By the Word Isn’t Working
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There has been a ton of talk on Twitter this week about creators in the tabletop roleplaying game world being undervalued (or sometimes undervaluing their own work). I want to thank everyone who participated in those discussions and shared thoughts, ideas, and opinions. Creators should make more money, and it is going to take consumers willing to pay more for products, publishers willing to increase paychecks, and creators increasing their rates. One blog post isn’t going to solve this issue, but I do have a thought I want to share.
It’s hard to make it as a freelancer in any industry let alone as a freelance RPG designer. In our industry 10 cents a word has been considered a premium rate for decades, whereas in many other industries it is the starting rate for new freelancers with the top of the scale being 1 dollar a word or more. I think payment for writers, editors, artists, and other freelancers who work in RPGs needs to increase (and consumers need to change the way they think of RPG products). I also think publishers need to stop paying RPG designers by the word and pay instead for their time.
There are few reasons publishers should budget time and not words for designers.
Work Beyond Words
Design work is so much more than putting down words. In addition to writing (which should include a healthy dose or editing and revising your own work) roleplaying game designers are expected to draw at least rough maps, create art orders, do research, attend meetings, pull together appendices from other resources (such as a list of monster stat blocks at the back of an adventure), playtesting, and review and comment on the work of other creators on the project. All of these activities take time, often days or weeks of work depending on the scope of a project. For instance, it can take me four or more hours to create a rough map for an adventure location, review another designer’s work to give feedback, or attend a month of hour-long meetings once a week.
A low word rate barely covers expenses when a designer is just writing. Asking a designer to do all the extras takes time and labor, which should be compensated.
Every Project is Different
Some projects require more work beyond words than others. Are you writing a few thousand words to give some flavor or alternate rules to an existing world or system? If so, a word rate is probably fine (but being compensated for your time works just as well). Are you writing a single chapter in a long adventure that requires two different maps and several art orders? If so, being compensated for your time is better. Are you creating an original roleplaying game from scratch that requires months of meetings, playtesting, creating rough maps, writing art orders, writing/rewriting/deleting/rerewriting, and more? If so, you should be compensated for your time (and likely receive royalties for your efforts). Compensating designers for time is fairer on large projects, especially since publishers often stand to make more money on bigger products.
Encourage Smaller Writing
Paying by the word has problems beyond fairness to designers. Asking for a minimum number of words usually means a publisher will get at least that many from a designer, since the designer wouldn’t want to turn in fewer words for fear of getting a smaller paycheck. This contradicts a writing adage that it is better to be brief. Seasoned designers can often say in one sentence what might take others a paragraph. I’ve spent a lot of hours trying to hit a word count goal after I feel I’ve achieved a writing project’s objective in fewer words, only to have my extra words cut from the final draft. It would have saved everyone time (and possibly the publisher some money) if I had just been paid for my time instead of words.
Publishers should still plan out products and provide word counts (because plans help publishers from going over budget), but freeing a designer’s pay from word count makes it easier for the designer to say, “I could make this section shorter.” The publisher can then say, “Great! We can put those words somewhere else they are needed,” or, “Now we can add more art to the book,” or, “Now the book is thinner, and my print costs are lower!” This approach also could save a publisher money, since a designer takes less time to write 10,000 words than they do 15,000.
How Do We Do This?
How do we pay freelancers for time? I can already see people saying, “Won’t freelancers lie about the number of hours they spend on a project to make more money? What if an honest freelancer works more hours or days than the publisher expects? Word counts are safer because they are quantifiable.” Have no fear. Many industries pay freelancers for time (like television, which is where I have my other freelance life). We have good, tested model for this.
The best way a freelance RPG designer can work for time is by arranging everything with the publisher before writing a single word on the project. Here’s how I see it happening. (Note this idea is not an original one. I’ve stolen it from other businesses that have worked the same way for many, many, many years.)
- The publisher reaches out to a freelancer and provides the full scope of a project. The publisher might even provide the budget they have for the freelancer’s work.
- The freelancer provides an estimate for their work to the publisher. This includes the amount of time the project will take the freelancer and the freelancer’s rate for the project.
- The publisher and freelancer agree or negotiate (then hopefully agree) on the terms of payment. They also outline what actions should be taken by both parties if the project expands beyond the original scope of work.
- If the publisher and freelancer agree on terms, they put those terms of the project into a contract and both sign it.
- Get to work!
To publishers, consumers, and my fellow freelance designers out there, what do you think of this model? Sound off in the comments below!
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May 30, 2019 @ 9:21 am
Okay, I walked into this blog dismissive. Because of the concerns you bring-up at the end: how do we gauge how much time someone spent on the project? Because, like many creatives, not all of the time I spend “writing” is actually spent writing.
Halfway though you sold me. I am convinced that for larger projects, paying for time is good.
As you say, paying for time prevents a bloated word count. (I’m fond of teasing Dickens for this reason, as he got paid by the word… and it shows.)
But… hard wordcounts are vital to layout. Turning in a smaller than expect project doesn’t really help, because then the publisher needs to hire someone at the last minute to add more words so the text will fit in the expected pages. Otherwise the chapter will end in a half-blank page.
No publisher has ever said “Now we can add more art to the book”. Ever. Because a 1/4 page of art costs as much as 2-3 pages of text. You cut the text for the art, not add more art because the text was short.
The other concern is system you propose at the end would work great… for experienced writers who know how fast they write, how long research will take, and how long they will spend outlinging and brainstorming.
Asking a new freelancer how long it will take them to write a 8,000 word adventure feels like asking me how long it will take to build a deck. I know it can be done in a short length of time, and I’m sure I can look up guides. But my guess is going to be way off.
Clayton Notestine (@ClayNotestine)
May 30, 2019 @ 9:42 am
This is exactly how freelancing is done in other creative fields – including copywriters. Writing is hardly writing. It’s mostly research, staring into space, writing words that will never get used, and editing.
You probably don’t know how much time it will take, but you slowly figure that out as a freelancer. Underestimating the time you need and working overtime is impossible to prevent, unless you can get clients to agree to very comfortable production schedules.
The only caveat or disagreement I might have is if someone tried to apply this to their own solo projects on marketplaces like DMs Guild. You should be paid for your time when you’re being hired as a freelancer. But if you’re writing your own D&D adventure, pricing the object based on your time demands one question: how much is your time worth to the consumer? As good business, I pay my freelancers a good price and try to get the best ones. As a consumer, I pay premium for great writing and pay less for the opposite or don’t buy their products at all. Some products that took half the time to write can sell for twice as much. That’s the business. If you’re a freelancer, you don’t and shouldn’t worry about that.
Good article! Freelancers, love yourselves and ask for a fair payout.
May 30, 2019 @ 9:46 am
This as I read is for the professional and semi professional writers artists. Understanding how the world around their chosen world works.
Payment for my time would be awesome, but does the buyer see that value when they look at a project and product.
I wrote an rpg taking in total approximately 6 months.
I used and edited clip art because I could do the art as well at the writing at the same time. It was difficult.
Then paying to get reviews done. And the biggest issue was the cost.
I drew a character image for someone recently and if i put all the hours together took me about 8 hours. ( work and life meant i took nearly 2 weeks to complete)
If I could charge for my time the book should cost much more. The art would be unrealistic to the buyer.
So it’s hard to see how a pay for time would work.
May 30, 2019 @ 2:51 pm
Anyone who creates should account for their time. If you write up something for the DMs Guild… did you spend 60 hours on it? Take the sales you get and figure out your $/hour and you might be surprised how low it is. If you don’t account for your time, the money you get seems like free money. “I published something and I got $100 in a year!” is very different than “I worked 60 hours on this product and I made just over $1.50 an hour.”
Like James, I work as a freelancer/consultant for my day job. I have done so for more than 15 years. Accounting for time is not hard, nor is working with employers on a contract. You establish the expected number of hours and the pay rate, and periodically you report in on progress and let the employer know if you are on target or not.
One thing this does is facilitate discussion on what the employer wants or doesn’t want. For example, I might propose I research several products that I realized could provide insight into the project. The employer can decide whether to up my hours. Or, I might think of an additional piece I could write. Or, I might think of an efficient way to do something and also propose an additional piece. You can end up with far better results and a smarter employer.
The current system is bad because both sides are locked into a number of words and are ignoring the true work involved. And, the current system pays terribly.
Under either system, we need to start addressing that freelancers can’t afford to live on the word rate. They can’t support a significant other, can’t support children (let alone sending one or two to college), can’t put away money for retirement, and can’t afford health insurance. That’s not how our industry should operate, but low word rates are the backbone of our industry, propping it up on bad math. It’s time to change the underlying math.
May 30, 2019 @ 3:00 pm
Symatt said: If I could charge for my time the book should cost much more. The art would be unrealistic to the buyer.
As a customer, this is my main concern about that plan. It’s not that I don’t think designers wouldn’t deserve more, but who’s gonna pay for it? I certainly wouldn’t because I just can’t afford it and i already spend an substantial amount of my money on rpg products.
On the other hand, I already did some work in the industry and basically had to stop it just because the time-money relation was so bad that I just couldn’t afford it. So it’s not as if I couldn’t relate. It’s just that I probably couldn’t afford spending additional money and given that I already have quite some books standing in my shelf, I’d probably stop spending money on the hobby at all
May 30, 2019 @ 4:03 pm
The game is always relatively affordable. The game has free rules and you can play infinite hours with them.
Beyond that… prices need to come up. Magic the Gathering players go to stores and pay every time they play Friday Night Magic. They open boosters over and over again. It is a model that works for everyone. RPGs need to get closer to that, where the money is there for the companies.
I’ve written about this on Alphastream.org, but the value of a D&D book is incredible. It is so much cheaper than movies or Netflix or anything else gamers on a budget choose to afford. And there are a lot of gamers who are not on a budget. Very few of the prices make sense for what is being offered. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Christopher Robin Negelein
May 30, 2019 @ 5:27 pm
A real challenge to this project is the lack of project management from most RPG publishers. The suggested time-based model would force them to think deeper and more forward about a publication than they ordinarily do.
May 31, 2019 @ 12:45 pm
The market will never allow it to happen
May 31, 2019 @ 12:49 pm
And regarding the additional tasks, sometimes I’ve gotten a smaller rate for things like art briefs, but map roughs are generally included in contracts, or should be. Meetings are uncommon as a freelancer, but they help build a relationship, and that generally means more writing, so it’s an investment
Can Publishers Pay More? – World Builder Blog
October 24, 2019 @ 9:53 am
[…] I would truly want to see for writers is a change in the way payment works, but if the industry insists on paying by the word, it’s time for the rate to change. Ten […]