“On Acceptance” is Not a Magic Bullet

There’s been a push in the indie RPG publishing realm to eschew the idea of paying writers, artists, and other creators on publication for paying “on acceptance.” As someone who has done quite a bit of work for publishers, I’ve been screwed by a few to the tune of thousands of dollars. As someone who has hired creatives for small side projects, I’ve had to look at my cashflow and figure out when I could project paying.

I like on-acceptance terms in theory, but I see three problems with them: one, it suggests a vibe that those who pay on publication are toxic to work for; two, “on acceptance” is actually a meaningless phrase; three, it fixes nothing.

To the first issue, I can’t tell you how tired I am of the holier-than-thou attitude with publishers who loudly proclaim paying that they pay on acceptance.[1] People are proud of that to the point where if you don’t and you’re in indie-land, and you talk about paying on publication, you seem like a shyster because you’re not doing the in-crowd thing. It creates a guilt-by-association thing—there are many stories of publishers who fuck over creatives by delaying publications for months, even years, or canceling projects altogether after the writing and art has been turned over for it. So saying that you don’t do on-acceptance is to, in this climate, suggest that you might stiff your freelancers.

Second, there’s no legal definition about what “acceptance” means. What is acceptance?

  • Is that when I get your work? Maybe it’s not acceptable.
  • Is that when I get all the work from a half-dozen different writers? Maybe it turns out that your work doesn’t fit with the other five turnovers.
  • Is that when I send it to an editor? Maybe the work is deemed totally unfit for the project by the editor. Is that when I put it into layout?
  • Maybe it turns out that the work doesn’t fit physically or stylistically with the layout.

Certainly I’ve accepted it once I publish the work, right? So again, what is acceptance? It’s subjective. It’s situational. Thus, it’s unreliable. If the idea behind eschewing on-publication payment is to give creatives some more reliability, we’ve certainly not actually achieved that. If anything, we’ve created a confusion point because “acceptance” can mean something different for different publishers and creatives, which if not cleared up is going to cause problems and bad blood. That’s to say nothing about it varying on different projects with the same publisher.

Finally, on-acceptance terms don’t actually fix the real problem. Most companies don’t work on bad faith—some do, and I’ve worked for them in tech and in games, but most don’t. When a company offers on-publication terms, they’re assuming that the project will go relatively on schedule and plan their cashflow around that. That’s also true for a company that offers on-acceptance terms. Life happens to companies that act in good faith, and cause them to not have the money to pay people they’ve contracted. It sucks, no one likes that, and it causes all sorts of problems. On-acceptance terms don’t stop calamities from happening to good companies, just as it doesn’t stop them from happening to good freelancers who suddenly blow deadlines and kill projects.

And on-acceptance terms don’t fix companies that work in bad faith, either. There’s not enough money here to litigate, especially across state lines (and definitely not internationally), so a contract is more about expectations than legal binding. We all know that. We all play this game of pretending that our tiny contracts are enforceable. (And that’s when we actually get contracts.)

All this tells me that saying “on acceptance” is a current fashion, a way for new publishers to stand out, and a banner under which disenfranchised creatives can rally. To that last point, I utterly respect, since again I’ve been pretty screwed by past clients. So as I tell you that this isn’t a fix, I join you in wanting one. (Plus, I do like getting money faster, which is a big update to on-acceptance terms when everything else works out.)

Defining Acceptance

In a recent contract where the publisher wanted to go on acceptance, I pointed out that “on acceptance” has no definition. He had this clause in the contract:

Acceptance: Publisher agrees to notify Writer of acceptance of the work for publication within thirty (30) days upon receipt. Publisher may reject the work for any reason.

I added this to it:

Should no sufficient contact occur with the publisher regarding any chances, the final draft is considered automatically accepted thirty (30) days after submission, and any changes beyond that are outside of this agreement.

(Fun fact: Did you know you can amend contracts or request for changes before signing them? You don’t have to just take what you’re given like it’s carved in stone.[2])

It not necessarily great, but it at least gives me the out of “if you don’t say anything else, you owe me money in 30 days.” That’s the sort of on-acceptance definition I can live with.

Or Actually Use Dates

Here is a crazy idea for a pay schedule, define your payment around actual dates. After all, since all of our deadlines are based on actual dates (usually), there’s no reason that we couldn’t put a date for payment in there. I recognize some hesitance in this for dealing with creatives who are late causing a project to be delayed, but that’s not too difficult to handle.

Let’s say you’re looking to publish a book on June 1st, 2015. You’re planning on paying people within 30 days of publication (which would be awesome, since too often we see a net-90 clause instead), which means July 1st. State in your contract something to the tune of “payment within 30 days of publication or August 1st, 2015, whichever comes sooner.”

Why August? It gives you room for a schedule problem to occur, but not so much room that you can keep stringing on your creatives forever. And it means that your freelancers know the moment that they should start assuming you’re working in bad faith, rather than speculate about it, because you’ve made a concrete promise.

You can adapt that to an on-acceptance term simply enough, provided you take some effort into defining what “acceptance” means to you on this project.

Have a Good Kill Clause

The other problem we have relating to this is weak kill clauses and fees. On acceptance is suppose to help this, but it doesn’t if you end up “not accepting” because the project gets terminated. Creatives, fight for kill fees in your contracts.

Here endeth the rant. On-acceptance terms are a good idea, but like many good ideas it’s unrefined. On-publication terms also have their place, contrary to the beliefs of some. It would be nice if we could legitimately create “If life screws you or I over” and “If you screw me over” terms more directly and concretely that work are our small scale, but we don’t live in that world.

– Ryan

[1] It really creeps the the hell out how much the “look at how great we are for paying on acceptance” sounds like “look at how great we are for not hitting you!” It’s looking for applause for being just plain decent, and yet it gets applause because being just plain decent isn’t necessarily the norm in publishing, games, and life in general. Still, creepy.

[2] For Backstory Cards, Tim and I spent a week going back and forth on our contract, to make sure we both knew exactly what we were getting and so that if the deal didn’t seem right to us, it was better to discover that early than late. It has saved us from some arguments, and I credit us being successful at staying friends and business partners to the time spent on the contract.


One Response to “On Acceptance” is Not a Magic Bullet

  1. Ryan Macklin says:

    Some good comments on the G+ thread: