Game Theory in Writing Part 3: Why Money Should Always Flow to the Writer

written by David Steffen

This is the second article in a series considering the applications of game theory on writing. Game Theory is the study of strategic decision making. I won’t get into the mathematics of it, just high level concepts. The first article in the series discussed differentiating between goals and milestones. The second article in the series discussed ways for writers to keep score on their submissions that will encourage them to reach their goals.

An oft-quoted phrase in writing circles is known as “Yog’s Law”: Money always flows to the writer. I don’t really care for the name, since it’s not a law in either the legal sense or the scientific sense, but it’s an important guideline to keep in mind to help new writers avoid vanity publishers and publications that charge fees for submission.

What does it mean?

When I hear “Money always flows to the writer” out of context in the company of people who are not writers, I always wonder what those writers think. Do they picture the writer as Scrooge McDuck swimming in a vault full of money they never spend? Do they picture the writer’s landlord demanding rent to which the writer will reply “Money always flows to the writer” and slam the door in the landlord’s face?

Obviously writers spend money on goods and services as anyone else does. Yog’s Law refers only to interactions in pursuit of publication. That is, a writer shouldn’t pay submission fees. A writer shouldn’t pay publication fees. The writer is providing value in the form of their writing, and the writer should be paid for that writing.

Note that there are cases that seem to fit this description that aren’t really a problem–especially in self-publishing where the writer may pay for an artist to make cover art or a copyeditor to help them proofread. That’s because in the case of self-publishing the writer herself is also wearing the publisher hat and so the traditional roles are shifted.


So, why, from a Game Theory perspective, does the money need to flow to the writer? One of the important things I’ve learned from Game Theory is that a system or “game” is that the rules of a game should be designed so that the desired behavior results from everyone acting in their own selfish best interest. If the system is set up in any other way, then you have a conflict of interest that’s going to set the writer in conflict with the publisher rather than putting them together on the same team.

In a traditional sale to a magazine, the publisher will pay the author a one-time fee for publication rights and then the publisher will distribute the magazine either charging for readers to read the issue or taking donations and providing the content for free to recover the costs of paying for the story and other expenses, (and ideally will turn a profit on the deal to sustain the magazine). In this case, both the editor and writer have the same goals from the transaction–to get the story ready for publication as quickly as possible, to get it packaged up in an issue, and getting in front of as many readers as possible.

In traditional book publishing, similar idea, but on a larger scale and with royalties.

But let’s consider a vanity publisher which charges editing fees of the author. It’s in the publisher’s best financial interest to drag that editing process out as long as possible–if you’re determined, you can always find something to fiddle with, but that’s not a publisher you want to work with, sucking away your money in an endless stream of nitpicks that the editor never has an incentive to end. The editor doesn’t have an incentive to get the book in a publishable format in a timely fashion because edits are where the money is at.

Consider next a vanity publisher that charges publication fees. It’s in the publisher’s best financial interest to rush everything to publication, regardless of quality, and to not bother supporting it in any kind of marketing or any other fashion in the future. The revenue stream maximizes by maximizing the number of titles that are published in such a low quality format that probably no one but the author’s family is going to buy. Although this publisher will naturally tend to get stories to publication, they are making money regardless of the quality of the publication and so do not have an incentive to help the writer make the product as good as possible.

Consider a magazine that charges submission fees. The author, in that case, is paying a fee (often on the order of $3 but sometimes higher on the range of $20) to, in all likelihood, get a form rejection. Guess how much effort it takes to send a form rejection? If the system is set up efficiently, probably one or two clicks. The magazine maximizes their revenue stream from that by not bothering to read the slushpile at all, publishing stories they solicit directly and just rejecting the rest.

Note that in these cases, I’m not saying that all publishers who adopt these practices are scammers, or that they have the result I suggest. But with those flawed plans in place, there will be constant pressure toward practices that are directly detrimental to the writer, and a writer would do best to avoid them entirely.


Game Theory in Writing Part 2: Gamifying Your Submission Process

written by David Steffen

This is the second article in a series considering the applications of game theory on writing. Game Theory is the study of strategic decision making. I won’t get into the mathematics of it, just high level concepts. The first article in the series discussed differentiating between goals and milestones.

Much of focus of Game Theory centers around “gamifying” everyday decisions, giving them a goal and a way to keep score to determine how well you’re meeting that goal. One thing that writers can struggle with is keeping stories in circulation–you can’t sell stories if you don’t submit them–so for this article I’ll be considering ways to keep score that encourage the behavior you want.

The Wrong Behavior

Some rules that seem entirely sensible can actually encourage the wrong behavior (“wrong” as in contradictory to the behaviors you want to pursue). For instance, I know some people who use acceptance percentage. Sounds good, right? A newbie starts with 0%. You might imagine that a big name might have, I don’t know, above 50% (I’m not saying that’s actually a reasonable number, but one might imagine it is).

But consider the consequences. When you’re a saleless newbie, no problem. If the fraction is 0/1 or 0/2 or 0/100, it all comes out to 0% acceptance. But someday you get a sale, let’s say it’s your 100th resolved submission. Calloo! Callay! You have raised your acceptance ratio to 1%. Wonderful news!

But what happens next? You want to keep submitting other stories, right? So you can sell more, get your stories to more people, crack all your favorite magazines, right? But… you think to yourself, what if that submission gets rejected? Then my acceptance ratio would be 1/101. What if the next 99 are rejections too? That would bring your acceptance ratio to 0.5% and you’re now half as successful as you had been. So, maybe you’ll just wait until you see a submission opportunity that you’re certain you can nail with no risk.

Look what your scoring system has gotten you. Now you’re reluctant to take risks. You can’t sell without submitting–never up, never in. You can’t get those big sales without submitting to markets that have very low odds. Avoiding risks will ensure stagnation of your progress.

The Right Behavior

So what should you pick for gauging your progress then? Total # of acceptances (rather than acceptance ratio). Total number of professional-paying sales. You can pick something that fits your values, but just consider what behavior it will encourage before you really stick to it.

To encourage me to submit I have found Dean Wesley Smith’s submission scoring system to be extremely valuable in motivating me to keep stories in submission. It’s pretty simple. For every short story you have submitted right now, you get 1 point. For every novel you have an excerpt out for, you get 3 points. For every complete novel manuscript submitted right now, you get 8 points. Submitting the same story to multiple venues simultaneously does not get you more points. When you get an acceptance or rejection, you lose the points associated with that submission.

The great thing about the system is that it encourages you to not mope when you get a rejection–if you find a new market to submit that story to, then you can keep the score up. And it encourages you to write more stories–your maximum score is the number of stories you’ve written. I intend to incorporate automatic scorekeeping using this system into The Submission Grinder at some point, because I believe in it.

So, writers out there, do you have any score or statistic that you follow to help motivate you in your submitting? Your writing?

Game Theory in Writing Part 1: Goals vs. Milestones

written by David Steffen

This is the first of a short series of articles about applying Game Theory to writing. Game Theory is the study of strategic decision making, a field of study made most famous by mathematician John Nash (which the movie A Beautiful Mind was based on). I won’t be getting into the math of Game Theory, but I thought it might be interesting to discuss some applications of strategic decision making in the writing/submitting/publishing process because I’m both a writing geek and a programming geek. A discussion mixing the two topics lights up all kinds of synapses in the geek centers of my brain.

So, for this installment I’m going to talk about the importance of differentiating between goals and milestones. What does this have to do with game theory? Well, much of the focus of game theory is based around “gamifying” ordinary activities by defining scoring rules and ways to determine your level of success in the game, and thus defining ways to look at a scenario that will encourage the outcome you want. By choosing carefully how you determine your own level of success you can exert some control over what behaviors you encourage. Choosing well can generate energy and momentum to drive you to bigger and better things. Choosing poorly can leave you disheartened and weary.

But what are goals and what are milestones?

Goals are things you can accomplish which you have complete control over (or at least as complete control over as you have over anything). In writing, some goals might be:

  • to write every day
  • to finish writing a novel in 2015
  • to write 5000 words a week
  • to never trunk a story
  • to write every other story in a character unlike yourself in some major way
  • to submit to pro-paying markets only

Milestones are things which would laudable and worthy of celebration, but which are not under your direct control.

  • to sell a story for the first time
  • to become eligible to be a member of SFWA
  • to sell a story to Asimov’s
  • to be nominated for a Hugo
  • to get a positive review from Lois Tilton

In some ways goals and milestones are very similar. You can fail or you can succeed to reach goals or milestones, and they are both kinds of ways to measure success. Both are things worthy of celebration if met. So what’s the point in differentiating between them. The primary difference is in how you can best react to NOT meeting them.

Because goals are entirely under your control, you can react however you want to not meeting them. Maybe the goals were too ambitious for your lifestyle or skills–that doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t have pursued them, and there certainly can be things outside of your control that may have blocked you (personal illness, death in the family, change in career, eviction, etc). If you don’t meet them, maybe they still helped you reach higher than you otherwise would have, or maybe you need to aim lower to avoid discouragement. However the goals motivate you, run with it. I find that setting goals of daily butt-in-chair time combined with goals that maintain a quick turnaround of a story to another market after rejection have served me well to keep rejection from getting me down and to make sure I sit down and actually produce. (I’ll talk more about setting good motivating submission goals in a later article)

Because milestones are not under your control, you shouldn’t beat yourself up over it. You can write an amazing story and Asimov’s might reject it for any number of reasons. You can’t control how people react to your stories, and if you beat yourself up for it, that’s a quick route to discouragement and disheartening funk. If you’ve chosen your goals wisely, they will be setting you on a path to try to reach your milestones and that will let you exert your control as best you can, but at the end of the day those milestones still depend on other people and you shouldn’t beat yourself up for what other people do. Milestones are things to be celebrated, and you can even set up structured ways to celebrate them, such as the Bingo Card that Christie Yant uses, but it’s important to remember that they’re still out of your control.