What Is an Assignment Letter?
Assignment letters are just what they sound like: letters that outline your magazine-writing assignment. That's the simple answer, at least. The real answer is a bit more complicated.
The Evolution of the Assignment
Magazine assignments used to be made on a handshake and a smile. As you learned in Chapter 1, writers and editors used to discuss an idea, a deadline, and a fee, and then walk away with what amounted to a verbal contract for the writing assignment. Few people called it that at the time; most people said, “We have a deal” instead of “We have a contract.” But for legal purposes, the deal was, indeed, a verbal contract.
Sometimes, a magazine editor will be responsible for sending you an assignment letter and a contract, or a combined version. In other cases, your assigning editor will send you the letter, while the magazine's managing editor will send you a separate contract. It's up to you to ensure that you receive all the paperwork you need to protect yourself.
Nowadays, with the ever-increasing reliance on attorneys to straighten out misunderstandings, businesspeople of all stripes pay much closer attention to contracts whether they're written or verbal. Professional magazine writers are no different, and they know that assignment letters are a form of legal agreement. Magazines don't call them contracts, but in fact, they in many ways are (or at least they are evidence of intent to form a legal agreement). This is why it is important that you take assignment letters seriously and understand what they should include.
You will learn the specifics of what assignment letters should include later in this chapter, but for now, you simply need to know the difference between what magazines typically call assignment letters versus what they typically call contracts. In general, the difference amounts to the following:
An assignment letter outlines what you are being hired to write, when your story is due, and how much you will be paid.
A contract outlines who owns the rights to your work, describes what will happen if there is a problem with your story, and defines your legal relationship with the magazine.
In many cases, magazine-writing contracts will say that assignment letters are incorporated as part of one, overall legal agreement. Sometimes, the contract and the assignment letter will even be part of the same form. In other cases, you will receive a separate assignment letter and contract from the same editor, or the two different forms from two different editors. In still other cases, you will receive no contract at all and an assignment letter that is little more than a two-line e-mail.
None of these arrangements is necessarily any better than the next; it's just that different magazines have different organizational structures and, thus, different ways of getting paperwork to their writers. Practically speaking, though, it puts the burden on you to make sure you receive a proper assignment letter — or at least the key elements of one — so that you can protect your legal and financial interests.