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On the Net: SF Economics 101 by James Patrick Kelly

incoming

Have you ever entertained the notion of writing for Asimov’s? Maybe you thought that novella in the January issue needed a different ending. Perhaps you told yourself that even a zombie could write a better novelette than the one you just finished, and that it was up to you to show Sheila some real science fiction. Could be that you wondered why you had never seen a story about Mayan starships or intelligent alien marsupials and decided that you were just the one to give it a shot. (Sorry, the marsupials have been done <freereads.blogspot.com/2012/10/lovestory-part-one.html) If you have ever had daydreams like these, know that you’re not alone. Every one of the writers appearing on the table of contents in this issue has had similar feelings.

After all, how hard could it be to write a science fiction story? All you need is a beginning, middle, and an end, a cool idea, some shiny tech and a couple or three characters. Simple! And didn’t you hear somewhere that the pay is pretty good? ‘Mov’s is supposedly near the top of the food chain in SF’s short fiction ecosystem. Why, you could quit your boring day job and step up to a glamorous career as a science fiction writer!

If you’ve actually gotten this far in your reverie, you probably have clicked over to our manuscript guidelines <asimovs.com/info/guidelines.shtml> and read the following: “Asimov’s pays 6-8 cents per word for short stories up to 7,500 words, and 6-6.5 cents per word for longer material.” And this: “We pay $1 a line for poetry, which should not exceed 40 lines.” So let’s do some math. If you jump immediately to the top rate, you’ll earn $600 for a 7500 word short story. That means that if you publish a story in each and every issue of this magazine, you’ll be knocking down a cool $6000 a year. Unfortunately nobody, not even my phenomenally prolific pal Robert Reed <robertreedwriter.com>, has managed to place fiction in every issue.

Okay then, so you’ll start with the short stuff and then move on to novels. That’s where the money is, right? In 2005, Tobias Buckell <tobiasbuckell.com> performed a generous public service on his blog by surveying his fellow science fiction and fantasy professionals in order to determine what we earn from our books <tobiasbuckell.com/2005/02/07/>. His findings might induce a wobble in your plan for a meteoric writing career. Seventy-four writers responded to Toby’s post. Their median advance was $5000 for a first novel. But wait—as you progress, your novels will make more money, right? Fifty-seven authors in the survey had sold more than one book. Their median advance? $12,500. Of course, this data set has some age on it and the economics of publishing have changed a lot with the rise of e-books and the attendant renaissance in self-publishing. Yet, median advances for second, third, and fifth novels have either held steady or gone down a bit since then—if word on the street is to be believed.

Here’s another career planning data point to consider, courtesy of John Scalzi <whatever.scalzi.com>. In addition to being the current president of the Science Fiction Writers of America <sfwa.org>, John is another generous blogger and all-around Good Guy. You may have heard that he was discovered on the internet after serializing his novel Old Man’s War <scalzi.com/books/omwpreview.html> on his website. Patrick Neilsen Hayden <nielsenhayden.com/makinglight>, an editor at Tor <Tor.com>, read the book there and bought it. Prior to that happy accident, John had made an earlier “practice” novel, Agent to the Stars <scalzi.com/agent> available as shareware on his site, with the request that readers who liked it send him $1. John’s “bypassing-the-publishing-gatekeepers” origin story has inflamed the imaginations of every aspiring SF novelist who has heard it. (However, it is important to remember that he didn’t exactly bypass the gatekeepers; rather he impressed the hell out of one of the most astute of them.) Here’s the story behind the story: In 2007, John reviewed his earnings from the first eight years of his SF career <whatever.scalzi.com/2007/02/23/> on his blog. In 1999, he raked in a whopping $400 in donations from Agent readers. Over the next three years he averaged about $1000 from Agent readers and made one short story sale. In 2003, he earned $6000, most of it from the first part of the advance from Old Man’s War. The year after that, $5000, from Agent readers and an advance for another novel. By 2005 advances from three novels and a short story sale totaled $15,000. It wasn’t until 2006, eight years into his SF career, that John saw any serious income.

As for myself, I was twenty-six when I quit my day job in public relations to become a “full time” science fiction writer. Alas, although I’ve had some writing successes, I have only rarely in the intervening years earned enough on which to live purely from SF writing. Perhaps I might have managed it had I been as productive as a John Scalzi or Toby Buckell, but I wasn’t. So how did I get by? I took part for many years in the non-monetary economy <timebanks.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/Non-MonetaryEconomy.pdf>. Okay, okay—I was a stay-at-home dad and househusband. But some economists estimate that if household labor and civic volunteerism were reasonably valued, it would increase the gross domestic product by half. Think about that the next time you’re washing dishes or helping the kids with homework or volunteering at the local SF convention. Lately, my income scramble hasn’t been as frenzied as it was back in the day, but that’s because I’ve got a side gig teaching at the Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing <usm.maine.edu/stonecoastmfa>.

Sorry to rain on your parade, Ms. Aspiring Writer. Not only is it hard to write well, but the pay isn’t all that great. Few of us make a living wage. So why do we do it?

reputation

Of course, the answers for each of us are personal and subject to change. It is when those answers no longer satisfy that the discouraged novice gives up, or the frustrated pro falls silent. Suffice it to say that money isn’t the only measure of value. If you believe that “whoever has the most toys when he dies, wins”—as the old bumper sticker had it—then you’re probably not cut out to write SF. Our toys are largely imaginary.

But aside from the pleasure to be derived from the care and feeding of the muse, there are other intangible benefits to being a writer. I have been thinking recently about the various segments of the non-monetary economy.

We interrupt this column for a brief rant: Why is it that so few of our writers bother to include economics in their worldbuilding toolkit? Is it because courses in economics were something that only business majors took in college? Is it because economics is so tangled with politics that they despair of separating well-documented research from passionately held belief? Why must hard science fiction obey the laws of physics and yet ignore the insights of our best economists? For instance, just how large must an economy be to sustain the construction of L5 colonies? Or to terraform Mars <bigthink.com/ideas/37744> in the face of an uncertain return on investment? Or to launch a fleet of expensive starships <www.princeton.edu/~pkrugman/interstellar.pdf> which might not make it back to Earth for decades or even centuries? And our fantasy writers are equally culpable. History teaches that the rise and fall of dynasties are primarily due to economic factors. The king must raise taxes <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_tax_resistance> in order to pay for his war against the Dark Lord. What is the value of labor in a world where magic works? What currency do dwarves accept in exchange for their armaments and do they care about their balance of trade? When I challenge my MFA students on these matters they often as not shrug and ask What does it matter? Will anyone care? I think Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman <krugman.blogs.nytimes.com> just might. You can revisit his conversation about economics and SF <vimeo.com/6900065> with Charles Stross <www.antipope.org/charlie> at the 2009 World Science Fiction convention.

Whew! Where was I? Oh right … segments of the non-monetary economy. A notion that has gotten some currency recently with the rise of social media is that there is a reputation economy <forbes.com/sites/danschawbel/2011/02/28/the-reputation-economy>. If and when there are reliable metrics to measure online perceptions of you and your work—whatever that might be—polishing your reputation might actually translate into new dollars in your wallet. The pre-internet Q Scores <qscores.com>, first developed by Marketing Evaluations, Inc. in 1963, attempts to quantify the familiarity and appeal of celebrities and politicians, companies and products. This and other similar services help companies like General Mills decide which sports figures to put on Wheaties boxes and NBC to pick the stars for next season’s sitcoms. More recently, thanks to the social media apps of the web 2.0 <thefuturebuzz.com/2009/01/12/social-media-web-20-internet-numbers-stats>, the reputation economy is becoming a marketplace for the rest of us. It may be that someday your online presence will replace your résumé <forbes.com/sites/danschawbel/2011/02/21/5-reasons-why-your-online-presence-will-replace-your-resume-in-10-years>. How might someone track her stock in the reputation economy? Google <google.com> herself obsessively? Pay daily visits to Addictomatic <addictomatic.com>? Add the number of her Twitter <twitter.com> followers to her Facebook <facebook.com> friends and divide by the square root of her reviews in the blogosphere <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blogosphere>?

The company behind the Klout <klout.com> website says it has an answer, by purporting to score your influence across your entire social network. For free! But if you ask me, when their methodology <articles.businessinsider.com/2011-12-02/tech/30466708_1_klout-score-facebook-comments> gives the President of the United States a lower score than some technology blogger, it loses all credibility. As currently implemented Klout exists more to market Klout than to provide useful information about your rep; if you credit their sketchy numbers, all it will get you is a pernicious case of social anxiety <money.cnn.com/2011/11/15/technology/klout_scores/index.htm>.

The fact is, while it seems clear social media is indeed creating a larger reputation economy, precision tools to measure our places in it are not yet at hand.

exit

Having typed that, I believe there are actions that writers—or anyone, for that matter—can take to protect their reputation and foster goodwill through social media. In the next installment we’ll consider the gift economy and the role that the Creative Commons license <creativecommons.org> has come to play in access to online science fiction.

In the meantime, why not take an economist to lunch and then go ahead and write that story!

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"On the Net: SF Economics 101" by James Patrick Kelly Copyright © 2013 with permission of the author.

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