A book which is published on commission is a book for which the author has paid the cost of production and manufacturing, usually nowadays because the publisher considers it too much of a risk for them to take on the book in the normal way. Many are the beginning authors who have had to do this, most of their output lost in the mists. But some exceptions exist of authors who did well our of the process and often continued to publish their books that way: Lewis Carroll, John Ruskin, George Bernard Shaw, John Maynard Keynes, and lots of others. The publisher would receive a commission from the author on the sales they made, rather than paying them a royalty in the more common way.

The most common instances of commission publishing in our times is when learned societies “commission” an academic publisher or university press to publish their books. A learned society can obviously reach all of its members quite easily, which in the case of the more important organizations, may mean almost every academic working in the area (and this is one of the attractions of such a deal for the publisher). The Society will “hire” a publisher in order to reach a wider audience — perhaps libraries and overseas customers — but also to get rid of the hassle of dealing with sales, warehousing, accounting etc.

Looking at commission publishing from the other end of the telescope: there existed once upon a time a category of trade terms called commission terms where booksellers took stock on consignment and were paid a commission on any sales they made. We were still supplying some bookstores that way when I started out in London in the sixties. This type of trade terms may have fallen into disuse once it became common for books bought on normal terms to be easily returnable for full credit. Commission/see-safe terms were a way to get your books in front of retail customers without the bookseller having to take any financial risk.

Another usage of the word commission in the publishing world is in the job title “commissioning editor”. This has nothing to do with terms, either with authors or bookstores. A commissioning editor is a more senior editor with the ability to decide on whether to commission an author to write a book without having to get the go-ahead from their boss. (The formal decision to offer a contract, i.e. to publish the book, will almost certainly always require getting the approval of an editorial board however.) Like almost all job titles, this description has broadened out, and may not have any very specific meaning these days.

See also Subscription publishing.