I’m a bit of an anomaly as someone who has written extensively about personal finance (as Mr. Cheap) and currently is focused on writing books, many of which are fiction. Many writers are self-confessed math-phobic, while others are clearly uncomfortable with business and money based decisions. I’m comfortable with all of this and am often shocked at the opinions that otherwise well informed writers offer on these topics.
In this post I’m interested in how pay for fiction writers has changed over time. I’m *NOT* examining the cause or proposing any solutions, just trying to get an understanding of where we are.
This is surprisingly difficult, as authors are brands and it’s almost impossible to make useful comparisons between them. Consider John Scalzi, Brandon Sanderson, and Stephen King. These are three successful genre authors. I’d be hard pressed to even guess what their relative networth, incomes, and book sales are. I’m not sure this comparison would be useful, as they’re at different points in their careers and writing in different genres.
Instead, I think the way to approach this question is from the opposite end. What does a new writer get paid for selling their first piece of fiction? This isn’t perfect, but hardly anyone is a “brand” when they first publish (we can set aside people like Prince Harry and only consider writers coming from a relatively unknown background).
Offering myself as an example, I recently sold my first fiction piece. I’m not allowed to publicize the anthology yet, but I received $50 for flash fiction (400 words). In their call for submissions they offered $100 for short stories between 1,500 and 3,000 words, I was below the minimum, but they liked it anyways, and I got offered half.
This seems to be in-line with modern standards: $100 is considered decent pay for a short story (I’ve seen offers for a lot less than this). The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, one of the preeminent places to publish genre short stories these days, pays 8 to 12 cents a word, which would work out to around $100 for a 1,000 word story. Clarkesworld Magazine would also pay $100 for a 1,000 word story, and Asimov’s Science Fiction and Analog both pay 8 to 10 cents a word.
In 1953, Anne McCaffrey sold her first short story, “Freedom of the Race” for $100. $100 was a lot more money in the 50s than it’s worth today (it’d buy a lot more stuff). Inflation tracks this and lets us, over periods of time, compare amounts of money in different periods. $100 in 1953 is equivalent to $1,139.95 today. It’s 1,000 words long, so it would have also been too short for the anthology I submitted to, but lets give it the benefit of the doubt and pretend it was accepted for $100. This means the pay today is more than 10 times less for new writers than in the 1950’s.
In 1886 Arthur Conan Doyle sold his first Sherlock Holmes story for £25. It was longer, with different measures of the word count (28k to 47k, it’s weird that these vary so widely!). It does seems to have been more of a novella than a novel or short story. He wrote it in 3 weeks. £25 In 1886 would be £4,157.33 today. This is $5,319.62 USD, to compare with the other two. This is a little under five times what Anne McCaffrey was paid, over 100 times what I was paid.
Charles Dickens wasn’t paid at all for his first story in 1833, so perhaps that shows that writers have been getting cheated for a long time now.
Some might say it isn’t fair to compare leading writers from the past to mediocre writers of the present (like myself). With the purchase of their first fiction, no one knew they were going to be famous writers, so I think we can consider pay rates for people’s first work as comparable in most cases (the author was good enough to pay, but wasn’t yet a brand).
What’s This Mean?
This is only three data points and they’re different text lengths, but I think they paint a picture of the continual decrease in payment for writing that has been happening over the last 150 years.