Because I sometimes get obsessed with such things, I was thinking about my submission queue today and about how I pick markets to send stories to. You can read that thread on my twitter starting with this tweet:
This train of thought eventually led to the question of how a market pays. My policy on this is simple: I will always* submit a story to pro-paying markets before I try it on semi-pro markets, and I will almost never dip below semi-pro payment ($0.01/word minimum).
My reasoning is simple: I value and believe in my work. Not submitting to pro markets first is basically saying “yeah, this story is ok, I guess.” I don’t submit stories I think are just ok. If it’s just ok, it goes back to my writing group or other friends for further critique.
So what about if I run out of pro and semi-pro markets? Do I send to token and non-paying markets? Simple answer: no. If I can’t sell a story to the available pro or semi-pro markets, I’d rather sit on the story than send it to a non-paying market, and I won’t consider a token market unless it pays over a certain threshold.
Why? See above: I value my work. And writing is work. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
I’ll take the last few stories I’ve sent through workshop as examples: each of them is around 4000 words, and each one took me probably six hours to get to draft 1. Each of them has been through at least 4 drafts with my writing group and various other beta-readers, and each additional draft has taken me at least an hour to make revisions on, bringing my own investment of time up to at least ten hours and probably more like twelve or fourteen.
I have a day job that consumes a lot of my daily spoons, so when I make time for writing, which I try to do every day, that’s a Serious Investment for me. Likewise, if I take on freelance work, that’s an investment of time that I then can’t spend writing or with my family. I do not work for free. I do not give away time that I could spend with my family.
I know that writing short fiction alone isn’t going to pay my bills. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t pay anything. Short fiction writing doesn’t pay by the hour, it pays by the word. If I sold a 4000 word story at the minimum pro rate specified by SFWA, that would mean I’d made $240, which is pretty decent money. If I’ve put 16 hours of work into that story (and chances are good that by the time I’ve sold a story, I’ll have put in a lot more), that comes out to $15/hour, which is the local minimum wage.
With $240, I can take my wife out on a nice date and still have money left over to put into savings like a Responsible Adult. I can’t put “exposure” in the bank. I can’t pay for a nice meal with my byline.
Do I think it’s wrong that there are non-paying markets? No. I’ve even been published by a few during and immediately after college. (I will say, though, that those pieces were all written as class assignments.) Do I think I’ll never sell another story to a non-paying market? Probably not? There are some non-paying audio reprint markets out there that are great. But at that point, I’ll have already sold the story once for money, so.
*I can imagine a scenario in which there was an anthology or similar that was only paying in the semi-pro range before sending to a pro market if that semi-pro market was the perfect fit for a story.