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Freelancing Is Not For Free

When You Should Write for Free

by Lloyd Brown
Aug 10,2005

 

When You Should Write for Free

The two things professional freelancers interested in growing their volume of business think about are earning money and marketing themselves so that they can make more money.

Writing for free and the subject of earning money clearly don't get along. Fortunately, the gulf between "goal" and "thing to avoid whenever possible" is not so close that a single misstep can send you into a vast pit of poverty and failure. You can write for less than you would like -- and yes, even for free -- and still earn your keep.

Between "ideal pay" and "free" comes the very broad category of "less than ideal" pay. Less than ideal includes most of the gaming industry. Anchoring this category are the mid-tier publishers that pay about .03/word. These publishers are numerous, they require less time and attention than some of the big spenders, and their checks are good. These markets collectively could pay you more money than the larger companies pay.

Writing for Less

Few writers write for top rates all of the time. Even the best writers have been known to write for rates that do not seem to be worth their effort. Once you understand how, when, and why to write for these markets, you are on your way to maximizing your earning potential.

You Hit the Wall

You might not be ready for the high-paying work. These premier publishers receive far more submissions than they can accept, and they reject many good ones in order to take only the best. Failing to gain entry into these markets does not mean that you cannot earn a fair wage as a freelancer.

If you have tried and tried again with the higher-paying markets, try the next tier.

One caveat is worth mentioning at this point: if you are being rejected not because of your writing skill, but because of topic targeting, then moving down to the next best market won't necessarily help you. You might -- by accident -- find a better target in the lower-paying markets and then assume that the problem is your writing skill. Such a circumstance might convince you to spend a great deal of time writing for less pay than you could potentially earn.

Moving to this next tier of markets does not lock you into this rate forever. Gaining experience, building up a resume, and otherwise learning how to sell your work to a publisher can allow you to bootstrap up to the top markets while still drawing some measurable income.

You Exhaust the Market

Unfortunately, the number of publishers that offer the top rates of .05/word or higher is small. If you are able to break into these markets, you can also quickly fill up their demand for articles in a short period of time. At one point, I think I had 8 articles in the queue at Dragon Magazine. Because Dragon had a policy of printing only one article per writer per month, that quantity amounted to most of a year's worth of articles.

Massive Word Count

I heard a joke about Matt Forbeck once. It involved game company requirements that staff writers turn out 50,000 words per month, or whatever number was in the joke. The punch line went, "So what does Matt do the other 27 days of the month?"

Some of the best freelancers are capable of producing amazing quantities of publishable material. Obviously, your production capability affects your earning capacity directly. If you can only write 500 sellable words per day, you will not earn much, even at premier rates. Conversely, at 8,000 sellable words per day, even .03/word is a $62,000 annual salary. The low rate of .01/word still keeps the lights on and most of the kids fed if you can crank out enough words.

Writing for Little

By writing for little in this case (as opposed to last week, when I lumped it in with "free"), I mean .01/word or less. I know of few reasons to write for these markets.

A Strong Emerging Market

The Unspeakable Oath, Pagan Publishing's magazine devoted to horror RPGs in general and Call of Cthulhu in particular, paid writers nothing for most of its history. I believe it offered .01/word for one issue, and now offers .03/word (according to the website). Despite an irregular printing cycle ("whenever Pagan can"), it has a strong market penetration for its niche. It has consistently achieved excellent or total sell-through of its printings.

In the case of a periodical or book that achieves popular success or critical acclaim far beyond what its pay rate justifies, writing for that company can yield a good measure of networking gains or consumer demand within that limited market. We'll discuss another form of concentrating market demand later.

You Hope More is Coming

If you are offered a royalty rate that roughly translates into a word rate in this category, and you think that it could realistically achieve greater success, then this market becomes viable. Remember that the publisher controls nearly all of the variables that affect the product's success, and a new publisher is more likely to make a terrible mistake than a veteran publisher is.

Please have a valid reason for expecting higher sales than the publisher expects. "I write good!" is not valid reasoning. Working with an exceptional artist, using an innovative distribution method, or achieving national mainstream promotion might qualify as a reasonable expectation of greater-than-expected sales.

You Know More is Coming

Matching is a little-known concept that gives the freelancer a fair chance at substantially better rates. Some publishers match other publishers rates for articles that promote their product. For example, if you write an article for Company A that appears Company B's magazine, you get a check from Company B, point it out to Company A and Company A sends you a check for the same amount.

You Already Got Yours

If you keep the rights to something and can earn even a small amount through reprints, those reprint revenues are just gravy. You've done the primary work already, and you just need to make the connection with the editor and submit away. I currently know of no periodical that offers to buy reprints, so this paragraph is just for completeness.

Writing for Free

Writing for free is, by definition, not a step on the direct path to earning pay. It can be a step down an indirect path, however, that will get you there eventually. In the meantime, however, keep the map with north at the top and remember where you are trying to go.

Contests

Contests in the gaming industry usually offer product for the winner, but some rare ones offer cash. The best opportunity here is networking. That is, if an editor likes your work, he might send a personal note after the contest is over inviting you to send a submission. In the case of a contest, you are likely to be writing for free. Even if you win the contest, the word rate is often in the "less than ideal" category. One good side to contests, however, is that you can sometimes use work you have already written, which saves a great deal of time and effort.

Your Website

Your website is a promotional tool that we'll discuss in greater detail in another column. For now, let's just say that it should have two things to represent your work: a list of things you've written, and a sample of your work. Publishers will be very reluctant to buy this sample work once it has been published online (you might think of it that way, but it is considered "published' if people can just point their browser to your site and read it), so don't post something that you think is a strong candidate for a sale. Write something original for use here.

The sample work doesn't need to be long, although you could certainly provide multiple samples to point out the breadth of your skills. You might include a selection from an adventure you've run, a character write-up, and some raw "crunch." Anything up to 5,000 words should be plenty.

Reviews

While some markets pay a small amount for reviews, you would have to write hundreds to earn a wage you could live on. You should address reviews with caution: you might accidentally upset a publisher who would otherwise have been glad to work with you. Writing reviews can build a small amount of name recognition among readers and publishers alike.

On the other hand, stating an opinion in a review and supporting it well is a good way to earn the respect of publishers that agree with you.

Writing reviews is an excellent way to force yourself to research the RPG market. Knowledge of which products publishers are in the process of producing, knowledge of which topics readers demand, and knowledge of what topics are already on the market are all vital tools in selling your work.

Promotion

Last month I discussed the largely insignificant value of writing low-paying material for its promotion value. You can take steps to maximize this value if you are careful and deliberate in your method. Remember that promotional work is effectively paid advertising -- you are spending your time and hoping for a result. The result that you want is to create a market demand for your work, either for use in general "name recognition" among consumers, or to directly sell a work you have already produced.

I mentioned the problem of too few readers too far apart for markets like PDF productions to be very valuable. By the name of their electronic format, PDF sales could take place anywhere. You see no concentration of customers. With their low circulation numbers, a map of PDF sales shows no "clumps", no groups of gamers gathering together to discuss your work.

Local promotions can be more effective. Suppose you write a product that you offer to a local game store for free distribution to every RPG customer, or to a game club for use in their newsletter, or to be run at a convention. You are able to reinforce this advertising impression with physical appearances at the store or club or con. You can further reinforce it with repetition in the form of future works. You can bolster it still more by including a link to your website -- which promises additional content.

Printed products tend to sell in clumps. One game store might carry Mongoose's products, for example, while another might not. Between differences in the amount of retail space, the owner's skills at creating displays, sales techniques of the staff, and regional tastes of the customer base, some game stores fare well with a particular game line while other locations sell very little of the same line. With consistent marketing and personal attention, you can improve the odds that stores near you at one of the ones that moves your products.

Charity

The RPG community has an excellent reputation for providing aid and assistance in time of national or international disasters. Beyond the willingness to provide in situations of dire need, publishers sometimes offer work in kind to local charities. Providing writing for a publisher that intends to turn moneys over to a non-profit organization is a good use of your time, and it is tax deductible (ask your accountant about the details).

Besides the intangible benefit of helping others, this sort of relationship can earn you a contact that might lead to a paying job later.

One final reason to write for free...

Later Use

An online column is an excellent way to maintain a steady, disciplined schedule for a medium-sized project. Two dozen articles at about 1,500 words each is 36,000 words of text, which makes for a meaty core of a book. Combine the articles, add some transitional text, and you have a book that barely interfered with your normal writing schedule.

Or so I hear.

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