going to try and give "$0.01/word, no residuals, pay on publication" as much of a head start as possible here. I’m going to look at my products and figure out what they earned in their first 30 days of being on sale, and I’m going to compare that to $0.01/word. But I’ll also look at how much they’ve earned over their lifetime, as an example of how offering royalties can mitigate an inability to pay a fair wage when the work is first commissioned.
I won’t be looking at my freelance work in detail here but I’ve never been paid $0.01/word and these days I try not to work for less than £0.10/word (which is $0.14). I’m now in a position to be quite choosy about the work I accept, though, because I’ve managed to find myself in a position where my solo ventures pay more than most freelance work and therefore it’s not really worth my time to write for other people. I am very privileged in this regard, but it’s entirely the result of hard work and consistency.
Freelance work in brief, from memory:
- $0.03/word, Onyx Path Publishing, Yugman’s Guide To Ghelspad.
- $0.08/word, Hunter’s Entertainment, Gods Of Metal: Ragnarock.
- $0.10/word, Gauntlet Publishing, Fudge, Jury, and Executioner and Bed, Breakfast, and Beyond. Paid on submission, they were a joy to work for, and if the work is included in crowdfunding (e.g. in a Kickstarted edition of Brindlewood Bay) they pay an additional $0.05/word bringing the total yo $0.15/word. Would happily write for them again.
- $0.25/word, MCDM Arcadia, Filthy Peasants. The best freelance experience of my career. 10/10 would write for again.
- £0.40/word, Ockult Örtmästare Games, location for CY_BORG. Good people, fun work, great pay, more please.
I’m also currently contracted for three things that I can’t talk about yet at rates of $0.08, $0.07, and £0.12. The first two are lower than I’d usually accept but they’re both opportunities I’m excited about and therefore I’m willing to take a lower rate.
So much for "I won’t go into my freelance work in detail" I guess? I’ve actually deleted some of what I wrote in my first draft because I simply don’t want any drama resulting from things I write in this post, but the fact that we can’t be transparent about freelance experiences for fear of reprisals is another conversation for another day.
Anyway. On to my solo ventures. Incoming table.
A brief key:
- "Sales 30" = total money made by me in the first 30 days.
- "Sales LT" = total money made by me over the life of the product to date.
- "$/w 30" = $ per word in the first 30 days of publication.
- "$/w LT" = $ per word over the lifetime of the product.
- "PWYW" = a product sold under a Pay What You Want model with no minimum price. If there’s a minimum price I list that as the sale price. If there’s an asterisk next to PWYW it means that it was released as PWYW but in the intervening years I put an actual price tag on it.
For full transparency it should be noted that I do all my own writing and layout and that I’m not factoring being paid for those things into these calculations, but I’m also not factoring how much I pay for editing either. I think they roughly even each other out and it’s simply too much effort for me to break it down in more granular detail than this.
Projects that aren’t yet complete or fully released – i.e. Dice Souls, d36, Down In Yongardy, In The Bluelight – aren’t listed because I don’t know what the final word counts etc. are going to be on them.
These figures both do and do not include print products. They’re partially included in projects that were funded on Kickstarter because I’ve just taken the total amount that hit my bank and added that to digital sales, but I haven’t included later print sales. That isn’t due to not wanting to be transparent; it’s entirely down to me not having the energy to collate that information on top of the digital stuff I’ve already gone through.
With that said, print is a significant portion of my business both in terms of direct sales to customers and in selling to retailers. The per-word numbers for products that exist in print that I give below are lower than the reality as a result of not including print. It’s not hugely important, though, as the numbers that I’m presenting here more than make my point for me already.
I’m also not including products on the DMs Guild where I was part of a collaboration, mainly to save myself time and effort here but also because they’re not just my sales figures and it doesn’t feel right to share that information about other people without their permission. Similarly I’m not including Patreon figures either – partly again due to the effort involved, and partly in an attempt to give $0.01/word a fighting chance.
Some numbers may seem weird (i.e. don’t divide evenly by the sale price) – that’s because platforms and payment processors take a cut, and I’m listing the amounts that actually hit my bank account.
|Product||Launch Date||Word Count||Sale Price||Sales 30||Sales LT||$/w 30||$/w LT||Notes|
|100 New Trinkets||26/09/2016||2700||PWYW*||$30.02||$492.26||$0.011||$0.18|
|The Wheelhouse Prison||30/9/2016||8430||PWYW||$64.22||$333.33||$0.007||$0.039|
|Bulette Storm||4/7/2017||14,466||Free||–||$473.63||–||$0.032||Eventually became PWYW. Has been downloaded 28,880 times and contains adverts linking to my other products and my Patreon.|
|Breaker Of Chains||24/9/2017||5722||$4.99||$94.40||$1143.88||$0.016||$0.19|
|Trick Or Trinkets||29/10/2017||2427||$1.99||$34.19||$160.96||$0.014||$0.06|
|Cities: Shadepoint||7/2/2018||11,894||PWYW||$124.51||$192.06||$0.01||$0.016||Simultaneous release on Itch and DTRPG. Was my first Itch release.|
|Terror At Tightwillow Pond||6/3/2018||2073||£1||£1.54||£13.93||£0.00007||£0.006|
|Trinkets 3||3/12/2018||2000||$1.99||$8.50||$100.00||$0.004||$0.05||Written live on Twitter while waiting for a train back from Dragonmeet. Took most of a year off writing/publishing due to some personal issues and this was reflected in my sales numbers when it was initially released.|
|At The Ace Hotel||30/1/2020||1068||PWYW||$66.78||$95.41||$0.06||$0.089|
|Exit, Pursued by a Bear||14/4/2020||644||£5.00||£32.34||£41.99||£0.05||£0.065|
|The Wretched||19/4/2020||3579||£12||£996.77||£20,574.28||£0.28||£5.74||Original print run was just 25 copies. Very successful Kickstarter later in the year for a second printing. Covered by Shut Up & Sit Down and selected as one of Tabletop Gaming Magazine’s Best Games of 2020.|
|Under The Floorboards||26/06/2020||18,334||£12.50||£3154.35||£3891.15||£0.17||£0.21|
|Chicken & Chips||25/7/2020||1807||£5.00||£67.31||£85.97||£0.037||£0.047||First Patreon release after relaunching.|
|The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches||6/9/2020||7266||£6.66||£39.05||£236.31||£0.005||£0.04||Given away free during The Wretched Kickstarter to encourage people to back the campaign.|
|Dreams Of Psilocybin||15/9/2020||1210||PWYW||£2.55||£6.89||£0.002||£0.005||Has only ever sold 2 copies|
|A Dragon Game||8/3/2021||1258||PWYW||$1565.36||$1793.13||$1.00||$1.42||Massive spike in sales driven by coverage in Dicebreaker.|
|Treasures Of The Troll King||4/6/2021||4195||£13||£21.658.85||£22,048.16||£5.16||£5.25||Very successful Kickstarter. Number here has not had production costs subtracted from it but it continues to sell well in print post-campaign and those sales are also not reflected here.|
|Dungeon: A Wanderhome Nature||18/6/2021||98||PWYW||£27.29||£32.10||£0.27||£0.32|
|The Green Hag Of Greygasp||6/6/2021||6731||£5||£40.40||£75.71||£0.006||£0.01|
|The Fiction We Live||1/10/2021||3322||£6||£37.33||£48.84||£0.01||£0.014|
|People Of The Law||18/11/2021||597||£4.50||£13.50||£17.39||£0.02||£0.029||Released as a loss leader during the Down In Yongardy kickstarter and given away free through the campaign in order to drive new backers|
|Reivdene-Upon-The-Moss||1/12/2021||22,558||£0.50 – £12||£835.18||£869.38||£0.037||£0.038||Released daily during December with the price increasing £0.50 every day.|
|One Endless Night||15/12/2021||3718||£5.00||£43.07||£52.84||£0.01||£0.014|
|Best Left Jellied||11/1/2022||1368||£1.50||£4.80||£4.80||£0.003||£0.003|
Since beginning my career in 2016 I’ve published over 160k words, not including freelance writing, blog posts, fiction, and the few projects not listed here. In my first year of publishing I averaged a word rate of around $0.15/word. Over my career as a whole that average rate is closer to $0.50/word (this is hard to work out exactly because I have a mix of dollar and pound rates here and I haven’t accounted for print so I’ve rounded down; the actual average will be higher than this).
You are of course free to make your own conclusions and take what you want from this data, but here’s my takeaway:
It takes a dose of luck to be able to make a full time living at games writing – I wouldn’t be where I am now if The Wretched hadn’t taken off in the way it did and if Treasures Of The Troll King hadn’t also done phenomenally well – but you can increase your chances of being in the right place at the right time with the right product by being consistent and persistent, putting out small projects within the scope of your abilities regularly, and constantly working to be better at what you do.
On top of this, I can’t stress enough how valuable it is to have a large back catalogue that gives you a constant drip of income. Every product you release contributes to that, each time I release something new I see a spike in sales on old products, and it means that it becomes less and less important whether an individual release does well initially. I can afford to take a risk on something like Whalesong that’s effectively a commercial failure because my back list is strong.
At no point in my career would it have been beneficial to me to work for $0.01/word writing for somebody else, even though I have a handful of products that earned less. Even when I was starvation-level poor. I own those things, they will continue to earn money even if it’s small, and they contribute to a body of work that I’m proud to have produced.
One cent per word is exploitative bullshit when it’s offered by an American publisher raising 5 figures on Kickstarter regularly, even if you’re right at the start of your career with no track record. Don’t let them convince you they’re "taking a chance on you" when you could take a chance on yourself and be just as successful.
This is a long post. It clocks in at 2134 words. If I wanted to be paid for this then the best way to do that would be to link to my Ko-Fi and to tell you that it only takes 8 readers donating £3 each to get me above £0.01 per word, which is more than 1 cent per word. That’s how easy it is to make that money.