Being a Better Writer: Commissions and Writing to Be Popular

Today’s topic is a bit odd, and a bit different. In fact, while it’s been sitting untouched on my current topic list (number eight) pretty much from day one, I distinctly recall that it’s been on earlier versions of the list, and I’ve just kept putting it off despite it being a requested topic because … well … I don’t have much in the way of hands-on experience with it. Really all I can offer is my own reasons for why I don’t do either of the things today’s topic will discuss, which definitely puts a hard limit on exactly what facets I can talk about.

In other words? I have no personal experience with doing either of the things I’ll be talking about today, but rather experience in actively not doing them, which is what I’ll be working from. So I’ll basically just be discussing “here’s why I’m not doing any of these things, but here are the benefits/drawbacks that I’ve seen/heard about, and why I’ve not done them.”

Sound confusing? Yeah, well, imagine trying to explain it. And short of the title, I haven’t even gotten to what today’s topic (or rather, closely related topics) are yet, so here goes: Today I’m going to talk about two things—writing commissions and writing for the express purpose of being popular.

Now, the first one I can see some heads nodding at, but the second one I imagine is raising a few eyebrows among the audience out there. After all, isn’t being popular a good thing as a writer? We all want our work to be read, perused, and desired, right?

To which I reply, well, yes … but at the same time, that’s wanting our work to be popular, not writing our work to be popular. And yes, one is different from the other.

But for now, let’s just leave it at that, as I want to tackle the first half of our topic before I get too deeply into  wanting and writing popularity. Put that one on the back burner for the moment, and let’s talk about commissions.

Right, first question: what are commissions?

A commission is when you do work in exchange for creating a specific product for someone, ie, they place an order with you, the creator, to create something specific in exchange for a monetary payment. So artists, for example, will often open themselves up for commissions from the public, offering basic levels such as “X amount of dollars for a sketch, Y amount of dollars for a black-and-white image, and Z amount of dollars for a full-color picture.”

For artists, this often becomes a pretty good way to make extra cash on the side. You throw up a notice that you’re doing sketches of characters for ten, twenty dollars, and if you have a decent fanbase, you might make a good hundred bucks or more getting some practice art you otherwise wouldn’t have tried. Not a bad deal, right?

Well, no. Which is why a lot of artists do it. It’s sort of a win-win for those involved. The artist picks out some commissions that they want to draw, they get to do what they like and collect some money, and the one who pays them gets a cool piece of art that they wanted. Making money and doing something you like? Sounds like a winning combination, right? So it should come as no surprise that other creative types also offer commissions, including yes, writers.

Except … not as many writers. Not compared to, say, artists. I myself am in that number: I’m writing for money (obviously), but at the same time I have no commission information on my site, never talk about it, and in fact am not open for commissions. At the same time, I’ve encountered plenty of other sites where writers have opened themselves up for writing short stories or similar in exchange for cash, and some of them seem very happy with it. So why don’t I do it?

Well, let’s discuss the pros and cons first, how about, before I explain which ones I’ve weighted in my decision.

All right, so pros: You make money. In fact, you can make pretty good money if you’ve got the right audience. I’ve seen small-time writers charge $10-$20 a pop for short, 1000 word stories that they can reasonably pump a couple of out per day. Even if it’s not the best paycheck (after all, you might only finish one a day if you have other commitments) it’s still a nice little feather in your cap. If it’s something you can pound out quickly, so much the better. It’s not going to be something to retire on … but it is going to wind up being quick, immediate cash most of the time, which is pretty nice for any writer (since writers very much so live the stereotype of the “starving artist” a lot of the time).

But there’s more to it than money. You also get writing experience, and not just in stringing words together. Most authors tend to write inside their own “sphere” of interests. So, for example, I write Science-Fiction and Fantasy because that’s what I enjoy writing. But when you’re doing commissions, the one paying for the commission is the one deciding what you write (well, mostly, as the writer still has to agree to it). The result is that a writer taking commissions can get a lot of experience writing genres or settings that they aren’t familiar with. Which in turn is good practice. No joke. As writers, we hone our craft by writing about things, and writing commissions can be a good way to broaden our horizons and push out in new directions.

Okay, so far we’ve got two fairly good perks: Getting paid and getting practice in writing new things that will stretch our creative muscles. Both are pretty good pros. But then if those are the pros, what are the cons? What are, for example, my reasons for not writing on commission status?

Well, they’re actually the same reasons that are pros, along with a few others.

So let’s go back to that first one: Money. Yes, you can get paid to write on commission. You can make a pretty fast buck that way. In fact, I’ve seen some writer’s pages that seem to be generating a pretty steady income from it.

But there are drawbacks in how you make that money tied to the nature of commissions. See, when you create a commissioned story for someone, typically that story will be their idea. Their characters, their setting, etc. Which means that while you may be allowed to display it for others to read or see, anything past that is going to run into some technical hurdles of the legal variety. As well as of the audience variety.

For example, let’s look at two possible commissions here for a moment. Two commissions, each 2,000 words for, oh, $15 (which seems to be a good average for 2K commissions). One is a story involving someone’s original characters, the other is a fanfiction (which yes, is a legal grey area same as creating and selling fan artwork, but one that gets politely ignored most of the time). Still, not bad, right? You’ve just made $30 for 4K words, which is around twelve or so pages in print form. Not bad at all!

Well, yes, that’s a pretty good payout. At least, immediately. But there’s a catch. There’s no tail.

See, authors and writers are generally banking on what’s known as “the tail,” or continual sales of their work. For example, though Dead Silver was published almost three years ago now, I can still make money off of it. Any time someone buys a copy or reads it through Kindle Unlimited, I get paid. That’s “the tail.” I can keep making money off of each and every one of my releases years later. And as my fanbase grows, the potential of that tail does as well.

And commissions? They have no tail. Without jumping through a lot of legal hoops, most of them can’t be resold or put in collections, and some just outright cannot. Because they’re not your product. Not entirely. The characters and situations are usually someone else’s creations. You were paid to give them life, but not to create them. And that means that, barring some legal jujitsu, you’re only going to make that one-time cash gain off of your work.

So when taking commissions, or considering doing so, one thing that needs to be considered is how you want to make money off of your work. Do you want the immediate and up-front payment of $10+ bucks? Because commission work can offer that. And for far less work in the short run (after all, a 2k word story is the work of an afternoon for most writers, or a few days for a slow one, and $10+ bucks isn’t a bad profit when you consider a book like Dead Silver takes months and months of work then retails for $6 … before price drops).

But at the same time, commissions have no tail. They are strictly a one-time payment. Which means that in the long run … you will probably make far less off of your work.

So short term or long term gains? The call is up to you. Personally, I’ve gone for the long term, and ignored commissions entirely because they are a short-term gain.

Now, the second pro I mentioned can also be a con; writing outside your sphere. I mentioned, for example, that I like to write Science-Fiction and Fantasy. But if I took commissions, someone may pay me to write something else. Which, as I pointed out, can be good practice.

However, it can also be tedious and/or infuriating. Sure, it’s good to write outside our sphere from time to time and get some practice, but consider what that could really mean for a moment. Ever had someone tell you their idea for a story and it’s really not that great? Or worse, terrible, but they don’t know it because they’re not immersed in this stuff all day? Now imagine that you have to write that, terrible parts and all.

Yup. That can happen. Or, imagine that you get asked to write something you don’t enjoy writing … and that’s all you get asked to write. Say someone pays you to write a shipfic (quick, romantic hook-up fiction) between their OC (their own character made for an existing universe) and a character from an existing franchise. So you do. You don’t like it, but $20 is $20.

And they tell their friends. Now all you’re writing is $20 OC shipfics. And sure, you’re making plenty of money … but now you’re only doing one thing and one thing only. You’re not exactly reaching out to try new genres or situations, and to cap it off you’re writing something you probably don’t enjoy writing.

And yeah, this is a serious con to writing commissions. Because while it’s true that you may end up with a large variety that will stretch your interests … it’s more likely that you’ll end up with one or two specific interests or genres that the internet is very devoted to. Thus trapping your creative spirit in creating the same thing over and over again. Not fun.

Again, it’s a give and take, and there are no guarantees. You might get a large variety … or you might gt trapped writing very similar things over and over again that you aren’t enamored with.

Now, I did say that there were some other cons to be had with the commission approach as well. One of them I already touched on: You don’t own what you create. At least, not entirely or without aforementioned legal jujitsu. And in the case of creating fanfiction, not even that can give you the capability to retain it.

But even then, if you do retain the rights to a story that you wrote on commission, what’s your potential audience? Who else is going to want to read what you wrote? Because odds are, the audience is small—after all, it was originally a target audience of one. So the odds of reselling it to a trade publication or elsewhere? Pretty low.

So, you don’t retain full rights … and even if you do, the odds of reusing your work are fairly low. Again, for many this is offset by the joy of an immediate payout, but …

In the end, it’s up to you. And to be honest, there are probably more pros and cons that I would know if I were actually engaged in the act of taking and producing commissioned work. Time constraints, schedules, or the like, most likely.

But … I don’t. And I’m not. So as far as commissions go … what you’ve read is what I have to say on the matter, and all I can contribute.

Which means that it’s time to hop into the latter half of today’s topic, and one that ties in with writing commission work: writing our work to be popular.

And yes, as I said above, this is different from wanting our work to be popular. What it comes down to, really, is the DNA of what you’re writing.

Let us take, for example, something I’ve written and examine it for a moment. How about … Unusual Events: A “Short” Story Collection? A fitting pick, considering its admitted status as the lowest-seller of all my works.

In other words, it’s not popular. Nor did I write it to be popular. I didn’t sit down to create it and think “Okay, now what can I write that will sell like hotcakes and make me the moolah?” I sat down and thought “What can I write that will be a good story?”

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t write a story that shouldn’t sell, or that you think someone won’t want to read. But what I am saying is that you should balance how much importance you place on wanting a story to be popular. Partially because it comes back around to “what do you want to write?”

For instance, let me ask you what the most popular book genre is by far. Do you know? I’ll give you a hint: It’s fiction.

Still stumped? Right then; by a large margin of sales (several times larger), the most popular genre of book is … Romance.

In other words, the books that sell the most, and thereby will make you the most money, are romance books. If we want to go a step further, some of the most popular sellers on Amazon’s ebook market (the area I market in) are erotic romance novellas and novels.

Why? Well, there are reasons. We don’t need to go into them because that’s not the point. The point is that any “area” of fiction is going to have “popular” themes and ideas that are going to assure, simply by public desire, that a significant fraction of works written following those themes are going to become popular.

For instance, fanfiction tends to follow trends. Check out a fanfiction site for specific fandoms and look at what the most popular stories are at the moment (over say a week or month period) and you’ll find trends. Some trends are long lived (like shipping two main characters from a TV show), while some are flash-in-the-pan (such as “X character has Y happen to them”). But at any given moment, there are a small horde of novice writers on fanfiction sites playing to whatever’s popular at the moment and churning out quick stories that are written primarily with the goal of being appealing to whatever “flavor” of the week is in.

“Oh,” you might say, “but that’s fanfiction. I’m writing real fiction. And that doesn’t do that.”


Wrong! In fact, there are popular trends in regular fiction as well. Don’t believe me? Look how many “chosen one child goes to a magic school” books were released after Harry Potter blew the doors off of the collective reading world. Or how many publishing houses jumped on the bandwagon of finding and releasing a middle-to-high-school author after Eragon made a splash (boy was that a mistake for many of them).

The truth is, fiction of all kinds has trends (and there are trends outside fiction too, but we’re confining our discussion to the subject at hand). There are things that are popular in the long term, and in the short term.

What does this mean for your writing? Well, it means that, if you wish, you can focus on writing to appeal to these fads. Seen a new Sci-Fi novel or Fantasy Epic that’s tearing up the charts? If you can write fast enough, you can release something that capitalizes on that success to “ride the coattails,” so to speak to a nice windfall of popularity.

However, there is a drawback to doing this. Or rather, there are drawbacks, but I’ll focus on the big ones. The most notable being that you can completely pigeonhole yourself as a trend-follower rather than a trendsetter. Yes, there’s something to be said for success, but your success will likely be remembered as mimicry, rather than whatever else you bring to the table. For many, you’re always going to be the one that released that book just like the other, more popular book … and that can drag you down a bit.

Worse, however, is that you can end up in a pattern where following the trend is what you do, so those who find what you’ve written and enjoy it for what is different from the trend will likely be disappointed when, rather than building on those strengths, you simply move to the next trend. Likewise, if you stay with what you’re proving talented at, you’ll then likely annoy those who only read your stuff because it was following the popular trend they wanted to read (yes, this happens).

See the potential issues? No matter where you go, you’re turning away part of your audience, because you’ve built yourself on something that is, in essence, polarizing.

Does this mean you shouldn’t make career out of it? Well … no. There are plenty of people who have made very comfortable livings writing what is basically schlock (and I’m not referring to the lovable sociopathic mercenary of webcomic fame here, either). People love reading schlock, (again, material, not the webcomic) and it can be a very easy way to make a buck.  It’s basically all about market appeal.

But, as I said, it can be limiting. And while it’s a good way to make a quick splash and pile of change, turning it into something more substantial can be difficult once you’ve built a reputation for yourself.

Like I said when I started, there’s a difference between writing something that you want to be popular and writing something to be popular. One is writing the best story we can in hopes that it is found, purchased, and enjoyed for being a good story. The other is writing a story that is as close to a popular story or topical topic as we can in hopes that someone looking for that topic/story will find and purchase ours instead of or in addition to said popular material.

Coming back around to the subject of my own work raised above, let’s look at this with Unusual Events. No, it is not the most popular thing I’ve written. Nor is it. But I’m okay with that. I didn’t write Unusual Events to follow the most popular trends in short fiction. Sands, if I were doing that I’d just write erotic romance fiction; it seems like that always has a market. But … I don’t want to write that.

I wanted to write and tell good stories. And I did. And while Unusual Events has not set any sales records, it has garnered good reviews and has no risk of being labeled a “cash-in” on any particular fad. It simply is an enjoyable collection.

Is that worth going for? Well, for me, yes. That’s what I value. For other authors … not so much. Others would rather achieve short term flares of popularity rather than building a slow but steady blaze. Again, either can be achieved, it’s really about what you want to do with your talents.

So, let’s recap. Commissions are a good way to make a fast $10-$20 on what is genuinely not that much writing, but it’s a one-time payoff without any possibility of tail earnings. And while it can get you out of your usual haunts and writing other material, possibly that material will end up being samey or not that thrilling to you. You also give up creative control and some (if not all) in exchange for the short, immediate, one-time payment, as opposed to keeping your rights and gunning for the long earnings.

Tied into that, writing to be popular versus writing a story that you want to be popular is a choice you’ll have to make. Both come with advantages and disadvantages—mostly in the area of short versus long-term gains. Plus, each has it’s own financial risks, writing popular fiction being that such is popular one day, not the next, while building your own base may never pay off and is bound to take more startup.

Ultimately, in the end, whichever route you choose is up to you. I can only hope that whichever one you choose, you find what you’re hoping for along it, and that my thoughts on the matter helped in some way.

Good luck. Now get writing.

One thought on “Being a Better Writer: Commissions and Writing to Be Popular

  1. The other part of writing commissions is that there just doesn’t seem to be as much of a conceptual space for it ‘out there’. Heck, I’ve heard second or third hand of people getting hostile blowback for offering writing commissions. Just doesn’t seem to be as accepted as visual art stuff for some reason. As for the no tail part, I suspect it would be best to approach writing commissions as paid training rather than the main source of income.

    As for writing for popularity, once again the viewpoint of a career writer should be more long term. It should matter less what is really popular right now and more what is going to be popular 5-10-30 years down the line. If an author writes something they enjoy, or more importantly writes a somewhat broad variety, the chances are the ‘what is popular’ wheel will spin around to something they wrote sooner or later. I vaguely remember reading about the success stories of one of the big early self-published authors where that happened. They had been writing for a long time, had put out more than a half-dozen novels and not getting much of anything in sales, then the genre of their most recent book got a huge current-popular-thing boost and bam, money and success.

    Which is the other downside of writing to popularity. It takes time to write out a decent story and put it on sale. Tastes shift and if you try to write for whatever is popular right now, you will probably miss out on the wave before the public attention shifts to something else. Whereas if you have a backlog of stuff and popularity hits, an author can just redo the cover and description of their book and market it matching the new ‘best thing’ to come around. Assuming the author has that kind of control over their work of course.


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