Back when I was writing a lot of tie-in novels for Pocket Books’ Star Trek division, a brand-new editor asked me to help him rescue a short story anthology. It seems that the main writer on the project had quite unexpectedly. The writer had outlined the story, and the outline had been approved by Paramount, which was a major hurdle. What the editor needed from me was an actual draft of the story.
In other words, none of the characters were mine. The plot, setting, and theme were not mine. The editor needed my style as a writer and my name on the cover. That was it.
I had never worked with this editor before. My usual Star Trek editor advised me to stay clear. But, I figured, it was just a short story. What could it hurt?
Well…it didn’t exactly hurt. But it was perplexing. I wrote the 6,000 word story as requested from a 2,000 word outline. Turned the story in on time. Got an acceptance, and the ridiculously high acceptance payment.
Then I got the copyedit.
Which wasn’t a copyedit. The editor himself had rewritten every single sentence of the story. Every single one. Sometimes adding passive voice. Sometimes making the meaning unclear. Always dumbing down the content and the voice and the point of each sentence, let alone each paragraph.
I looked at that, glanced at my contract, and realized that even though this short story was written as work made for hire, I could make a huge stink about this. I could pull my name or pull the story or cause all kinds of grief.
In the end, I decided to leave it alone. If you look up this short story now, you’ll see the most poorly written thing ever published under my name.
. . . .
That is the only time in my recollection that I can recall allowing an editor’s or copyeditor’s full rewrite of my work to get into print. I’ve had worse rewrites in my career, including a copyeditor who changed every single piece of punctuation in one of my romance novels, but I never let those go through under my name.
I cited contract terms, refusing to allow the changes. I pulled books from publishers because of shenanigans like this. I got copyeditors fired. Repeatedly.
I defend what I write. My writing in some story or novel or nonfiction article might be awful, but it’s mine. If I put my name on it, guaranteed—except for that one short story—every word in the piece is a word I wrote or approved. Every single one.
. . . .
I told you that most writers check their traditional book contracts for the advance, the payout, and the due dates. They don’t look at anything else. Writer after writer, and editor after editor, have told me this.
I always look toward the editing clauses first. Because if they’re ugly, the rest of the contract usually is as well.
This applies to all kinds of writing for traditional markets, especially for nonfiction and short fiction. I’ve seen terrible editing clauses in those contracts, and what’s ironic is that those clauses often seem to be the most innocuous.
What you want is complete control of the content of your work. In every single short fiction contract I sign, I change the publisher’s right to “edit the Work” to “copyedit the Work.” I always add a line that ensures I must approve any changes, including those copyedits, to the Work.
If I don’t like the copyedit, my version stands. If my version isn’t going to stand, then the story doesn’t get published. Period, end of story.
. . . .
The British publishing company has the right—if the publisher deems that right necessary—to completely rewrite my article. They could change everything. They could add stuff I find objectionable—political points of view, for example. They could libel someone through careless writing or even deliberately. They could take a piece in which I say I love something, and change it to say I hate it.
They can do all of that, because I would have signed that right away. Then I would have waived my right to remove my name as the author of the piece. So they could write all this stuff, and claim I meant it, because my name is on it.
. . . .
Oh, and one that drives me as batty as the editing clauses: they have the right to my name. Not just to use my name in publicity. I “empowered” them to use my name in any situation they “considered necessary.”
I see this clause a lot. Writers give up the right to their own names to a corporation for a few thousand dollars and the publication of a novel.
. . . .
She wrote back, refusing to change the editing clause, and then said this:
I’m afraid the moral rights clause is not one that I am able to make any alterations to. It is a standard clause across all of our contracts and our lawyers will not accept changes to it. As you say, this is a clause that relies somewhat on trust; I can only assure you that we will not act unreasonably, as it would not be in our interest to do so….
I kid you not. She wrote “Trust us. We won’t hurt you.”
. . . .
Make sure the editing clauses in your contracts—from short story contracts to article contracts to novel contracts—limit what the publisher can do to your work. You essentially should allow them to change some things to house style (like whether or not you put a capital after a colon). You should have the right to review a copyedit—and to have the final say on that copyedit.
You also need a clause that limits revisions. When there’s a clause in the contract that says that the finished book must be “accepted” by the Publisher, then you have to define what that means. If it means revisions, then those revisions should be limited to no more than two or three before the contract terminates.
I’ve known writers who rewrote their books for years before the books finally were tossed back as unacceptable by the publisher. One author I know rewrote her book every year for ten years for a textbook publishing house I worked for. When my boss left, and the next editor took his place, that editor saw this continual revision, and canceled the contract. the writer had to repay her entire advance.
If a publisher tells its lawyer to modify a contract provision to reflect a request from an author, the lawyer will do so. The lawyer may advise the publisher not to make the change for this or that reason, but if the publisher instructs the lawyer to make the change anyway, the change will be made.