Publisher Advice: Freelance RPG Writer Pay Rates — Can I Pay More, and Will You Pay More?

There’s been quite a lot of talk recently about freelance game designer pay rates. The subject of who pays what and what is an “ethical” amount of money to pay for someone’s creative talents has received some lively debate in recent days. I thought I’d take a minute to explore the subject in more depth here on my blog.

Raging Swan Press


Before we dive into the subject, we need to set some assumptions:

  • Very few people become freelance game designers to make decent money or to earn a living full-time. For me, I do it because I love sharing my “creative genius” and I get a real kick out of knowing people all over the world are enjoying my products and (hopefully) they are making their games better and more fun.
  • 3PP is fun and incredibly rewarding, but profit margins are low.
  • Sales figures are generally low – even when you have a hit on your hands. Given that, if you want to stay in business, you need to control your costs.
  • My experience is wholly as a 3PP of Pathfinder Roleplaying Game compatible products; for other games the situation might be completely different.

So with that in mind, here are some rough sales, costs and profit numbers for a recent release. These are farily typical for the kind of PDF products we release at Raging Swan Press.

Village Backdrop: X

A Village Backdrop comprises 3,500 words and one half-page original map. This comprises roughly five pages of actual content, and the PDF is nine pages long including cover, credits, legal text and so on.

  • Price: $2.45
  • Publisher’s Cut: $1.71 (roughly 70% depending on the sales channel)

Base Costs

  • Art: $40
  • Design: $35
  • Total Cost: $75 (not including layout, editing, cover design, marketing and so on)
  • Breakeven Point: 44 copies (this is the point where I don’t lose money on the product, in theory!)

But surely, that’s a doddle?! 44 copies is nothing.

Not so. It’s generally assumed that if you sell 200 copies of something you’ve got a hit on your hands. A sales figure of 100 is more reasonable. Keep in mind, I’ve been doing this for five years now and have built a relatively successful brand; if you are just starting out your sales figures will likely be lower.

So assuming sales of 100 copies, I can realistically expect to make $96 ($171 – $75) per book before I take into account all my other business expenses (layout, editing, cover design, marketing and so on). If I pay my freelancers more (which they deserve without doubt) I inevitably have to raise prices or just magically hope more people decide to buy our products.

Let’s look at some scenarios:

3 Cents/Word

  • Art: $40
  • Design: $105 (3 cents/word)
  • Total Cost: $145 (not including layout, editing, cover design, marketing and so on)
  • Breakeven Point @ $2.45/unit: 85 copies
  • Profit @ 100 Copies Sold (sale price $2.45/$1.71 profit per unit): $25.65
  • Profit @ 100 Copies Sold (sale price $3.45/$2.41 profit per unit): $96.50

5 Cents/Word

  • Art: $40
  • Design: $175 (5 cents/word)
  • Total Cost: $205 (not including layout, editing, cover design, marketing and so on)
  • Breakeven Point @ $2.45/unit: 120 copies
  • Profit @ 100 Copies Sold (sale price $2.45/$1.71 profit per unit): $-34
  • Profit @ 100 Copies Sold (sale price $3.45/$2.41 profit per unit): $36
  • Profit @ 100 Copies Sold (sale price $4.45/$3.11 profit per unit): $106

7 Cents/Word

But wait! Surely if you employ better known, more skilled designers like Erik Mona, Jason Bulmahn or Stephen Radney-Macfarland your sales will go up?! That very may well be the case, but will they go up enough? A big name designer won’t work for less than 7 cents/word. Now my costs are this:

  • Art: $40
  • Design: $245 (7 cents/word)
  • Total Cost: $285 (not including layout, editing, cover design, marketing and so on)
  • Breakeven Point @ $2.45/unit: 167 copies
  • Profit @100 Copies Sold (sale price $2.45/$1.71 profit per unit): -$114 (Note to achieve the same level of profit — $96 — as I am currently making I would have to sell 223 copies).
  • Profit @ 100 Copies Sold (sale price 4.45/$3.11 profit per unit): $26.5
  • Profit @ 100 Copies Sold (sale price $5.45/$3.82 profit per unit): $96.5

The Big Question

So the question is, how much are you prepared to pay for a 5-page PDF?

This is an honest question. I would love to pay my freelancers more. Currently, the economics of being a 3PP don’t support that practise. If you, my customers, are prepared to pay more for your Raging Swan Press PDFs I’ll gladly put up my prices and pay my freelancers more.

Let me know what you think, in the comments below.


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Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

21 thoughts on “Publisher Advice: Freelance RPG Writer Pay Rates — Can I Pay More, and Will You Pay More?”

  1. Hi Creighton,
    We are pretty much in the same boat in terms of sales figures and price per word. We work with much larger page counts typically (our last 2 broke 100 pages) and when people see a $10 price tag on it- we’ve gotten comments like “I’m not willing to pay the price of a soft-cover book for a PDF” and other things like that. Unfortunately, it is as you said- the profit margins are so small sometimes you don’t even break even. We pay writers and editors separately and we do work in-house on % royalties while our in-house artists are % royalties + a small upfront commission. I do all the formatting for us and for a very small cut of the profit (I’ve worked 30+ hours on some of our larger books) so a lot of times- if I were to charge myself for my services, I would be far in the red. While we tend to make a small profit margin, we do make a bit more on Kickstarters (I got to take home 1k from one last year, but I had to work basically several hundred hours to get that).

  2. I read the thread, and came away with the same thoughts I had going in. I also had a much longer post prepared, but decided to delete it and focus on the question at hand.

    I like Raging Swan’s releases. I’m probably willing to pay more (like the numbers you have at 3 cents/word). But I think a better option would be to offer your authors the base rate plus royalties of the first X months of sales (2? 3?). That might strike a decent balance between managing your up-front costs and rewarding authors who provide you better work or “bring a market with them.” Mainly, do what makes the most sense for your company. If you’ll get more overall profit at 0.03/word, go for it.

    But if you have a good model, why mess with it? If paying more gets better content (translating to more sales or less work on your part in layout), then by all means pay it.

    You provide a great product at a good price. I’d keep following that plan.

    1. I hate to say it, Doug, but most people are not sold on a release by the content. Most are sold by the artwork. For a little over a week at, I have been putting up what would otherwise be previews of recent releases, had I done it beforehand (but I was busy, but that is another story). I’ve posted new spells, new spell words and a new archetype. And I saw a modest bump in daily traffic. However, I also shared two maps from a recent adventure and tengu artwork. Those days have double-triple the hits. People come for the artwork.

      Even Paizo knows this. Someone at Paizo once quipped that people “come for the artwork and stay for the content.” So better content does not always translate to better sales. Maybe if a big name someone like Jacobs or Mona or SKR wrote the content, that may translate to bigger sales, but it is not a guarantee. My company sells a short story written by Ed Greenwood. The story is great, but its sales are downright terrible.

      1. I understand, Dale. I like cool artwork, too. But Raging Swan’s releases are relatively art-free. In this instance, I come for the content. I would imagine that most of Raging Swan’s audience don’t come for the art.

        Now, I also don’t play Pathfinder, substituting an original-game-clone instead, so my views may be colored a bit by the fact I find Pathfinder particularly difficult to GM.

        Mainly, I found that people demanding a “living wage” ignore the fact that every successful release has to cover the cost of all the releases that didn’t make back their investment.

        Heck, Gary Gygax had a shoe repair business going while he was trying to earn a living as a game designer. Later I believe he said there wouldn’t be more than a handful of people who could earn their livings soley as game designers. Plus, it’s always easier for someone with no knowledge of a thing to make pronouncements about that thing (e.g.: Freelancers should be paid a “living wage” because I wish it were so, instead of understanding the economics of the game design and publishing industry).

        But yes, flash does grab the attention, no doubt about it.

  3. Really great break-down Creighton. This is really important to see. I think a lot of gamers assume that if they know about something, it means the authors or publishers are making lots of money on it.

    I don’t know what the solution is. I buy a lot of PDFs online. More than I ever use, and I certainly look for a bargain. Maybe I should buy fewer and pay more, but that would mean fewer 5-page books. Maybe subscription? Maybe anthologies with one big name designer and a bunch of tag-along designers (like the SF books that have Asimov & Clarke on the cover and the other stories with less well-known authors)?

    As an artist who dabbles in rpg art as a hobby, I don’t see rpg design as a viable career for most content creators. I think even publishers are struggling to make ends meet, and probably make less than another career would pay. I really appreciate your excellent behind-the-scenes articles.

    1. The idea of a subscription service keeps coming up. This is the third time I’ve read about it today. I’m definitely going to have to think about this some more.

      I’m glad you found the post enjoyable/useful. Writing it certainly made me think about pay rates, sale price and more.

  4. Creighton,

    I think this is an important blog post! Most consumers of RPG products have little to no idea what the costs involved are like. At Mischief, Inc. we have the added cost of printing, which you may know is often the single biggest expense for an RPG product. I decided that we needed a physical presence in gaming stores to really help spread the word about our company and products, but the profit margin on physical books is even smaller than PDFs by a significant margin.

    I get customers all the time coming to our forums, or emailing our company information e-mail address asking why we don’t release products more frequently. The simple answer is, “we don’t make nearly enough from a release right now to fund the next one, so we rely on capital contributions from within the company to make up the difference. The result is a slow release schedule (agonizingly slow if you ask me) and the fact that after a year and a half we are still operating deeply in the red.

    I started my company for what sounds like much the same reasons you started Raging Swan Press. I love what I am doing. But even though me and my partner do all the writing (and roll ALL sales back into the company) and I do all of the layout, the expense of the art, maps and printing easily put us deeply in the red on each project. Our only hope to keep doing this professionally is for Mischief, Inc. to “catch on” as a publisher of quality RPG adventures and that has yet happen. We either need to sell several hundred copies of each product, or I need to switch us to a publishing model that does not include print copies, uses less art, and I need to get a lot better at the mapping programs I currently own.

    The weird problem with that second option is that when I take on even more of the production cycle, it will still slow down our production rate as I will not be able to write as much. Sometimes the seeming impossibility of it all can be frustrating. I don’t want to make much money if anything, just for the business to pay for itself. That would make me incredibly happy and content. I’d even take on the cost personally to start attending gaming conventions in that case.

    Well I’ve rambled a bit more than usual here. I’ll leave it at that, and I think I’ll provide a link to this blog post from our Facebook page, and I’ll tweet a link too. More RPG consumers need to understand the math presented here. Thank you!

  5. I know when I started writing freelance, Will McCardell’s first words to me were “Just remember when you’re accepting projects, it’s just going to be beer money, and that’s assuming people like it”. So I’ve done what I’ve done with that in mind. Obviously, I wish it could be different. If publishers could afford to pay me more, I’d be able to write more, and I’d be able to finish projects faster and move on to new ones more quickly. But I took the time to look at what it costs to be a 3pp publisher and I know that those profit margins are razor thin. That’s a big part of why I decided I’d just work freelance instead of publishing my projects myself.

    I’m not personally sure what it would take to change the current dynamics. Part of it would need to be a shift in the community; there’s a lot of 3pp stuff out there that’s simply amazing, but gets dismissed out of hand because there’s still a lingering stigma from days when 3pp product quality was less closely reviewed. Every table that doesn’t allow 3pp is a table that has removed itself from the market, and that’s unfortunate. We’ve got really awesome reviewers out there like Thilo at who are helping to keep freelancers and publishers alike accountable for the quality of their work, so hopefully if we can keep them supported in the work they do, that’ll help grow the audience for what we do. I’d also encourage any player who’s interested in some cool 3pp materials but currently playing at a table that doesn’t allow them to remind their GM that Paizo was once a 3pp company themselves, and some of their materials back in the 3.5 days were amongst the coolest and best balanced available!

    Basically, I’d love to be part of a world where I could make more writing, but I know that that means the publisher has to make more. I think that really boils down to a few points:

    1) We, as a community, need to grow the market. That means pimping each other’s products, challenging negative preconceptions about the quality and balance of 3pp work, and supporting reviewers like Endzeitgeist who keep us honest and challenge us to keep being better than we are.

    2) We need to develop a pool of skilled individuals who understand the 3pp marketplace. Layout and art tend to eat a lot of a project’s budget, and sometimes new artists are given bad expectations of what 3pp publishers can and should be paying them. If we can bring in more of these talented individuals and set the expectation that 3pp is a gateway economy that will help get their names out there, we can both grow the community and create an environment where profits can be distributed more equitably.

    3) As consumers, we in the community need to remember to support the companies that make the stuff we love. d20pfsrd is great, but if you play with Dreamscarred Press’ Vitalist class and you think it’s the coolest thing since sliced bread, go buy it! A lot of company’s pay their writers based on the sales generated by their products and the best way to ensure those writers get to come back and write more great stuff is to make sure that they’re getting compensated. Currently, my checks for things I’ve written net me just barely enough to pay for the apology dinners I treat my fiancee’ to after a week (or month…) of her barely seeing me as I hammer stuff out during my free hours after work.

    4) Review everything! I mentioned how we need to work on removing that 3pp stigma and growing the community, and there’s no better way to do that than by reviewing the stuff that we like ourselves! I’ve never worked with Alluria Press, but I think Cerulean Seas is so awesome I tell people about it every chance I get. Whenever someone talks about running an Eberron campaign, I tell them how awesome In the Company of Ironborn is for providing a flexible and balanced alternative to the 3.5 warforged.

    Anyways, that’s my take on things 🙂

    1. “We, as a community, need to grow the market. That means pimping each other’s products, challenging negative preconceptions about the quality and balance of 3pp work, and supporting reviewers like Endzeitgeist who keep us honest and challenge us to keep being better than we are.”

      That’s one reason I link to Creighton from our Facebook page and do the same for other competitors. When I started Mischief, Inc. I reached out to dozens of OSR publishers many of whom responded positively. We do OSR because the community is great! We will continue to do so as long as the community remains great.

  6. As someone who has done work for RSP in the past I can say that I was not disappointed by what I was getting paid. Then again, I did my homework before submitting a sample when Creighton had an open call for writers. I also had a solid grasp of my own strengths and weaknesses as a writer. Honestly, I was very happy with the experience overall and as was mentioned in another comment; I did it for the “beer money”. I do empathize with the plight of the 3PP guys as many have a passion for what they are doing. There are costs and other freelancers to be paid if the main guy can not do the majority of the work.

    Please understand that I am not saying this because I did work with RSP on a few projects. Though I do have a question about freelancing that does concern pay. If, as the EN article goes into, a freelance should do it for pay; at what point do you determine that a current freelancer is worth paying more? From our side it is great to get the work, even better when it is steady, but rock bottom can only keep a person interested for so long.

    Again, I am not asking this because of my past work. So please take it with a modicum of salt.

    1. You ask a great question, Brian! How do you determine if a freelancer A is “worth” more freelancer B. It’s somewhat intangible I suppose, but turning over your work on time and on word budget is a great start. Quality of work goes without saying, but also making the turnover as clean as possible. By that I mean it’s got as few errors as possible. Basically, if a freelancer’s turnover saves me time, hassle and other expenses then you’ve got a great argument for better pay.

      1. That is pretty much what I was thinking; being able to go into print as fast as possible with the least resistance. Also, it’s not like I was thinking the bump would be huge anyway. I mean heck, the move from $.01 to $.02 for the same word count is still quite good in the long run. Afterall it is double the previous rate. Keep in touch and keep the great work coming.

  7. I’ll give you my metrics:

    My adventures sell for $4 of which I generally get $3. Over two years my most successful adventure has made me around $550, and though I generally only spend $100 on artwork in the case of Geryon I splashed out and spent $180.

    I aim to produce 20 pages of original writing in an adventure, which is about 20K words. I reckon each one takes me, all in all, about 100 hours to produce.

    So, roughly speaking, I got 4$ an hour for working on Geryon, or 2 cents a word if you like though that doesn’t take into account work in layout, constructing appendices, stat blocks, maps and so on, all of which I do myself.

    The Firemaker, which is my least successful adventure and has been out longer, has made a quarter of that, though I have to say it probably took about half the effort. Thilo, in his review on Endzeitgeist, said that he thought it was just about worth the money, which is why I upped my content from that point on.

    The encouraging thing for me is that my early adventures continue to sell at a steady rate even 2 years on, but I do not do this for the money – the money I’ve made has yet to pay for all the investment I made on map making software. In fact, when I have some extra cash, I’ll spend it on artwork because I love having someone illustrate my work.

    I cannot conceive of this as a business, but I think it is great as a hobby which pays for itself.


    1. Thanks for the metrics, Richard. I certainly agree that for most of us, it’s hobby that pays for itself–and possibly some beers. It is tremendously tricky to make a living at game design/publishing and probably really only possible if you are “a name.”

      My module sales seem to follow the same trajectory as yours–they sell way better after a couple of years than other types of supplements. This is heartening, but means I clearly need to write more modules!

  8. Thanks for the great article and thanks for sharing all the good stuff with the community. I think most do it for the love of gaming. A few lucky ones make enough to pay some bills. 🙂 Keep up the good work!

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