Myth: the pulps paid badly (and by badly I mean better than anybody today)

My previous post on the economics of writing short stories has generally been received in a way I was not expecting. Don’t get me wrong, I’m always overjoyed when someone reads my posts and comes to the conclusion that what needs to be done is to write MORE! That’s the spirit! But that’s not really what I thought was the most notable conclusion.

Perhaps I was being too timid and afraid of spelling it out, but there’s no need to hide it anymore: don’t try to make a living writing short stories, it’s impossible. The numbers simply don’t add up.

Of the examples I wrote, the only one who managed to get somewhat close to reasonable money was the guy who wrote more than a million words per year, never got distracted, barely ever rewrote or edited anything, and got more than half of his stories into magazine that paid, on average, 4 cents per word. Ah, yeah, and he had to publish between 72 and 110 or so short stories per year, and that just to get the equivalent of minimum wage in some Western countries.

Now, if you read that and you get all hyped up to write, by all means, do it, but don’t expect to make any serious money. Write because you love it or because it gives you a few extra hundred bucks from time to time, but that’s it. You are not going to make a living out of it, in fact, I’m not even sure there are enough pro-rate magazines out there to actually publish all the crap you’ll have to write just to be able to survive.

But all this made me think… How did all the classic writers of old manage to survive then? Sure, I know that some writer’s from the pulp era were know to write at insane speeds (up to, or more, than a million words per year) but they were also making serious money. Also, the Weird Tales sacred trinity (Lovecraft, Howard, and Smith—PBUT) were either poor or borderline poor, but they weren’t starving or hobos (and they didn’t write that much.) Edit: Actually, Howard wasn’t poor. He got a lot of money from his adventure yarns.

We all have heard it: the pulps paid badly. It’s a shameful badge that the origins of modern popular literature carry with them. But if yesterday’s post is accurate, that means all those famous writers would have been living under a bridge. But they weren’t, so… the answer is obvious: the pulps did not pay badly. But before you think I’m making a strawman here, I will quote contemporary writers on this issue:

The pulps have long suffered from the perception that they were full of bad writing. Unfortunately, this perception is correct. Although many of the writers were skilled professionals, the low pay rate of the pulps–anywhere from a half cent to 1.25 cents per word–meant that a full-time writer had to write quickly rather than well if he or she wanted to keep him or herself above the poverty line.

Were did science fiction came from? A primer on the pulps – io9

The work paid badly, and the only way to make a living at it was to write magazine stories or paperback novels quickly, and vividly enough to keep editors and readers coming back for more

100 One Night Reads: A Book Lover’s Guide, page 166 by David C. Major and John S.Major

As early as the mid-1950s, the pulp magazines were in trouble, many disappearing like mayflies. Most science fiction authors made the bulk of their income from the 1/2-cent to 4-cent rates paid by the magazines […] To make a living a writer needed the secondary markets – even though they paid poorly

H. Beam Piper: A Biography, page 119, by John F. Carr

Magazines fell into one of two categories: those printed on coated paper, which paid handsomely (the “slicks,” such as The Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s), and those printed on coarse pulpwood paper, which paid poorly (the “pulps,” such as Weird Tales and Spicy Detective Stories).

Popular Skullture, page 12, by Monte Beauchamp

Most pulps, such as Gernsback’s Wonder Stories and Thomas O’Conor Sloane’s Amazing Stories (taken over from Gernsback), paid poorly per word, usually between a quarter of a cent to a cent. Street & Smith’s Astounding Stories paid two cents. Writers had to put down several stories across several different genres in different magazines to survive financially. Only those who were judged to be any good, and who developed a base of enthusiastic fans, were able to progress onto the higher-paying […] glossy magazines, such as Argosy, at anything up to six cents per word through the 1930s.

The Poetics of Science Fiction, page 79, by Peter Stockwell

But even by the modest economic yardstick by which each lived, poetry could not provide sustenance. Each turned to creating fiction for the pulp magazines of the day—most notably, in all three cases, Weird tales, a periodical that paid poorly even by the low standards of the pulps, but that welcomed offbeat and alientated worldviews like those of these three tortured geniuses [note: he means Lovecraft, Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith—PBUT]

From the introduction of The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith: The Last Hieroglyphs

In 2009, in his blog Whatever, John Scalzi wrote a post named In the Spirit of the Pulps, and Paying even Less, where he mocked and criticized an indie magazine that was trying to capture the spirit of the pulps, including their low rates:

So I clicked through and discovered that in addition to wanting to replicate the “spirit” of the pulp magazines, Black Matrix Publishing also wants to replicate its payment scale as well:

“We pay one-fifth of a cent per word on acceptance. Payment is for First Serial Rights.”

For perspective on this, back in the 1920s, Hugo Gernsback, who was notorious for paying his authors poorly, was paying his science fiction writers a quarter of a penny a word.

Scalzi, it should be noted, actually mentions that these were rates from eighty years ago.

Now, you may have noticed that all these quotes are not from people who lived back then; they are talking about the past. It’s us who are saying they were paid poorly, not them. Sure, some of them probably did, after all, Hugo Gernsback was called “The Rat” for a reason, but it’s mostly contemporary people talking about the past.

The charge of underpaying has some merit, but only if you use it in relative, not absolute, terms. The pulps paid more poorly… than other better-paying magazines.

At Castalia House (I may be the only person who has ever quoted Castalia and Scalzi in the same post) there’s a blog by Nathan about Hugo “The Rat” Gernsback:

Who wanted a fifth of a cent on a threat of a lawsuit when Argosy paid one to two cents a word on acceptance, very reliable?

Gernsback’s stinginess is given as one explanation for SF’s later troubles.

You might have noticed that one source said Argosy-like magazines paid up to 6 cents, here it says 1-2; the difference doesn’t matter much. The important data is that Gernsback, paid (if anything at all) 1/4 or 1/5 of a cent per word, and that’s probably the worst rate of the era. So we have a yardstick here to compare it to modern times, and remember, there’s a thing called inflation

At 1/4 or 1/5 of a cent per word, a 5,000-word short story would pay $10 or $12.5, which in, let’s say, 1936, would be, according to the Inflation calculator$224.86 or $179.89, or 4.5 cents/word and 3.5 cents/word respectively. This other Inflation Calculator gives lower, but very similar, results.

So… the stingiest asshole that ever graced the pulps paid rates that were considered insulting back then, but are semi-pro or even pro-rate nowadays. Hmm…

Weird Tales, notoriously know for not paying very well, was sold in 1934 for 25 cents, or $4.66 in today’s money. According to this reddit post, Lovecraft sold his stories at 0.5 to 1 cent per word. And something similar is mentioned in this Lovecraft fandom wiki.

Ok, so between 0.5 to 1 cent per word, so he would get paid $25 or $50 for a 5,000-word story, or… $465.58-931.16 in today’s money, or 9 cents/word or 18 cents/word. That’s more money than even the best-paying sff magazines of today pay. Fantasy & Science Fiction pays 7cents/word, and Clarkesworld 8 cents/word. The Science Fiction World Association considers professional rates anything above 6 cents/word.

So, yep, Weird Tales, the black sheep of the pulps, paid better than anybody today. And if we believe the writer above who said some markets paid up to 6 cents per words, that would be in today’s money… $1.12 per word. A more humble average of Argosy’s 1-2 cents would be the still ridiculously high rate of 28 cents/word. 

So there you go, that’s why pulp writers could make a living (even if barely) and some were actually really wealthy. Using yesterday’s formula, the guy who wrote like a maniac, at more than a million words per year, would make in 2017, at 25cents/word, and all else being equal:

(800 * 6 * 365* 6/7 * 0.75 * 0.5 * 25) / 100 = $140,785 per year

Final note: Of course, back then, magazines had thousands if not millions of readers. So that explains the rates. Nowadays, you are lucky if you get a few hundred subscribers.

5 thoughts on “Myth: the pulps paid badly (and by badly I mean better than anybody today)

  1. It gets me every time I see someone talk about how poorly the pulps paid or how the story output meant low quality. Even in 60’s and 70’s, a penny a word was worth a lot more than today.

    I think some of this modern perspective comes from reading old letters and notes from writers complaining about not getting paid. Some magazines had problems with that, but I also think people have a tendency to complain about things to sympathetic ears and if a magazine NEVER paid, writers wouldn’t keep sending them material.

    Liked by 1 person

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