22 Jun 2011

Crapping on your Dream: Freelancing 101

Blog 54 Comments

Last weekend, I had the privilege to be a guest of honor at Nashville’s Hypericon, a small show for fans of all things fantasy, science fiction, and other gamer strangeness. I had few obligations. Two panels and a certainty that I would not only meet Glen Cook but also talk to him for more than twenty seconds. I’ll talk about the second panel later. The first, however, is gnawing on my skull.


The panel was something about getting involved in freelancing. Mike Lee (of World of Darkness and Warhammer Fantasy/40k fame), Melissa Gay (artist extraordinaire), and myself sat at the table in front of some 15 or so people and one baby. We hit all the high points. Stuff like: don’t be a dick, be on time, write what your assigned to write, whore yourself at shows. The usual advice I give to folks that ask. But one thing stuck out in my head while we were talking. One horrible, soul-crushing realization. We were supposed to give insights into getting started, but what we really did was poke holes in the balloons of their dreams. It was like we showed them ice cream and then said they couldn’t have any. And were we wrong to do this? Hell no. Why? Because, well, making a living writing or illustrating for RPGs is about as hard as it is to play in a professional sport these days. The most many people can hope for is a spot on the “farm team” and a shot at maybe a book before the work goes away. For good.

Oh, Rob, must you perpetuate the doom and gloom? You bet. Why just last night, I chatted with some friends about their own efforts to get into the business. I tried to be supportive. I tried to offer advice about how they might wedge their foot in the  closing door, but eventually my cynicism came out swinging.

Here’s the thing. There are far fewer print publishers now than there were three years ago, and there are even fewer publishers than there were five or even ten years ago. Who’s left? Well, there’s Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Green Ronin, Fantasy Flight, Goodman, Mongoose, Paradigm, Open Design, and a smattering of others. With the exception of a very few, most publishers already have full stables of freelancers willing to work for the current rates, which, in case you didn’t know, is about .02 to .03 a word. Think about that for a second. Skipping over all the felatio you will likely have to perform to even get a paying gig in the first, once you get it, and by it lets say you get a 10,000 word job, you’re look at a whopping $200 for your time. How long do you think it will take you to write 10,000 words? I’ve been doing this long enough to hammer out and polish those words in about three days, at ten hours a day, so about 30 hours total. That’s about 6.67 bucks an hour. McDonalds! For someone new to the business, you’re looking at probably two-three weeks, for a three hours a day, plus say four to six hours on weekends. Lets call it 45 hours, plus all the time you sweat and worry. After three weeks work, you might get the two hundred bucks on turnover or, more likely, after the product hits the shelves, which could be over a year later. And all for the princely sum of LESS THAN MINIMUM WAGE!

And that’s ONE book. Try stringing together five books in a row. Good luck. There isn’t that much work out there right now.

But what about you Rob? You manage. Yes. And you know what, I’ve been working myself to death for about ten years to earn an actual living in the business. And if I lost my job at Wizards, I’m not exactly sure what I would do. In fact, this is the thing that terrifies me the most. Yeah, I could probably piece together enough work over the year to get by, but not at my current rates. Not by a longshot.

During the d20 boom, there was hope. There was more work than there were freelancers. Once that bubble burst, lots and lots of good designers left the field. People who were, at least at the time, household names in the gaming industry just up and left. Why? Because you can’t pay your rent/mortgage on the standard rates an unless you can generate 500,000 words at .03 a word, you’re not going to make 15,000 a year. And that’s not including Uncle Sam’s cut. Self-employed, you get to pay double!

The counter that galls me the most is when a would-be game designer says “Well, I only want to do game design to rack up some publications so I can get into fiction.” You know what? I said the EXACT same thing a decade ago. And it took me ten years to get my first novel, and one written under anything but ideal circumstances. And what’s worse? Fiction can actually pay WORSE than game design. Think about that.

A talented, reliable freelancer can usually get about .05 a word in game design. I spoke with an author friend and I found established writers were making about the same. The same! If you wrote 500,000 words in a year at .05 a word, congrats, you’ve just earned 25,000 a year (less with Uncle Sam’s cut of course). Want to know what 500,000 words means? Five novels. FIVE NOVELS. In a year!

But what about Stephen King? JK Rowling? All those other millionaires? Look at the top ten earners in 2010. Most of those lucky bastards made their bank from royalties and licensing. Hell, at least two didn’t even get a book published that year.

And here’s another wrinkle. Kindle, nooks, and all those electronic devices seem super cool right now. And boy are they. Why lug around all those novels when you can just open them up in your reader? But you know what I haven’t heard folks talk about is how ebooks throw open the floodgates to backlist books. An ebook costs almost nothing to make, store, and sell. A published book requires warehousing, distribution, printing and all that stuff. How many books have been written so far? In a few years, everything that’s been published and out of print is suddenly available again. And you know what? I’d be willing to bet there are more books you haven’t read that are currently out of print that are just waiting to see the light of day. What this means is that a new author has to not just compete with the current releases on the shelves, but s/he also has to compete with every book, ever written, all just a click and a credit card away. If I were a publisher, I’d be doing my damnedest to gobble up rights to every out of print novel I could get, load them into a sexy website and sit back and rake in the cash. If you have 50,000 titles and sell them for a dollar each, you’d only have to sell one copy of each title a year to make the same kind of money you’d make writing a million damn words at standard rates in the game design business.

And every time some new crop of rotten kids come screaming out of the womb, there’s a whole new batch of customers just waiting to get ripe enough to buy these OOP titles all over again.

Don’t believe me? Amazon has killed Borders. Barnes & Nobles looks like it’s next. We’re not far from a time when the only vendor for books are virtual stores. And we’re not that far off from a time when print books are so expensive thanks to shorter print runs, folks will be forced to buy electronic media or not read at all.

Oh. I’m no expert on this field. I probably have no idea what the hell I’m talking about. But I’m seeing the signs. We’re seeing it in the music industry. We’re seeing it in film, television, and in almost every other aspect of entertainment. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m full of crap. But I can tell you this: If you want to get rich writing, you’d better start shopping for refrigerator boxes. You’ll need them when the bank takes your house.

So after this nasty, nasty blog post, you’re probably wondering why I’m in the business at all. I was stupid. I didn’t know enough before I got started to realize trying to make a living designing games and writing fiction was not far off from tilting at windmills. I also came into the business at a time when there were so many publishers you couldn’t walk down the aisle at Origins and not run into some d20 product or other. I got work by shaking hands, buying dinners, begging, pleading, and taking on so many projects I nearly drowned in words. I was lucky. I’ve made a career. And it’s a career that can go away at any time, without warning, and send me back, hat in hand, to McDonaldland shoveling meat and asking if I can take your order.

Should you get into the game design business? Should you chase your dreams? Should you strive to be the next Hemmingway and write that perfect novel that will change the world? Should you take injections of Monte Cook or Mike Mearls DNA to become the next gods in gaming? Don’t let me stop you. But go in with your eyes wide open. Take your illusions to the finishing stump behind the shed and put them out of their misery. And if you don’t believe me, I challenge you to sort through your game books. Take a look at the designers who worked in the eighties, the nineties, even in the last decade. Then, see how many of those folks are still working in the RPG business now. Yep. There will be a few survivors. A few folks managed to make it work. But most did their time and moved on to something else. Game design is not a career unless you are very, very, very lucky. It’s a moment. A glorious, exciting, stressful, awesome moment. And then it ends.


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54 Responses to “Crapping on your Dream: Freelancing 101”

  1. leslie russell yost says:

    it’s like you took all the rainbows & kittens, then used the rainbows for nooses for the kittens.
    fab points!

  2. SabreCat says:

    Perhaps the soundest advice is to by all means write and publish games, but don’t expect your efforts to pay the bills. The world has moved on; the business model must adapt. RPG design is something you do because you love it, because you want to get your ideas out and see people having a blast with the system you’ve devised. And that must be enough. Keep the day job. Let your creative fires burn in the evenings and weekends. Go indie, sell the game at a nominal price, let the piratical commerce of your PDFs spread the game, engage with your players in forums and podcasts and con meetups, revel in the actual play that happens. If that doesn’t satisfy you, and you have to ask “sure, but how do I make the big bucks?”, you’re in the wrong field of endeavor.

  3. Timothy Brannan says:

    Not crapping on dreams if it is realistic.

    This is just good advice. I am proud of the freelance work I have done and I am just as happy that I don’t have to do it to pay the bills.

  4. Owen Stephens says:

    Alternatively, you can start your own game company. This insures you’ll have all the work you could possibly want… but is also likely to result in a much, much, much lower per-word rate. In which case I recommend you complain to your new boss.

  5. Louis Porter Jr. says:

    Here is a little blog post that might help you with your feeling of “making money in the RPG industry: http://lpjd.blogspot.com/2011/06/can-you-make-living-in-gaming-industry.html. Hope this helps you or any other freelancers.

  6. Alphastream says:

    All of the RPG industry is like this, right? There are very few cases where someone is making big bucks, let alone medium bucks. Realistically, you have to self-assess whether you want to do this full time, and if so, what your realistic income and lifestyle will be as a result.

    I work on organized play. This is the land of usually working for free. Countless hours, all in the service of gamer-kind. I do work for pay here and there and I see what it means… peanuts for that same work. I am thus usually content to work for very little or nothing if the cause is right, because it is my hobby. Things would have to be substantially different for me to make it a career.

    The RPG industry doesn’t show signs of changing the formula. It could get worse. As with so many creative areas (music, art, etc.) the individual should do their homework and really understand what the career looks like.

    Rob, you have it about as good as it gets. If that isn’t awesome, then…

  7. Steve says:

    I’m one of those extremely lucky few who’s managed to survive in the RPG industry from 1981 until now, and I’ve actually made a handsome living at it. I had three key advantages — formal training and experience in writing and publishing before getting into game publishing, getting in on the ground floor, and working for the biggest company in the industry. Back in the early ’80s, we were fond of pointing out that there were more astronauts in the world than there were full-time game designers. That’s changed now, thanks to computer games (and the end of the shuttle program). But at least job listings for astronauts never said, “applicants for this job must have already made at least three successful launches into space.”


  8. Jim Kiley says:

    This is more-or-less why I gave it up. It turns out that the lost evenings and weekends with my kids weren’t remotely justified by the pennies trickling into the bank account, and the prospect of literally dozens of people reading my scintillating prose about werewolf poop. Would I have kept it up for a dime a word? Probably not. A quarter? A buck? Probably. But those rates don’t exist, and frankly I was never good enough to justify them.

  9. racephysics says:

    I vividly recall being a teenager in the very early nineties thinking that I could write some good stuff, and for the most part I still think that I had even know it’s only known to a few these days.

    I only write character backgrounds now, lol.

  10. Brian R. James says:

    Seriously folks. Get a job in engineering or law or something that pays well. And *then* do your freelance game deisgn on the side simply for the joy of it. Your family (and your bank account) will thank you.

  11. Alphastream says:

    A key problem we have is that the game that we love is largely predicated on a model that results in low revenue and profit. Changing the profit model likely strips away the aspects we love (such as lots of source material and one DM, playing at a table, or physical books). Most attempts to take us away from that model are met (rightly so) with resistance by the gaming community. Catch-22?

  12. Jonathan Drain says:

    There’s not much money in RPG writing at all. The number of full-time jobs is very small, and the only publishers successful enough to pay freelancers more than 3c/word almost exclusively hire only experienced writers.

    Only about one in twelve Dragon articles (8.35%) and one in seven Dungeon articles (14.25%) are written by non-Insiders: writers who have never been employed by WotC either freelance or full-time, aside from RPGA work. This was a big loss for contributors to the Paizo-era Dragon magazine, whose open contributor policy gave a lot of high-paying articles to talented newbies and let a lot of people into the industry.

    As a hobby that pays a little money, though, RPG writing is fantastic. You get to share your work with the RPG community, see your name in print, cash the occasional $200 cheque. Plus, nothing is quite like winning an argument online because you wrote the article in question.

  13. Rodney Musgraves says:

    Talk about spot on.. I think you hit the nail head there Rob on just about everything really, Our ever-so wonderful world is changing and changing fast. I’m seeing pretty much the same thing in the IT industries where last weeks job that was plentiful are gone already. Cloud computing, mobile computing.. Your desktop is already obsolete before you get the shrink wrap off. Today’s Laptops are tomorrows Smart Phones and Tablets wile the 2 merge into 1 next week, Hands free will be video Bluetooth car connected I see your ass speeding so here’s your ticket via email.. Jesus, I guess it’s really not your fathers Buick anymore..

  14. Patrick Lawinger says:

    Some great points. Lately, my writing has pretty much been for me, I haven’t even been publishing through my own little .pdf company. Why? Because the writing is fun, the layout, etc. just isn’t fun and my time is better spent doing other things. Formatting stats, etc. for the major print companies is time consuming, and as per your break down, not really worth it for me at the moment. Thank god my wife has a great job leaving me the “luxury” of being a stay-at-home dad (hardest job and longest hours of any job I have had, but I still love it).

    Strangely, the best paying writing “gig” I have ever had was writing “quest trees” up for a computer game company. I received more than $2.50 a word. Yeah, computer game design is definitely a different world. Of course, even that world has now gotten to the point that there is a glut of programmers and designers and pay rates have dropped considerably.

    RPG writing is, at least partly, technical writing. Good technical writers can make far more than RPG writers. Sometimes they can even get a regular “job” –with BENEFITS! Scary thought. Of course, there is no fame and glory … ;). I can honestly say that some of the technical writing I have done has certainly paid well, and actually been satisfying. Now that I think about it, money I have received from RPG writing comes in behind; writing for a computer game, technical writing, editing science textbooks, hmm, crap, RPG stuff has been the worst paying of any writing I have done.

    I love your points about the various e-readers out now. The concept of “intellectual property” is truly going to have to evolve in the internet/electronics age. Artists (as in writers, musicians, and artists) do actually need to eat once in a while.

    I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts here in the future.

  15. Dan Martin says:

    As someone who works in Game Design in the digital industry, I find this extremely interesting because the jobs can be so similar in many ways – managing mechanics, painting worlds with languages – but differ so fundamentally.

    I hesitated to write this because I’ve liked your work, and honestly, I as someone that got started as a player in pencil-and-paper games, I have great respect for the design work that’s happened over the last decade or so on the D20 explosion.

    But all of that said, I think the business model of D20 and 3.0 and 3.5 and 4.0 and whatever madness comes after has done a lot to swing the pencil-and-paper design industry into a certain, inward-spiraling direction. Don’t get me wrong, it makes business sense, and honestly this isn’t one of those psudo-indie “D&D is for bad gamesr” rants. I love it, in spite of its flaws.

    But the primary business model of RPG publishing has become an inward race between the costs a publisher can avoid in not needing to work up a new world or system and the diminishing returns as customers stop buying the new dozen “supplements” to a system over time. It leaves players feeling stymied not by the thousands of pages of rulebooks they own, but by systems that quickly begin to feel stagnant and dogmatic, fully explored by the legions of writers and volumes of “official content.”

    It loses players, not just from systems, but from this industry in general. Creative minds turn elsewhere because in all honesty, the tabletop environment will never do “fully modeled worlds” as well as a digital medium. Tabletop is the realm of instant and infinite customization, improvisation, and story – not dogmatic adherence to the location of each character in a pre-existing world. When you sell off a system’s emphasis on being able to “own” the story, place, and challenges, you sell off what kept people coming to the table.

  16. frothsof says:

    ive played music for like 20+ years in bands and what is happening to books already has happened to music. at the end of the day, you realistically only would write (or attempt to write) for a rpg for the sheer joy and fun of it. same as music. theres like no chance you will make a living at it and to do so would require insane amounts of luck and work. the only ones that can make a living at it are the insanely talented or insanely lucky or both. like robert schwalb

  17. Bombasticus says:

    Nothing changes but the shape of the dice.

  18. scottsz says:

    Thanks for posting this.

    @Bombasticus: That link is an incredible piece. Thanks.

  19. Jaap de Goede says:

    Yes, all the world is changing. And you’re (most likely) spot on. But it also sounds we’re not ready to give up.

    Three possible scenarios:

    #1: readers & players are so overfed with good stuff and other stuff that the new good stuff becomes mostly free stuff – that’s a bit what’s happening already (with software too, but also in the OSR for example). Possibly, it’s sponsored by advertising, possibly it’s just churned out by people with another day job.

    #2: we figure out a way to restructure how we are paid – and pdfs become the main sales, but the writers and artists get a bigger share as independents (as in the long tail working on DriveThru). Only possible if the market grows dramatically, probably. So let’s tell all those WoW ers out there what table top role playing is!

    #3: real estate prices drop dramatically, we redo the entire financial system, and figure out that there is actually too little useful work to do because our capitalist system has made us so very efficient already.
    So, we all go fishing and playing and have much less need for money than we do now.
    Have a google for robotic nation to see what I mean.
    And if you don’t get it, I’ll make a RPG game out of it… might sell for a cent a word.

    Cheers, and keep the good spirits

  20. Bombasticus says:

    Well, you pointed me here so we’re even! Some day when I’m not chasing the mad non-gaming cash let’s talk in depth. Thanks, RJS for reminding me of Sam’s old piece. And by the way, jkiley, I see you!

  21. Alphastream says:

    Ok, I’m getting a bit sad and depressed. Can we talk about puppies? Not the ones that die in kennels, forgotten… aw, I’m sad again.

  22. John Reyst says:

    What I’d like to know is, without being specific, what kinds of BALLPARK yearly salaries do established names make? Let’s say someone LIKE a Sean K. Reynolds, or a Jason Bulmahn, or a Monte Cook, or a Mike Mearls, or even a Louis Porter Jr. or an Owen Stephens. Again, not asking specific people exactly what they make, but what kinds of numbers would aspiring writers be shooting for? If someone said “Kid, one day when you grow up, you could get a serious job writing for a Paizo, or Wizards of the Coast, making $50k/yr.” (or, insert $30k, or 70k, or 100k?) I mean are we talking high-end is $50k? Or could a good writer at a large company pull down over $100k?

  23. James Lewis says:

    Rob, even in the dousing with napalm your prose makes the read itself seem merely a lovely and fun, entertaining rollick…right into the proverbial slaughterhouse. Of napalm, of course.
    And *that* sir, is only one of *many* reasons why we (speaking for the masses – you’re welcome, masses) need you working. Just, not into the ground.
    As for the aforementioned napalm, well, there’s surely nothing wrong with a strong shot of reality on a regular basis, ‘much of a beast as it may be to choke down! So then – thanks for yet another entertaining and insightful read, rendered in that irreplaceable Schwalbian style.

  24. T.S. says:

    It never ceases to amuse me that I get paid the same rate per word to write now, that R.E. Howard was paid in his day to write Conan.

    And by “amuse” I mean “make me cry into alcohol”.

  25. chris says:

    T.S., if you really want to get weepy, at 2 cents, you get paid 1/8 the same rate per word adjusted for inflation now that H.P. Lovecraft starved to death earning in his day. At that rate, Howard topped out earning the equivalent of $98,000 in 1935 and was dead six months later.

  26. ManMadeMan says:

    Luckily for me I have no aspirations to become a game designer; I like my stuff spoon feed to me. They should get paid more for their work though. Well, a toast for living in the moment!

    btw- I’d put Heinsoo and Collins before Mearls. And Mearls is talented too. Not a fan of Monte Cook.

  27. mr0bunghole says:

    After seeing a crying baby in the audience, I would have felt the same way.

  28. Troy Taylor says:

    Robert, you’re not bursting bubbles. You’re being frank and honest. The fact is there are very few careers in writing / editing in any field of publishing that aren’t seeing this downward spiral in pay or opportunity. It needs to be said.

    When I was contributing to Dragon during Paizo’s run, I tried very hard not to see it as freelance work. Rather, I felt more like a hobbyist making a contribution to an activity that I enjoy. But making a living at it? That would be brutal.

  29. chris says:

    More on Howard. He earned $6,000 in 1935 in an industry where premium rates peaked out at 1.5 cents a word. Weird Tales paid 1 cent and was considered high; figure he averaged a cent a word across all markets and he probably sold around 600,000 words.

    Now in 1935 a penny went 16 times as far as it does today. (http://www.bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator.htm) If the reincarnation of Howard decided to work in gaming at the rate I was making 15 years ago (3 cents), his 600,000-word output would gross $18,000. That’s peak, desperate output. And as Mr Schwalb notes, it’s also making the enormous and unrealistic assumption that the “industry” can find enough pages for you to scribble those 600,000 words across.

  30. Tourq says:

    Soooo, what you’re saying is – there’s still a chance…

  31. Owen Stephens says:

    John Ryest: There are two or more totally different sets numbers about what is “starting” full-time pay, and what is “upper end” full-time pay for a tabletop RPG writer — and neither is ever going to be very accurate. One is for freelancer/small company writers, and the other is for major company writers 9which at this point may be limited to Paizo and WotC).

    As a neophyte if you successfully manage full-time small company/freelance work, you’re likely looking at the poverty level for a household of one — $12k give-or-take. It is very hard to say what the upper limit for that is, and there will be outliers. I will say for “an Owen Stephens” you’re looking at an average pretty close to $25k/year. That average is, however, wildly useless for planning purposes. People I know at my current rate (which hasn’t gone up in the past few years), have made as little as $15k, and as much as $42k. And as the company I am lead developer and part owner for (Super Genius Games) continues to grow, and other freelance continues to shrink, I may find myself wildly outside what I consider average for people at my level.

    For a major company, you aren’t likely to start for less than $27k, and I’d consider $31k more typical. Getting to $50 over the course of a career is certainly possible. Exceeding $60k while remaining an rpg game designer is unlikely, though your career may well lead to different places, different games, or different jobs that do reach higher.

    All of this is the wildest of estimation, so take it all with two grains of salt and a suspicious look.

  32. Bombasticus says:

    Starting to see some drift about in-house salaries — working “at” a company — as opposed to per-word freelance. Apparently many people still dream of freelance as a route to staff. At least in my day, staff was where the livable wages, relatively long careers and marquee names were clustered. For all I know this has probably been covered ad infinitum on the industry boards!

  33. Jeff Preson says:

    Quoted for truth. Got my mind churning and I followed up with a bit of my own. http://team-preston.tumblr.com/post/6824809705/freelancing-life Thanks Robert!

  34. Jonathan Drain says:

    Mike Mearls was actually saying something like this as far back as five years ago.

    “There is one good reason to freelance: you get to work on games that other people own. If you really like Vampire, HERO, D&D, or whatever, freelancing is like the ultimate fan experience. Not only do you get to play the game, you get to tinker around with everyone’s campaign. It’s cool to turn a hobby into something pays money, and even cooler to help shape the game you love.

    But, aside from that benefit, there’s really no reason to freelance. There’s not much work out there. The work out there pays poorly. Compared to commercial freelance writing, it’s hideous.”

  35. Tyb says:

    I really hate rants like this about freelancing. Not because it’s doom and gloom. Chances are, he’s right. But it’s the approach so many freelancers try and do, work in one field or industry, that does them in.

    You want to be a writer, don’t limit yourself to just writing fantasy. There is a world of writing freelance out there that has nothing to do with fantasy. I’m a freelance illustrator. But before that I worked for years as a print production artists. Talk about a field that got hit more by it’s own people. All my kind of work was sent over to India, because it’s WAY cheaper.

    But you know, there are still people and companies that need a production artists from time to time. And since I’m awesome at what I do, I get those temp jobs. Between two companies who I probably put in about 7 months of work a year at, I make really decent money.

    The rest I make up freelancing illustrations. Each year, the amount of clients and work I get freelancing and the amount I make grows. There is no one type of client I have. I’ve worked for gaming companies, Marvel, MIT, McGraw Hill, Catchword, InsideCouncil and many more. What I do for Marvel isn’t anything like what I do for say, MIT or InsideCouncil.

    The point is, as a freelancer, I don’t put all my eggs in one basket, and hope for the best. And trying to get only one kind of work, is a mistake I see many Freelancers make over and over, till they get frustrated and take a job that isn’t quite what they wanted out of life.

    If you want to be a freelancer, read “My So Called Freelance Life” by Michelle Goodman. She’s a writer, but her advice is for anyone not wanting to punch a clock at some office for a company other them themselves.

  36. Malcolm Sheppard says:

    Pretty much 90% of people with an opinion about freelancing in the RPG industry don’t know what they’re talking about. Worse, they don’t *want* to know what they’re talking about, because they want to feel like Real Pros for getting a penny a word, or have a chip on their shoulder about because they think writers are secret laughing at them or giving handjobs to some form of the Man or something.

    Anyway, I lived full time on writing for a number of years. It’s okay. If there’s any real secret, it’s that RPG writing is not much different than other types of writing in terms of compensation, but that the credits have less prestige unless you frame them carefully. In bleating about the rates, people use rates for short form journalism and such to make specious comparisons. The unpleasant realities of RPG freelancing are pretty much the same as general genre fiction — and the rates are about the same, too. But I think if gaming defined semipro and amateur rates, lots of people who prize being Real Designers and Freelancers would freak out at being demoted.

    When I reacted to your post on Twitter, I said what I’ll repeat now: It’s like expecting to make a living writing mysteries that have crimefighting cats in them. Yes, it’s been done, but it’s a bit of a narrow field to base a bunch of careers on.

    In the end of course, this speaks to limited vision in the industry, where we stick with the doggedly doctrinaire and deprive the field of real diversity, largely to serve a shrinking fanbase that is actively hostile to anything that might make RPGs something more than a cul de sac where people can pretend to expert technical knowledge. Then again, this is a fair diss of the market for books these days, anyway, since it’s shrinking and conservative, too.

    In any event, it was never realistic for more than a few people to make a living doing something so narrow — but it gets better when you start to think of yourself as a”writer,” not a “game freelancer.”

  37. Critical Hit « NeoGrognard says:

    [...] in the summer of 2011. There are exciting games on the horizon. I felt that I should this after the tremendous kick in then nuts delivered by Rob Schwalb earlier this week. That guy is an asshole, right? Telling the truth like that. I wanted to [...]

  38. 5 Stone Games says:

    Saw this linked on Akratic Wizardry. Very good article.

    In fairness its not just gaming in all only 10% of the population of the US is doing well and only 1% are flourishing, everyone else is at best holding on.

    As it happens I have been buying cheap ($1 Bookstore baby) paperbacks and hardbacks by the truckload, not for resale but so as I can have some to read when they stop printing book in a few years. As I am simply not going to buy E Books in any significant number I had might as well stock up and enjoy. I already have several years supply to enjoy and pass down if I ever have kids.

    In truth for all of us unless we make things suitable for new economy I am not sure the economy itself will make it. We are s close to critical implosions and a global Arab Spring now.

    Also in a few years if tech keeps improving we will see convergence on a scale never seen before, robot factory make goods shipped by robot truck unloaded by machines to stores with self check out leaves perilous few jobs for people. Of course if somehow you can make robots be your customers you’ll be fine but otherwise, no people, no profits ,,,

    And no assuming we’ll create jobs somehow is fairly absurd, the last industrial revolution still created tons of low skilled jobs and we still ended up forcing work sharing and pushing people out of the workforce.

    The same tech that enables E-Books and kills bookstores also gets rid of employees and without employees there are no customers

    Best case scenario, a global Japan style shrinkage which is not good at all.Unstable nations or ones like the US with deep rooted issues will have it worse.

    Of course we may get lucky and I’ll turn out to be a hysterical Luddite. Thats OK too. I’ll still have my books.

  39. Ravenous Role Playing » Blog Archive » Friday Five: 2011-06-24 says:

    [...] Crapping on your Dream: Freelancing 101 [...]

  40. Jerry (@DreadGazeebo) says:

    This blog post was one of the best birthday presents I got this year! Thanks Rob!

  41. Haste – Episode 6: Beyond The Stat Block, Freelancing 101, The Death of Fourthcore « Words in the Dark says:

    [...] others) basically laid out his personal experiences in the freelancing industry entitled “Crapping On Your Dream: Freelancing 101” with a very sobering stance on what it’s like from the inside. We discuss in [...]

  42. Roleplaying Game News from Around the Net: 8-JUL-2011 | Game Knight Reviews says:

    [...] a few weeks ago Robert J. Schwalb at his blog tries to dissuade you from trying your hand at freelancing. It’s hard. It doesn’t pay well. And there aren’t that many places left accepting [...]

  43. Now an “Ennie Nominated” Game Designer! | Soliloquy says:

    [...] not going to let it stop me from doing something I love so much. Robert Schwalb and all his blatantly truth ridden insight be damned I’m going to keep on doing this because it’s what’s in my blood. It [...]

  44. Our Business of Art | The 20' by 20' Room says:

    [...] after reading Robert J. Schwalb’s Crapping on your Dream and having some discussions with Keith Baker, I am surprised that anybody makes a living from the [...]

  45. Mark says:

    I’d enjoy seeing a follow-up post that discusses why companies can’t start paying people better. And then maybe an article discussing what freelancers can do to address the crappy rates – band together, demand better pay or stop the flow of stuff to the greedy companies? Who knows? :(

  46. rpgjames says:

    Nooooo……not “Occupy GenCon,” please…..

  47. rpgjames says:

    I did actually find myself wondering though, even as recently as last night, if the fact that, say, “the world’s most popular rpg” is owned by a publicly-traded corporation, might be the “sticking point,” as it were, to many of the obstacles, challenges, and over all pains in the collective ass experienced by the genuinely AWESOME individual PERSONS who actually do the work of the aforementioned rpg.

    While I’m not of the same political bent of the Ben & Jerry of ice cream fame (as I know so many in the gaming industry are, but it’s irrelevant), I just saw a Biography special a few nights ago, wherein if memory serves, the fact that they opted to become a publicly-traded company, ultimately led to serious concerns that they might be literally forced away from their social concerns. They did ultimately lose ownership of the company which bears their very names, albeit with certain legal agreements that their previously established non-profits would see regular contributions, etc.
    But the overarching theme here is that this occurred essentially as the result of not retaining private ownership, and instead subjecting themselves to the regulatory, legal, and fiscal demands of being publicly traded.
    Which as a generally right-leaning person (so of course I eat the elderly – after I’ve stolen their cat food), I’m sorry to have to share with my bestie-lefties (’cause I really *do* like you!) seems actually an argument for individual rights over group rights.
    And in my opinion, a rather astute one at that.
    I will also stress that this is VERY much NOT a political statement! That right/left crap at the end came up as an afterthought, so I simply mentioned it – as I personally believe in an otherwise intelligent, thinking person’s ability and willingness to consider an idea on its own merits. ‘Tis all.
    I’m also no business expert, or much of any other type of expert, as such. So if you’d like to crush my theory with your own professional knowledge, I’m happy to entertain even, just, *reasonably* courteous “counterpoints.”

  48. Alphastream says:

    I believe the issue is really around the overall market. Not enough gamers buy gaming stuff from an RPG company for it to pay really well. If a sourcebook came out and every player and DM bought it, the money would be sky high and could be shared. Instead, the average RPG company is taking out a loan to make a sourcebook, unsure of whether it will be profitable, and really not willing to pay a freelancer more.

    Wizards seems to pay better, in part because they have a better way to spread costs, an actual operating budget based on more than borrowing for the next product, and perhaps even some profit. It’s a brutal industry! If anyone knows otherwise, I would dig hearing so.

    Also, Matt, you should totally stop stealing elderly people’s cat food.

  49. work from home business ideas says:

    What?s Taking place i am new to this, I stumbled upon this I have discovered It absolutely helpful and it has aided me out loads. I’m hoping to give a contribution & help different users like its helped me. Great job.

  50. Ego Check: Scott Fitzgerald Gray, Freelance Editior and Designer for Wizards of the Coast | The Id DM says:

    [...] pitch window; inhumanly prolific designer Rob Schwalb wrote a great blog post last summer taking a solemn look at the realities of RPG freelancing. Rob’s piece isn’t for the faint of heart, but I think it’s good for aspiring [...]

  51. Talking D&D: Game Design is a Bitch | Joe's Ranting Place says:

    [...] but the with business world as well. Making a buck is so difficult if we were to pay heed to Robert J. Schwalb’s words. It makes the need to make something new and interesting rather pointless, doesn’t it? But [...]

  52. The Fun of Freelance Writing - badaftertaste says:

    […] did a project for a gaming company (there are many posts about the wonders of freelancing for a gaming company) and did a weird thing where I gave them what they wanted, on time, and written well. So […]

  53. Eric says:

    It sounds like somebody hit their mid life crisis. Would you rather have had an empty job in a cubicle with cash for cold comfort? I assure you the TV lies – cash is no comfort. It IS better to be a happy man in a box than a sad one in a mansion. The irony is in the course of this article you actually came up with a semi decent money making idea. Except remember that a lot of books went out of print for a reason.

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