A Penny Per Word

In today’s Journal

* Quotes of the Day
* A Penny Per Word
* A few notes on pulp writers
* Of Interest

Quotes of the Day

“I realize that I wrote it, but it’s hard to take credit for the writing because it came from out of the blue. It came through me,” Townes Van Zandt on writing the song “Pancho and Lefty”

“I read an essay by sci-fi author Robert Silverberg discussing his pseudonymous smut writing career back in the day. He was paid handsomely per finished novel, so he wrote one 50,000 word novel per week. He worked Monday through Friday and would put in a normal 9-5 day with a lunch break. His goal was 5,000 words before lunch, then another 5,000 words before quitting time. With 52 lucrative novels per year, he said he was able to buy an actual mansion.” Philip Easton in a comment on yesterday’s post

A Penny Per Word (Guest Post)

This is a guest post by Peggy Kurilla. Thanks, Peggy.

We live in a time when most people won’t bend over to pick up a penny, even for the benefit of the exercise, so when we hear that pulp writers earned a penny a word, we think that wasn’t much.

Recently (2019), the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association has recently (2019) raised the professional payment rate for short fiction to a whopping eight pennies per word.

Thanks to recency bias, we look at eight cents per word today and think of how little that actually is (earning $480 for a 6,000-word short story won’t even cover a month’s groceries in some parts of the USA, let alone the rent/mortgage or the car payment), and transpose that perception on the past so we think that pulp writers earning a penny a word were, well, broke. Maybe to the point of starving.

Unfortunately, recency bias obscures context, and context is king. Let’s have a little context, shall we?

Just for reference, the pulp era of science fiction ran from the 1920s to the early 1950s – anywhere from 70 to 100 years ago. Let’s use 1940 as a reference year, since it’s about the middle of the range, and see what a penny a word actually bought back then.


We’ll use 6,000 words as a reasonable length for a short story (Lester Dent referenced that length in his essay on his plot/writing method).

A pulp writer could expect payment of around $60 per short story (6,000 words x .01 per word). What would that have bought him?

A month’s worth of groceries cost $10 (see prices below; I multiplied the total for those items x 4.33 to get a baseline, and then nearly doubled that to be generous.)

Rent was $27 per month (median cost).

So, right there, one short story a month covered the basics of life (I didn’t include clothing and toiletries in this example, but add another $20 per month for those).

If our hypothetical author wanted to buy a house, the median value of a home was $30,000 with a 2.5% mortgage. Our author would have to save for a while to make the down payment, but it was still within reach.

Add a second short story sale per month, and our author would have a 20% down payment ($6,000) saved up in about 8 years. A third short story sale would cut that in half, of course, to 4 years and change.

A new car averaged $850, for which, with a second sale each month, our author could save up to pay cash in a little over a year, and gas was about $.18/gallon.

If our author started out writing as a hobby job and was living off the income from a typical job, of course thon would live much higher off the hog, so to speak.

To look at the big picture, selling a 6,000 word short story every week (52 stories a year) yielded our author a gross income of $3,120 per year.

With a base income tax rate of 4% on the first $4,000 of annual income (8% up to $6,000 per year), our author could save for a house, a car, and still have spending money left over, even after paying taxes.

For reference, $3,120 per year in 1940 equals $65,220 in 2022. We’ll come back to that, after we look at today’s professional rate.


Here’s what today’s “professional rate” of 8 cents per word will buy our hypothetical author (2022 pricing).

Our author would earn $480 for selling a 6,000-word short story in 2022.

The median rent in the United States for a 2-bedroom apartment is around $1,300, so our author would have to sell 3 short stories just to cover the rent.

A fourth story (i.e., another $480) might cover the groceries, but wouldn’t allow our author to save for a new car (average cost $49,000) or a home (average price $348,000) on any reasonable timescale.

In sum, selling a 6,000 word story every week earns our author $480/sale x 52 sales = $24,960. (Oddly, just about the exact poverty line for a family of three.)

If the 1940 rate had really kept up with inflation

A penny in 1940 would be worth $0.21 in 2022.

Our author’s $3,120 per year in 1940 would be $65,220 in 2022 —certainly a better than average income ($54,132).

A 6,000-word short story would sell for $1,260, which is closer to the lifestyle of the 1940 author, except selling two short stories a month would be mandatory, rather than the single sale our 1940 author needed.

Concluding Thoughts

It would be all to easy to look at these numbers and get depressed—and not just a little Monday morning blues depressed; I’m talking full-on black dog latched onto your arm and never letting go—but that’s not the point.

The point is to look at the numbers and ask yourself, “How can I reach the same standard of living as our 1940 author?” Assuming, of course, that your goal is to make a living from your writing.

If that’s not your goal, then I hope this little trip through pulp time has provided a moment’s amusement.

(Note: all prices found by typing “how much did X cost in 1940” or “average income/cost of X in 2022” into various search engines.)

* * *

To piggyback on Peggy’s very interesting article, here are

A few notes on pulp writers

Most successful pulp writers were writing far more than 6,000 words per week and were doing so under a slew of pen names. Erle Stanley Gardner (Perry Mason and a ton more) was known to write 10,000 words in a day. (He dictated. His secretary put it on paper.)

Of course, they were doing all that on manual typewriters. Any major errors required retyping the entire page.

For the pulp writers, time was money. If they could type 6000 words in a day, that might earn them $60. So they wrote clean copy, the best they could at their current skill level, then inserted a new sheet of paper and kept typing. Revising and rewriting would cost time, and it was time they weren’t being paid for.

Rewriting hadn’t even yet been invented. At all. The “need to rewrite,” a myth born of the pursuit and expectation of “perfection,” arose as mass-market paperback publishing arose in the 1950s. Once non-writers began to teach writing (the audacity!), revising and rewriting and hovering over one work were born.

Pulp writers looked at writing fiction as their day job. They wrote, mailed their submission, then wrote some more. Time was money. Pulp writers were paid to put words on the page. Nobody paid them to revise, seek critical input, rewrite and resubmit.

Pulp writing isn’t dead yet. If you ignore the myths and spend as much time as you can just telling stories on the screen, you are a pulp writer too. Worrying about quality will choke it out. Not worrying about it and allowing the characters to tell the story that they, not you, are living will allow the quality to shine through.

By the way, currently Brazilian author Ryoki Inoue holds the Guinness World Record for being the most prolific author, with 1,075 books published under many pseudonyms (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ryoki_Inoue).

Talk with you again soon.

Of Interest

See “The True Story Behind the Song ‘Pancho and Lefty’” at https://texashillcountry.com/true-story-behind-pancho-and-lefty/.

See “University lecturer fails entire class for using ChatGPT” at https://interestingengineering.com/culture/students-diplomas-accused-used-chatgpt. And so it begins. Story ideas abound. Is using generative AI to write or finish college exams different than using a calculator to finish a math exam? Would you want your plumber to have earned his certification via AI? What about your lawyer? What about your surgeon? What about your child’s surgeon?

The Numbers

The Journal…………………………………… 1340

Total fiction words for May……… 14404
Total fiction words for 2023………… 97868
Total nonfiction words for May… 18950
Total nonfiction words for the year…… 100640
Total words for the year (fiction and this blog)…… 198508

Calendar Year 2023 Novels to Date…………………… 2
Calendar Year 2023 Novellas to Date……………… 0
Calendar Year 2023 Short Stories to Date… 4
Novels (since Oct 19, 2014)…………………………………… 73
Novellas (since Nov 1, 2015)………………………………… 9
Short stories (since Apr 15, 2014)………………… 221
Short story collections……………………………………………… 31

Disclaimer: I am a prolific professional fiction writer. On this blog I teach Writing Into the Dark, adherence to Heinlein’s Rules, and that following the myths of fiction writing will slow your progress as a writer or stop you cold. I will never teach the myths on this blog.