My recent (a few hours ago, in fact) entry into an online group where the business side of writing is discussed has put me into an accounting mood. So I have been playing and running some numbers to come up with my (or yours) expected return as a short story writer. That’s the key concept here since novelists or self-published authors will have to come up with their own numeromantic equations to see how much they need to sell to not be ashamed of saying that they are writers.
It’s really not a complicated thing to calculate since the short story market is relatively open and static about key economic data. If you know their payment and rejection rates, you can improvise the rest.
So here’s the formula I cobbled together a few minutes ago that will tell you how wealthy (or, more likely, poor) you will be as a writer of short stories. (Comment below if you think my math is off in any way)
words/hour * hours/day * 365 * (day/year) * proficiency quotient * acceptance rate * weighted cent/word) / 100 = how poor you are in $ per year
Now, as you can see, this formula reaches almost Drake-levels of length and unknowable variables, but it’s useful nonetheless. Here’s a quick description of each variable:
words/hour: Straightforward enough. This says the number of words you expect to write, on average, per hour. Don’t worry about revisions, editing, or your natural lazy disposition, that’s taken into account later. Just assume that you have a good (but not exceptional) day and you manage to write for 60 minutes. Values can be as moderate as 300 or as exaggerated as 2,000, but keep in mind that this is an average, so don’t use your best day, you cheater.
hours/day: How many hours a day do you write? If you are a decent, respectable, and law-abiding person, that means you probably have some kind of a job that takes up a good chunk of your time so what you have left for writing may not be that much. It could be half an hour (i.e 0,5) or as much as 12 hours (nobody believes you, by the way.)
365: the number of days in a year
days/year: Sure, we all claim we go 4 days a week to the gym (but we only go 2… per month) and writing may be an endeavor similarly prone to lies. This value is the fraction of days a year you actually write. And no, you don’t have to count them out one by one and come up with something like 137/365, just use a gross approximation, like “I write 3 o 4 days a week, so 0.5” or “I have a great working ethic and write all days except Sundays, so its 6/7 or 0.86”
proficiency quotient: this is a combination of various variables and factors, so you’ll have to use your imagination a bit. Here goes the time you spend editing, rewriting and all that stuff that is technically writing but doesn’t really add words to your final word count. This also includes the time you spend plotting, thinking ideas, chewing on pencils, and so on*, and finally, your laziness factor. To sum up, this means the fraction of time you actually write per hour of writing instead of, I don’t know, checking your Twitter timeline.
*Of course, if you do all that outside the time you allocate yourself to write, ignore it. In fact, to make the formula simpler, you can ignore this variable and just reduce the number of hours/day to the true value where you only write to increase your word count and then change words/hour to what you actually write. That’s why the words/hour definiton said “expect to write” because it assumes you will slack off a bit.
Hypothetically, this values could be as high as 1, meaning that you never rewrite, edit, or revise and that you never waste a single minute doing other activities, or it could be as low as… 0…01 If you spend more time rewriting than actually writing, then the value should be below 0.5. Use your judgment.
acceptance rate: This is how many of your stories you send get accepted for publication. The value is, of course, from 0 (none) to 1 (100%) To get a general idea of the acceptance rates in your target market, you can use The Submission Grinder. The general rule is that the higher-paying a market is, the lower the acceptance rate. Pro and semi-pro magazines acceptance rates go from less than 1% to 3%. Magazines that pay 1 cent per word and the like have higher acceptance rates: 5%, 10%, or even 20%
Naturally, this variable can take many values, but a nice one as an “average” could be 5%, or 0.05. If you believe everybody loves your work and nobody will ever reject anything you write, pump it up to 1.
However, remember this value includes sending your rejected stories to other magazines, so the final value may be in fact higher than what the Grinder says because, eventually, someone may perhaps pick them up (but it may be someone in a lower-paying range, which leads me to….)
weighted cent/word: We’ll assume you only want to publish in magazines that, at least, pay 1 cent/word; there are those that pay less or use a fixed payment method ($30 or somesuch) but you don’t need a fancy formula to know how poor you will be if you publish with those. Payment rates go therefore from 1 to 6, or even more thanks to those fabled magazines that give even greater riches!
To come up with a reasonable value or average, you can do a weighted average (I believe that’s the technical term for what I’m going to do,) where each payment level is multiplied by the fraction of how many of your stories you expect to sell at that level. For example, we’ll assume 10% of your stories will be sold at the 8 cent/word level, 15% at 6, 25% at something averaging 3, and 50% at 1, so: 8*(0,1) + 6 (0,15) + 3 (0,25) + 1 (0,5) = 2,95 cents per word is your weighted average if I didn’t mess something up along the way.
Then you divide this by 100 because the original number was in cents, not dollars. That should give you the number of $ you’ll earn per year. So, let’s see one example:
Guy A: a prolific amateur writer, 1000 words per day, writes 3 hours each day, 5 days per week, but he gets distracted and is hard to please, so he spends almost as much time rewriting or doing other stuff as writing (so a value of 0.4 for example), he is above average and gets accepted 15% of the time across the entire market. To simplify matters, we’ll assume his weighted payment average is 3 cents/word.
So, if you plug all that in: 1000 * 3 * 365 * (5/7) * 0.4 * 0.15 * 3 = 1,407.86
If you are curious, he has an effective (after discounting lazy-time, rewriting, and non-writing days) of 312,857 words per year, which is quite impressive, 46,982 of which were accepted for publication, which may mean something like 5 to 10 stories. Unfortunately, his payment is just $1,407, not bad if you do this as a hobby, but not much to make a living.
Of course, the rejected stories don’t disappear and they may eventually find a market the next year or somewhere else, which means that continuous, daily work piles up bit by bit, and may eventually pay off… but not much to be perfectly honest. But, let’s assume he eventually finds a market for 3/4 of the stories he writes, but at lower-paying ones, like 1.5 cents/word. That means that under this generous assumption, he may earn ((312,857 – 46,982) * 0.75 * 1.5cent) / 100 = 2,991 extra $. Not bad.
Note: Naturally, you can add this slow trickling as another variable if you want. It will increase the final amount a bit. But remember that there may not even be enough magazines for you to get so much stuff published at the specific payment range.
Guy B, professional writer: 800 words per day, 6 hours a day, 6 days a week, with a high proficiency quotient of 0.75, acceptance rate of 0.5, payment at 4 cents = $22,525
Now, those are more interesting numbers, but keep in mind that this guy writes, allowing for the proficiency quotient, a whopping 1,126,285 words per year, and half of that gets accepted by magazines that pay, on average, 4 cents/word. That means that, at 5,000 – 8,000 words per story, he publishes… 70-112 short stories per year. Now, I’m not saying it’s not possible but eh…
Note: of course, there are other sources of income, like republishing those stories somewhere else, anthologies, etc. So those things also add up a bit.
It could be argued that once a writer reaches those levels, his or her acceptance rate may get close to 1 simply because the editors already know him and they pretty much accept everything he writes. That could be true, which leads me to the conclusions of this post:
If you look at the equation, you will notice that there are some values that you can improve by diligent work, dedication, and skill. You can, for example, start writing each day instead of eh, once per month. Obviously, this is the value that has the greatest effect on the final result. However, even when writing daily, the expected return is quite low.
You can also dedicate a lot of time to improve your craft and skill, and to organize your time so you really spend an hour writing instead of 10 minutes, increasing your writing speed along the way, from 200 words per hour to a massive 1,000!
All of those things matter, sure, but there’s one value that is the key to all: acceptance rate. This is a point that was driven home just moments ago when I came across this review of Clarkesworld’s December (2018) issue.
One of the stories is described as
“this 10,000 word tale of non-binary hybrid radioactive exploding birdpeople having a revolution against their all-male all-human overlords must be some sort of parody but the delivery is completely serious, even morose.”
Clarkesworld is one of the highest-paying markets out there, at 8 cents/word and an acceptance rate around 1% (according to the Submission Grinder, of course.) That means someone paid $800 for that story and that it was considered better than, at least, 99% of what they receive. And that made me think because that sort of tale is not that uncommon in those markets.
If you have read my occasional reviews, you will know that I am, to put it mildly, not a fan of what gets awarded as the best in short story fiction in SFF. Three out of four stories are variations of that bold part. If the protagonists are not transgender, they are another letter or combination of letters from the LGTBetc group. And that made me think… that perhaps the people who write these stories are smarter than they look. I mean, if you manage to put just three short stories a month in a magazine like Clarkesworld, you are starting to earn interesting numbers.
Clearly, that type of narrative greatly increases your acceptance odds in some of the highest-paying markets. How much, I do not know, for it could be that 100% of the stories they receive are about transgender transspecies heroes of dubious and unqualifiable sexuality, but I don’t think it’s that much. And there may be other elements, plot-related for example, that narrow down the choice even more.
Still, that variable, the acceptance rate, is the variable you need to improve the most as the formula seems to imply, and sure, you can do that by becoming the best writer in the world, so good that people just buy whatever your pen vomits or… you could just add a few nods to social justice themes here and there. How much does that multiply your odds? x2, x5, x20? I do not know, but it seems to work.
So now you know what you have to do if you want to make a living writing short stories: pump up your output to close to 1,000,000 words a year, write every day, get exceedingly good at writing, and don’t sniff at lower-paying markets or other sources of income (anthologies, whatever.) Or forget about that and just add a couple nonbinary hybrid transpenguins.