Can we use maths to work out the minimum price per story that a writer should accept? After all, writing “for the exposure” does not put food on my table.
This post was inspired by an offer from a group calling themselves Thanet Writers (not to be confused with Thanet Creative Writers) offering £10 per story. I feel that this is too low in value to be worthy of a writer’s time. I’ve talked about fair payment for writers on Author Buzz UK before.
How much is your writing worth?
When you price work for sale, in any industry the maths is fairly similar. Costs plus the price of all your time. If you work in a creative field add in the value of your talent. If it took you ten years to get as good as you are now, those ten years should be reflected in the price too. That price you work out is the minimum price per story – the least you should expect to earn.
To work out the value of a story I created the following equation.
E is the editing factor or number of draft revisions you will make. T is the time it takes to physically type the words multiplied by basic minimum wage (W) or some hourly rate you consider to be worth your attention. C is the cost of your computer time and electricity. I is the value you place on your ideas. In other words, the total cost of your time, multiplied by the number of revisions you will need to make plus the cost of your skills.
How fast do you write?
The average person types at about 40 words per minute. So a 1200 short story should mechanically take 30 minutes to physically type.
For a person aged 25 or over, the national minimum wage is £7.50. Thus, the Thanet Writers offer of £10 for a story exactly equates to one and a half hours of serving burgers and fries. To be worth your time, from start to finish the story should take you less time than this.
Additionally (back on topic) the physical act of typing the 1200 word story accounts for £3.75. This gives us our first constant T for typing which is half the national minimum wage. T=£3.75. (At the very least).
However, we also need to add to that the computer cost.
A computer’s running power varies greatly so to simplify we will assume 100 Watts. We said 30 minutes of total typing time, so that’s 50 Watt-hours. The average household pays 14.37p per KWh. After rounding the typing time costs you 1p.
The computer itself will last on average three to five years. Let’s assume that you paid £250 for your computer and you use it an average of 4 hours a day over the five year period. Your computer will last 7280 of usage time. Just typing the story cost you 2p of the lifetime value of the computer.
Thus, C must be at least 3p. It’s hardly big potatoes but these things add up.
Now we get to the draft factor, E.
It is largely assumed that revisions and edits consist of the bulk of the work. As a rule of thumb, it seems seven is a reasonable factor. Seven reviews and edits to get it right.
That’s £26.46 plus inspiration time – assuming that your time and your ideas are pretty much worthless to you and that you worked non-stop and banged the whole thing out in under four hours.
Assuming that thinking up the idea is something you are willing to do for free, a story of 1200 words must net you more than £26.46 to avoid being slave labour. I find £26.46 to be an insultingly low offer but it is the least amount that could be classed as a living wage.
Given how many stories I would have to write to pay the rent and feed myself, you can expect the quality of my stories to sit somewhere between laughably low and non-existent. In other words, the minimum price per story should be greater than £27.
By this measure, if you accept payment of £10 for such a story, you are offering at least £16.46 in kind for someone to take your hard work away from you. Why would you do that to yourself?
3.5 hours just the physical typing
That above formula is just the value of the physical act of mindless typing. Actual story writing is much harder. I can write the first draft pretty quickly but I doubt I could work that fast.
Talking to a lot of people who attempt NaNoWriMo, I have come to the conclusion that the average beginning writer finds 1666 words in a whole day to be a huge challenge. 1200 words through seven drafts seems like an unreasonable demand for one day. Maybe you can do it but I doubt that I could.
If we use NaNoWriMo as a benchmark and assuming exactly seven drafts – that’s just over five days of working. This roughly fits with my earlier experiences of writing. Writing is a time-consuming process.
Let’s assume that the writer is pretty good and can come up with a first draft story in two hours. Working three hours a day over the five days, they might get all seven drafts done. That’s 15 hours of work and a lot of assumptions.
Factor in that this writer is going to need to attend a writing group for feedback and assuming that they are so good that one round of feedback is all they need, the writer can produce one story a week. Account for computer cost too, and the minimum price per story is at least £113.40.
How to top £113.40 per story
That might sound like crazy talk. Who would be willing to pay more than £100 for a short story? The truth is no one might be willing to pay – author earning suck. But there are ways to break things down and make the story earn for you anyway. There are ways of reaching your minimum price per story.
There is another factor to take into account. The hours you will spend selling the story. That minimum price per story of £113.40 will increase as you invest time selling stories instead of writing them. This is a business, you do not work for free.
Selling serial rights to achieve your minimum price per story
£113.40 is not unthinkable. Top end payments for short fiction is about £500 but £15 per thousand words is common. Magazines paying at that rate will offer you somewhere between £18 and £30 for a 1200 story depending on how they work out the sale price.
However, with those sorts of offers, you can earn that sort of money with one short by selling First Serial Rights in different countries.
- First British Serial Rights
- First Irish Serial Rights
- First Canadian Serial Rights
- First North American Serial Rights*
- First New Zeland English Language Serial Rights
- First Austrailian Serial Rights
- First Europian English Language Serial Rights
That should net you £126 to £210 at the very least. And we are still not done selling that one story. After all of the serial rights have been sold, Anthology Rights (with or without royalties) should be easy enough to sell – the serial rights sales will actually make that easier. Only then should you consider selling First Internet (World) English Serial Rights. At that point, the story is pretty much dead in terms of resale value.
Watch out for the North American market, they can be really demanding. US publications often ask for world English rights but they pay very well. One publication in the US offers up to US$3,000 per story. That’s roughly £1,600. Sell your country-specific rights first but don’t be afraid to counter offer with First North American Rights. If they say “no” you can always let them have World English rights when you are done selling the story.
You may also be able to get a few bob for Second Serial Rights. To be honest, most magazines turn their noses up at seconds. The best you can hope to earn for second serial rights is about £10. Little independent publications struggling to fill their pages might be willing to give you a small sum for a worldwide successful short story.
The chances are that you will see more value writing another story than you will squeeze from trying to sell second serial rights. If you suddenly get famous, an agent will be able to do that for you.
Other approaches to earning a decent wage from short stories
Another approach would be to chuck the story into a competition. Prizes can exceed £1000. You are going to be up against good writers so expect to enter more than a few before you win.
As soon as you win one competition you may find the rights issue becomes so sticky that you literally have to hire a legal expert to figure it out. Skip to anthology rights and use the win as details in your next short story’s cover letter. That or get an agent that specialises in short form fiction.
Once your story has done all that it can for you in terms of earning does not mean that it has stopped working for you. I assume that you own a website. If not get one. UK writers can get a free website from Author Buzz UK. I know because I set it up that way.
Your short story can then be added to your website. While no one is going to give you a tenner for publishing it, Google Adsense may pay you a tiny amount over time. Furthermore, your fans may be willing to support you with a few quid each to see a new story published each month. Even if those two earning options fail to pan out, at the very least you will be building a platform from which to lunch your first novel.
Ideally, what you do not want is other websites and blogs competing for the same traffic with your content. Not when you could be enjoying the traffic yourself.
There is a lot to be said for displaying short stories and listing all the prizes they have won and any magazines that they were accepted to. Don’t give that away too easily.
How much are your stories worth?
That’s why so much of what I write never gets published on this or any other blog. I want to have the option of selling that work and getting paid one day.
Over to you, now. How much do you feel your short stories are worth? What is your minimum price per story? Would you be willing to work on a 1200 word story and accept a lifetime total payment of £10 for it or do you feel your work is worth more than that?
Is a minimum price per story of £113.40 (plus the cost of your time selling the stories) worth your effort? Should magazines pay writers more? Are we writers crazy for trying to earn a living selling our writing?
Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.