Wednesday 8 June 2016

On Remuneration

The "craft" card.
I saw a couple of things in the last couple of days that got me thinking about the thorny issue of pay for game creators.

First, here's Chris Helton's piece on why we should pay what games are worth, which is worth a read.

A couple of days before that I saw by chance a blog post on a blog I have not read before, by someone who is pitching out there for work. This person offered their rates and they were... well, look, here's a screenshot (click on it to blow it up).

OK, look, this person is somewhat controversial, but they also have fairly severe mental health issues (and not naming them really is partly out of a wish not to contribute to their mental health issues, and partly because of their reputation for harassing people who disagree with them, neither of which sounds like a good time to me). Notwithstanding the trouble they've caused for people in the past, I feel an intense and sincere pity for them more than anything. The whiff of desperation in this list (more so in the context of the original post) is palpable.

So let's unpack this. The easy one is the line that says Layout (InDesign). Now I have used InDesign professionally since 2007 for public, private and third sector clients. I'm all right at it. The London Freelance Association suggests £20 per hour for page make-up on books and £130 per day. That's pretty fair, I think. The games writer here is asking $10 an hour. In UK money, that's £6.89. Minimum wage for someone over 25 in the UK is set by law at £7.20 per hour. If a UK publisher were to pay this writer that without the writer signing a waiver, that publisher would be breaking the law. If the writer signs a waiver, that publisher is acting unethically and is exploiting the writer.

It's either illegal or unethical and this writer is harming themself and the industry – with the list of credits this person has, at least as long as mine, this is saying, "it is OK that the industry should pay this." It's not OK. 

Let's look at the word rate. Now, OK, 3 cents US somehow got to be seen as a standard rate for writing RPGs. Let's say you're pretty fast, and you can do a thousand words of fair copy (that is, not quite what's published, but near enough final draft quality) in two hours. Let's say you're going to work a long eight hours (that is, the eight hours doesn't include a lunch break). That's 4000 words. That's $120 US. That's £82.50 by today's rate.

Minimum wage for someone over 25 in the UK is set by law at £7.20 per hour. So you should make £57.60. Sooo that doesn't sound so bad. Except 4,000 words is a lot of work. Most pros with any sense manage 2000 words of fair copy a day. Which at 3 cents American per word, is sixty bucks, $7.50 an hour, £5.15. Basically, to make minimum wage, you need to be able to write just under 3000 words in a working day (3000 words at 3c per is ninety bucks, about £62). If you were paid even 5 cents per, you could pass the minimum wage mark on a little less than 2000 words in eight hours, which is a reasonable sustained output for any writer.

When I first started writing for White Wolf twelve years ago, it was a slow time for me, and although I remember querying what I honestly thought was a misplaced decimal point, I really did get $0.03 for my first job, and took it because, it beat watching Jeremy Kyle every day and working for near-nothing was better than not working at all. Three cents was bad ten years ago. Now, it's criminal.

Also, when I was on game I was fast. I could do between 4,000 and 7,000 words of fair copy a day, mostly at 5 cents per word, which is between $200 and $350, a decent wage a decade ago (just once, writing in the Hunter: the Vigil core, I managed 11,000 words of fair copy in one day. To which someone might reasonably but ungraciously go, "shyeah, and it shows," but you know what? They printed it and I got paid, and that job was done at the behest of Chuck Wendig, of whom you may have heard, and if you think he was slack on quality, let me tell you something).

Four and a half years of that (with other clients in between) nearly killed me.

I think I'm pretty good. I've worked for magazines, charities, and HM Government and even scored a residency at my old university, writing poetry two days a week for a grand a month (best. gig. ever). So, I don't think that's an arrogant assessment. 

While I had White Wolf as a client, I lobbied and lobbied for better pay. And I made a royal pain of myself, and they kept on hiring me. By the time I gave up on White Wolf I had managed on one gig to get $0.06 per word. This was in... 2008 or 2009 maybe. That seven cents mark wasn't a line they'd cross for me, although you bet I tried.

So this morning I looked up the London Freelance Association Fees Bible, and for books, as in any sort of book with a work-for-hire flat fee, it recommends £275 for a thousand words. 27.5p (40 cents!) per word. Even if you go right down to the lowest per-word rate suggested for periodicals (and hey, RPGs always used to use periodical models) it's still £250 per a thousand words (25p per word, 36 cents). The US traditionally undervalues its creatives, and I couldn't find a comparable fees Bible for the States (if you know one, please let me know), but I find it hard to believe that professionals in the writing field outside of the RPG "industry" would allow themselves to be charged for 3c per word.

"But wait," someone's going to say. "That's ridiculous. We can't pay 25p. No one pays that."

True, they don't. First things first is that these are fees for London, and London operates on a different pricing scale to the rest of the UK. In fact, outside of London you could knock a third to a half off of these fees and still be fair. In fact, the decent rate for low-level stuff around the people I've worked for outside RPGs is generally seen to be 10p per word (14.5 cents).

The way that the RPG industry is, 10p per is still probably a step too far. I made a commitment to pay the people who write for me 5p, which isn't amazing, but, depressingly, is apparently the best wage the (excellent, experienced, sensitive) writer I hired has earned for RPGs. 

Here's a proposal. Let's consider this blue sky thinking and suggest, just as a base rate, that American publishers should start at 5 cents per word (there are publishers that do this already – Matt and Michelle at Growling Door, for instance). Even a really modest hike like this could make a real difference.

I believe strongly that if you can't at least afford this – yes, it's not remotely optimal, but at least it's possible to get minimum wage on it – you need to really rethink your funding model.

Going back to Chris's piece, he puts it about as well as it can be put:
People deserve to be paid a living wage, whether they are flipping burgers, waiting tables or living out their dreams by writing tabletop games. People doing their "dream job" is often used to devalue the work, and it is work, that they do for games. People should be paid fairly and given adequate compensation for their time, effort and work. Just because someone is "living the dream," it doesn't mean that their work has less value. This is something that we need to remember.
Last week, I started the process to get funded £10,000 to write an RPG rulebook next year of about the size of Chariot. I am of course excited about this, because that sort of money doesn't come round every day, but let's be honest here, why doesn't it? This isn't an extortionate professional amount! In an era where Kickstarters for games regularly make thirty or forty grand, why aren't writers – and we haven't even mentioned artists and editors, developers and designers – being paid a living wage?

"The industry is rubbish" is not an excuse. Just start at five cents. just that little bit more. I'm not even asking for a full freelance wage here. Just minimum wage. You pay ethically, and paying a living wage is ethical, make no mistake. You pay better money, you will get your pick of better writers, and you will make better games.

Edit: so people started asking "what do you charge?" again, which they do on a fairly regular basis, and every time I think, hmm, must put a rate card somewhere online, and never do, only this time I did, and here it is, so you can see what a low-tier professional creative charges for work, and if you want to hire me, this is where you go to avoid the "oh, no, I don't have a budget for that" conversation which no one wants. 

Edit (8th July): Since I wrote this, Brexit happened and the US dollar/Pound Sterling exchange rate crashed. Some of the maths in this post are now inaccurate, for example ten bucks an hour can indeed get you minimum wage now.