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

Although I am a small publisher, I am trying to establish a precedent of paying $0.10 per word, with half paid in advance based on maximum estimated word count. I end up having to cut corners by doing a lot of my own editing and layout and by only hiring freelancers for portions of the book (I do a lot of my own writing), but I want to make people feel that it is worth their time to write even a small amount for me. I believe that the quality of effort that comes out of this will pay dividends in the long run.

Eric Simon
Four-in-Hand Games
 

dmccoy1693

Explorer
Morrus said:
I have no idea where the line lies, though personally I feel very uncomfortable these days offering anybody less than $0.03 per word, and would never consider paying $0.01 per word. But that's just what I choose to do.

...

But it also feels important to give writers the information they need to arm themselves when negotiating, and ensure that the relationship is an equal relationship.
Ok, fine. Please post all your sales numbers please. I mean, if you are going to post all these numbers on your site, you should give the full picture. Please start with all of EN Publishing's sales numbers. Anything else and you are misrepresenting giving writers the information they need to arm themselves. Please highlight your sales numbers for a project written by an unknown author vs an established author.

Also please publish your revenues from your ads. Can you show that your ads revenue does not supplement your RPG publishing costs? How much do you pay your Administrators and your Moderators?
 

dmccoy1693

Explorer
Lastly, Morris. I can say your are misrepresenting the facts for my company. My company has not had $0.01/word listed on on the page you linked for over 3 years (yes, I just verified).

We do not have a set published scale anymore.

Take my site off your blog post.
 

Kamaloo

Villager
This is a very interesting article, and an interesting discussion. Thank you, Morrus.

Perhaps you could do one on rates for art, as well. :D
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
Lastly, Morris. I can say your are misrepresenting the facts for my company. My company has not had $0.01/word listed on on the page you linked for over 3 years (yes, I just verified).

We do not have a set published scale anymore.

Take my site off your blog post.
It was either there this morning, or I imagined it. If the latter, I apologise. The aim of the page is to be accurate, so I'll update now you've kindly clarified. Thanks! :)
 

Werebat

Villager
Actually, no. Starting rate in Dungeon and Dragon in the late 1990s was 5 or 6 cents/word.
It's quite likely that my old brain was just remembering poorly. You get to be a certain age and you start thinking that back in the day, the summers were longer, the girls were prettier and freer with their charms, and WotC (or was it TSR?) paid more per word to freelance authors.
 

Curmudjinn

Explorer
Keep it civil, please.
My apologies. I've been working against local liquor retailers heavily gouging craft beer sales, so my hackles have been up towards those that use underhanded methods against good people pushing into new hobbies and professions.

Just like these publishers, the store operators react poorly to making their methods public within their respective communities.
 

Nellisir

Adventurer
It's quite likely that my old brain was just remembering poorly. You get to be a certain age and you start thinking that back in the day, the summers were longer, the girls were prettier and freer with their charms, and WotC (or was it TSR?) paid more per word to freelance authors.
I know I got paid about $110 for my article in Dragon in 1998. Since that was the only thing I ever got published by TSR, I'm 99% sure I still have the contract around. I can check and see if it specifies rates.
 

Jeremy.Smith

Villager
I'd like to point out that the information on Dreamscarred Press was originally incredibly out of date and now is impartial. Our current rate is 2 cents per word if you have never been published before. If you have, it is higher based upon the individual. We haven't paid the rate originally for several years, as our success has grown, so has our pay rate.

If we'd been asked first, this confusion might have been avoided.

thanks!
Jeremy
Dreamscarred Press
 

Voneth

Villager
Just for those new to the biz, 5 cents a word is considered professional rate for short story fiction. For RPGs (and short story magazines) the turn around time to get paid is usually in the months long time frame.

Freelance for advertising and marketing copy is actually a "day rate" where you charge the client for 8 hours of work at the level of a living wage and then some (to balance out that you have no benefits.) Turn around time for your invoice to get paid was in weeks.

Which is why until 2008, I wanted to write RPGs, but the money -- speedy paycheck -- from advertising allowed me to be a starving writer that starved a bit less. Now, I'm a nurse instead who is working on a second novel while I shopping my first around town.

Regardless, having a spouse help pay the bills is a godsend. But as a starving artist, it's a bit harder to woo Ms. Right. So if your partner is really in partnership with you to make your writing career work, take the plunge. Just do it with both eyes open.

Make no bones about it though, I respect and envy guys like Chuck Wendig and Matt Forebeck who, after 20 years of RPG and fiction writing, can now fully support their families doing what they love.
 
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Curmudjinn

Explorer
I'd like to point out that the information on Dreamscarred Press was originally incredibly out of date and now is impartial. Our current rate is 2 cents per word if you have never been published before. If you have, it is higher based upon the individual. We haven't paid the rate originally for several years, as our success has grown, so has our pay rate.

If we'd been asked first, this confusion might have been avoided.

thanks!
Jeremy
Dreamscarred Press
Yikes, that's 2,900 words a day just to make minimum wage. That'd be 58USD for an 8 hour shift. Definitely not a primary job.
 

Jeremy.Smith

Villager
Yikes, that's 2,900 words a day just to make minimum wage. That'd be 58USD for an 8 hour shift. Definitely not a primary job.
Considering I don't make enough publishing for it to be my primary job, I highly doubt I could ever pay someone enough for it to be THEIR primary job ;) My day job pays three times what I make publishing, and Dreamscarred Press is one of the "larger" third-party publishers.
 

arjomanes

Explorer
I think this just proves that RPG players need to pay more for books, realize that pirating ruins their hobby worse than any other medium, and convince their players to try GMing (since GMs spend more on RPG books). Seeing comments on DriveThruRPG complaining about an $8 200-page book always makes me shake my head. How many RPG supplements from tiny third party publishers do you think they sell?
 

turkeygiant

Villager
I think this just proves that RPG players need to pay more for books, realize that pirating ruins their hobby worse than any other medium, and convince their players to try GMing (since GMs spend more on RPG books). Seeing comments on DriveThruRPG complaining about an $8 200-page book always makes me shake my head. How many RPG supplements from tiny third party publishers do you think they sell?
The fact is there is a lot of super small publisher stuff that is never really going to be significantly profitable for its writers, they simply don't have the numerical demand for their products, and if they tried to raise prices to offset that fact, their books would probably have to be $100 each rather than $8 which would price them right out of the market. Most RPG writers out there will have to live with the fact that they are either going to be writing solely for the enjoyment they get out of the act and sharing their work, or working towards the slim chance they will get picked up by a bigger publisher who sells more books and has bigger margins to pay them from, while accepting that until that time they will make a pittance from their writing.

I don't like this fact...but it is simply a reality, the same one that most aspiring athletes, astronauts, and actors face...

There simply isn't enough demand or profit in the industry to support more than a handful of writers in a substantial way, and the advent of self publishing has probably made it even worse by flooding the market with a lot of small fish who take nibbles from the big fish...but rarely get big enough themselves and grow the market with them.
 

Ace

Explorer
Great article . For what its worth, low pay is endemic is almost every creative industry. And in fact many other unrelated industries are suffering from lowered wages as well . Wages are down by about half in the US since the 1970's . Fixes, causes and all that are way off topic here but its causing a great deal of trouble even outside our little niche.
 
Wow, those numbers are scary!

By way of context, a five-second Google search suggests that McDonalds (in the US) pay their cashiers between $7 and $9 an hour (that's cashiers - fry cooks get slightly more). So if we accept the ballpark figure that a $0.01 per word rate is equivalent to $2.50 an hour, then the $0.03 rate Morrus is using is roughly equivalent to working for McDonalds.

(Though, given the choice, you're probably better off taking the job with McDonalds. Firstly because it's more likely to be stable. But also, while we tend not to think about careers with McDonalds, they do have career paths available, and like to make noise about promoting from within. Working for McD wouldn't be my career of choice... but it probably beats freelance game design.)

On the flip-side, a person who is good at game writing probably has more than one skill: in addition to good literacy they probably need a decent understanding of probability (as well as other skills). And while having one such skill is reasonably common, the combination is much rarer.

Which means that a person likely to be good at game design can almost certainly make much more money elsewhere.

That's not good for the health of the industry. It probably means that it will have an awfully big turnover - people come into the industry to make a bit of extra cash while at university (or similar), stay a few years, and then move on. Either because they now have their 'real' job which makes more money (and takes up their time), or because they realise they just can't make a living at it. Those few who stay either get employment at WotC or Paizo, set up their own companies (and probably work at those part-time), or in some rare cases become big enough 'names' that they can command much higher rates.

As arjomanes says, it probably means that customers really should be paying more (a lot more) for our RPG materials. But given that the indications are that people just aren't willing to do that, coupled with the fact that most of our games don't need any additional purchases beyond a Core Rulebook or three, I really don't see any prospect of it changing.
 

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