Jason Sandford’s post on Jeff VanderMeer’s blog proves a great jumping-off point for some extremely interesting argument and discussion. Heated and circular as they sometimes get, almost all the comments are worth reading for the breadth and depth of professional opinion they provide.

It was also pretty damn cool to learn VanderMeer earned $10K from short stories this last year, and Rachel Swirsky pulled in $7K. Those are, to my understanding, fairly extreme outliers, even in their own careers–but I could live off that. If anything I think it adds more weight to Scalzi’s overall argument that people wishing to become professional writers have to value their own work as professionals, though VanderMeer makes some interesting points in the comments about the circumstances under which it might be more beneficial to sell a story to a lower-paying market.

I have no analysis to add, but absorbing all those opinions was extremely valuable.

Also cool: someone mentioned M-Brane SF as a non-pro market they’ve got a lot of respect for.

Say you’re the editor of Big Pro Magazine looking at two submissions, one from Writer A and one from Writer B. Writer A is unknown–a couple token or semipro sales, maybe, but no one that more than a handful of people have heard of. Writer B is a pro–he’s got a career of five or ten years, possibly decades; two or three or a dozen well-received novels under his belt; he’s got plenty of fans, people who will pick up a copy of Big Pro Magazinejust because his name’s on the cover.

The stories are of equal quality.

If that’s the case, and if technical details like word count are also equal, is there any circumstance under which you’ll choose Writer A’s story over Writer B? Unless, say, Writer B once said you couldn’t edit your way out of a paper bag, or last convention you attended he barfed eight whiskey sodas all over your shoes?

I mean, Writer B’s going to make you more money. He’ll bring his own established fans to the table. You’ll sell more copies.

When it comes down to Writer A competing with Writer B for the same spot, then, the only way for Unknown Writer A to win is to write a better story than Professional Writer B.

This all just occurred to me a couple minutes ago, and so I’m not ready to offer any more analysis than that just yet, and don’t mean to be making value judgments–obviously, for instance, it makes sense to go with Writer B over Writer A; also, Writer B earned those fans he’ll bring through years of hard work and quality output.

But it points to some clear potential problems for anyone trying to break in. More when I’m less crippled by fever.

The fallout from John Scalzi’s castigation of exploitive pay rates in the short fiction market was intense, frequently confrontational, but largely educational. It brought out a lot of voices big and small–famous novelists, editors of magazines with payrates anywhere between $5 and $500, midrate and fledgling and unpublished writers of all kinds. If you read it all, you learned stuff.

Brief background, the payment rates for short sci-fi/fantasy vary widely. Pro magazine rates, as defined by the SFWA, are 5 cents/word and up–e.g. a 5000-word story pays you $250. Semipros most often pay around 1 cent/word (5000 words = $50), but sometimes run in the 2-3 range. Token mags pay just that: an honorarium, usually in the realm of $5-20.

These are just for first printing rights, of course. Successful short story authors can get paid several times over for a single story once you factor in anthologies, podcasts, foreign translations, collections, etc. Still, it should be pretty obvious that, almost without exception, it’s impossible to make a living solely from the sale of short SFF.

I’ve been paid semipro rates for two of my pieces, with token rates for three others. Of course I’ve sent a lot of stuff to the big places, but they’re hard to crack–they publish, very roughly, about 1 in every 50-100 subissions they receive, and most of these are chosen from already-established writers. When I took a break from novel writing to build up some publishing credits, my goal wasn’t to crack Asimov’s, Analog, and F&SF consecutively. It was just that: to have a few credits to my name. Something to put on the end of a query letter. I took a few cracks at the pro markets, changed my targets to “anywhere that pays,” found an editor who liked me over at Reflection’s Edge, and about a year into it started finding some regular success at other small markets.

After reading all those arguments about valuing your work and how the big markets don’t care about small credits, just good stories, I’m ready to shoot higher. I’ve currently got manuscripts out at six different pro markets, a couple of which I’ve never submitted to before. Though I think there were a couple blinds spots in the professional writers’ collective advice, it was good advice, especially the notion that you’ll never find the success you want unless you dedicate yourself to doing whatever it takes to get published in the pros–including, of course, submitting stories to them.

But there have been benefits. Having several stories published in paying markets (no matter how token the rates) has quelled almost all of my Am I Crazies?. Having a story get a glowing review in Tangent was exhilarating.

I’ve learned, on a small scale, to work with editors to improve the work, to know when what they’re saying is sound advice, and how their edits may not necessarily be perfect, but they’re pointing to a problem that needs to be addressed somehow.

I’ve made a couple hundred bucks. Considering I’ve got about a third of a job right now, even that much (or little) money matters.

I’ve made a few contacts that may advance my career.

And I have, quite frankly, learned a shitload about how to navigate the short SFF fiction wilderness. Without those sales to draw me into that world, I may never have paid attention to all that good advice when Scalzi’s storm broke. By and large, I think he and the others are right, which is why I’m now basically doing exactly what they recommended. But I wouldn’t undo what I’ve done before this. It’s been valuable. It’s taught me things. When competition for publishing at the top is as fierce as the stats reveal, a little knowledge could be all the difference.

I have little to add to this right now, but I’m absolutely fascinated by the math of submissions in the fiction industry. Here’s the breakdown of yearly submissions to Strange Horizons, one of the biggest sci-fi/fantasy markets out there.

If I’m reading this correctly, they bought about 0.85% of the stories submitted to them. That seems about average for the biggest markets. It’s helpful to remember that when the latest rejection letter rolls in.

I don’t think this is obvious from my last post–in fact, it might be the opposite of obvious, since I outright called them “bad” at one point, and didn’t mean it in the Michael Jackson way–but I love the small SFF zines.

They can be inconsistent, yes, but they can put out some surprisingly high-quality content as well; they provide a lot of space for people like me to accomplish something besides filling a drawer with rejections from the Big Three; and the people who run them obviously love their magazines and the SFF genre. I have zero editorial experience, but I am absolutely certain that if they make any profit at all (and I expect most of them actually run in the red), those profits are hilariously minuscule next to the hours they put in on the job.

My beef is just that I wish it were feasible for them to pay more. In some ways it’s an honor to be paid anything at all for your work (especially when the internet is choked with people giving it away for free), but in other ways it’s frustrating to know that, as a career path, being paid $20 for a story you spent 20 hours on is not really a viable method for providing an existence, especially when you’re already so financially embarrassed you take extra ketchup from fast food joints so you’ll have some at home and do your furniture shopping between the hours of 1-3 AM at the “Whatever’s On Your Sidewalk and Isn’t Obviously Stained” Home Decorating Center.

But the market doesn’t work that way. There’s no money coming in to most places, so how are editors supposed to send real money back out to their writers? Work a second job to subsidize their publications? Probably. In fact, I would go so far as to say anyone who doesn’t is criminally negligent.

But we’re not even talking enough cash to cut back on your day job (not even when you’re as hilariously poor as me). If you’re selling to what’s known as the token and semi-pro markets, we’re talking $20-150 extra bucks a month, and that’s if you’re selling something every other week, which strikes me as more than a little optimistic. Even regular sales to the biggest markets isn’t a viable job-replacement strategy–$200-500 a month (assuming one sale per–still a lot, considering there is a very small pool of markets which sell that well) might let you drop a day or two out of your work week, but it’s not what you would call a long-term life plan.

If big-market sales are a part-time job, that makes small-market sales an internship where they reimburse your subway fare and sometimes when they send you out for lunch they let you spend the change on a BLT for yourself. Just being there is fun and intellectually stimulating and a fine learning experience, but pretty quick it’s time to strike out on your own full time, and that means writing novels. Sweet: I love writing novels. I just wish it were possible to treat the short form as a career instead of a hobby, an apprenticeship, something you do before you’re good enough to do something better.

Edited to add: I’ve since learned this is less true than I thought–Dean Wesley Smith writes about the worth of various publishing rights and mentions in the comments he’s had two stories that have so far netted him over $25,000 apiece. Elsewhere, I’ve read other authors mention making $7000 and $10,000 on short fiction sales in one year, which, no joke, would cover my bills for a year.

These are outliers, but they exist. I think everyone would agree, however, it’s much easier to make a living writing novels than writing short fiction.

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