When is a commission not a commission? Well, it all depends upon when in the writing process you make the sale.

Patsy Collins of the Womagwriters blog asked me to write a guest post about the latest confusion concerning some of the fiction markets using the word commission when accepting (or rejecting) a story, and I thought I’d also publish it on my own Business of Writing blog here.

Firstly, here’s the get-out clause: I’m not a solicitor, therefore this isn’t legal advice, your home is at risk and the share price can go up and down, etc, etc.

But here’s how I see the issue…

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word commission as:

  1. “an instruction, command, or role given to a person or group”
  2. “an order for something, especially a work of art, to be produced specially”
  3. “order or authorize the production of (something)”

Note how they all (in particular definitions 2 and 3) suggest that a commission instructs someone to produce a body of work that does not yet exist.

I never write an article and then send it unsolicited (which means the editor hasn’t asked to see it) to magazines. So I don’t come up with an idea, write up the complete article and then send it off to a magazine hoping the editor likes it and will buy it.

Instead, I think of the idea, pitch it to the editor and then ask if they’d like an article exploring that topic. Sometimes they say yes. When they do, that’s when they commission me to write the finished piece.

The commission becomes the contract. I’m tasked with writing an article on a specific subject, looking at a specific angle, to a specific number of words, with photos (sometimes detailing the sort of photos required) and whether any boxouts are needed. This is also the time when money and a payment schedule is mentioned.

So, technically, at the time of commission, the article does not yet exist, because I haven’t written it. But the commission means the editor wants me to do the work and they will pay me for it … as long as I deliver what they’ve asked me to deliver.

This works well because I know I’m not wasting my time writing something that may not sell, and the editor knows they’re getting what they asked for.

So in this scenario, I’ve sold my piece of writing, before I’ve written a single word of the finished piece. In many cases, I receive a contract that I have to sign and return, accepting the commission. That contract then becomes binding.

However, when it comes to fiction and short stories, rarely do editors commission work: ie commit to buy a story before it has been written. (Okay, if you’re a famous author and you’ve a new book coming out, you may be commissioned to write a short story for a magazine issue that coincides with your book’s publication date. But if that’s the case your literary agent is probably dealing with all of contract work for you.)

In other words, fiction has to be written first and then submitted on spec (unsolicited). You write the story and then submit it to the market you think it best fits. The sale is made AFTER the editor has read your finished piece and has decided that they’d like to buy it.

Editors rarely email short story writers and say, “Can you write me a 2,000 word story with a female protagonist called Helen struggling to come to terms with the death of her pet canary, Eustace, and let’s give it was a happy ending involving a taxidermist called Nigel? … more’s the pity.

Therefore, with fiction, the sale (hopefully!) comes after the writer has done all of the work.

In my opinion, if you submit a story to a magazine and they accept it for possible publication, the use of the word commission is incorrect. The story wasn’t commissioned, it has been accepted for possible publication.

When an article is commissioned, it is usual for the writer still to be paid (some, if not all, of the agreed payment) even if the publication decides not to print the piece. This recognises that the writer was tasked to do the job and was unable to work for anyone else (and earn money) while working on that specific commission.

But when a publication accepts an unsolicited submission for publication, it is not under any obligation to actually publish it.

And therefore, if there’s no commitment to publish, there’s no commitment to pay until it has been published either. (Even if they mention money, all they’re doing is telling you how much they pay if they publish it. They’re not committing to publishing it. In theory, you could withdraw your submission at that point, arguing that the story is worth more and wish to try another market … but, hey, that’s not how it works in Womagland, is it?)

This is why, after the story’s acceptance, an editor can ask the writer to make changes, or even change their mind and later reject the piece. There’s no contract in place for that specific piece of work. (You may have signed a contract in the past that clarifies which rights the publication is buying when they actually buy a story from you, but that doesn’t commit them to buying anything from you in the future.)

Writing on spec like this is risky. Nothing is guaranteed until the money is in your bank account. There is nothing stopping an editor accepting and holding on to a story for several years. At best, there’s still hope that the piece may be published by them, at worst, they’re stopping you from sending that story elsewhere. At least some customers, such as DC Thomson, pay on (or close to) acceptance. So even if they do buy a piece well in advance, the writer has been paid for the work they’ve undertaken. (And having made a financial commitment by buying the story, DC Thomson has a strong incentive to actually publish it.)

Fiction and non-fiction are different beasts, and not just in the short-form either. I’ve been commissioned to write non-fiction books, simply by selling an idea to a publisher. However, my agent can only sell my novel once I’ve written the whole darn thing in the first place.

So if you want to know whether you’ve really been commissioned think about when in the process your sale took place. If it was made before you’d written anything (and you’d signed a contract) then you have been commissioned. If, however, the sale was made after you’d submitted your finished piece then, technically, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it isn’t a commission.

Proportionately, magazine publishers buy far more non-fiction than they do fiction and, therefore, I wonder whether magazine staff (who are stretched and covering several roles on different publications in some cases) are simply using non-fiction terminology when dealing with fiction submissions.

Good luck.

Commissioning Conundrum

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