Economic Question for Writers: Tracking time spent on projects and calculating your ROI per hour

Oo boy, I’m not an author but, having my WiP be a WiP for almost three years is something else. The time you put into it, I feel, greatly outweighs what you get. Now that’s only if you are doing it for money.

I have no illusions that this isn’t a way to earn a living at all, for someone in my position as a student and teenager. It’s more of a side job that in all reality, is built on more of a hobby than anything, unless you are a person who who writes novels/short stories/ etc. as a living

That being said they payout for me, seeing people enjoy what is write, is enough.

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You are a very focused person and will a clear goal in mind. I know you will achieve whatever you really want. You only have to trust more in yourself and keep working hard towards your goal. And Kick the ass of whoever doubt about it.

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So, everyone always reiterates how being a CoG author can’t make you a living, but let’s remember that almost no job can make someone a living if they’re only working at it like 10 hours a week. For the amount of work we put into these stories, they can potentially have quite decent profits.

For example, let’s say an author was an absolute machine and wrote their stories 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. Let’s say that would get them about 4k words per day and 20k words per week, which would equate to 100,40k per year. Let’s say this author is well-recieved, and they sell FOUR 250k word stories per year, each at $5, each one selling 15k copies per year.

That means in one year, that author could make $54,000 in their first year, and then that money would keep compounding as new books were released and old ones still earned residual royalties.

That is the one and only way we should reasonably expect to live off these novels. If, like me, you write 10 hours a week, then you shouldn’t say writing doesn’t pay much because it doesn’t compare to your job where you work upwards of 4x the amount of hours.

To put it another way…yes, your successful HG that you took, let’s say, 500 hours to write didn’t make as much as your full time job…but that’s because it took you a year (or 2 years, or whatever) to work those 500 hours, not 3 months (which is the same amount of total hours put in, but condensed to 40 hour work weeks). So it’s not that these stories can’t be lucrative, it’s that your expectations are unrealistic and skewed.

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Sam, that is exactly why I am attempting to analyze earnings on a per hour basis.

But I don’t think I, or anyone else who’s chimed thus far, knows our own hourly rates.

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I almost think a “wordly” rate might be a better indicator of how economical these stories are, as it’s pretty objective. Hourly rates are too erratic and they vary way too much between authors.

If an author writes at a slow pace, deletes work all the time, agonizes over editing, etc, and ends up taking 5x as long as another author to write 1k words…well, that’s kind of their deal. It’s still the same amount of content.

Like, for example, it just took me 3 hours to write 1k, but that’s because I’m at work, writing when I’m not supposed to. But since this writing session didn’t interfere with other plans, and was technically paid, does that mean, in effect, that I wrote for free, as far as hours are concerned? Like, it took 0 hours out of my day to write that 1k words?

I do this regularly, too, to the point where I probably write at least 3k words a week just at work, because I just work at a theater and have a disregard for rules. :man_shrugging:

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I’ve been following this thread and I am curious about the data it brings up, but I wonder whether this information would have any practical applications? Looking at this through an HG specific lens, as CoG authors get an advance and so have a certain guaranteed amount–you don’t know how much an HG project is going to get until it’s already gotten it. How much each author is paid per hour of work isn’t just about how fast/efficiently the game writer is writing, but also about whatever forces of the universe influence sales

And, kind of worth noting–I suppose “building an audience” would fall under “marketing/social media,” but I think your other writing projects are also part of the final product. CCH2’s earnings are absolutely impacted by the time you spent on CCH1, and the same will be true about CCH3–so will/would 3 then be a comparative loss, since totaling all the hours will be a much higher number than CCH1 was? Or should the series be judged as a whole? And then what about projects like StarStreakers or Talon City–some of the audience for those will (presumably) come from your social media presence, but since that presence was cultivated with your CCH project, should the hours spent there count towards these new works? And what about developing your craft–you grew so much as a writer between CCH1 and 2, and that experience will make StarStreakers and TC both higher quality, so should those hours count there?

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The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced a wordly rate is the correct way to determine whether your writing was economical. Example:

One craftsmen could build a chair in 1 hour, and another in 5 hours, but they both end up with a chair at the end of the day. Whether the latter’s extra 4 hours of crafting is really “worth” it will be revealed by how much money is made off that chair.

I don’t seem to be able to pm you. Is there a way you can pm me?

I like the question but would reframe it. What kind of income will you get from pursuing this for ten years? There’s some good talks on this by game devs. Having a stable of titles even if some don’t sell well can complement each other to develop a long tail of passive income. Iterate often. Improve gradually at what you’re good at rather than constantly reinventing yourself.

As to 1000 words an hour I can believe it. I heard of a guy who would knock off a trilogy of media tie in novels for ttrpgs in a month. They wouldn’t be good novels and he was an odd fellow but he could do it.

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I’m at a work conference right now, and during the less gripping moments, I open a notebook and discreetly map out the final complex disposition of factions in Game 5 of Choice of Rebels. On the plane to get here, I finished one book on French peasant heretics and got through another on Wat Tyler’s revolt, taking notes throughout on ideas I wanted to borrow/adapt for Rebels. I’ve got WhatsApp conversations going with friends about the Abhumans and Halassurqs that are helping me flesh out those rival civilizations.

All these things bring me great intrinsic enjoyment. Otherwise there’s no way I’d do them…it would all be a bit over the top for an economic enterprise! If I measured the hours I’ve put into Rebels, especially counting those “ideation” ones, there’s no way I’d make minimum wage.

But because I’m writing mainly for the joy of it–of having a creative side project that produces the kind of story/game I’ve always enjoyed reading–that doesn’t trouble me. The earnings are a terrific side bonus. So is the opportunity to read and think a little deeper about the relevant history, philosophy, and politics.

Personally, as someone aware of the research into the fragility of intrinsic motivation, I’m very keen to keep extrinsic motivators mentally at arm’s length. I’m not taking any advances for Rebels Game 2. I won’t be counting words or hours for Game 2, any more than I did for Game 1. I’m trying to reduce the frequency with which I check how Game 1 is selling. :slight_smile: To keep myself motivated, I focus on the intrinsic rewards. I get my ROI every time I re-read Rebels, or have a fun discussion about it on the forum or with friends.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with extrinsic motivation. Someone who starts a project with the clear intent of putting food on the table and writes as efficiently as possible towards that goal can produce a fantastic game. But it wouldn’t get me to the finish line with Rebels.

I would offer one note of caution to anyone who’s already started writing for the joy of it, and who might be tempted by this thread to start counting hours and calculating a cash ROI. A sizeable body of psychology research into human motivation suggests that once you start focusing more on extrinsic motivators, you risk killing off the intrinsic motivation that got you started–and then you might never finish. Not even because you discover the ROI is terrible, but because once you start calculating opportunity costs, there are a lot of other things out there to do, and it erodes the joy of creation that was the real reason you started.

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This is a good point! A while ago when drafting a novel, I got very focused on the business of book publishing, getting an agent, etc, and it very much hang that I lost momentum on the project, because I was thinking about marketability and whatnot instead of what made me happy - the writing.

A long project like these games isn’t going to be sustainable without a core of intrinsic motivation - or not without a lot of unhappiness. I talk a lot about spreadsheets (because I love them!), but if I wasn’t making the games I want to play, and didn’t feel strongly about them, it would be so much harder to keep at it.

(That said, I freelance four days a week; it would be misleading to say that finances are not a motivation at all. The money I get from creative work is a big part of the picture - though not the whole picture.)

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Oh I agree that you need to look at the long-term as well. Building a library with a tail is definitely the end goal. Getting the momentum going is definitely one of the hardest aspects to what many of us are trying to do. I still think there is value in me better calculating what I am making per hour of my time, because I could be making more money doing other things. I’m willing to make that trade off for now, because I love these creative projects, but I need to have an idea of how much I’m sacrificing, because at some point it becomes unwise to keep making that trade off.

As to long term, I’ve ran numbers many times, and to answer your “what kind of income will you get from pursuing this for ten years?” here is my answer:

I started writing CCH in 2013, so 2023 would be my ten-year mark. Where would I like to be in 2023?

  1. Hopefully retired from law, or at least semi-retired. I will be 50 then.
  2. Earning at least $40,000 per year US through writing, working 20-30 hours per week.

Is it doable? Yes. Likely? Probably not. But so far I just have two releases. The plan is, in five years, to have at least 6 more releases (CCH3, Starstreakers, Talon City novel, undisclosed joint project with some other folks, and at least 2 more novels or games that are just in my head now).

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@HomingPidgeon, I think you raise interesting points! And yes, upon reflection, maybe it’s smarter to analyze things on the whole as opposed to per project. So that would mean looking at your own “Author Business” as a whole, and measuring progress.

As you point out, writing CCH3 is a separate project, but it also ties in to a previous project, and will boost that previous product’s marketplace performance, so it’s all interconnected. Looking at my income per year thus far I would label my years like this…

2013: no income (started writing in mid 2013)
2014: no income
2015: no income
2016: decent income
2017: low income
2018 decent income
2019: (projected) decent income
2020-2023 (too far out to project)

So am I on the right track? Maybe! I’d like to hear more from other folks with their journeys and progress.

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Best of luck and godspeed @Eric_Moser

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2023 sounds like it ought to be cyberpunk stuff, but it’s less than five years away. I don’t want to presume any revenue numbers, but even if you managed 4 choicegame releases between now and then (which is ambitious to put it mildly, especially when you have a full time job) you still wouldn’t reach 40k in a single year.

You’ve already been experimenting with other mediums, like with Talon City as a traditional novel. You might find huge success there, or you might find none at all. But I think the experimentation is well worth it. As far as interactive fiction is concerned, there’s a ton of potential out there that’s not necessary through choicescript. A stand-alone app, a visual novel, a roleplaying game splatbook, or something completely different.

I guess my advice is that experimentation is very worthwhile at this stage. Ideally you go with several small projects that can be completed in a matter of months vs years, just to get it out there and see what the responses are. While this approach might not immediately net you 40k by 2023, you’ll gain a breadth of experience and knowledge that might just be priceless!

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It might be worth it for you to reach out to Zach Sergi about whether he’d be comfortable discussing his earnings and time investments with you? As far as I’m aware, he’s the CS author who’s been at it the longest (in a strictly authorial capacity). And/or Jim Dattilo, who’s name I’m very sorry I’m probably misspelling, who (again, as far as I’m aware) has the most releases under his belt. I don’t want to volunteer their time for them, but I also think that money can be a sensitive issue to discuss, so privately coming to individuals with careers similar to your goals might get you more of the information you’re looking for

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There are strong dissenting opinions on experimentation. It takes years to develop your skills and your following and to gradually ramp them up . Sometimes when people experiment they wind up destroying that initial investment, ditching their audience just to start over. So in effect they make two bad investments instead of one good one.

I don’t want to say it’s always bad but it’s a decision that isn’t without risks of its own.

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That’s a very good insight and word of caution. If I stopped writing IF and started doing fantasy football podcasts, I can’t imagine I’d get much carry-over. But in that case you don’t blame the podcast or even Le’Veon Bell. Creators who move onto something else do so because that’s where their passions take them. There’s no one to blame but the unseen force that drives our passions.

Now is it wise to drop everything at once? Absolutely not. I don’t think it’s ever smart to “ditch” an audience, especially when they’re so hard to form in the first place. I also think it’s best to focus on your existing skillset–that is, whatever you’ve been doing for years that you’ve developed well enough for a fanbase to accrue in the first place.

I guess I just want to stress that the IF-realm is filled with an array of opportunities, and that exploring/making something completely different within that realm can be worthwhile. So long as it’s making use of your skillset, have some confidence that whatever it is your fans like about you will still be there.

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I find that losing your passion for something is often a failure to figure out what is going wrong. Sometimes you need to work through a rough patch. The grass is always greener on the other side but the rough patch is lurking there too.

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Have you thought about a CCH visual novel? Considering you’re already doing comic strips, you could get some crossover there with people who like both comics and choice games :slight_smile:

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