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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Payfail: The SF/F Pay Rate Fiasco

(I'd like to add that @maplemuse from Twitter has a blog post that actually takes a very level-headed approach to the Black Matrix problem. I agree with most of the assessments made there, to be honest. The distinction between 4theluv and profit is important to make in this case.)

A lot has been said recently about pay rates and what's wrong with them. Scalzi has chimed in by ripping into a particularly small pulp magazine paying what everyone agrees is a crappy rate, and has even gone after folks who defend lower rates. Others have added their opinions, but it is Scalzi that has had the most impact on it all.

And, honestly, great, fine, that's wonderful. Scalzi has every right to say whatever he likes, but there are few times when I actually disagree with the guy. In this case it's not because he has the general idea wrong, but because his method of going after the problem is somewhat idiotic and I think it's about time Scalzi took a step back and shut up. See, Scalzi has never had the same sort of career the rest of us writers have or are trying to have. He admits this. He is in a position in his career where he can get paid loads of money for his short stories; the notoriety of his name makes it possible. (Edit: Oh, and it should be said that the guy deserves it, because he writes good stuff.)

But everyone else doesn't have that luxury. Of course writers should get paid fair rates, but the reality is that there are no fair-paying short markets for SF/F anyway. Even the pros pay crap compared to the highest pay non-genre markets (and by crap, I really mean crap, because there are some literary fiction markets that pay dollars per word, rather than cents). Whether it's five cents or three cents, it really doesn't matter, because neither rate is a good one. If Scalzi is going to rip into Black Matrix, then he should probably rip into the whole of the genre short market for its dedication to paying next to nothing for a whole lot of work. If this were still 1930, five cents a word would be great, but it's not. This is 2009 and even the highest paying, genre-specific pro market barely pays enough to allow a writer to live remotely comfortably for a month in this country. (Clarkesworld, for example, pays 10 cents a word with a 4,000-word limit. That amounts to $400, which is well short of being able to pay my rent, and I live in a fairly cheap area. That's not to say they're a terrible mag--there's a reason they can't pay $10 a word--just that even the highest paying SF/F short fiction markets don't pay all that well at all.)

On the other side of this, however, are arguments that, to me, make little sense. Some folks out there actually think that pay rate determines the quality of the fiction published; at the same time, though, these same folks acknowledge that, hey, even big name genre writers will submit to a low-paying market for a variety of reasons. Don't they see the hypocrisy?

Let's dig into the truth: yes, a lot of low-paying markets also print a lot of not-so-great work. But, hell, so do the pro-paying markets. There's a reason I don't subscribe to a lot of the big boys, and why their numbers of falling. But some of the lower paying markets also print a lot of excellent work. What about places like Lone Star Stories, Abyss & Apex, GUD, Ideomancer, Electric Velocipede, Shimmer, etc. All these markets pay lower rates than the big boys (and in some cases significantly lower rates), yet are also known for printing great stories. Some of the aforementioned magazines have been nominated for awards or have had stories they've published printed in "Best of" anthologies. Such things are indicators of quality.

So the idea that pay rate has something to do with quality clearly is not true of all publications (though probably true of many of them).

I can't help feeling that all of this discussion is doing the SF/F community no good whatsoever. It's another attempt to create a divide over petty nonsense (i.e. pay). I'd love it if every magazine could afford to pay at least pro rate, but the only way that will work is if the market is big enough to accommodate the increased rate. It's not, and most of the pro markets are fairly specific in the kinds of work they publish. Not all of us write that stuff, leaving smaller, lower paying markets for more unusual or niche short stories.

Now, maybe Black Matrix, the market Scalzi has torn to shreds, is one of those crap-paying, crap-producing markets. Maybe. Or maybe it's another one of those markets that has the potential to be great, that is just now getting its sea legs, and might become something better in the future. I don't know.

I'm not trying to say that pay rate isn't important. I submit a lot of work to the higher paying markets specifically because they tend to have larger readership, but I submit to smaller, lower paying markets too, some of which have fairly large readerships. Mostly what I care about is getting my work out there, but in markets that seem to matter.

What do you all think about all that has been going on? Do you care about rate?

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4 comments:

  1. I'm not sure I understand why Scalzi's career is relevant. Even though he has had such a career, there are at least four or five other pros with good resumes who *have* started out like the writers you are claiming to speak for, and their comments are almost identical to Scalzi's.

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  2. Atsiko: I don't claim to speak for any writers. As for his career, it's entirely valid when he's making a point about something having had little exposure to the entire process inherent in the short story market. Scalzi is who people are turning to for the argument, not the others. If the authors had the same clout, I wouldn't be having this discussion, but since Scalzi is someone who never had the experience of being nobody while trying to break into a "pro" market, his opinion doesn't have quite the same worth as someone who has, to me.

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  3. I'm sorry, I was a bit hasty. You make a good point.

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