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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

Zak S

Guest
I've put together a guide to RPG Freelance rates, based on my experiences over the last few years. Your feedback is appreciated!

http://bit.ly/RPGRates
As I said on Twitter when this was circulated: I do not think there is any reason for anyone to accept rates this low.

As the author notes, you can make way more self-publishing, what they don't say is that you can also make way more with a profit-split deal or by just working with a more honest indie publisher.

Dead Planet sold only 637 copies and the authors and 2 authors made 10 cents a word each. Neither was self-publishing.

The reasons given for not working like this in the doc are:

"
1. It can help you build your audience.

2. It can help you network with industry people.

3. You will very likely learn things.

4. You will work on properties that you otherwise can’t.
"

1. Simply isn't true. There are people who have swum back and forth around the 3-6 cents a word payscale for years and never made more than that. Working on projects for big companies like this does not in any meaningful way "Get your name out there".

Pretty much anyone younger than Kenneth Hite who can command decent rates in RPG publishing did it not by taking these bad freelance gigs and working the "ladder" but by self-publishing or profit-splitting. The large companies offer large positions to people who have done something impressive, not acted as gap-filler. The mid-size indies have had the same exact people at the top for years and have little or no room to hire new people for the interesting jobs.

Every single person I can think of who got offered interesting work further up the ladder from Chris Spivey on Harlem Unbound to all the OSR people who got this kind of work did not start freelancing at those low rates.

2. Is definitely true: if you accept a low rate you'll meet industry people--at least one has to email you to work with you on yr project. But whether that helps at all is dubious: Everyone I know met more industry people doing independent projects that impressed those industry people.

By and large the industry knows it can find cheap cheerful writers to create shovelware. It turns ont he tap and there they are. "Contacts" do not mean that these people have bette work for you lying around.

3. Yes, you'll learn things. Mostly what freelancers tell me is they wish they'd not accepted those low rates. You'll learn way more doing your own projects--including things the rest of the industry hasn't yet.

4. Sure. If you want to work on Star Trek you have to take a rate with the company making the Star Trek RPG.

But , please, do not accept the false hype that doing that is the gateway to bigger things.
 

M.T. Black

Explorer
Zak, thanks for responding! I saw your comments on twitter but didn't have a useful response in 240 characters.

One thing to note is that I'm not commenting on whether these rates are reasonable or acceptable. I'm just reporting what I've seen in the market.

I think you are right that more money can be made (potentially) with kickstarting. What I feel like you are not acknowledging is the need to build an audience first, and the amount of work that can be. For many successful kickstarters, it is the culmination of years spent investing in the hobby and growing an audience. This (along with the work to execute the kickstarter) has to be considered when looking at the real "rate" you are being paid. And not every good writer has the skills to build the audience and execute a kickstarter anyway.

In terms of whether working for established publishers can help you build an audience - it clearly can. Look at Monte Cook, Rob Schwalb, and John Wick - all of them established their reputation writing for mainstream publishers. And this meant there was an audience eager for their material when they went independant. Is it the only way to build an audience? Of course not. But it is *a* way.

I also think that these existing publishers provide more opportunities for networking and learning than you allow, but there is not much point arguing about that.

Look, I think that Kickstarter is a great way to go, and well done to folk like Chris Spivey who create an audience and a great product. We are on the same page regarding that. Where I disagree with you is the idea that working for established publishers is *always* a bad idea. That seems like too much of a generalisation.

Cheers!
MTB
 

Zak S

Guest
Zak, thanks for responding! I saw your comments on twitter but didn't have a useful response in 240 characters.

One thing to note is that I'm not commenting on whether these rates are reasonable or acceptable. I'm just reporting what I've seen in the market.
I accept that but when people point out to the companies involved that these rates are sub-poverty line and predatory, they often go "That's the industry standard, you must not know much about the industry".

And the fact is we need to make sure there is no rhetorical room for that position: that is only the "standard" for companies where 1 or 2 people make a living wage and the rest are working on what amounts to a content farm and in 2019 we can all do better.

I think you are right that more money can be made (potentially) with kickstarting. What I feel like you are not acknowledging is the need to build an audience first,
Again:

1 Mothership and Dead Planet (and the original pre-Lotfp Carcosa) all made more than 10cents a word off less than 1000 sales. All they did to "build an audience" was hang out on forums and put out something good. And they didn't need much of an audience to make decent money

2 Being an underpaid freelancer will not help build an audience.

3 You keep saying "kickstarter" and "self-publishing" without acknowledging the simplest option: partnering with a small publisher who thinks you do good work and will just pay you. I pay people more than that and I'm just one guy. I don't want to see your freelance credits, I'll hire someone on the strength of a single page of great game prose.


In terms of whether working for established publishers can help you build an audience - it clearly can. Look at Monte Cook, Rob Schwalb, and John Wick
That was decades ago. Pre-internet in Monte's case. Things have changed.


I also think that these existing publishers provide more opportunities for networking and learning than you allow, but there is not much point arguing about that.
If that's true then where are these people? I've seen dozens of people complain about how little they get paid by the big companies after years of knowing their names as just "random internet people" i didn't even know had worked for these companies. The "contacts" didn't get them anywhere.

Whereas Sean McCoy puts out Dead Planet which is basically a zine, or Ben Milton makes some Youtube reviews and Maze Rats, or someone just has a cool blog and they're getting more substantive offers than anything in that pdf.


It may be true that once upon a time you started by writing an article for Dungeon or Dragon and slowwwly building trust starting at 3 cents a word and slowwwly working your way up until finally someone like Monte left WOTC and you got a coveted spot but:

1. That isn't how the industry works any more o has to work, and

2. The idea that it does has allowed Green Ronin, Evil Hat and others to exploit authors by claiming their offering them a rare opportunity and it has lead to extremely forgettable product as well.

Things are different than they used to be--and better. Writers who demand respect and write what they love are getting recognition for it a lot faster than people who were promised the world in exchange for putting time in down in the salt mines.
 
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Zak S

Guest
I'll say again what I said on twitter:

I don't care how much experience you have--if you can write a good page of RPG stuff and you've been suffering at these rates i will pay you 10 cents a word right now. Nobody deserves to be treated this way just for the chance to work on the Atomic Robo RPG or some :):):):).
 

M.T. Black

Explorer
You keep saying "kickstarter" and "self-publishing" without acknowledging the simplest option: partnering with a small publisher who thinks you do good work and will just pay you.
I'll acknowledge it now - that's a great option! But I'm sure you know that there are many small publishers out there who don't pay well - look at the first page of this thread for evidence of that. That includes some OSR publishers (things may have changed since Morrus wrote that page).

Aside from yourself, are you aware of any other small RPG publishers out there that pay a minimum of 10 cents per word? I know Schwalb does. You've said Raggi virtually guarantees a minimum of 20 cents. Do you know any others? I will list them in my rate document.
 

Zak S

Guest
You've said Raggi virtually guarantees a minimum of 20 cents
I don't think I did say that. He does do well though, here's his original statement:

https://plus.google.com/112262093672917983853/posts/4B6j9CaezK7

"
Not that I want to brag or anything, but looking at how LotFP authors' royalties break down on a per-word rate...

My 21st best selling book (meaning 20 other books I've released have sold more copies) has earned the author 21 cents a word in royalties to date. Euro cents, not those weak-ass dollar cents.

That seems kinda nuts.
"



...are you aware of any other small RPG publishers out there that pay a minimum of 10 cents per word? I know Schwalb does. Do you know any others? I will list them in my rate document.
Here's the thing: most of these small publishers don't pay by the word. They partner together with people they get along with and work out a way of splitting profits or working together that doesn't incentivize bloating word count.

You should talk to Daniel Sell at Melsonian Arts, Daniel Fox at Zweihander, Jacob Hurst who did Hot Springs Island (dunno his company name), Mike Evans at DIY RPG.

Basically look at the DIY companies won Ennies last year and ask them how they split profits.
 

M.T. Black

Explorer
I don't think I did say that.
My apologies, I must have misunderstood you, or mixed up your words with Raggi's.

And I'll drop a line to a couple of those publishers to chat about rates and profits.

cheers,
MTB
 

Creighton

Villager
Just to chime in on freelancer rates:

Paizo pays 10 cents a word
WoTC pays 18 cents a word

(Or at least they all did the last time I worked for them).

Additionally, I'm the publisher at Raging Swan Press and we pay 11 cents a word.

Hope that helps!
 

aramis erak

Explorer
Just to chime in on freelancer rates:

Paizo pays 10 cents a word
WoTC pays 18 cents a word
WotC also has super high standards, and that's not starting rate, but established rate. (The job I applied for was for less. I didn't get it, but did get to second round... and told to reapply later.)
 

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