Editing Clauses in Publishing Contracts: How to Protect Yourself

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Over the past couple of days I've gotten several emails and Facebook posts alerting me to a blog post by writer Mandy DeGeit about her bad experience with a small publisher called Undead Press. When she received her author's copy of the anthology in which her story was published, she discovered, to her dismay, that not only was there a mistake in her title (an inappropriate apostrophe), but...
They changed my story without telling me.

Let’s see: They turned a non-gendered character into a boy, they named the best friend, they created a memory for the main character about animal abuse. They added a suggestion of rape at the end…
When she complained about, among other things, the gratuitous addition of sexual content, she received this delightfully professional response from the publisher, Anthony Giangregorio:
on the contract, it clearly says publisher has the right to EDIT work. you signed it. are you saying you are a dishonest and immoral person and will now try to deny you signed the contract? well i have a copy right here
and as for the story. the editor had a hard time with it, it was very rough and he did alot to make it readable. despite what you think, your writing has a long way to go before its worthy of being printed professionally.
we did what we had to do to make the story printable. you should be thankful, not complaining. ah, the ungrateful writer, gotta love it
Ms. DeGeit's bad experience with Mr. Giangregorio, unfortunately, doesn't seem to be an isolated incident. Similar complaints are appearing in her comments thread, and other writers have reported the same kinds of problems with Undead Press and other publishing ventures run by Giangregorio--who, among other exploits, has apparently published and sold several unauthorized sequels to George Romero's Dawn of the Dead.

As egregiously unprofessional as Giangregorio's behavior is, however, that's not what I want to write about today. Today, I'm looking at editing clauses in publishing contracts, and how they can lead to the kind of situation in which Ms. DeGeit found herself. (I haven't seen an Undead Press contract, by the way, so I can't comment on it specifically.)

Editing clauses are one of those contract areas where there needs to be a balance between the publisher's interests and the writer's. A publisher needs a certain amount of latitude to edit a manuscript to prepare it for publication (assuming it's professional enough to do editing at all--you might be surprised how many small press contracts I see that don't include editing clauses). It also needs to have the right to final approval--it doesn't want to be forced to publish a manuscript that the author can't or won't revise to the publisher's satisfaction.

A writer, on the other hand, needs assurance that they will be a partner in the editing process, and that their work won't be changed in major ways without their permission.

Whether you're publishing an entire book or a story in an anthology, the editing clause of your contract should ensure that content editing (the kind of serious editing that focuses on plot, pace, structure, style, and content) includes your cooperation (ideally, the editor will provide revision suggestions and you will carry them out yourself), and that substantial alterations can't be made without your consent. For copy editing, on the other hand, the publisher usually has discretion--but you should have a chance to see and approve the copy edited manuscript before it goes to press.

Here's an example of an editing clause you don't want to see (this and other clauses quoted below are taken from actual contracts in my possession):
Publisher shall have the right to edit and revise the Work for any and all uses contemplated under this Agreement.
What's missing here? Any obligation on the publisher's part to seek your approval before making the edits and revisions. A clause like this allows the publisher to edit at will without consulting you or asking your permission. If you sign a contract with this kind of  language, you are at the publisher's mercy, and shouldn't be surprised if the publisher takes advantage of it.

The next clause is more elaborate, but has the same effect (this language is fairly common, by the way; I've seen it in a number of contracts):
The Publisher shall be entitled to develop, alter, edit, and proof the content, usage, format, capitalization, punctuation, and spelling of the Work to conform to the Publisher's style, the subject matter, and intended audience previously agreed upon by the parties of this Agreement.
Here's another bad one, which is explicit about the publisher's right to edit at will:
Publisher has the right of final approval of Author’s manuscript. Publisher will assign an editor to work with Author in making revisions. The Author agrees that Publisher can make editorial changes to the manuscript, including, but not limited to spelling, punctuation corrections, and abridgments of text without Author’s consent.
Less obviously a problem is something like this:
Publisher shall have the right to correct errors, and/or edit and revise the Work for any and all uses contemplated under this Agreement (collectively "Editing"), provided that the meaning of the Work is not materially altered.
Again, this is a very common formulation. Many authors skip right over it, because on a surface reading it appears to protect the work from major changes. Not so. "Provided that the meaning of the Work is not materially altered" can cover a huge amount of ground, including stylistic alterations, abridgements, additions, and all sorts of things that might not change your manuscript's meaning but could seriously change its tone and style. Plus, the publisher is not required to consult you or get your permission before making those changes.

This one throws the author a bone, in the form of notification:
Publisher has the right of final approval of Author's manuscript. Publisher will have the right to correct errors and revise the work for all purposes of this Agreement. The Author will be notified prior to any and all substantial changes.
But although this prevents you from being blindsided by enormous changes in your finished book or story (assuming, of course, that the publisher's definition of "substantial" is the same as yours), you have no power to dispute or refuse those changes. You're still at the publisher's mercy.

Are clauses like these an automatic invitation to badness? Not necessarily. It's entirely possible that the publisher will be conscientious and ethical and make you a full partner in the editing process, and everyone will wind up happy. The problem is that you have no contractual assurance of this. The letter of these clauses gives all the power to the publisher--and in publishing, the letter of the contract is the bottom line. If the publisher has a dictatorial attitude, or employs not-very-competent editors, or is just an obnoxious scumbag--none of which, unfortunately, are uncommon in the small press world--you could find yourself with a badly-edited manuscript and no recourse. I have gotten hundreds of complaints over the years from authors who've found themselves in this position because the editing clauses in their contracts gave them no rights and offered them no protection.

So what should you look for? Here are several examples of better editing language, taken from various book contracts I've seen, including my own:
The Publisher shall make no changes in, additions to, or eliminations from the manuscript, except for typographical, spelling, and grammatical errors, without Author's consent. Any other edits will be requested of the author and agreed upon between the author and editor prior to preparation for sale.

Publisher has the right of final approval of Author's manuscript. Publisher may assign an editor to work with Author in making revisions. The Author will be notified prior to any and all substantial changes, which will be made only with the Author's approval and participation...Publisher may make corrections of typographical errors without Author's consent.

If the complete manuscript for the Work delivered by the Author is not acceptable to the Publisher, the Publisher shall give the Author a written request for changes and revisions for such work...After the Work has been accepted by the Publisher, no material changes may be made in such Work without the Author's approval. However, the Publisher may copyedit the Work in accordance with its standards of punctuation, spelling, capitalization and usage. The Publisher shall send the copyedited manuscript to the Author, who shall make any revisions and corrections and return it within two weeks of receipt.

The Publisher shall request that the Author work cooperatively with the Publisher to make the Work satisfactory to the Publisher, in which event Author shall use best efforts to do so...Upon acceptance by the Publisher, no changes shall be made in the Work without the author's approval, except that the Author authorizes the Publisher to make the manuscript of the Work conform to its standard style in punctuation, spelling, capitalization and usage.
And from an anthology contract:
 The Publisher will make no major alterations to the Work's text or title without the Author's written approval. The Publisher reserves the right to make minor copy-editing changes.
What's common in all these clauses: the author's consent is required before serious changes are made.

What to do if the publisher that has just made you an offer has a bad editing clause in its contract? Try to negotiate. Ask that the publisher add a sentence about seeking your approval--a la the four clauses above. Many publishers will be willing to be flexible on this. If they aren't willing, hard as it seems, you might seriously consider moving on.

Obviously, with even the best contract language, things can go wrong. Really devious publishers can always argue semantics to justify their bad behavior--for instance, what's a "major" change? You might think it's hacking 25,000 words out of your novel; the publisher might claim to disagree. (All the more reason to research the publisher before you submit to make sure it's a professional operation.) But if you sign a contract that doesn't protect your rights in the editing process, you are really vulnerable. Just another reason to be smart and careful out there.

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