Minimum Rage About Minimum Wage

On the same day that Harlan Ellison has released a video promoting Honorable Whoredom at a Penny a Word, a collection of his stories from the 1950s, the Science Fiction Writers of America has announced it will raise to six cents a word the standard payment by short fiction markets that SFWA recognizes as qualifying new members.

“SFWA considers it important to urge markets to pay writers more, and we hope this increase will encourage publishers to adjust their rates accordingly,” says the announcement.

In Harlan’s video he tells about the days when he lived in New York — such a new writer he didn’t have an agent and would walk his manuscripts around to the editors. When the stories sold he got one cent a word.

The thing is, even if it wasn’t a plush lifestyle, he could make a living as a writer if he stayed chained to his typewriter.

Who dares quit his day job now? As recently as 2004, SFWA’s minimum standard for short fiction was only three cents a word. Then it was hiked to five cents, and now is going up to six.

Organizing writers is like herding cats, so SFWA will never be as successful as OPEC. But if short story rates increased at the same pace as the price of gasoline, by now SFWA’s minimum would be 25 cents a word.

8 thoughts on “Minimum Rage About Minimum Wage

  1. Considering that inflation from the 1950s to the present has been 10-to-15-fold, those starving pulp writers were pretty damn well paid by today’s standards! At a minimum, todays penny-a-word writers *ought* to earn a whole dime-a-word — making the expression “dime magazine” appropriate once again. SWFA should possibly hold out for 15 cents a word, but one suspects that nobody would buy magazines at the price it would be necessary to charge for them. So where does the money go?

    Time-Warner probably takes a bigger chunk of the cover price than the publishers did in the old days, but that’s only a guess. I’m also guessing that the printers drive bigger cars than the used to. And the writers subsidize everyone from readers to printer’s devils with their low rates, as usual.

  2. As pointed out elsewhere, inflation is a worthless tool to work out word rates, if only because it does not take into consideration that magazines from those time periods sold significantly more copies than they do so, today. For example, Analog had over 116,521 paid subscriptions in 1972. Thirty-seven years later it had a little over 21,000. So I generally find that bringing up inflation is a red herring. It serves no purpose, except to bolster a false argument.

  3. It all depends on how you look at it. From the point of view of the author’s earnings and his standard of living, no, it’s not a red herring. From the point of view of what is possible, given the state of SF publishing and the economics of the genre, your POV is correct also.

  4. I decided to go with the price of gasoline as the yardstick for two reasons.

    First, an inflation calculator showed that 1 cent in 1957 is only worth 8 cents in 2013. Not that much different than SFWA’s new six cent standard. Yet Ellison could make a living in the one cent days, and writers can’t sell enough short fiction to keep from starving today.

    Second, OPEC tries to maximize their members’ leverage in the oil market well beyond the rate of inflation — which I’m sure SFWA would do in the publishing field if it could.

  5. I tend to use the cost of postage as an indicator. In 1975 I was able to mail an 8 page fanzine in Canada for eight cents. It costs at least eight times that today, so your 8-fold indicator may not be too far off. On the other hand, I haven’t mailed a fanzine in quite some time, so I may be way underestimating the cost of mailing 4 sheets of paper. It might be over a dollar. The point is, arriving at a general index of inflation is a tricky business, whether trying to guess whether a pound of pork or a pair of shoes is more expensive in Diocletian’s time or in the present, or whether a $5 Worldcon membership in 1972 is a lot cheaper than $150 in 2013.

  6. Are the modern writers living like writers in the 1950s? Reading memoirs, I get the impression of people living in tiny unheated apartments or sharing accommodations like colonies of prairie dogs.

    I had an idea for a writers colony in Elliot Lake, where due to a local business shutting down land could be had for not much. In particular there was a holiday resort going for a couple of million, whose rooms could reasonably hold eight or so writers each under relatively humane conditions, surrounded by a beautiful wilderness filled with bears that would hunt down and kill anyone who wandered too far from their word processors. Paradise! But people seemed to get very cool when I explained the place was not half as radioactive as one might expect, given its history.

  7. The romanticization of this time period also conveniently ignores two major facts 1) that Harlan Ellison wrote the majority of his stories in two years before ANC effectively collapsed, which wiped out quite a few genre magazines, so it was a very brief opportunity and 2) that Harlan Ellison, along with a large number of other authors, including Bob Silverberg, made a lot of their money writing for men’s adventure / erotica / romance magazines, and so it was a combination of markets, not just our science fiction / fantasy field. Never mind that by 1959 the market had further collapsed, and even more authors moved from our field to writing porn. So I don’t believe that successful outliers do not necessarily make a golden age for authors making a living from our field.

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