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Soapbox: About the Industry

Is Writing a Commodity?

by Sandy Antunes
Aug 06,2003


Is Writing a Commodity?

Conventional thought says that Writers are a commodity (and a darn cheap one). You want something written, just put out a call. Recently, on a freelancer's list, a call went out for penny-a-word D20 writers. Readers of this column will probably have one of two instant reactions:

* Only a penny a word, humbug!
* Who do I send my pitch to?

Further discussed was the going rate for editors. Under one school of thought, it makes sense to pay writers less than industry average (average usually guessed at 3 cents/word) and then have a good editor on staff (good = well paid). Which leads to the question, is the writing itself just a commodity, and the writer kind of irrelevant?

There has always been the feeling that writers are cheap and easy to find. The justification for paying RPG writers low rates was "it's easy to find new writers willing to work cheap". Veterans have to either build a really strong rep (for quality, reliability, and saleability), or risk pricing themselves out of the market ("what, a mere 4 cents a word? Never!")

And it's very rare for an RPG book pitch to say "we want a fantasy book ala Robin Laws" or "give us sci-fi in the style of David Pulver". The calls are more like "we need X words for genre Y, wrote goodly."[sic] Really, the writer themself isn't seen as important per se, rather, the words being bought are. Are they independent-- can you get good final, printed words with any unknown quality of writer?

Back when I edited a professional LARP magazine, we paid the miserable rate of a half-penny a word. It was simple economics that did that. The cost of it was complex. In essence, low payment for writing meant we could get:

  1. New writers looking for a first paid credit,
  2. Experienced writers who really wanted to write about LARP, for which we were about the only paying venue, and
  3. Writers willing to resell older work (either published or unpublished)

What this cost us was in editor time. New writers typically required more editorial work (either in guiding the initial submission, or in edits and rewrites). Not always-- we found some great new talent. But you can't bank on finding 100% new talent working with all new writers.

Experienced writers, at our rate, really weren't up to doing rewrites or edits themselves. They'd write, but we weren't paying enough for them to spend a lot of extra time past that. So we got their 'fire and forget' submissions, and that usually meant the editor had to do more work.

Since our editors were unpaid, highly motivated volunteers, we had the editor time to do this. But if we'd had to pay editors, it would have been impossible. And this raises the issue of whether paying little for writing simply shifts the cost to the editors.

My belief is this. If you book a writer at five cents a word, you can get polished work and demand a couple of rewriters, thus saving editor time. If you pay a writer less than average rates, though, you'll have to pay your editor for more time to whip that work into shape. Or, you'll have to only work with talented newbies (which, unlike writers in general, is a finite resource).

With the rise of a) D20/OGL and b) PDF publishing, the barrier for publishing is very low and the potential market is very high. However, the profit margin is still, in a word, sucky. If you treat the writing as a commodity, then writing is something to be purchased in bulk at the lowest rate and then reprocessed into The Product under your company's high standard of quality.

If you treat writing as a service done by the Writer, then you have to treat writers well and pay them decently so that they will produce good quality results for you, that require a minimum of reworking. The RPG industry in general talks about this 'service-based' approached, often keeping stables of known writers and having in-house writing staff.

But I suspect the rise of both D20 and OGL is leading itself to a commodity-based model (or at least, the perception of writing as a cheap commodity). D20 is a strong enough brand that "decent-enough" writing can sell supplements.

For long-term retention of writers, under either scheme, let's work this into the 3-part model of Job Satisfaction that I discussed in an earlier column. In general, a job should:

  1. pay well
  2. have nice work conditions
  3. be satisfying or meaningful work

If a job has all 3 aspects, it's a great job. If it has zero or only one aspect, it's a lousy job and the worker will eventually quit. But if it has just 2 of the aspects, then the worker usually will stay with the job, but grumble (and be discontent).

Writing as a service has satisfaction (the writer is treated as a valued commodity) and meaning (the writer is doing what they like). Usually, the work conditions are decent, i.e. the editor is reasonable and the company makes things friendly for the writer. The pay for RPGs is still lousy, though-- the most frequent complaint of writers. So it gets two stars out of three. So writers will write, but grumble.

Writing as a commodity shares the low pay, so that's one strike. The work is still meaningful-- because the writer has chosen to take the gig. It's not like people are being _forced_ to write half-penny-a-word LARP articles or penny-a-word D20 or penny-and-a-half PDFs. So the final question is whether commodification makes for poorer work conditions. I would say, in general, it does not-- that the publisher is still just as good as always. So it also gets two stars.

From this, I think that the price of writing and the commodification of it doesn't actually change the overall chances of a company keeping writers. Because, in both cases, the pay is already the largest gripe, lower pay really doesn't have as strong a 'sifting' effect in eliminating writers.

Note that most full-time RPG freelancers get a higher rate, at least 5 cents/word. This is their livelihood. In turn, they also take on more work (one could argue that, at higher rates, one can do less interesting work and still be satisfied, i.e. still have a 'two star' job).

Lower pay will make some writers stop working. But with the bar so low already, it may be not as significant as we writers might wish. What is really confusing about this is, at the start of this essay, I believed that the commodity being purchased was Writers. But now, I think publishers really just want 'good words'. While there are a handful of writers with 'star name recognition', the primary reason to go with a 'name' is "reliability".

Working it through, I think pay isn't really a strong factor for RPG writers, whereas work environment and personal satisfaction is. A good line editor easily can compensate for lower pay to the writers. And I think RPG writing is already largely a commodity, something that is assigned to a person. Editors can pick up the slack in reliability. The result: words are cheap.

To close, a counter-example of "expensive words". Recently I participated in Pyramid's Online's (http://www.sjgames.com/pyramid) writing challenge, "Big Brother Is An Idling Bachelorette Survivor Competition". It's weekly, starts with 5 writers, ends with 1. Each week, the lowest-ranked writer as determined by the readers is 'fired' and the rest stay on. (So each week, the remaining writers have to write a bit more, to fill out the full issue.)

This is a complete reversal of the usual model. Usually I, as a writer, only have to sell the editor with my pitch. By the time the gig is assigned, I'm already pretty much guaranteed pay, so I can write whatever I want. As long as what I wrote is good, the editor may re-hire me. And the resulting RPG book may sell because of numerous factors-- good art, popular topic, strong editing, famous publisher-- none of which are necessarily tied to the words they bought. My words have to be good, but a book with great words may sell worse than one with good words but strong production, marketing, or fan following.

In the Pyramid contest, though, I have to sell the readers on my finished product. The editor isn't even involved. He (Steven Marsh) isn't editing our works. He isn't assigning topics. All he did was choose 5 Writers. The readers read our stuff and vote on which ones didn't suck. Those that didn't suck get to keep writing (at 3 cents a word). Those that suck don't get any more work.

This is positively bizarre for a writer, and something I think every writer should experience. Direct feedback on the words determines how much I get paid. Working with an editor can be kind of insular-- the editor has an idea of what will sell, the writer talks it over with them, they come up with their best shot, then pray. Here, I'm only working as long as I am liked.

I think that, when writers are more closely tied to the results of their writing, it results in better writing. (Royalty payments in theory are a way of doing this, but beyond the scope of this essay.) This means that the pay rate may not be as important as the process of correlating pay to results.

Which means, in the end, that writing as a commodity has its limits in terms of getting the highest quality work. If some measure of investment in the Writer is done, the ultimate product (and resulting profit) will be stronger.

I don't think low pay for writing is a problem, but I do think publishers have to counter-balance low pay with greater incentive for the writer to be able to advance. Not just in a vague "you'll get exposure" sense, but by having some clear incentives (higher pay, future work, more creative direction) for good work.

But then, what do I know-- I write this column for free.

Until next month,

Since this is about writing, a "proof of credibility" seemed in order. Sandy Antunes is a freelance writer, larp designer, and astronomer. Works this year include adventures and contributions in the Book of LARP, the always-in-print Priceless, 2 chapters of the ePublishers Guide, sections in the upcoming RPG "Faery's Tale", several rounds in the Pyramid Survivor Challenge, an entry for "The Encyclopedia of Themes in Science Fiction and Fantasy", and numerous comic book, column, and supplements in progress. TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

What do you think?

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All Soapboxes

  • See What Sticks by Sandy Antunes, 06jan06
  • Simple Gifts for Pre-Gamers by Sandy Antunes, 09dec05
  • Col vs Blog by Sandy Antunes, 04nov05
  • Running a First RPG for Kids by Sandy Antunes, 07oct05
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  • Murphy's Law for Adventure Writers by Sandy Antunes, 07nov03
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  • TCG: The Total Cost of Gaming by Sandy Antunes, 10oct02
  • Game Publishing & The Law by Sandy Antunes, 06sep02
  • Standing on the Shoulders of Giants by Sandy Antunes, 01aug02
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  • April 10, 2002 13 New FAQs
  • March 1, 2002 Give Me A Closet
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  • December 13, 2001 Conflict, Ethics, Winning, and Money
  • November 13, 2001 Secret RPGnet Operations Document Leaked!
  • October 16, 2001 Leadership and D&D
  • September 4, 2001 Leading Industry Site Reports Secret: Sex Sells!
  • August 7, 2001 Any, Anyone Can Be an Internet Success-- Why Aren't You?
  • July 3, 2001 Fine Print, Part U
  • June 5, 2001 Fine Print, Part I
  • May 8, 2001 Pushing Limits
  • May 4, 2001 RPGnet State of the Union special feature
  • April 6, 2001 The Other Magic: Niche Hobbies and Other Markets
  • May 9, 2000 Running a Business as an Old Style D&D Party
  • April 14, 2000 First to Market
  • March 20, 2000 Labor Pains
  • February 15, 2000 One Trick Pony
  • January 6, 2000 Creativity is Bad, Hard to Sell, and Great for Business
  • December 14, 1999 Oranges versus Bananas: Entertainment Costs
  • November 2, 1999 Why Editors Lie
  • October 5, 1999 How to publish a quality game, accept criticism gracefully, and lead a happy life: Pick Any Two
  • September 7, 1999 It Takes a Village (to publish an RPG)
  • August 3, 1999 All Gamer Money Isn't Equal
  • July 6, 1999 Tides of Cash Flow
  • June 1, 1999 Ad-itudes
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  • February 2, 1999 Games That Won't Suck
  • January 5, 1999 Dangerous Games
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  • November 3, 1998 The $1K Company
  • October 1, 1998 So You Want to Start Your Own Company...
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  • July 7, 1998 Profit versus Prophet
  • June 2, 1998 Acquire! Acquire!
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  • April 21, 1998 The GAMA Trade Show Report, Part 2 (eventually)
  • April 7, 1998 Schroedinger Games, or, the GAMA Report
  • March 3, 1998 Culling the Herd
  • February 3, 1998 Horatio Hornblower's RPG Company
  • January 6, 1998 Double Feature (Us and Them/A Clash of Images)
  • December 2, 1997 "How to Scam Games for Free"
  • November 4, 1997 "Women in Gaming?"
  • October 2, 1997 "Fear of a Gaming Planet" (Welcome to the RPG ghetto?)
  • September 2, 1997 "Rush" (fame and adoration in lieu of pay)
  • August 2, 1997 "For the Money" (convention mating rituals)
  • July 2, 1997 "Good Deeds" (the dearth of evil game companies)
  • June 2, 1997 "Dirty Laundry" (copyright and slander on the net)
  • May 2, 1997 "Communications Breakdown" (company and player schisms)
  • April 2, 1997 "The Quick and the Dead" (dying companies versus new ideas)
  • March 2, 1997 "It's All in the Timing" (on hype and late deliveries, and on genres)
  • February 2, 1997 "Insiders and Outsiders" (who's who and who uses the web)
  • January 2, 1997 "Fits and Starts" (web presences, print runs, live roleplaying)
  • December 2, 1996 "Procastination Season is Over" (delays and new products)
  • November 1, 1996 "Best of Times, Worst of Times" (on rumors, survival, and larps)
  • October 1, 1996 "Post-Con fallout and not that many new games"
  • September 1, 1996 "Our launch, news from GenCon, demos, new LARPS"
  • Our reason for existence

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