Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Essay: The Philippines, Pro-Rates, and Word Count

Every Wednesday, I have an essay on any topic that catches my fancy!

One of the most satisfying experiences for a writer is having your work read and acknowledged. And in many ways, that's one of the biggest changes the Internet has wrought: the ability to put your work out there and receive immediate feedback. I've heard authors describe this phenomena as "instant gratification" because it provides just that (of course if you're a horrible writer, there's no guarantee that this will actually be a "gratifying" experience). As important as acknowledgments and praises are, another reward professional authors seek is getting paid for their work. It's a reasonable demand: one of the best things in life is to get paid doing something you love. Unfortunately, the reality is that many fiction writers can't support themselves by their fiction alone. That's not to say there are no authors who survive (or become wealthy) with royalties alone, or that you can't become rich by writing (and if it's just the craft of writing, there are other fields that pay writers a lot: technical writing, corporate writing, marketing writing, etc.). But I know a lot of writers who "write on the side" and have a day job to pay the bills (in the Philippines, many such writers find work in the academia while other, more entrepreneurial-savvy writers run a business or two). So when it comes to the subject of getting paid for your work, I think it's important to pay attention (especially how much you actually get paid--factors like taxes and the like can be a nasty thing).

I'm hoping to one day penetrate the short fiction market so that's the field that I've been paying close attention to. Coming from the Philippines, my "culture shock" moment was in finding out that writers get paid by the word. That's not to say we don't practice such a model here in the Philippines but I'm more used to the policy of getting paid a flat fee for your writing (of course employers usually specify the recommended word-count beforehand). When it comes to fiction, as far as I know, publications like The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories and Story Philippines pay a fixed amount (even if they might publish stories of varying length). The only publication that I know that pays by the word for fiction (of course this might just be my ignorance) is Rogue Magazine. The other thing I noticed is actually how much you're getting paid. Now for US residents, $0.05 a word (the minimum professional rate) is a paltry amount. A 4,000-word story amounts to $200.00. I mean that's what, half a week's pay working for minimum wage? (Never having my work reprinted before, I don't know how much one could potentially earn for getting your story reprinted or translated.) Of course if you happen to be a writer residing in a third world country like the Philippines, $200.00 for a a 4,000-word story is a lot. Even against the de-valued dollar, $200.00 is more than the monthly minimum wage rate (our minimum wage is around $8.00 per day). If one can sell two 4,000-word stories as month (or find a market that pays $0.10 per word), that's a decent mid-entry profession. In contrast, local fiction rates don't pay as much. As far as I know, Story Philippines and Rogue Magazine pay the highest (especially the former when you consider that they pay a fixed rate) and will probably approach international semi-pro rates. Of course the caveat of both publications is their timetable and limited slots: Story Philippines theoretically comes out quarterly (in actuality, it falls short of four magazines a year) and while Rogue Magazine has a consistent release schedule, there's only one fiction story in each issue. The Philippines Free Press and Philippines Graphic pays a significantly lower rate (actually not bad as far as local freelance payments go) but both magazines are released weekly and getting published in either is a "literary prestige".

The next point I want to bring up is why word count? The metrics of novelists isn't measured by how many words they've written (although it might be specified in the contract the length of the book) but rather by how many books they release and in what quantities. There are two things which I find discomforting when it comes to word count. The first is abuse. I mean I remember the days back in grade school and high school when teachers would give us students minimum/maximum word/page counts for their essays and term papers. If it was page count, I remember me and my fellow classmates using various techniques to meet the requirements, everything from varying the margins, using a bigger/smaller font, or including redundant information (in the case of minimum word counts). (Maybe the Manuscript format should be implemented in schools?) In the case of fiction, I wonder if authors are ever tempted to add "padding" to their stories to earn more income from their story sale. This tactic of course is filled with risks: the editor might very well reject your story because of the padding. Or it might simply turn into an exercise in what you can get away with as most of the padded text gets edited out anyway by the editor (and all you've managed to do as an author is give the editor a headache). This isn't the case when it comes to short stories but epic fantasy authors like Terry Goodkind and the late Robert Jordan have been accused by some critics of padding their work to stretch out the series and sell more books. Other authors like Anne Rice, you're not sure whether it's unintentional padding or stylistic choice that they deliver too detailed descriptions that at times get in the way of the story (of course some readers do enjoy this part and this is arguably one of Rice's selling points).

The other discomforting item when it comes to per word payments is that it partially reinforces the idea that more words is better. I mean you're getting paid more if you write more, aren't you? Unfortunately, this measurement isn't perfect. Obviously, some stories are appropriate for a shorter length while others are more appropriate for longer narratives. I mean when I read a fiction magazine, as a reader, I never think that "the story that's the longest is the best fiction piece in this publication". Sometimes, it is the longest story. Sometimes, it's the shortest story. It's also possible that readers might enjoy the rest of the stories which don't fall under those two extremes. As a writer, I also know that word length varies from person to person. Some writers are more comfortable writing longer pieces while others shorter pieces. A polished 2,000-word story might take one author a few hours to write while another a month and the situation might reversed when it comes to a 6,000-word story. One writer might have trouble trimming his or her work while another developing the plot of the story. And then what happens when it comes to works of minimalist fiction? Amy Hempel for example puts a lot of thought into every word and every sentence and it'll probably take me much more time to conceive and write a 2,000-word minimalist story than a conventional 8,000-word story. I've also entertained the idea of the reverse word count: you get paid more for every word you go below the maximum. This I think is more appropriate for stories that want to emphasize tightness and precision, such as flash fiction (but again, that's not to say that the 1,000-word flash fiction piece is inferior to the 500-word flash fiction piece).

Unfortunately, one of the reasons we go for word count as a standard for payment is that we don't live in a perfect and/or omniscient world. First, there's the publisher's side of things. A 10,000-word story might not necessarily be superior to the 2,000-word story, but the publisher is definitely allocating more space to the former than the latter. At the very least, it's costing the publisher more to print the 10,000 word story (let's say 40 pages in an 80-page magazine) than the 2,000 word story and as a reader, 40 pages of an 80-page magazine will stick out. A writer might say "I'm half of your magazine so I deserve half of the revenue" and looking at it based on page count alone, that's true. (This mentality also works for ads; a publisher doesn't charge an advertiser on how "effective" their ad is but how much space it consumes in their publication. The exception to the rule is placement of cover ads and it's hard to deny that a back cover ad won't be more visible than an ad stuck somewhere in the middle.) This in my opinion, however, is a limitation of print publishing. If one publishes a piece online, space becomes less of an issue as bandwidth is relatively cheap. That's not to say bandwidth should be taken from granted. I think there's a significant difference in bandwidth when it comes to a novella vs. a short story, but not so much when it comes to a novelette vs. a short story which might be a bigger issue in print publications. The other limitation of print is that the publisher doesn't really know which stories sell* if he or she publishers multiple stories in each issue. They might conduct a survey to discover which story is popular but there's no guarantee that the survey will be accurate or represents their actual demographic. A website however with an online tracker can find out which specific stories (assuming each story is its own separate page) are popular among their readers and consume the most bandwidth. That's not to say such a method is going to be accurate in determining actual popularity (it could be the author hitting the reload button of his browser multiple times) but it accurately measures how much bandwidth each story consumes in a given time frame.

The other reason is the fact that we don't have an objective measurement of quality or that even editors/publishers know which stories will actually sell. They can only approximate and sometimes the results surprise them. I mean if editors/publishers could predict which authors and stories will be popular, they'd have done so decades ago and we'd be raving about them. But the fact is that writing--and publishing--is just like any other industry and while there are definitely trends, we can't really determine which work will be the next J.K. Rowling, or which works will catch the eye of editors (well, we can approximate, but there's obviously a disproportionate amount of stories that get submitted vs. those that get rejected and let us not forget the fact that writers are vying for limited slots). When faced with a particular story, an editor will think "this is publishable and appropriate for my publication" or "I like this story better than that one", not "this story is worth XX amount of dollars". And in the theory, an editor likes all the stories he or she publishes.: it should be rare that an editor will say "I didn't like this story but I'll publish it anyway."--at least not without other considerations**. A royalty-based fee (which is usually the case when it comes to books) and novels is theoretically possible if we want a meritocratic approach to getting paid but that's far from the norm when it comes to magazines and even if that was implemented, are you willing to wait for a year or two to get paid for your short story?

Now the flat fee isn't any better as it espouses equality more than meritocracy. The problem with equality is that the real world doesn't work like that and there are some stories which catch our attention more than others. At best, equality is more of an acknowledgment "we don't know how to pay you appropriately so we're splitting the revenue equally". We're stuck with these two methods, per-word and flat-rates, simply because no better alternative has cropped up. The only unanimous conclusion we can come up with is that as a writer, it's better to get paid for your work than not (but again, there are other rewards aside from payment: it could be the pleasure of collaborating/working with other authors/editors/publishers, having your work accessible to a wider audience, etc.). My question to readers is what do you prefer: to get paid by the word or a flat rate? (Unfortunately, the question might be moot unless an actual amount is given in both alternatives.) For example, would you rather get paid $200.00 for a short story or $0.05 a word? Or is it simply a matter of which pays more (i.e. if your story is under 4,000 words, you'd go with the former but if it goes beyond, the latter)? Or is getting paid not as important as the other factors (i.e. prestige, first chance at getting published, etc.)?

*The most popular stories aren't necessarily the best-written ones but at least with the former, it can be measured and theoretically has tangible benefits (i.e. more sales) for the publisher.

**I hope that William Sanders is the exception rather than the norm when it comes to their explanations for accepting a story.

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