Sunday, March 7, 2010

When the Publisher Gets the Last Word, It's Often "Goodbye"

In my last post discussing why publishers, in general, don't fact-check their authors' work, I mentioned that it's accepted in the business that the author has ultimate say over the text. While an editor may request, urge, pester, or cajole an author to make a certain change (I have done all of the above), the author gets to say yes or no to it. But as one reader, Judith Ingracia, pointed out, that's not the whole story. 

Publishers have one final recourse if the author refuses to make a change we think is critical: we can refuse to publish the book. Boilerplate contract language requires the author to deliver a manuscript that is "satisfactory" to the house. So if the author digs in her heels, and refuses to revise something that the editor feels will make the book unmarketable--or perhaps, may make it libelous or otherwise legally questionable--or again, let's say, untruthful--the author and publisher may simply part ways. 

Judith asked, 
the book belongs to the author, but if the author wants a *published* book, he/she better listen to the publisher, at least that's what I gather. Am I mistaken in this view? 
Good question. My answer is, you're not mistaken, but the threat of cancellation is almost too blunt an instrument to use as a tool in editorial negotiations. canceling a book amounts to using the "nuclear option," laying waste to the whole project and vaporizing the time everyone has invested in it. (Quite likely vaporizing the publisher's money, too, as on-signing advances can be difficult to recoup.) I'm happy to say this situation has arisen very few times in own experience, but it has happened--it's very unpleasant for all parties involved. 

In general, editors will sigh and let an author get away with some pretty misguided writing before they try reject a manuscript--threatening termination is so traumatic to an author that I at least rarely mention it unless it's a real possibility. In fact, with nonfiction, one would rarely cancel a book for mere differences of editorial opinion: it would most likely be over issues of veracity, accuracy, or legal liability. 

(National Lampoon cover from January 1973, 
photograph by Ronald G. Harris from a concept by Ed Bluestone)

1 comment:

Janice Harayda said...

Thanks for an excellent post on a topic too little discussed on blogs: Who has the final say on what goes in a book?

Threatening to cancel a contract may be something publishers try to avoid. But they rarely have to threaten because they can achieve their aims by many other means. Those means include:

1) Stonewalling or refusing to approve a manuscript, which can delay the release of a check (the second or third payment on an advance) indefinitely.

2) Letting the agent do the heavy-lifting of pressuring the author. If the agent is a friend of the editor or doesn't want to alienate an important contact, as is often the case, the editor and agent can double-team the author.

Editors also know that authors will face potentially crushing barriers to publication if the writers don't do what they want. One is that if an author walks away, he or she will have to return the advance, which may be long gone if an editor's demands occur far along in the process. A second is that if the author walks, the agent may refuse to resubmit the book to other publishers. So the author will have to find not just a new publisher but a new agent, either of whom may refuse to take on a "shopped" manuscript. If the author finds a new agent, he or she will lose the agent's commission on the original sale, which the agent has earned by selling the book to the first publisher. And while it is generally accepted in the industry that authors have the final say, publishers can write contracts in a way that gives them wiggle room even on this one.

These barriers are not insurmountable, especially if more than one publisher wants a book. But even with good agents and editors, authors are tremendously vulnerable. This helps to explain why so many welcome the expanding opportunities to self-publish.

Thanks again for raising a question vital to writers yet rarely acknowledged by editors as directly as your post did.