One of many worrisome areas for writers negotiating publishing contracts is who has final word when editing a manuscript for publication. Publishing agreements define the right to creative control over the manuscript in the editing clause. Typically, that right goes to the publisher. They need flexibility to prepare the manuscript for publication to their satisfaction. They have an editorial style to fit, a publication schedule to adhere to, and cannot be hamstrung by an author refusing to compromise.
But for us writers, seeing our creative endeavors sliced by a scalpel masquerading as a red pen can be nerve-racking if not down right devastating. We have honed the prose. We have toiled over the plot. We have painstakingly developed the characters. No wonder we want to be consulted over changes to our manuscript. What if the edits shift our vision for the book, or are based on bad commercial decisions, or eviscerate the manuscript’s voice?
Being published is part of the writing dream, so what can a writer do when publishing contracts give creative control to the publisher?
Simple. Ask for contract language that will achieve a partnership between the interests of the publisher and the writer.
If you are one of the Stephen Kings of the writing world, requesting mutual consent for editorial changes, or even full editorial control, will be easy. If you are not, do not fret. You might not get full editorial control as a debut author, but you can bargain for language that provides a more balanced approach for editing the manuscript and who has final say as to what appears on the page.
Typical Editing Clauses You Should Look For
If you have not seen an editing clause before, here are a few examples of the standard verbiage found in publishing contracts.
- Publisher has the right to make any editorial changes in the Work as it deems necessary
- Publisher has the right to edit and revise the Work for any and all uses contemplated under this Agreement
- Publisher has the right of final approval of Author’s manuscript
- Publisher shall, in its sole judgment, make editorial changes to the manuscript, including but not limited to, style and substance, without Author’s consent
In addition to the broad language above, some editorial clauses detail what the publisher is entitled to change—capitalization, punctuation, grammar, typographical errors, spelling, format, content, or subject matter. Some provisions add language allowing the publisher to omit giving an author notice of any changes.
Under all of these examples and permutations, the end result is the same—the publisher has the right to revise a writer’s manuscript without consultation, approval, or notice. Such open-ended provisions give the author no rights and no protection. Imagine receiving the first copy of your published book only to be blindsided by unknown changes—a new title, a character’s name changed, a gratuitous sex scene added, the plot substantially altered to fit an unintended market—with no way to fix the problems.
How to Negotiate Editing Clauses
If you are faced with an editing clause that gives all the power to the publisher over the style and content of the manuscript, ask for changes. Many publishers are willing to negotiate.
Below is a range of options for revising an editorial control clause to achieve a more balanced editing partnership between you and the publisher.
- Publisher will not make any changes to the manuscript without written consent from Author.
- Publisher can make routine copyediting changes and correction of grammar and spelling, but no changes to content without Author’s prior written consent.
- Publisher and Author will agree on all manuscript changes. Neither party will withhold or delay consent unreasonably.
- Publisher shall have the right to edit and revise the Work for any and all uses contemplated under this agreement, and the Author will have the right to review and alter the editing so that the edited Manuscript is reasonably and substantially acceptable to the Author.
- Publisher will consult with author about changes to the manuscript, and Author will not withhold or delay consent unreasonably.
- Publisher will consult with Author about style and content changes in the manuscript but Publisher has the final decision.
Some examples push editorial control toward the writer, some still favor the publisher. It is up to you to decide how restrictive or flexible you are willing to be with creative control. While cooperation and mutual consent should be the goal standard (because competent editors will improve a manuscript), at the very least, you should demand to be consulted about all changes in the manuscript, whether for style or substance, and that the content not be inherently changed without your consent.
Publishers, in an attempt to avoid amending the editing clause, might tell you their normal practice is to obtain an author’s consent for major changes in the manuscript. If that is true, then the publisher should have no problem amending the contract to reflect that normal practice.
Impasses do happen, even if the publisher and author use best efforts to reach an agreement on editorial control. Contract language can be added to allow the publisher to refuse to publish the manuscript instead of unilaterally making changes the writer does not want. That way, the author will not be dissatisfied with the published book, and is free to find a suitable publisher.
I have heard about, but not seen, editing clauses that require an author to pay for outside editorial revisions should the author refuse to edit the manuscript to the publisher’s satisfaction. Do not agree to this type of contract language. Ask the publisher to remove it. Editorial expenses are a cost the publisher should absorb.
Negotiating Your Own Contract
The decision you make today about your publishing contract will have long-term effects on your book and career. That said, you may want to let an agent or lawyer with publishing law experience negotiate on your behalf. It is often hard for us writers to be objective when it comes to protecting our creative endeavors. We have a personal stake in the process and sometimes find it difficult to comprise.
If you are determined to negotiate your publishing contract, then do your homework. Study the fundamentals of contract negotiations. Understand the lengthy list of publishing contract rights. There are many resources to help in that regards—The Writer’s Legal Guide, The Writer’s Legal Companion, The Self-Publisher’s Legal Handbook, and Contract Companion for Writers, or if you are a member, the Authors Guild.
Compromises are inevitably when negotiating a contract, so be prepared by knowing what you absolutely must have and what you can do without.
Matt Knight is an intellectual property lawyer, a New York Times freelance writer, and the author of The Writer’s Legal GPS: A Guide for Navigating the Legal Landscape of Publishing. He is currently at work on two novels in the genres of near-future and women’s fiction. You can learn more about him, his writing and books at Sidebar Saturdays (a publishing law blog for writers) and Matt Knight Books.