19 January 2019

For Fun or for Profit?

In a discussion with some fellow short-story writer friends several weeks ago, a familiar question was asked:

How much should we expect to be paid for what we write?

Oddly, about a third of the group maintained that if you write well, then by God you should be paid well for it. Another third said it all depends. The final third said they just want to be published, period--any kind of pay would be icing on the cake.

It will surprise none of you that most of the folks who insisted that we must always be paid well are those established authors who publish regularly in prestigious markets--and the writers who didn't care whether they're paid or not are mostly beginners. The middle third were, well, somewhere in the middle.

I'm one of those. I have an odd take on this issue. In theory, I agree with the first group. Fiction writers, like any other craftsmen, should expect fair compensation for what we create, and we shouldn't waste the result of our hard work on those who won't or can't pay us for it. It's sort of like the hot-dog vendor on the street corner. He has something of value to sell and he has customers who want his product. They don't expect him to work for nothing.

Actually, though (and I'm a little reluctant to admit it), this whole writing gig is so much fun, I'd probably continue to do it whether I sold anything for real dollars or not. Writing is, after all, not my primary career; I'm retired from my primary career. And the truth is, even though I like money as well as the next guy, I do sometimes (not often) submit stories to markets that either don't pay or pay very little, and I do it for a couple of reasons. One is that some of these publications helped me out when I was just getting started, and gave me places to at least get a byline or two--and most of these places still have the same editors, many of whom I consider friends. So, yeah, I'll occasionally send one of them a story, and feel good when they publish it. Another reason is, I might see an interesting-looking but non-paying market that considers reprints and send a story there as well. It's not that I don't value these reprints. I do. But sweet Jiminy, i have hundreds of them and they're just sitting there on my computer, doing nothing. I might as well suit them up and send them out into the world again and get some more good out of them.

I recently read Playing the Short Game, a book by Douglas Smith about how to market short fiction. Not how to write it; how to market it. Smith's view on this was Don't ever, ever send a short story to any market that doesn't pay professional rates. And I see his point. You might not become rich using that approach--not many short-story writers are--but you'll at least get a fair payment for what you've written. He also makes the argument that you should be trying to build a respectable resume, and any place that publishes your story and doesn't pay you professional rates for it probably isn't a place you want to list as a publishing credit in your bio. (Professional rates are usually considered to be at least six cents a word.)

I must confess that, despite my occasional support of certain nonpaying markets, most of the stories I currently submit are sent to places that pay well. It's not just the money; it's validation. It's the pat on the head that you feel you deserve for producing something worthwhile. I can't help thinking about one of the how-to-write books on my shelf by Lawrence Block, called Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. A key word in that title is and. He didn't say "for fun or profit."

Anytime this subject comes up, I recall an incident that happened to me years ago, when I was gainfully employed. I was standing around with a bunch of co-workers one day, at a client location, when one of my non-writer colleagues appeared with a copy of a magazine that had recently published one of my stories. He was showing my story to everyone, and another person in the group asked me how much I was paid for it. I hemmed and hawed and stalled for a while, but finally he insisted I tell him the amount. So I did. His reaction, after he'd closed his mouth and uncrossed his eyes, was: "Are you kidding? That little story's not worth that much." I wasn't offended--but my reply to him was an honest one: "Actually, it's worth whatever someone will pay you for it." And I still believe that. I've seen a lot of expensive pieces of abstract art that I'd be embarrassed to hang in my neighbor's doghouse--but it was probably worth a lot to whoever bought it.

One more thing. I've focused on short fiction here for two reasons: (1) I write mostly short stories, and (2) novels don't follow the same rules, regarding payment. But generally speaking, do you feel we as fiction writers should always be paid professional rates for our work? Can you think of a situation where you'd "sell" a short story--or maybe a novella, let's say--to a place that doesn't? How do you editors out there, of both magazines and anthologies, feel about all this? Should writers be expected to contribute a story to an anthology that doesn't (or might not, in the case of royalties) pay a fair amount for a story? What would you consider to be a fair amount? As a writer, have you ever published something in a magazine that paid you only "in copies"? Let me know--we po folks have to stick together.

By the way, Velma, I'm still waiting for my SleuthSayers check…


  1. In the proverbial perfect world, John, I think we should absolutely be paid – and a fair amount – for our work. You used the example of the hot dog vendor. I often use the example of a plumber. No one would expect to no pay a plumber. But they often expect to not pay a writer. And for that non-payment they want these rights and those rights and maybe your first born, too.

    That said, while I prefer paying markets, I have “sold” stories to non-paying ones on occasion. But I always think it’s nice when there’s even a token payment, just to show that the publishers appreciate your work, your time and your effort.

    It’s my understanding that in the mid-20th century, writers could actually make a living selling short stories. How many can do that today?

  2. I was taught early in my career. WIth a new story – start with the top markets and work your way down. Same with reprints.

  3. Great post as always, John -- very thoughtful. I'll admit, I like to get paid for my work, of course, but I've also submitted stories to publications that couldn't pay even when I felt (knew in at least one or two cases) I could sell them to bigger publications. But many factors play into this: an organization or an editor or publisher I admire, a cause I'd like to support, or even a publication that I'd like to be part of (a debut issue of a new pub, for example), places where my work might have a good fit. There are many trade-offs, of course, but (so far) no major regrets.

  4. I agree with you on this, John, pretty much all across the board: writing is work, and those who work ought to be paid for their labor — at least if their work isn't crap; I would refuse to pay for an inedible hotdog — but there are certain circumstances in which writing for little or even no pay makes sense (i.e., the new writer starting out and desirous of building some professional credits, the established writer who wants to support a publication that supported him or her earlier on or a publication just starting out or run by a friend).

    I have a special-case anecdote that fits here, and — since you invited comment — I'll share it. Thirty-some years ago, I was doing a series of collaborative stories, and I wrote one with the legendary/notorious (take your pick) Michael Avallone. Mike was convinced that the editors of the bigger crime-fiction digests of that day didn't like him and would automatically reject any story that had his name on it, so he suggested I take his name off and submit it as by me only. I refused to deny him credit for work on which he'd collaborated, though, and sent the story around as by both of us — and, sure enough, everyone I sent it to turned it down. I thought it was a good piece of work, though — I still do — and finally sent it to Wayne Dundee's semiprozine Hardboiled. Wayne agreed with me that it deserved to be published, and he paid us the grand sum of $10 for it. He sent the check to me, and I in turn wrote a check for $5 and passed it along to Mike. Not counting zero, that's the smallest sum I've ever been paid for a piece of fiction....

  5. Paul, I too have heard that writers in the forties and fifties (Louis L'Amour comes to mind) could indeed make a living writing nothing but shorts, because magazines paid so much for them then. As you say, no more.

    O'Neil, I'm glad you used that thought, because I neglected to mention it: start with the top markets and work your way down. The book I mentioned states that over and over, and it's always a good rule to keep in mind.

    Thank you, Art! You too mentioned something I forgot, and that's that writers will some contribute a story to a good cause. I've had several stories published by Wolfmont Press in Georgia that benefitted the Toys for Tots program--and even edited an anthology for that organization--for no pay other than the good feeling that goes along with a project like that..

    Josh, I like the anecdote. That's an interesting story, to go through all that and wind up with $5. I guess the point is that a good ounce of writing will eventually find a home, and--as everyone has said--compensation can be a subjective thing.

    Thanks for the insights, guys! It's good to know how friends see this issue.

  6. John, I agree with O'Neil - start with the top and work your way down. On the other hand, I too have published in places for little or no pay because (1) I like the editor; (2) that's where the story fit the best; and/or (3) I just felt like it.
    The one rule I have never [yet] broken is that I will not pay someone to publish my work.

  7. Eve, GOOD FOR YOU. I too am a firm believer that writers should never pay someone to get something published. Money should flow toward the writer, and not the other way around. Thanks for the thought!!

    A big concern for beginning writers always seems to be the fear that a top market won't look at their work. The truth is, if it's good enough, it won't matter that much whether you're a recognizable name or not. And often the only way to "break through" into these big markets is just to give them a try. If your story's rejected, then try the next one down, on your list.

  8. Re-reading my comments, in my reply to Josh, I meant a good PIECE of writing, not a good ounce of writing. I swear, AutoCorrect is sometimes not your friend.

  9. I have a friend, an excellent short story writer, who told me a few years ago that I should not be submitting my stories to publications that don't pay anything or hardly anything. She said I should only be submitting to the professional markets. In theory I think that's a wonderful idea. But there aren't that many professional-paying mystery markets. And as much as I want to be paid well, I also want to be published. If I write a story and no one reads it, I don't get the enjoyment out of it that I wanted. I write to be read. I do start by sending out, usually, to the bigger markets and work my way down. But I will submit to markets that pay a small amount. As for receiving no payments, I generally will only do that if the proceeds are being donated to charity.

  10. I think we should be paid, period - and I think we should be paid whatever the market will bear.

    Having said that, I did contribute a story for free to an Andrew Scorah anthology in the UK because any moneys it generated would benefit victims of domestic violence. (He asked. I thought, Why not?) Exception proves the rule, LOL.

  11. With the shrinking market for short stories many of us have learned that the shorter the story the better the chance that it will sell. My last step in editing a story is always to re-read it slowly looking at each word and asking myself "can this word be eliminated?" The irony of this process is that if the story IS in fact published, payment is usually calculated . . . by the word.

  12. Barb and David -- I'm thinking most of us feel the same way about this. Write as well as you can and try to place your story at the spot that'll give you the best, or at least a decent, payment--while realizing that there will be exceptions. One story I wrote awhile back is so hard to classify in terms of genre, I've not even sent it anyplace. And Barb, as you said, I don't want it to go unpublished, so I might wind up settling for someplace that'll give me a lesser payment, maybe a future anthology. Thanks for the opinions!!

  13. Dale, I fully agree--the shorter the story, the better the chances of a sale. If you look at market guides, almost all publications will include a statement that says "also publishes short-shorts." A hint: send those really short stories to places that pay a flat rate instead of by the word (!).

    Not that it matters, but I think there are two more things, beside a shorter length, that increase the chances of selling a story. One is a lot of dialogue and the other is at least some humor. Even in "serious" fiction, humor is something a reader (and therefore an editor) likes in a story.

    Thanks for the comment!!

  14. My cousin, Louis L'Amour, kept a running list of where he had sent stories & how much he was paid for each one. Also, he had two typewriters in his office & usually worked on two stories simultaneously. He had two desks & sat in a swivel chair between the two. He was a cousin on my father's side, but I never got to meet him.

    I'm fixing to submit to an anthology that closes Jan. 31. Some of y'all might be interested. It's a paying market, but the amount to be paid depends on how many stories will be in the book:


  15. A few random observations:

    Many of my early-career short story sales were to publications that paid flat rates that worked out to 10-20 cents/word. Concurrently, my work was appearing in publications that paid nothing at all. It's been quite a while since I sold to any publications paying 10-20 cents/word, but my work still appears in non-paying publications.

    Sometimes, the amount of money paid for a piece isn't the best way to judge value for effort. For many years I sold regularly to publications that paid 3 cents/word, but I earned $20+/hour writing the stories, which was far more than I earned on a per-hour basis from many of the better-paying publications.

    Sometimes, the money doesn't come from the initial publication. Last year I sold a reprint and received 20x what I earned from the original publication.

    Sometimes, the rewards one earns from writing don't come from direct payment. Some of us receive rewards for being published through raises, tenure, teaching opportunities, speaking engagements, and the like. Even non-paid publications can build a nice C.V.

    Do all these random observations lead to any sort of conclusion? Alas, no.

  16. I get 10% of the book's retail on the first 5000. Then 12% on the next 5000.

  17. Elizabeth -- Interesting info, about Louis L'Amour. I love the two-typewriters-for-two-stories idea, And thanks for the anthology-submission link!

    Michael, I too used to send a lot of stories to places that paid 3 cents a word. That must've been a fairly common payment rate, in past years. I've found that I now submit almost the same number of stories to flat-rate markets as I do to pay-by-the-word markets. As for observations that don't lead to a conclusion, I make plenty of those!

  18. A thoughtful post, John, and I agree with Eve, O'Neil and several others. I have published ONE story for free, and the magazine offered to promote my newest novel in the issue in return. It looked like a good idea, but their formatting was a mess and the dark book cover showed up in black and white so it was a mess. That story was a lot more explicit than most of my work and I'd run out of other places to send it, so there you are.

    In an ideal world, I'd get minimum wage for a story, and they usually take me at least six hours (more like ten or fifteen???) to get right. The current MWA standard is nowhere near that, and I don't see it increasing. Like O'Neil, I start at the top markets and work down, but you go down the list very quickly. It's few steps from six cents a word to three to a penny to a flat rate of $25 or $10 to royalties.

    When I started sending stories out about 15 years ago, I targeted 25-30 markets. Now, as more magazines disappear and more online markets appear, I still only send to ten or twelve places.

    Recognition is nice, but crime writing is a pretty hermetic world. If I tell someone I've sold a story to AHMM or EQMM, there's a chance they've heard of it, but almost nothing else shows up on the average civilian's radar. Same with awards. Someone told me recently that he has a friend who serves on the "Poe Awards Committee." I realized he meant the Edgars, but when I mentioned it, he had no idea what the organization was.

  19. Some money is better than no money, and lots of money is better than some money. But, for me, getting my stories published isn't really about the money, per se. It's about getting my work in well-thought-of publications, getting my work read by wider audiences, and proving to myself that I can write a good story. I'm also pretty competitive, so it feels good when my story makes it into a selective anthology or magazine. I mean, the money is nice, but there are very few short story writers I know who can make a living selling short stories (so the other factors become more important). Of course, like you, I enjoy money as much as the next guy (but that's not why I write).

  20. Steve, thanks for your thoughts, here. Sounds as if most of us do it the same way, with regard to targeting markets for our stories. As for awards, you're right, very few people outside the mystery community know anything about the mystery-writing awards--but I've found the same thing applies to science fiction, etc.

    Alan, it's always great to have you stop in, here! It does indeed feel good when we got stories accepted to magazines and anthologies for which the competition is tough--and I'm always extra pleased when one of my stories happens to appear alongside one of yours! Keep up the good work, and thank for the comment.

  21. Typing as a reader/purchaser...

    I have a general rule that if a book is still in print and under copyright and the author is still alive, I will buy the book from an outlet from which the author will get royalties. (I actually don't care much about the authors heirs and assigns. Revenue from the purchase of books not under copyright can go to pirates, whom I would rather not support, either.)

    I see a lot of stuff on Amazon (in particular with ebooks) that at the very least appears to be pirated. For example, most of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe books are still under copyright and are still available as ebooks from Bantam, and I know that the Wolfe estate will benefit. But there is also an outfit calling itself the Caramna Corporation, which, as near as I can tell, has no legal right to be offering the books for sale.

  22. Don, thanks for chiming in, here. I think that's an admirable rule to follow. I don't doubt that there are illegal schemes out there, but I'm usually unaware of them and probably don't investigate enough to avoid them. I appreciate the insights!

  23. A great piece and a subject I have thought about much. For years my rule has been that I won't submit a story unless I expect to get at least $100 for it. Three exceptions: 1) a charity anthology (such as the Bouchercon books), 2) Flash fiction, 3) a case where the editor is a friend of mine and/or the subject intrigues me. Last year I sent two stories to anthologies that met #3. One was accepted. I am still waiting to hear about the other.

    But something also happened last year that made me reconsider my rule. A Tokyo publisher reprinted my story collection SHANKS ON CRIME in Japanese. It was happy enough with the results that it is going to put out another book of stories they selected from my published but uncollected works. If you figure it out on a story-by-story basis they are paying me in some cases more than the original magazine did. So, if I sent some of my as-yet-unpublished stories to a magazine that pays, say, $25, could it result in a professional rate for a reprint?

    So, I'm thinking...

  24. Good thought, Rob. I'm thinking that can happen in several different ways. If one of your stories gets chosen for Best American Mystery Stories, for example, you will almost certainly earn more from that than you earned from the publication in which it first appeared (depending on the original market and the length of the story).

    Congratulations again, by the way, on the Japanese SHANKS reprint!

  25. Great post. I believe that authors should get paid for their work. That said, we often have to start small—with a very small payment or none at all. I agree with Barb—I want to get my name out there. With that in mind, I occasionally do giveaways.

    But life isn't always about the money. Some pumbers probably fix faucets gratis for a close friend or family member. Theatres give away the occasional ticket. We all share knowledge and expertise with colleagues that defy monetary value.

  26. Good points, Marilyn. And, with regard to "giving away" stories, I'm more inclined to do that with reprints than with original work. But, as Rob is fond of saying, your mileage may vary.

    Thanks for stopping in, here!

  27. I publish a charity anthology--and I still pay the writers of each story. I can't afford market rate, and most of the writers donate their fees to the same charity, but it's the principal. I don't ever want to get into the habit of asking any writer or artist to work for free.


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