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.


PublisherRate/word for new writersNotes
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!)


 

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Not strictly on the topic of pay, but I found this blog post by Crystal Frasier very enlightening. Its on what Paizo wants from professional freelancers.

http://amazonchique.tumblr.com/post/138634046407/getting-work-from-rpg-publishers-vs-pitching

One of the more important things from that article:

"The dirty secret of creative professions is that ideas are cheap, even super-creative ideas. Sorry if this sounds harsh, but you’re not special for having them. What makes you special is the ability to actually make them into something usable, enjoyable, and accessible. "
 

I want to acknowledge, again, that Morrus performed an excellent service for all creators by publishing this survey.
 
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J.L. Duncan

First Post
@morrus:

This is an awesome thread. I don't know when/if you decide to update it, but I am building a regular feature over at my blog. The list includes a list of RPG publishers and rates... Even EN Publishing :p

Here is the Link
 




Royalties are an entirely different beast, though. You're not setting a rate that is negotiated (well, beyond the royalty rate itself.) Your "rate" is determined by the product's success, which has nothing to do with the a "fair rate." Adventures almost never earn a lot compared to a system's core books, for instance, so a writer that provides 10,000 words for a game's core book and then writes a 10,000 word adventure, both based on the same royalty rate, won't earn the same amount of money.

And the circumstantial nature of the "fairness" of asking writers and artists to work on a royalty basis is an entirely different debate unto itself.
 

Zak S

Guest
Royalties are an entirely different beast, though. You're not setting a rate that is negotiated (well, beyond the royalty rate itself.) Your "rate" is determined by the product's success, which has nothing to do with the a "fair rate." Adventures almost never earn a lot compared to a system's core books, for instance, so a writer that provides 10,000 words for a game's core book and then writes a 10,000 word adventure, both based on the same royalty rate, won't earn the same amount of money.

And the circumstantial nature of the "fairness" of asking writers and artists to work on a royalty basis is an entirely different debate unto itself.

this description is not an accurate depiction of how things work at LotFp.

If James pays an advance it's upfront. this advance is usually comparable to any other company its size . then if the book outsells that advance and you have a royalty deal, you move into royalties. and as james has pointed out above his 20th selling book is still earning 4 to 5 times what you’d get at Green Ronin (dc adventures, blue rose etc), Evil Hat (fate, dresden files, etc), Margaret Weis (Marvel Heroic, Smallville, etc). — companies that are repeatedly complementing themselves on how socially conscious they are.

it’s hard for the average gamer to realize just how drastically better LotFP’s deal is better than the on e offered freelancers at other companies is— but I believe it shows in the quality of the projects and the willingness of the freelancers there to devote time and energy to them
 
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this description is not an accurate depiction of how things work at LotFp.
Gotcha.

I'm talking a purely royalties-based payment, not a flat payment + royalties. EDIT: but to my initial point, the amount paid in the initial amount would still need to be sufficient to make up for the uncertainty of the return on royalties. Sounds like it works for LotFp, but won't for most small press.

it’s hard for the average gamer to realize just how drastically better LotFP’s deal is better than the on e offered freelancers at other companies is— but I believe it shows in the quality of the projects and the willingness of the freelancers there to devote time and energy to them
Which is, I agree, essential to any amount of royalties entering such a professional relationship.
 

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