On Market Rates

There’s been a bit of a kerfuffle in the SF blogosphere about what writers should be paid for short fiction, which has led to a lot of people posting lists of their short fiction and what they were paid for it (Scalzi has links to most of them). This naturally leads me to wonder what the analogous situation for non-fiction is (being that I am vastly more likely to be paid money for non-fiction pieces than fiction).

Of course, I can’t claim a long list of sales that I can list as my contribution to the discussion. I’ve only had a handful of pieces printed in commercial outlets: two pieces (so far) in Inside Higher Ed, (one under a pseudonym, and the other a reprint from the blog), one at seedmagazine.com, and the recent Physics World piece. I’ve also had a couple of blog posts reprinted in the newsletters of various organizations.

I’ve only been paid for two of these– the first Inside Higher Ed and the Physics World piece. The reprinted blog post didn’t get any money (which seems fair enough to me), and the Seed magazine piece was part of a joint program with ScienceBlogs, who pay me for the blog. Both of the paying gigs were for a flat fee, which worked out to between $0.10/word and $0.20/word (I don’t have the exact word counts here, but this is an order-of-magnitude calculation, anyway).

That’s on the low side for paid non-fiction, at least based on numbers Jennifer Ouellette gave a couple of years ago when she spoke here. But then, I’m not trying to make a living writing short pieces for magazines. Which is not to say that I don’t appreciate the money, or that I would routinely give stuff away. At the moment, the odds of me writing something for free (or less than about $0.10/word) are not great, unless it’s for an organization like Seed that I already have a business relationship with, or something that will help me sell books.

(I’m not even going to attempt to figure out the per-word rate for the blog. This is one of those financial calculations like “what is my hourly wage as a grad student?” that just can’t end well…)

It’s kind of interesting to see the difference between fiction and non-fiction, though. The rates that qualify as professional for the SF market are way lower than what even a semi-competent amateur like myself can get for non-fiction. Which requires more actual work is a question beyond the scope of this blog post.

I’d be interested in hearing from somebody who writes non-fiction for a living, though. What is an acceptable per-word rate for a freelance science writer?

Comments

  1. #1 Cuttlefish
    December 8, 2009

    I can tell you, people pay more for dog-physics than for doggerel.

    Of course, it helps that you take the time to know what you are writing about, and do it so very well. If I had to do that… it would decimate my output.

  2. #2 Paul Schofield
    December 8, 2009

    I’m wondering (far too idly to google it) how various journalist pay rates would line up.

    This is in no way related to Cuttlefish’s point about knowing what you are writing about…

  3. #3 former journo
    December 8, 2009

    Former journalist here. I estimate I made about 26 cents/word.

  4. #4 Moopheus
    December 8, 2009

    I’ve published and edited a literary fiction magazine, and I can tell you that the economics of it plain sucks. Aside from the fact that this “argument” over rates has been occupying SF writers since the beginning of time, and is therefore really really old news and boring to just about everyone else, they should just be glad that there are any markets left at all that can actually pay them money. The demand in the marketplace for short fiction of any kind has been declining continually since the 1930s and is currently infinitesimally small, and the few “professional” markets left are hanging on by a thread. Comparing the rates to nonfiction writing makes no sense, because the markets are completely different.

  5. #5 Jonathan Vos Post
    December 8, 2009

    I got about $1/word from Omni in 1979 and 1980. But that’s partly they were the top-paying market for non-fiction Science and Technology that I could crack, and partly because hypertext inventor Ted Nelson gave me their contact info before they first published, so it was an inside track, and was at the head of the line. Not pure luck, not pure talent, but whom you know who knows someone. Social networking.

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