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.