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Languages for Sale – Part 2

Posted in Just for Writers, and Language

LanguagesForSale-TeleguThis is the second of three posts on how to improve the use of languages in constructed worlds.  Part 1, an introduction of the topic for authors, is here. This part is addressed to folks who invent CONstructed LANGuages: conlangers. The third part of the series, which provides guidance for authors working with conlangers, is here.

IPA-PanicSo, you're a linguist and you like to build languages or even entire language families developing over time. Maybe you'll get lucky, and your language will make it into a hit movie or game or TV series — wouldn't it be nice to turn pro and make a little money at it?

Well, I can't help you with winning the lottery for high-visibility media. On the other hand, just about every movie, game, or TV series that uses a constructed language started life in one or more books. And that's what we're going to talk about here, primarily for the fantasy and science fiction genres.

I'm a writer of fantasy and science fiction, and I happen to have an amateur linguistics background, primarily in the form of dead languages: Egyptian hieroglyph, Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Old Norse, Old Irish, Old English, Middle High German, Middle Welsh — you get the idea. I know a little bit about the subject from the linguistics perspective, and quite a lot from the author perspective.

I'm going to take a stab at describing a potential market for conlangers (inventors of CONstructed LANGuages) and propose some ways of finding work there. The third part of this series takes the authors' perspective on working with conlangers.

I will be defining some basic concepts for conlangers and painting with a broad brush in the interests of keeping the length of this post within some sort of reasonable limit.

Book Publishers

There are three classes of publishers in today's market: traditional publishers, vanity presses, and self-publishers (aka independent authors). Here's an expanded definition.

Traditional Publishers

If you leased the rights in your manuscript to a publisher (directly or via an agent), and that publisher will prepare the manuscript (e.g., edit), provide covers, format the book for print and/or digital, market it, and distribute it to retail channels, paying you a percentage of the sale (either directly or against a pre-paid advance), then you are using a traditional publisher.

Vanity Presses

If you pay someone to publish your book, that is subsidy publishing, also known as vanity publishing. Not only do you purchase a package of services, but you are also charged a fee for each sale, and the works appear under the publisher's name rather than the author's, with assigned rights. These have a bad reputation and are typically (though not universally) thought of as scams.

Self-Publishers / Independent Authors

If you not only create a manuscript but also do (or pay for) the editing, formatting, covers, and distribution to retail channels, while retaining all your own rights, then you are a self-publisher. While there have been writers doing this for a long time, and it used to be more common (e.g., Mark Twain), only since about 2010 has there been a tremendous insurgence of authors becoming self-publishers. The popularization of common ebook formats (EPUB, MOBI), the availability of Print on Demand (POD) at the individual level, and the ability to upload books (digital or print) directly into retail channels (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, Kobo, etc.) and distributors has completely transformed the marketplace in many book genres.

The term “Indie” typically refers to an independent author in this context. There are also “independent publishers”, but that more typically refers to small presses who are not part of the “Big 5” conglomerate media giants in the publishing world. They are still traditional publishers in all but name.

Where does a conlanger fit?

If an author is using a traditional publisher, then all extra services are part of the services the publisher provides. The authors themselves don't usually pay for any of these services in advance of submission. In other words, they don't necessarily pay for editing first, since the publisher is supposed to do their own editing pass. Similarly, the author often has no input into cover art. It would therefore be an unusual author who looked for the services of a conlanger — not that the manuscript couldn't probably benefit, but because it wouldn't occur to them to buy any services prior to submission.

Vanity presses make much of their income off of the services they sell to naive authors. Those authors are carefully sheltered from any awareness of the excessive costs they are being charged or of any alternative methods they could use.

Self-publishers are different. The self-publishing community is quite large and varied in quality, but for this post we'll concentrate on the top end — authors who are professional and want to produce products that equal or exceed the output of traditional publishers. Summarizing broadly, that group wants to do as much of the work themselves as possible, or otherwise pay third parties for specialty work that they can't do as well themselves.

Services that self-publishers pay for

Manuscript production – Author

Edit (developmental edit, line edit, copy edit, proofread) – Author or 3rd party

Formatting (POD, ebook, other) – Author or 3rd party

Covers (art work, text copy, full design) – Author or 3rd party

Audio Editions – Author or 3rd party

Marketing – Author

Distribution (Direct, Wholesale) – Author or 3rd party

If there were good 3rd parties in the Marketing area, some authors would probably pay for that, too. The mix of self vs other in each of these areas varies by author. In almost all cases (with the exception of distribution and sometimes audio), the author buys the one-time service rather than paying a percentage per sale.

Typical costs are all over the map. Self-publishers naturally try to balance low cost with high quality. In my experience, edit (novel length) might run a few hundred $, depending on what level of edit, and covers can range from $50 to $500, depending.

Many processes have been semi-automated to help the authors do it themselves: tools to help with self-editing, premade covers or cover assists, tools to help with formatting, and so forth.

Lots of tools have also been developed at the Manuscript level to support world generation for fantasy and science fiction, from templated questionnaires and guides to map production.

Where are constructed languages in this mix?

Nowhere. In the conlang world from an author's point of view, the best available tool for semi-automation is… RPG Name Generators. Gack! Third party services? Who knows of any?

lcs_sealTowerOfBabelPersonally, I stumbled across the Language Creation Society by accident. I'd never heard the term “conlang” before last week.

I gotta say, though, I like the tower of Babel seal.

I'm sure there are other associations, too.

But almost no one in the world of indie authors knows about them, knows why they might want to work with a conlanger, or knows what services they might want to ask for.

This purpose of this series of posts is to introduce the two groups to each other and to propose ways of working together.

What conlang services do authors need?

These fall naturally into tiers of product, just like cover art and edit services.


Lots and lots of names. Personal names, place names, language names, race names, and culture names.

The names of principal characters are terribly important to authors, and they will sort thru lists looking for “just the right one” that resonates for them.

The characters bearing the names interact with each other, and so some of them need nicknaming rules, diminutives, etc.

Readers need help remembering unusual names. It's best when principal character names start with different characters to help readers keep them apart.

It's sometimes helpful when names can be decomposed into parts and translated, e.g., a mountain range that can be rendered as “high teeth”.

Cultural & natural objects. Imported artifacts, food, religious practices, specialty curses, plants & animals. Brand names and technology names.

These are usually a few bare words to give verisimilitude and the illusion of cultural interaction at the linguistic level.

Linguistic/historical/cultural relationships.

Historic depth. One language/culture may bear a clear relationship to another. Old versions may still be in use (equivalent of Latin). There may be high and low versions.

Linguistic breadth. For every race there may be a culture and for every culture there may be a language.

Characterization in dialogue. Foreigners speaking the default language (the one the book is written in) may use unusual grammatical forms or sentence structures reflecting their home languages. Lower class/upper class native speakers may also be distinguishable in a similar way.

Writing systems. Library & catalog forms. Materials & fragility.

Suggestive aesthetics. Subliminal grounding for readers.

Wombats may speak with low broad sounds.

Nomadic cultures may sound vaguely Arabic.

Ancient organized civilizations may vaguely suggest Chinese.

Pronunciation guides. For name indices in the books and to help with audio editions.


Dialogue, phrases, inscriptions, riddles, prophecies, clichés, sayings, jokes, insults. Poetic forms and poetry.


With the possible exception of external covers, interior covers, and chapter heads, this is an unlikely requirement for books (technical issues with controlling images for ebooks).

Books vs Series

From an author's perspective, services are procured at the book level: editing, covers, etc. If they write a 5-book series, they expect to pay about the same for each book. If their editor relationship changes, later books in the series can be edited by someone else. If their cover artist becomes unavailable, they can get another one, and possibly reissue new covers for older books in the series for consistency.

The services of a conlang partner are more at the series level. It would be difficult to change a conlang partner partway through a series, and both fantasy and science fiction tend to run to series rather than single books. The conlang work would also likely be frontloaded, with most of it done for the first book in the series. Once a character has been named, that's his name for as long as the series runs. New cultures might appear in later series books, and name lists might need to grow.

Authors often have no idea when they start exactly how many books there will be in a series (some are open-ended), or how many cultures will be involved over time, or how many characters there will be, or how many years they will be writing books for the series, or how long the gap will be between books in the series.

Desirable products, in addition to the services listed above, therefore include some form of hand-off language guide. If the conlang partner becomes unavailable, he should provide materials that would allow a different conlang partner to continue the supplemental work for the remainder of the series.

Re-usability vs Exclusivity

Authors should not expect to see their character names reused for other authors, or the names of their languages, cultures, and cultural/natural objects. These things function like brand identity for the author. That does not mean, however, that a high degree of re-usability may not be possible.

If a conlanger creates Language A for Culture A and produces a namelist of 50 names for Author 1, there is no reason that he can't provide a new label (name) for Language A' and Culture A' and produce a namelist of 50 different names for Author 2. The bulk of the work in creating the language would already have been done and can be reused.

If an author truly wants exclusivity at the language level (instead of the name level), that should cost extra.

How should conlang services be priced?

The conlanger should be paid for work done, that is, if the bulk of the work happens for book 1 of a series, it should be paid for at that time, not spread out across the series which does not yet (and may never) exist.

The author needs to specify the number of cultures & languages, services needed from the list above, and an estimate of how the remainder of the series may work out (if the work is not stand-alone). There should be flex in the requirements: the author may require, say, 50 names for language A, not use all of them, and request more — that should be an inexpensive additional service.

A clear distinction should be set by the conlanger based on level of effort for full language construction vs fragmentary language construction vs names-oriented language construction. These are different levels of work and should be priced differently. Few authors are ever likely to ask for full language construction. By “fragmentary language construction” I mean to imply enough grammar to satisfy a few elements in the Grammar item in the services list. The focus of authors is verisimilitude and flavor, not real languages.

A savvy conlanger will have some non-exclusive languages “in their pocket” from which separate distinct namelists can be generated to satisfy the bulk of an author's needs. These can also serve as portfolios when talking to potential author customers.

A price of $150 for a list of names (from an already invented language) seems more than reasonable. On the other hand, if the language has not yet been created, it may be insufficient. In that case, the conlanger has to weigh the risk of making the first author customer pay for the language invention when he only needs namelists, vs spreading it out across two or more authors.

From the author's perspective, $150 is a reasonable cost BUT remember that there are likely to be several cultures and languages in a fantasy or science fiction book/series. That charge does not scale up well. My current work in progress, for example, book 1 in a series, has 4 main cultures already. $600 (4*$150) would be far beyond my budget. I would be willing to frontload book 1 to some degree but… On the other hand, if my conlang partner had already invented languages from which suitable namelists could be generated, then I might not balk at a bulk deal of some sort. Alternatively, if I think of it as a budget for a multi-book series, then my price sensitivity is different.

The lesson here may be that an inventory of created languages that can be reused is a valuable tool in a conlanger's kit and will allow him to price the most common services at an affordable price. ** Please note that my suggestion of reusability for conlangs is my personal opinion — the recommendations of the Language Creation Society are that all conlangs offered should be new and unique.

It might also make sense for conlangers to bundle with each other to create a broader inventory of languages to choose from for namelists.

Services beyond namelists would be pricier, of course.

Remember, your competition (fantasy name generators) is free.

Contracts & Relationships

I recommend contracts that make additional services easy to add. These typically take the form of a master document (who pays what, what are acceptance criteria, how are disputes resolved, how is the relationship dissolved) and a series of per-project addenda, each of which has a description and a price. Payments should have at least two portions: one up front, and one on delivery. If work is cancelled by either party, there should be a process for partial payment for work done.

Things happen, people die, and so forth. Contracts should allow relationships to dissolve with fairness and as painlessly as possible. Acceptance criteria for a book series should include the hand-off language guide referred to above, and permissions to draw upon it, in case someone else needs to continue the conlang work from that point.

The conlanger should receive a credit on the copyright page for all editions, as cover artists do. Remember that books may be extant for many years, and the contact information that accompanies the credit should be as permanent as possible.

It is natural that the conlanger should wish to be included in any derivative work opportunity that might ensue from downstream products. If movie rights to the author's book were acquired, for example, the conlanger would probably want to participate in adding to his original work for the benefit of the film. The author, however, may not have any control over what the movie producer will do. The best that can be done in that case is to identify and recommend the conlanger partner as the logical choice for that work.

My next article in this series speaks to authors, helping them understand how we can work together.





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  1. […] an exploration for conlangers (the folks who invent CONstructed LANGuages) of what authors need is here. This final part is addressed to authors of fantasy and science fiction who might want to work with […]

    November 24, 2015

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