Got an e-mail today from a reader who asked me what I thought about writing “on spec,” and being the helpful sort of person I am, I thought I’d address it.
For those of you who don’t know what “on spec” means, it simply means that you are writing something for a publication without the promise, implied or explicit, that the publication is going to buy it from you after you’ve finished it. Basically, as a writer, you’re taking a shot in the dark and hoping the editor says “nice aim.”
The fact that this person is asking about writing “on spec” at all suggests they are coming from the world of non-fiction writing, since writing on spec is so much the standard in fiction that as far as I know very few writers even think about the fact that is what they’re doing. It’s utterly non-controversial. For example, later on this year I’ll be acting as an editor for Subterranean Magazine and opening the doors for fiction submissions. All of those submissions will be “on spec” — which is to say that their writers hope I buy their submission but haven’t been guaranteed anything. If I don’t buy the piece, it’ll be a bummer, but then the writers will do what fiction writers have done since the beginning of time: Stuff that story in another envelope and send the story to the next editor in the line, and repeat the process until either the story gets bought or the writer runs out of editors. It’s relatively rare that a fiction story is so specific to a market that it couldn’t be sold somewhere else, especially if the writer is willing to do a little touch-up work.
Non-fiction is a different kettle of fish because in fact the writing is often specific to the market. If you’re writing a piece for (extreme case) Bug Crush Quarterly, the magazine by and for erotic bug crushing enthusiasts, there’s a somewhat reduced secondary market for the piece you might produce. Therefore writing on spec is a rather riskier proposition. This is why the submission process for most non-fiction markets is designed to reduce risk for both writers and editors: Non-fiction writers query with a story idea and previously-published story clips (if any) that are on point to the proposed story. The editor looks at the story idea and the clips and tries to determine whether this particular writer is a good fit for the story. If he or she is, usually (but not always) the writer is contracted to write the story for an agr)eed-upon fee, with something called a “kill fee” (i.e., a smaller sum if the piece is found unacceptable or is not run for whatever reason. If he or she is not a good fit, then the writer is out only the effort of writing a query, not of writing an entire piece.
(Kill fees in themselves are controverisal — not unreasonably writers feel that if they’ve done their job competently, their efforts should be rewarded no matter what happens to the piece. My personal opinion is that kill fees are acceptable if the piece is unsatisfactory or if the piece is still in the early stages, but otherwise you should get paid for what you write. When I’m an editor, this is how I structure my kill fees, and if you ever get a kill fee from me it’s not going to be a good thing for any future writer/editor relationship between us.)
By and large I think non-fiction should proceed as above, which is generally why I don’t do non-fiction on spec. Having said that, I’m not violently opposed to non-fiction markets saying that material written for them is on-spec through purchase, as long as such is made clear as possible. The Uncle John Bathroom Reader people, for example, buy all their material on spec from all their writers, even people like me who have been working with them for a reasonably long time (the exception being the Book of the Dumb books, for which I am the sole author, and for which, quite naturally, a contract was in place detailing conditions of acceptance of the work). The Uncle John folks have a contract which spells out their process, so as long as you read the contract, there are no surprises. So, you know, always read your contract (certainly no one should assume a “no on-spec” default in any event).
The Uncle John books are actually a good test case for writers as to whether writing non-fiction on spec makes sense for them. On one hand, there’s no guarantee that one’s work will sell to the Uncle John’s people. On the other hand, they pay well (better than some well-established magazines) and are willing to look at work from new writers, which some non-fiction markets are reluctant to do because the editors use clips to gauge the writer’s competence, and without clips they’re at a loss. So for a new writer needing to generate some experience, the Uncle John books (and other markets like them) might make sense. Likewise, for a writer who reliably bangs out competent work that makes editors happy, writing on spec my be a non-issue. I write on spec for Uncle John’s, but on the other hand I’ve been writing for them for several years now, know the editors and their expectations, and usually can hit the target. I’ve had pieces I’ve written for them go unbought, but as a percentage it’s low and so for me on average it’s a good deal.
But they are an exception to the rule for me, because I have the experience of working with them. I will say that with new markets I am rather less willing to write non-fiction on spec, because I’m at a point in my career that I know what I’m capable of writing, and I have enough of a track record with my work that an editor should feel reasonably assured I can do the writing. If an editor still feels that after nine books and fifteen years of supporting myself as a writer they still need to hedge their bets with me by requiring me to write on spec, I’m apt to see this as a warning flag about the editor instead of as an opportunity. As they say, your mileage may vary, depending on who you are and where you are in your writing career.
As I said, with fiction, by and large this isn’t an issue: Until you get to a certain point in your career where editors are pre-emptively asking you for work, everything (short fiction-wise, at least) is assumed to be on spec. With non-fiction, it’s a matter of judging the risks and rewards. If the rewards make sense for you as a writer, it might be worth the risk of putting together a piece that you might not be able to sell elsewhere. Whatever you do, make sure you understand clearly what you are doing and why, and what the upsides and downsides are for you and time you are spending (and possibly wasting). Of course, this is good advice in every situation in which you’re writing something.