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RANT: My 2015 Complaint of the Year

While I’m in the mind frame to look back on the year just past, I think it’s worth taking a few moments to discuss what those around me heard me frequently refer to as my “complaint of the year.” Two articles I’ve recently seen make it clear that I’m far from the only one with this a version of this particular issue, however here is my version:

I thought that by developing skills and experience in several areas of publishing, I’d insulate myself against the uncertainties of the business of being a professional creative. But every one of the areas I do work in now pays LESS than it did when I first started. In each and every creative field I work in, I would LOVE to get assignments that paid the same rate I got on my very FIRST contract 20 or more years ago.

And I’m not talking about adjusting for inflation. In all but a few cases I’m making fewer actual dollars in my hand for the same amount of work, let alone how much those particular dollars will buy in the modern consumer economy.

Think I’m kidding (or exaggerating)?

Let’s start with cartooning, as it is the area that has done the BEST in keeping up price wise. In 1982 I was paid $250 for four black & white spot illustrations—that’s about $60 for an eighth-of-a-page line drawing. In SOME cases, if I’m working for a marketing project or a private commission, I can actually get that rate (and sometimes significantly higher). But in the field where I generally work those drawings are more likely to pay $20 apiece. When I used to do Bolt & Quiver comic strips for Dungeon Magazine, I was paid $200 per strip and got to keep all residual rights to the comics and the characters. The last time I was hired to do comics Wizards of the Coast website I got $150 per strip and that price included all rights.

In the 1990s when I was taking freelance game design, I would get paid at least $2,000 for one “modular unit” of work (both TSR and Wizards of the Coast broke work on D&D books into 32-page “modular units” containing approximately 24,000 words). The last time I did work in that manner, the size of a modular unit had increased to 27k words, and the pay had dropped to $1,200 per M.U. Most other companies do not work in this way, though, they do a straight cents-per-word rate. So the M.U. style was about 8.3-cents/word. While I do occasionally get offered work at rates approaching 10-cents/word, they are extremely rare cases. Usually publishers these days seem to offer rates more in the line of 6- or 7-cents/word.

Fiction and article writing is even less lucrative, but the words are less work-intensive to produce. I sold my first short story for $300 for 5,000 words (a hefty 6-cents/word) back in the late 1980s. Today I might get offered that much on one assignment out of ten. MOST proposals are for royalty/revenue split only.

Editing . . . even less. Assignments used to come in at 2-cents/word, but now generally are based on 1-cent/word. Though to be fair, I really don’t do much editing work these days, so it might be a case of my not being perceived as being WORTH a higher rate than that.

Things get really wacky if you begin to factor in the fact that inflation overall is “supposed” to be about 2% per year. So over the 25+ years of my career prices of goods in general are “supposed” to have gone up by 50% (okay, okay, the math doesn’t ACTUALLY work like that . . . it’s probably closer to 60% … but I’m willing to round down for ease of discussion) while the amount I get paid for the work I do as a freelancer has at BEST stayed the same and at WORST dropped by up to 40% in unadjusted dollars.

Now, I’m not unmindful that this is a complicated issue that has a lot of facets to it. I’m not saying that the world owes me a living, or that I’m particularly being taken advantage of. I’m responsible for making my way in the world and for finding work that pays me what I’m worth. But that doesn’t mean I have to LIKE the fact that what I want to do, what I LIKE to do, what I was TRAINED to do is becoming less and less viable as a way to actually make my living.

And while I STILL feel that way here in 2016, I’ll do my best to find something new to complain about.



  1. Jesse wrote:

    My question is why is this trend happening? I could hypothesize about available new people are more easily accessible due to the internet, or an overly crowded marketplace making profits harder to come by but those are just outsider theories. As someone in the field what do you think ia causing this?

    Tuesday, January 5, 2016 at 5:40 pm | Permalink
  2. Stan! wrote:

    That’s a difficult question to answer. There are a lot of reasons at play, and you’ve named a few of them. If I had to pick one reason that most people are likely to overlook, it’s the shift in the structure of the hobby games industry. When I started, there were two “big” companies (TSR and White Wolf), between a half-dozen and ten “mid-sized” companies (like FASA, West End Games, and GDW), and a handful of “small” companies. These days there are two big companies (WotC and Paizo), no mid-sized companies, an army of small companies, and a nearly infinite number of micro-companies. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for top-level assignments . . . and no shortage of people hoping to get them, and that keeps prices low.

    But that is hardly the whole story.

    Wednesday, January 6, 2016 at 12:42 am | Permalink

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