Can Publishers Pay More?

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Last week on Twitter I posted a six-tweet thread about creatives not being paid enough in the TTRPG industry. If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I have feelings on the subject for obvious reasons. While it seems creatives across the board are paid low in TTRPGs (artists, editors, and more), I’ll be focusing the conversation on game designers because it’s what I know best. That said, it seems everyone should and could be paid more. Pay all creatives what they are worth.

What 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 cents a word is considered by many to be the best payment one can get in the industry as a freelance writer working for a publisher. That should be the low end and is for many technical writing jobs. When I proposed this, a lot of people said they didn’t think the tabletop RPG industry could afford to do so and that publishers do not make enough money. I’m going to get into how publishers can attract writers when their profit margins are low later in this post, but first I want to address why more companies than you think can and should be paying at least 10 cents a word, and the companies who do huge sales off the work of freelancers should pay more.

The Industry Can Support Ten Cents a Word

Tabletop RPGs are more popular than ever and have been increasing in popularity every year for years. We know that roleplaying games made $65 million in the US and Canada last year according to ICv2 (compared to 2013 when they brought in $15 million and rates were largely the same). While a lot of that money has likely gone to the grandaddy of Dungeons & Dragons, we know that many companies, especially third party content publishers, benefit from D&D’s popularity. Look at third party fifth edition supplements on Kickstarter for an idea of how well these products go for. Look at independent games on crowdfunding sites. More money than ever is coming into the industry and a lot of companies have been increasing their rates for writers (but not as many as should). Thank you to those good folks for sharing the wealth! It can totally be done. For those who have not increased their rates yet for creatives, give your budgets and profits a look. I bet you can make it work. There are many amazing one-person publishing shops doing this. You can too.

There is also an idea floating around that free and pay-what-you-want products hurt the TTRPG market and force many publishers to lower their prices. I’ve heard this a lot and written about it, but I have yet to see data that these products have impacted the market in a way as big as many people make them out to be. Having much cheaper water in our homes hasn’t killed the bottled water industry, freecycle, thrift shops, and the free section on craigslist haven’t killed the furniture industry, and the free basic rules, Elemental Evil Player’s Companion, SRD, and numerous other free products haven’t killed Dungeons & Dragons. The RPG products being given away for nothing are not having the impact on our industry many think they are. Consumers do grab up free products, but according to many publisher’s I have worked with who have both free and paid products, people actually read and use the ones they pay for. I think, because like most industries, consumers know they products they pay for are generally of a better quality than the ones they do not. They do not want to use just any old game product. They want to use quality ones.

I know from working with several different RPG companies that free products are a good marketing tool for grabbing contact information and getting their brand out there. One of my highest paid per word jobs in the industry was for a product a company still gives away for free, so clearly free products still have value publishing companies are willing to pay for. I’m not saying you should give things away for free, but you should stop pointing the finger at those who do as a reason for why creatives should be underpaid.

What Can Publishers Do?

I know paying ten cents a word in a still relatively small industry like RPGs is easier said than done. So what should a publisher do if they cannot afford to pay their creatives a decent wage? None of these answers is a silver bullet that will get all creatives on board, but they all help.

  • Share Royalties. Many creatives, especially those who have been around for a while, are willing to work on a fun project for less than their normal rate if you share some of your royalties with them. The Adventurers League started doing this on the DMs Guild, and the adventures I have written for them have made more than 20 cents a word. If you’re approaching someone with a following, odds are their name and work is going to help your garner sales, so offering royalties to get that person on board is a win-win situation. Royalties come from your sales and are therefore a bit of a gamble, especially if you as a publisher have yet to produce a quality product, so not all creatives jump at this.
  • Share Rights. Many creatives, including myself, are willing to work for less than their normal rate on an interesting project if they get to retain the rights to their work. You want to publish a book with some monsters I create and pay me seven cents a word? Sure, if the publishing rights to those monsters are mine. Then I can do whatever I please with them (put them on the blog, post them on Patreon, or publish them in my own product for instance) and you get them for your book.
  • Do the Work Yourself. You may have to do some things yourself if you do not have the assets to pay people. Remember there are resources to help you, including art assets available for cheap and free and your partners in your publishing business.

What Can Creatives Do?

The best thing you can do as a creative is to be your own advocate. For most people negotiating isn’t fun, especially in a small industry, but be polite, respectful, and ask for what you need to get the job done. If someone cannot pay you what you need, you can ask for royalties and/or rights. If they cannot provide those things, odds this is not the kind of company you want to work with and you can politely turn them down. You can always publish your own stuff. If you do, be sure to pay the people you work with a fair wage.

The Math

When it comes down to it, even ten cents a word is not an amazing pay rate. When I am writing, I typically can put down about 500 words an hour. $50 an hour would be a fantastic pay rate, until you consider the rough draft revisions I do on my own before handing anything over, revising after working with an editor (usually at least one round often more), revising after playtesting, the extra writing, often unpaid, for art orders (which then sometimes have revisions from art directors), the meetings, the research, the rough drawing of maps, the unpaid outlines and pitches that need to get approval and often revisions, the emails, the slacks, the travel, invoicing, following up to get paid for the invoice I sent months ago, estimating, and more that go into being a game designer. Many full-time freelancers are lucky to get down 2,000 new words in a day, which cuts your pay rate to $25 an hour if you work 8 hours in a day. Still not bad, though consider as a full-time freelancer you have no company benefits – so health insurance, life insurance, sick/vacation/personal/bereavement days, and retirement are all things I figure out and pay for on my own. So is ten cents a word livable? For some it is, but it should be the starting wage if it is going to remain a part of the industry.

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