I don’t think I’ve ever done this, so how about a long-overdue post on the crass subject of coin?
“Everybody thought I was crazy. A writer, you know—he’s just a sort of crackpot. My wife would get some of my love scenes and read them aloud to me, and just laugh and laugh… And then, by golly, one day here’s check.”
I’m currently working through the latest run of my Pulp Fiction Workshop, inspired by Doc Savage co-creator Lester Dent’s famous Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot, and as part of my ongoing research into the great pulp fiction tradition, I read the book, Bigger Than Life: The Creator of Doc Savage, a biography of Dent by Marilyn Cannaday. I was struck by this passage:
By any standard, Dent was a prolific writer. He claimed he could write, at full speed, 65,000 words a week—dictating much of the material into a Dictaphone. In the spring of 1935 he and a secretary turned out eight novel-length stories in seven weeks. In a newspaper interview he boasted that he had averaged 200,000 words a month for a two-year period and he had made $18,000 a year with his writing during the Great Depression.
And from the same book:
Dell was paying one cent a word, asking Dent to fill two magazines, and be brilliant! Wordage was no problem for Dent. The first month he made $1500.
WPA laborers in a rock quarry near Dent’s hometown received $1 a day for their work.
We’re all writers here, and many of us hope to do this, or keep doing this, for a living, so let’s break this down a little and see how, or even if, any of us can get not only onto Lester Dent’s plan for how to write a fun detective story, but his plan for how to make a decent living doing the same.
Let’s start with how much he was (or at least how much he claimed to be) actually writing.
Dent’s 65,000 words per week is 13,000 per five-day work week or about 9300 words per day if he wrote on weekends, too. I once wrote 10,000 words of a novel in a single day. I was in the zone. It was okay—needed a bunch of editing later. I’ve never managed to do that again. But that’s just me. Your mileage may vary, but I think we can all agree that over 9000 words per day, every day, without pause, is at least… really very super difficult.
If he did write 65,000 words per week, that’s 3,380,000 words per year or over 281,000 words per month, but the other figure he threw out was “200,000 words a month for a two-year period.” That’s still 2.4 million words a year, but let’s go with that figure from now on.
If Lester Dent really did make $18,000 in that year it means he was paid, on average, $0.0075 per word for his 200,000 words per month, pretty close to that 1¢ per word rate mentioned above. Dent’s $18,000 in 1935 equals about $297,000 in 2016 dollars, so he was doing pretty well for himself, regardless. Still, to make $297,000 selling short stories and novellas to magazines now, you’d need to see a bit more than 12¢ per word for your own 200,000 words per month.
I couldn’t find a science fiction, fantasy, or horror magazine that pays that much. And it’s important to note, too, that in 1935 there were more than twenty-five pulp fiction magazines being published. You might find it a challenge to find that many paying outlets for short fiction, let alone markets that pay that requisite 12¢ per word.
Analog and Asimov’s remain the highest paying markets for science fiction short stories at 8-10¢ per word, so if you’re looking to make Lester Dent’s $297,000 you better get busy, and hope that all of your stories are accepted. If paid at the average rate of 9¢ per word, you’ll need to have a total of 3.3 million words written, polished, and accepted by one or the other of those two magazines every year. I have a feeling if you added up all of the words both those magazines publish in a year it doesn’t come to 3.3 million.
I should note here that Lester Dent did, in fact, write all of the fiction in every issue of Doc Savage at the time—so he had a whole magazine to himself. If any magazine publisher is doing that now, I haven’t heard of it.
So, yeah. You’re not going to be making $297,000 this year, or any year, on short stories alone.
Now, if you really could write 2.4 million words a year (I have a difficult time believing anyone can actually accomplish that and have anything a value to show for it, but I guess it’s possible) then let’s say you’re forgoing the short stories and splitting that 2.4 million words into 24 novels of 100,000 words each, or just about one 100,000-word novel every two weeks (yeah… that isn’t possible!), you’d need to see a $12,375 advance or immediate indie sales equaling $12,375 on each of those twenty-four novels, to make the same money, working just as hard, as Lester Dent made 83 years ago.
So, what does this tell us? For all his braggadocio, Mr. Dent was working awfully hard for the money, and might have been better off writing fewer, better words, getting to that same $18,000 in 1935 dollars without having to polish off the equivalent of a long novel every two weeks.
So then, is that our target? $297,000 per year? That’s a tidy sum. Very few Americans hit that in a year. And the fact remains that with one solid-selling novel (not twenty-four) you can do that. It might also be conceivable with several brisk-selling indie titles, maybe—minus your significant investment to get them up there with the appropriate quality in editing, cover art and design, and marketing.
But it has to be said:
I don’t actually believe it’s possible to write 2.4 million words of publishable fiction in a year.
That’s an absurd number.
The gist of this?
Write short stories to exercise your storytelling muscles, experiment with different forms and genres, to get and keep your work out there in front of different niche audiences. Sometimes you might get a little money, sometimes none at all, and sometimes that “pro rate” of 6¢ per word or more.
But if you want to write fiction for a living, keep working on that novel!