The Myth of Pro Rates (And Why We Need to Pay Authors More)

You'll often hear the term "pro rates" tossed around in the SF/F  writing biz. My best guess as to where the "pro rate" comes from is the SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America) requirement for membership. SFWA's current pro-rate minimum is $.06/word.

Now, before I go on, I want to make sure everyone understands how writers get paid. When a writer writes a story, normally they get something called an "advance". The advance is an advance on royalties earned. In other words, if the book makes money, the author gets to share in the profits. Their share of that profit is their royalty.

The advance represents royalties paid in advance (hopefully on acceptance of the story) that the author gets no matter how well the book sells. The author doesn't get any additional money until the book pays for their advance. After that, they get to share in the profits!

Sort of.

You see, if the book doesn't make enough to cover the advance the author never gets another dime. This happens all the time in short fiction anthologies, even anthologies by big publishers like DAW.

Okay, everyone get the whole "how authors get paid" thing? Awesome. Let's get back to "pro" rates. Pro stands for, not surprisingly, "professional". This represents the rate a professional writer gets paid for their work. Sounds pretty good, right? Who doesn't want to get paid professional rates?

So what does this means in terms of earnings? Well, I conducted a somewhat unscientific study to figure out just how long it takes an author to write an 8000 word short story. The results are about what I expected, and they fit with what I know from my own writing and from running the Gen Con Writer's Symposium.

On average, it takes an author around 35 hours to come up with, write, and edit a short story. This means that at $.06/word the author earns roughly $480 before taxes for their story. At this rate, the author is making around $13.75/hour or roughly $27,000/year.

Huh. Let's visit salary.com and see what other jobs pay $27,000/year.

  • Bingo Caller
  • Grocery Store Bagger
  • Valet

 

Don't get me wrong, these are all jobs that have to get done (and I've done 2 out of 3 of them), and there is NO shame in honest work, but seriously? This is what we pay the people that transport us to other worlds, open our minds, fill our hearts with joy, and carry us during our darkest moments. THIS is a fair wage for that contribution to our world?

Heck, let's double their pay! We'll give them the princely sum of $.12/word!

  • Help Desk Support
  • Movie Projectionist
  • Proofreader

 

This is not right.

And it isn't any better for illustrators, musicians, or anyone else in the arts. I don't blame the publishers either (not all of them anyhow :) ). In the end, WE are the ones who determine value by what we're willing to pay. Every time we hold off on buying a $9.99 book because it seems "kind of expensive" (I know! I've done it too), we're setting the "pro" rate.

This is all an elaborate way to answer a question I received recently: "How did you determine your stretch goal numbers in your Kickstarter?" The answer is simple. Authors and artists need to get a fair wage for the contribution they make. Their creativity and skills are unique. Their pay should reflect that. Heck, I'm still not paying them as much as I think they deserve.

So whether or not you decide to back my Kickstarter, please keep this in mind the next time you consider purchasing a book written by, or with contributions from, your favorite author.

UPDATE: SFWA voted to raise the minimum prorate to $.06/word this year. Guess I should read my Bulletin! :) Sadly, it doesn't change anything major in this post. :(

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