Guest blogger Jason Sanford often rants on his website at www.jasonsanford.com. His fiction has been published in Interzone, Year’s Best SF 14, Analog, Intergalactic Medicine Show, Pindeldyboz, and other places, and has won the 2008 Interzone Readers’ Poll and a Minnesota State Arts Board Fellowship.
I tried to stay out of the great rate fail debate, aside from posting some snarky Cliffsnotes to the whole affair. But it turns out I snarked prematurely, because after I posted a new writer naively waded into the affair, saying established writers were only trying to prevent the newbies from succeeding. After having a great stack of screaming outrage shoved down her throat, she probably staggered away thinking, “What the hell? Why are writers so touchy about short story pay?”
Here’s why: In our hearts, we know making professional rates for our short stories mean we’re still being paid nothing at all.
Only in writing circles would five cents a word be considered professional. After working on a 5,000 word story for 20 plus hours, you’re offering to pay me $250? Hell, you can make more pouring lattes for lawyers at Starbucks! Add in having to pay your own benefits and taxes, and professional rates are actually less than nothing.
I guess that’s why I’ve had such a problem with the outrage over this issue. The screaming chorus, lead by John Scalzi, proclaims that writers deserve to be paid for their work. No argument from me. But missing from their rant is a simple truth: the pay for short stories isn’t anywhere high enough to earn an actual living.
Don’t take me wrong. I still try to publish my short stories in the best possible venues, which are also the ones that pay the highest rates. But don’t pretend that makes you a professional writer. In my book, a professional is someone who earns their entire living working in their profession. Selling a short story at professional rates isn’t even a tiny bit of the way toward earning such a living.
If you write short stories, why quibble over whether a story earns $100 or $250? Instead, focus on writing the best possible story and making it available to readers in the best possible venue. Rachel Swirsky offered some great advice on this the other day (although, as opposed to her, I’d place pay rate after both audience size and prestige in deciding where to publish).
If you want to be a true professional writer like Scalzi, write novels and articles and other freelance work, which can actually pay a living wage if you hustle your ass. But realize there’s also nothing wrong with writing a short story you won’t receive a ton of money for. After all, even professional writers like Scalzi write for free to promote themselves. Scalzi writes tens of thousands of words each year on his blog, none of which he is paid for. But this free writing promotes his other fiction, and convinces people like me to shell out $45 for a limited edition of The God Engines.
In short, either write and publish short stories because you love the genre, or see it as a way to build an audience, or both. But don’t pretend the measly pay alone makes you a professional.