What's a Freelance RPG Writer Worth?

Freelance writers (as opposed to those on salary) tend to be paid per word. The rate varies from publisher to publisher, and on how experienced the writer is. Ed Greenwood, for example, can command a much higher rate than a new writer can. Obviously only you, the freelancer, can decide what your labour is worth - and if you're an experienced freelancer you probably already have a pretty solid idea what that figure is. But if you're a new writer, you may be a little lost. In this article, which I'll continue to update with new information, I'll tell you what rate a new writer can expect from various publishers.

[Note - this article will continue to be updated and tweaked; folks are suggesting excellent advice to include, so it's worth checking back]. Using publisher submission information on their official websites, and publishers advertising for writers I have compiled the below list. In some cases, publishers have kindly volunteered the information; thank you! At the moment, it's a bit sparse; but I hope it will grow. New writers can use this page to help them determine their own value and check out publishers that interest them. I don't want to tell you what to charge for your writing services, or what to pay freelancers, but hopefully the information here will help - a little bit - in making an informed decision. You can click through to apply for opportunities that interest you.

Advice: Here are a few things to be wary of. They don't have to be dealbreakers, they aren't necessarily bad, and you may well be OK with them, but you should be aware of them. This applies to new writers (and artists, for that matter).

  • If you're doing work for somebody, and you're not being paid, you are being exploited. (Doing work for somebody is different to doing work with somebody). Volunteer work obviously falls outside this category, but volunteer work should clearly be volunteer work, not work paid in "exposure" (see below).
  • Never work for the promise of "exposure", or for "experience". You should work for money. This is a common tactic, and is often puffed up with nice language, but it is exploitation and you should look out for it.
  • Also be wary of jobs offering payment solely in royalties (or a percentage), unless the company has a verifiable track record of good sales - and they should be able to provide you with solid figures. Do not be afraid to ask for these figures; they're asking you to trust them and take a risk by working for royalties only, and if they refuse you those figures you should proceed with caution. That doesn't mean you shouldn't do it, but do it carefully. Royalties on top of a fair rate is perfectly reasonable.
  • Be wary of contests which grant the copyright of your work to the company; that's often a way of getting people to work for free. Look for contests which allow you to keep the rights to your work, or which will pay you if they publish your work. There is a caveat to this -- it's reasonable for companies to protect themselves from future claims of similar development to past contest entries, but, as Paizo's Erik Mona says, even then "If we publish it, we pay for it. Period."
  • Look at what's being sold. "Work for hire" means the publisher owns the output completely. Other options include "first publication" (in which you retain ownership but the publisher gets to publish it first) and non-exclusive licenses. All of these are OK, but the last two are worth more to you than the former, and may make a lower per-word rate more palatable. If you're writing for an existing setting, keeping the rights to your work is far less valuable to you, because you're unlikely to be able to re-use it (you're not going to be able to re-use material about Drizzt or Yoda, for example). Be wary of work-for-hire combined with a low per-word rate.
  • Be wary of pay-on-publication work. That means a publisher can shelve your work and never pay you for it. Take pay-on-acceptance work. Some publishers will portray their policy of paying-on-acceptance as a beneficent act: it's not; it's the baseline you should expect. That said, it's OK if the payment doesn't come instantly, as most publishers do their payments en masse on a periodical basis - but make sure you know when to expect it.
  • Don't do "audition work" for free. You should be paid for that, too, although it is fair that that be at a lower rate. Game designer Ryan Macklin has a good article about this.
  • If you re-use Open Gaming Content, it is reasonable for the publisher not to pay you for those words.
  • If it's not in the contract, ask how stat blocks are paid.
  • Finally, don't work in exchange for product.
  • Remember, it's OK if a company can't afford you. There's things that all of us can't afford! And also remember that it's very, very difficult to make a living freelancing for RPGs. Some people manage it, but it's not easy!

Please feel free to send corrections or additional information.

The below list shows the rates I've been able to find published online for new writers.

This is just starting rates only. Experienced writers will already know what rates they usually get, and already have relationships with various companies, so they don't really need the information below. If there's an asterisk, then I've been able to confirm that the company in question pays experienced writers more, but it's generally safe to assume that these minimum rates are increased depending on the writer.

I've included links where I can so that you can apply to the companies that interest you.

Publisher
Rate/word for new writers
Notes
Paizo Publishing$0.07*
Wizards of the Coast$0.06*Freelance articles for D&D Insider; other writers work on salary
Pinnacle Entertainment Group$0.06*"Higher for some folks, plus a % of any crowd funding we do if they're one of the principle creators."
Evil Hat Productions$0.05
Atlas Games$0.05
Steve Jackson Games (Pyramid / GURPs PDFs)$0.04 (Pyramid) or royalties (GURPs)After publication. "Pyramid pays 4 cents a word, shortly after the article appears in final form in our PDF"; "...our base royalty is 25% of the cover price (this can go up for authors with a strong reputation that helps sell books, and can go down for inexperienced authors or those requiring very heavy edits)."
Vorpal Games$0.04
Posthuman Studios$0.04
Pelgrane Press$0.03*
Goodman Games$0.03Link is to Level Up magazine submissions; other submission calls have the same figure
EN Publishing$0.03*
Drop Dead Studios$0.025
Fat Goblin Games$0.02
Dreamscarred Press$0.02
Purple Duck Games$0.01*
Frog God Games$0.01*
Kobold Press$0.01 - $0.06"...strict minimum of 1 cent per word... Our rates for established, proven freelancers vary from 2 to 6 cents/word."
Bards & Sages$0.0125% on acceptance, rest on publication
Rite Publishing$0.01*Rates go as high as $0.11.
Raging Swan Press$0.01
Open Gaming Monthly$0.01"If your submission IS selected, you will receive 1 cent per word for your first published work. If your work requires very little editing (fixing typos, fixing grammatical errors etc.) then that will likely be increased to 2 cents per word. If your work receives great reviews and we use your work in future issues or products, you'll receive 3 cents per word in those future products."
Obatron Productions<$0.01Savage Insider; Word Count: 2,000 – 5,600 | $15 – $35
LPJ Design$0.005* (half a cent)Up to $0.02 with experience
Rogue Genius Pressroyalties only
Ephemeric RPGroyalties only$1.00 for every PDF or e-book that is ordered

What the Publishers Said


Discussing this subject with numerous writers and publishers turned into a fairly lively debate. Some of the statements made clearly illustrated why it's important that writers make themselves informed. Louis J Porter of LPJ Design says that "You kind find was to save money at the beginning that pays off very well in the long run [sic]" and that "Do I think I could get to a point were I make $10K month doing this, Oh Hell Yes!"

The way LPJ Design finds ways to save money in order to make $10K a month is to pay writers half a cent per word. As he says "if you are a first time writer never have sold ANYTHING to ANYONE, sorry you bring no value to my company... You guys sound like the college grad who wants to get paid $50K for just showing up. LOL!" I found myself very uncomfortable with Porter's language; he later said to one writer "You can die from exposure. Just prove to me why I should pay you more? You do that, you get paid better." and to that writer he later said "And there is the problem, you think this is an equal relationship. It isn't."

That said, the same company's calls for freelancers on various RPG forums take a different tone: "So if you are interested and not sure you think you can be good at this, I will just say, don't miss out on your dreams because you are afraid to go after them...It is your job to loose."

I can't help but feel that "I can't afford writers" isn't an great reason to underpay writers. It's OK to not be able to afford something but the solution is to find some other way to afford it, or accept that you can't afford it. Many small publishers have addressed this issue by using services like Kickstarter, Patreon, and others, which are great alternative models, although not for everyone. Erik Mona asked about products with margins so low that $160 is too much (assuming a 10-page PDF at $0.02 per word) "Does it make sense to put effort into projects that garner so little interest from the paying public that they require shennanigans like that? Is $80 a fair wage for what amounts to 4 days of work?"

And, definitely, the majority of small publishers do not intend to consciously underpay anybody. It would be unfair to point at a bunch of publishers and chastise them for being exploitative, and many tiny publishers can really only afford $0.01 per word (although James Ward observed "At $.01 a word you get what you pay for.") As Raging Swan Press' Creighton Broadhurst (who is a very small publisher and pays $0.01 per word) said, "If I thought I was exploiting people, I would stop doing what I do. But I don't think I am as I'm forcing no one to work with me." And I myself know what it is to be a tiny publisher with incredibly low sales, so I can certainly empathize with that position -- most micro-publishers are run by decent people paying what they can afford.

I have no idea where the line lies, though personally I feel uncomfortable these days offering anybody less than $0.03 per word (I have in the past), and wouldn't consider paying $0.01 per word. But that's just what I choose to do. Most writers I've spoken to agree that 2,000 publishable words per day is a fairly reasonable rate. As game designer Rich Baker observed, "It's hard to knock down 2000 word days, day in, day out. That's an honest 8 hours of work. At $0.05 per word, you'd be making $12.50 an hour... I am frankly appalled at the idea that someone might pay (or take) $0.01 a word in the 21st century. That's saying a writer is worth $2.50 an hour." Paizo's Erik Mona feels that "1 cent a word is not "bordering on exploitative." It is exploitative FULL STOP."

[As a side note, using Rich Baker's estimate of 2,000 words per 8 hour day, that works out to $10 per day at half a cent per word, $20 per day at $0.01, $40 per day at $0.02, $60 per day at $0.03, $80 per day at $0.04, $100 per day at $0.05, $120 per day at $0.06, and $140 per day at $0.07.]

With luck, this article should give writers some of the the information they need to inform themselves when considering freelancing, and ensure that the relationship is an equal relationship. I'll keep the table above updated as best I can, and folks can make their own decisions. Please do feel free to correct inaccurate figures or provide additional information! Also, if you're a freelancer, feel free to share rates (don't break any NDAs, though!)


[video=youtube;mj5IV23g-fE]https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&amp;v=mj5IV23g-fE[/video]
 
Russ Morrissey

Comments

Dioltach

Adventurer
Frankly, I'm shocked. These aren't rates that will allow anyone to make a decent living, even if you can produce 2000 words of publication-ready material every single day of your working week. I'm not a writer, but I'm a full-time freelance translator, and have been for more than 12 years. I find it hard to produce more than 2500-3000 words of translation (i.e. someone else's writing, not even my own original content) on a daily basis, and even that puts me at the upper end of the production scale for professional translators. And as a freelancer your income needs to cover time that you're not productive -- holidays, sick time, no work. (For the record, my rates range between EUR 0.12 if I work for agencies, to EUR 0.15/0.16 for small one-person businesses, to EUR 0.19 for large companies such as banks and larger law firms. Editing is EUR 0.03-0.04 -- which is significantly lower than the EUR 85-95/hour that many other editors charge. With the economy being what it is, there's been a lot of pressure on translation and editing rates in recent years, but I don't even reply to job offers that pay less than EUR 0.10.)

What are the reasons for these low rates? Is it a simple matter of supply and demand? Can the market not support higher rates? Are the established writers/designers being paid significantly more than newcomers? Are the publishers taking what they feel is a "fair" cut, at the expense of the writers?

The way things are now, talented fledging writers are not being encouraged to dedicate their time and effort to producing content. Is there anything preventing newcomers from self-publishing or forming a publishing cooperative? Because publishers might say that writers need to prove their worth, but it works the other way too: without writers publishers have nothing to publish.

These are just the thoughts of an outsider. Like I said, I'm not a game writer, but I know what it is to earn a living as a freelancer, and none of the rates listed above would offer a viable source of income.
 

Quatermane

Villager
Excellent article Morrus.

Writing... ALL writing... has been one of those "starving artists" industries where only a few really break out into big money.

Successful authors will constantly tell interviewers how lucky they feel to have been recognized for their work.
The depressing part is that their responses are based on the truth that it is very difficult to write the right thing at the right time in the right way to a profitable audience.
Even when that happens, it is often difficult to convince a publisher that what you have written is the right product to publish in the first place... unless you already have some cred with them.
And getting that cred is not easy either.

There are some things that writers... just like any artist... must always remember:
- For any art to be profitable, it has to appeal to an audience that is willing to pay for it. Some aspiring writers seem to forget that bit.
- The only way to become really good at writing is... to write.
- Find people to share your writing with. If you write and do not share the results, it is almost as if it never happened in the world.
- Grow a thick skin... a really really thick skin. Critics abound in the arts... including writing.
- Have low expectations... it is easier to live when one keeps that mindset.
 

mach1.9pants

Adventurer
I am not surprised by LPJ's attitude. It is a company I wouldn't touch with a 10' pole after his so called 'April Fools Joke', that he took weeks setting up to disappoint those who pre-ordered Razor Coast. This is the attitude of someone I have no truck with "And there is the problem, you think this is an equal relationship. It isn't." ~ disgusting.
 

Mike Myler

Explorer
For (more than) my first year as a freelance game designer I was producing an average of 8,000+ words a day to make my bills (and even then, was dipping into my savings habitually).

This is not something I recommend to anyone.

Virtually all of my time was spent writing, revising, and designing game content (typically 14 hours a day). It was an enormous risk to approach a career like this because the abhorrent rates in the industry are what they are, but fortunately I'm established N.O.W. (get it? ;D) and it's not nearly as rough any more.

That's for several reasons (90+ hour work weeks, good luck, working for the right people, being in the right places, and the support of milady and my folks) but predominantly because I really lucked out and got into a hardcover (Tome of Decay for Black Crusade by Fantasy Flight Games) very early on because of an incredibly fortunate and impromptu run-in with a developer at (my first) GenCon.
Otherwise the general turnaround time for publishers would have put me in the proverbial dirt months ago (one royalty pay out has been expected for a year, and my copy—turned over in 2013—only reached their development stage the other week).

Excellent article, good sir—this absolutely qualifies as a must-read for anyone else trying to make a go at game design as a career.
 

Qwillion

Villager
Greetings, I am Steven D. Russell head of Rite Publishing just to be clear on Rite Publishing's payment policies, we generally pay new writers either a royalty or a minimum of $0.01 cents a word, I have paid as high as $0.11 cents a word. We pay upon acceptance by the editor before publication.
 

ZombiePete

Villager
I got around $0.10 a word writing a stand-alone softcover sourcebook for Chaosium, and closer to $0.19 per word for an adventure in Dungeon for Paizo--both more than 10 years ago. (That second rate could be off; not sure how they figure stat blocks into the word count.) Now I get $0.27 and up writing movie "Art of..." books, and video game scripts are even better. If you're scrambling for $0.03 and $0.05 rates, I suggest you live with your parents.
 
A thought on Freelance RPG writing rates.
I have been a full-time freelance writer, who made 100% of my income (and the entire households income) purely through writing. It can be done. It's hard, and it sucks. That experience, over the course of several years, left me with strong opinions about what is, and is not, exploitative.
During that time, I sometimes took assignments as low as $0.005/word. To be clear, that's half-a-cent-per word. The reason I didn't feel exploited was that I was allowed to write anything whatsoever I wanted to, including reusing things rejected from other publishers, and the terms included being paid with 12 hours of the turnover. At that time, $50 in 12 hours was worth more than $750 in 12 weeks.
I did a fair amount of work at 1 cent/word and 2 cents/word. They were all for small companies I believed (and still do) could not afford to pay me more, and they were all pay upon acceptance. Good thing too, as something like half or more of those projects did not see the light of day.
I did a *lot* of work for 3 cents/ to 5 cents/word. Those projects normally were pay upon publication, and I took them because I'd rather write game material for 12 hours in a day than file paperwork for 8. Some were really fun. Some sucked. One, worth more than $2000, I still haven't been paid for more than a decade later. Not being paid is exploitative.
And where I could get it, I did work for 7 and 8 cents/word. Those nearly all took priority, but there just wasn't enough of it to make a living. Nor do I feel that's because people who could pay me more weren't. Making new RPG material for sale is a tiny, volatile, fringe market in the grand scheme of things. There aren't that many big companies, and there aren't that many *medium* sized companies either.
Obviously I turned to the publishing end of things as well, though that was mostly self-publishing for a long time. When I did the writing, and other people took % for editing, art, and layout, I started to make more money with my pdf publishing than with per-word-rate work from other companies. And when I tried to get a raise in my word rate, companies often agreed... and then offered me less work. When I was a full-time freelancer, I couldn't survive by making 80% as much money doing 75% as much work.
So, I have turned to a royalty system for more writing, and a lot (but not all) art. We take all the money we get from distributors and pay royalties on it in perpetuity.
I don't consider 3 cents a word exploitative. I don't consider royalties on gross income exploitative. I don't consider 2 cents, or even 1 cent/word automatically exploitative, since there can be other contract terms (when and how does the author get paid? What rights are retained and what are given up?) that make up for lower payouts.
Taking the people who just want to be "published" and offer you free work is exploitative. Being clear and up front about a pay rate you can afford isn't, even if that's a sadly lower rate. If you stick to that rate when you don't have to, that becomes exploiting, otherwise it's just being at the lower end of the economic model. I do think the suggestion to look at your business model if it dissatisfies you is a good one, and I do that regularly.
 
I got around $0.10 a word writing a stand-alone softcover sourcebook for Chaosium, and closer to $0.19 per word for an adventure in Dungeon for Paizo--both more than 10 years ago. (That second rate could be off; not sure how they figure stat blocks into the word count.) Now I get $0.27 and up writing movie "Art of..." books, and video game scripts are even better. If you're scrambling for $0.03 and $0.05 rates, I suggest you live with your parents.
I strongly suspect you are off with Paizo. That's way higher than any rate I am aware of, as a developer for the company. But they do pay on word counts in stats blocks.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
Yeah, Paizo never paid 19c per word. I think you're misremembering there, [MENTION=6782543]ZombiePete[/MENTION]!
 
What are the reasons for these low rates? Is it a simple matter of supply and demand? Can the market not support higher rates?
If the upper end rates (7-10 cents/word) shock you, then yes the answer is the market doesn't support higher rates than that. The vast majority of freelance game writers cannot make a full-time living at that rate. I was a full-time freelancer for many years, and managed to buy a house, put my wife through college, and make a living, but it wasn't easy.

Are the established writers/designers being paid significantly more than newcomers?
No more than double, and generally no more than 25% to 50% more, though that varies by company.

Are the publishers taking what they feel is a "fair" cut, at the expense of the writers?
There are, of course, many MANY more expenses than writing and paying the publisher. You need an editor, a layout artist, and art. If you are dealing with print books, printing is the biggest expense, and generally warehousing and shipping are #2 and #3. For bigger companies you have to pay the salaries of people doing taxes, payroll, customer service, and so on. For smaller, pdf-only publishers sales numbers are often so small the author makes more than the publisher (though again, it varies by company).

The way things are now, talented fledging writers are not being encouraged to dedicate their time and effort to producing content. Is there anything preventing newcomers from self-publishing or forming a publishing cooperative? Because publishers might say that writers need to prove their worth, but it works the other way too: without writers publishers have nothing to publish.
The only thing stopping them is putting in the time and effort, and having the needed skills. However, it's worth noting that I am bombarded with people desperate to get into game writing who ask if I'll just edit and publish them for free, for love of the game. So there is never going to be a shortage of people willing to work cheap, which reduces the pressure on publishers to pay more. (See my post on exploitative pay rates, above, for my thoughts on the subject).

These are just the thoughts of an outsider. Like I said, I'm not a game writer, but I know what it is to earn a living as a freelancer, and none of the rates listed above would offer a viable source of income.
It can be done, I have done it. But it requires a lot more work than taking the same skills and making a living sell ad copy to websites through cold-calling offers (for example).

There's a reason people who start as game designers and then begin to sell a few novels or work for computer companies almost never got back to tabletop RPG writing, and it's not because novelists and computer game designers are particularly wealthy.
 

crazy_cat

Explorer
Yeah, Paizo never paid 19c per word. I think you're misremembering there, [MENTION=6782543]ZombiePete[/MENTION]!
Or more likley miscalculating - if stat block word count was excluded from the initial calculation it will have thrown the numbers wildly; a PF monster or NPC stat block can quickly run a significant word count.
 

Werebat

Villager
Man, oh man... I tip my hat to you for using LPJ's own words so well. You didn't make any negative comments because you didn't have to. I'm still chuckling here. Class act.
 

ZombiePete

Villager
I figured it was off, but I was going by what I was paid and the word count in the document, which I still have. I guess MS Word and Paizo count differently. But even at 1/2 or 1/3 that rate, it's still better than most companies 10 years later. Sad state of affairs.
 

Werebat

Villager
Long, long ago, before I had kids, I got a handful of things published in Dungeon and Dragon magazines. I'm getting to be an old man who needs to remove his glasses to read, and even then I have a hard time making out the page numbers on the 5E books (who were the whippersnappers who decided to go with such light numbers?), but I seem to remember that the going rate then was about $0.10 per word. This was in the late 1990s. Does that sound about right to anyone who might have a better memory than I do?
 

Curmudjinn

Explorer
Wow, LPJ has some balls. Hey new freelancer writer, I'll gladly publish your hard work for 1.25$ an hour!

What a complete asshat. I'll be boycotting him and each and every 1 cent publisher. I was just reading up on LPJ's Armageddon Bestiary contests, where he essentially steals your hard work. By submitting to the contest, you disregard current or future payment and royalties and it all becomes his property without exception. For the gracious opportunity to see your hard work make someone else money.

Louis Porter JR, you sir are a piece of crap.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
Wow, LPJ has some balls. Hey new freelancer writer, I'll gladly publish your hard work for 1.25$ an hour!

What a complete asshat. I'll be boycotting him and each and every 1 cent publisher. I was just reading up on LPJ's Armageddon Bestiary contests, where he essentially steals your hard work. By submitting to the contest, you disregard current or future payment and royalties and it all becomes his property without exception. For the gracious opportunity to see your hard work make someone else money.

Louis Porter JR, you sir are a piece of crap.
Keep it civil, please.
 
Long, long ago, before I had kids, I got a handful of things published in Dungeon and Dragon magazines. I'm getting to be an old man who needs to remove his glasses to read, and even then I have a hard time making out the page numbers on the 5E books (who were the whippersnappers who decided to go with such light numbers?), but I seem to remember that the going rate then was about $0.10 per word. This was in the late 1990s. Does that sound about right to anyone who might have a better memory than I do?
Actually, no. Starting rate in Dungeon and Dragon in the late 1990s was 5 or 6 cents/word.
 
I was just reading up on LPJ's Armageddon Bestiary contests, where he essentially steals your hard work. By submitting to the contest, you disregard current or future payment and royalties and it all becomes his property without exception. For the gracious opportunity to see your hard work make someone else money.
If he publishes it without paying, that's one thing. But just claiming ownership of all submissions is universal for all publishers running contests. otherwise, they'd contstantly be sued when they independently created something a contestant decided was similar to something submitted in a contest days/weeks/years earlier.
 

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