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.
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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October 24, 2019 @ 12:45 pm
10 cents a word is a cool dream, but its not going to happen anytime soon for the average writer, and here is why. (I am a tabletop RPG publisher who pays myself 3.5 cents a word to write my own stuff, and pays my contractors double that. I know many of these are general statements that of course have exceptions, but largely these elements are all true for every publisher who doesn’t experience meteoric success in the industry (of which there are many relative to the successful publishers). Let me preface this to say we WANT to pay everyone who writes for us at minimum 10 cents a word. But.
Most independent TTRPG writers attempting to contract are not talented enough to warrant 10 cents a word. Their work is sloppy, lacks system mastery, and quite frankly wreaks of hobbyist work. There are few good excuses for this, not when there are so many writing resources freely available (and in our case, explicit templates that can be followed). Not only will a writer new to the industry not get any work at 10 cents a word, in the rare event they do the publisher will regret it 9 times out of ten, and will have preferred to write it themselves. We’ve had this experience MANY times, despite a thorough vetting process.
Work at 10 cents a word, get a small gig. The average full RPG book is 120k words plus. That is the industry standard. Deviate from that, and your audience will seriously question the quality and significance of your work. That means a writer for this project should get paid 12k minimum at 10 cents a word. Add in custom art (also expected), roughly once every 6 pages at $200 a piece (minimum to pay artists fairly), you are looking at an art budget of around 5k. Add in another 3k for copy editing, another 3k for formatting, and already your standard RPG book is looking to cost $23,0000 in cold, hard, cash. Keep in mind, these are extremely conservative prices that would in many cases be the bare minimum to create a professional looking product. So where am I going with this? Well if you are running a Kickstarter and have a small audience (less than 500 backers), that funding goal is a fast way to kill your project. The reality is taking a smaller pay rate for a share of profits is far more reasonable, but sometimes you still get screwed. If you work at 10 cents a word, you will NEVER get a publishing deal like this, unless you are working for a MAJOR company that does gangbusters on a Kickstarter. If you do, great! Good for you, but that pay rate is business suicide for almost every other company out there offering lead writer positions.
Now you might be saying “but I’ve seen authors get 10 cents a word from smaller companies”, and I’ll bet you have. But here is the thing, they are usually experiencing unanticipated success or aren’t making a living off of just that business. The company behind the book NEEDS to turn a reasonable profit to continue to exist, not just pay its workers and walk away for a few hundred sales a year. If you want to LIVE off TTRPGs, you gotta churn out books like a boss. Its not a life I’d recommend for most, and you can see many professional TTRPG creators (such as Chris Perkins) echoing these sentiments for these reasons. 9 times out of 10 at any small TTRPG company, somebody there is taking a major L to keep that business alive, even when they aren’t paying their writers 10 cents a word.
So when we see non-publishers ask for this standard, it is laughable, cause that just means “whelp, guess we won’t hire any more contract writers”, so all of you who now refuse to work for anything less. Sorry, guess you are out of our price range. And there are TONS of writers out there. Every time we put out a public request we get HUNDREDS of responses for almost any gig. Sorry to say, if you want to die on the hill of 10 cents a word, you gonna die on that hill and we will just write everything ourselves.
Why is this bad? Well the truth is new writers need the experience and writing is a skill based profession. We spend a lot of time and effort training our writers, and honestly we treat them more like paid interns than contract workers. This is a GOOD thing, as most aspiring writers need the help and feedback on their work. Its also a big time ask on our part, and we aren’t paying ourselves for those many hours we put into each new writer. Its a relationship that expands their talent and allows us to pay them better for future gigs. Any writer who balks at an opportunity to work with us because we aren’t offering 10 cents a word better be damn good at what they do. This is not an over the counter business where a company can easily evaluate how much your labor is worth. There is a lot of risk involved when working with new writers, and risk leads to unanticipated expenses. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve contracted a writer, only to spend as many hours polishing their work as it would have taken me to write it myself. I got no beef with doing this, TTRPG writing is hard, but don’t ask me to pay 10 cents a word for the privilege.
Money in the industry does not mean its being evenly distributed. Did you know book sales are way up due to Amazon.com! Well they are! So every book store across the country is probably experiencing a ton of success, right? Okay, jokes aside we all get what I’m saying here. Just because an industry is doing well does not mean business health in the industry is good. The 5th Edition Players handbook is selling for $30 on Amazon. THIRTY DOLLARS. That is insane for a 300 page book! Why does this matter, you may ask? Well if you are a consumer looking to make a TTRPG purchase, competitive pricing influences purchasing trends. Try selling a PHB sized RPG book for $60 or $70, see what happens. And you know what, that is the price point you will NEED to sell it at to turn a reasonable profit. WotC can afford to sell their books for cheap because A. They sell so many, and B. because they have amazing printing contracts that keep costs low. In fact, our book pricing is so poor that we make more than twice as much on a PDF sale than we do on a book. “So why not just sell PDF you may ask?”, well let me tell you way. Its this little thing called piracy, and also because people expect a book sized PDF to, well you know. BE A BOOK at some point. Then you have storage costs, shipping failures, damaged product. The list goes on.
So what I am saying is this industry is hard. Its not very profitable for the average business and its artistic labor. I grew up working around artists who loved their craft, who bled for their craft. I’m not saying its right and they deserve all the success in the world, but society just isn’t equipped to pay a sculpture artist a $20 hourly wage they deserve, and everyone in that industry knew that. What concerns me about conversations like these is that it frames this issue as entirely the publishers to solve, which based on objective math on my end (and for many I’ve talked to), just isn’t true. Kobold Press is paying 1 CENTS A WORD for work on Warlock Magazine last time I checked and haven’t you worked for them Mr. Introcaso? They are one of the most successful publishers out there these days, so when I look at that, what am I to think? Do you think they are being stingy and exploitative? I don’t know, but if their business is anything like ours, I suspect they have some good reasons for that price model.
At the end of the day, we will keep trying to achieve success and pay our workers more. We want our business to be sustainable, healthy, and fair. I’m not going to blame the community or pass the buck, but if anything I wrote up there seemed to make a little bit of sense as to why things are the way there are, maybe the conversation warrants a more honest and frank perspective about the entire industry.
Best regards and love your work!
October 25, 2019 @ 10:19 am
“Ace”, quick question – you claim Kobold Press pays 1 cent/word so if they can’t pay more, then neither can others. What’s your evidence that they only pay that much?
Several writers have said elsewhere that KP pays much more than that for Warlock magazine. I wrote for them over a decade ago for Kobold Quarterly (and that was 3 years before they were even called “Kobold Press” and were still “Open Design” and not nearly as well known as they are now) and I was paid more than 1 cent/word back then.
October 25, 2019 @ 3:10 pm
Evidence is on their website (or it was on last time I checked), corroborated by someone who writes for them in the comment below. Note that I’m NOT throwing shade at Kobold Press for doing this, I don’t know why their business model is that way. My point in making that statement to demonstrate that while some writers such as Mr. Introcaso are getting paid competitive rates working for them, others may not be. If Kobold Press has good business reasons for doing this, then the question should be asked why one of the Top 10 publishers in TTRPGs has to take such a position.
October 25, 2019 @ 10:16 am
Everyone I know who has worked for Kobold has been offered more than 1 Cent a word. That part of your comment is, in my experience, wildly inaccurate.
October 25, 2019 @ 1:37 pm
The 1c/word is only the first contract and only if you’re new to Kobold Press. I have had a dozen contracts or so with them and that is not what they pay.
October 25, 2019 @ 3:53 pm
If they have paid writers 1 cent a word, they paid em 1 cent a word. I got no beef with Kobold Press doing this, so long as they did it for good reasons, many of which may be similar to the ones I have expressed above. My point in stating that is that while one of the biggest publishers in TTRPGs is probably paying competitive rates for many of their contributors, they are still not doing it for all contributors in all circumstances (not to call them out, sorry if it came across that way, I admit my wording was a little harsh). I’ve always known that company to act with integrity, so I’m going to assume that business choice is for a good reason. But my point is that saying 10 cents a word for a bare minimum writing contract is probably not something Kobold Press (or any major publisher) is going to go for in all circumstances, probably just a few thousand word writing gigs at best every few months or so. So if the most successful among us can’t swing it, what does that say for the rest of us middle tier or lower publishers, ya know?
October 27, 2019 @ 7:50 pm
You have some excellent points, Mr. IntrocasioL what you appear to lack is a clear understanding of the economics behind RPG publishing in particular. I don’t want this to devolve into a boring thread on econ 101, so I won’t get into that much. Suffice to say, you are not accounting for a rather large number of very real, mostly unavoidable, and rather substantial expenses the publisher has to cough up, not to mention the incredible expense of shipping anything these days, which publishers are holding the bag for on several different legs of the journey from printer to consumer. You do a great job outlining all the intangible time and effort a writer has to put in to finish a project, but you ignore that there are others folks than writers working on this same project with similar intangibles, and all those add up.
Despite your claims of the vast RPG market, it’s still a smaller share of the pie than it was back in the 1980s. There are too many other diversions occupying people’s time these days, and may of them are just as time-consuming and habit-forming as tabletop roleplaying is. Possibly community-content sites, which I see you’ve taken some advantage of, can help bridge the earnings gap for many writers in the industry: perhaps not. Work for an RPG company as something other than a freelance writer and I guarantee you will understand better why the pay rate in our business is as low as it is.
7–27 October 2019: Essen, Licensed Games, Werewolf 5th Edition — d100 News
November 3, 2019 @ 2:31 pm
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