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Some background.

I recently published a book and was asked to share the first 30 pages so the publisher could edit and send it to the distributor. I complied and asked to see it. When I saw the amount of change the editor had imposed on the work, I was appalled. I had been told she wanted to make some grammatical changes, but she'd added lines of text using a first person pronoun (and the book was a memoir, so all she added was attributable to me, my thoughts) and other stuff I don’t want to go into. For changes like that, I expected some back and forth, or to at least be involved.

I started searching for the answer to this question for myself.

I don't have an agent. I went to a place that offers professional legal advice to artists. The lawyer told me that I didn't have a legal problem, but I had a problem that most often dealt with by an agent. I asked for clues about how to move forward and the lawyer said writers have very little power once the contract is signed. I wonder if that's accurate or if I misunderstood what he was telling me.

Obviously there is a way to exhert control over the publishing process and this is, I assume, the job of the agent. But how does a DIY like me manage?

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To follow up on what happened with me, I ended up publishing the book. I basically found I had to be more aggressive with my negotiations, but it was hard because I didn't know how the process worked, and often only found out about problems after they arose. I was also terrified that it would get away from me and something terrible would be published in my name. I still can't seem to swallow the fact that writers are at the mercy of publishers. If all publishers are like this, I may be in the wrong field or develop some strategies. So, my question here. –  Tim Elhajj Sep 23 '12 at 1:42
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Not an answer that's nearly detailed enough, but: I suggest you re-read your contract. Do you have any say at all when it comes down to the publisher's marketing materials? (Am I correct in thinking that these changes are in the marketing sample sent to distributors and not in the finished book?) –  Neil Fein Sep 23 '12 at 2:20
    
It's not clear what those 30 pages were used for, but it seemed to establish a precedent for editing that made me very uncomfortable. When I mentioned my discomfort, the publisher got blustery and stubborn. It was a difficult collaboration. The lawyer who initially reviewed the contract said it all seemed pretty standard. Surely this is not the experience most published authors have? I've worked with editors from the NYT and others who were much more transparent about what changes they needed. –  Tim Elhajj Sep 28 '12 at 17:09
    
As Neil mentioned - what was in the contract you signed with the Publisher? Did you read it? Did you discuss it with your legal adviser? It's all very well getting a little 'uppity' with regards to the control being exerted over your creative work by the publisher, are you forgetting the commercial risks the publisher is taking with regards to production cost, marketing and advertising costs of your book? Yes a balance needs to be achieved - that's what the contract is for. If you don't like it, don't sign it. –  spiceyokooko Dec 12 '12 at 20:54
    
You could be right spice, but my experience shows that if you are working with a publisher that is going to walk all over you, the last thing the they are concerned with is the contract. You have to size them up first. A bad sign is a publisher that is unwilling to read or discuss with you in any meaningful way the work to be published. –  Tim Elhajj Dec 15 '12 at 15:19

3 Answers 3

The writer has absolute power. If a work is sold to a publisher, it is almost unheard of that an editor will NOT make changes. It's a matter of negotiation between the writer and the editor which changes are acceptable to both parties. You have the absolute right to withdraw your work if you can't come to an agreement (but do be careful you haven't relinquished this right in your contract). So you do have absolute power, but here's how that power functions in the real world:

If you are going to publish through any publisher who is not you, be prepared to work on changes with an editor. Establish a congenial, collaborative relationship with the editor, and pick your battles. You might allow some changes you don't especially like to placate the editor, so that when you want to dig in your heels and resist some other change, the editor will be more likely to acquiesce.

Keep in mind two things: 1. The editor may have excellent changes in mind, which often improve the work. One of my longer stories was published only because the editor of the anthology, a brilliant writer himself, liked the story enough to want it to be a success, and he offered a bunch of great suggestions that worked! 2. If you resist the changes too much, the editor/publisher may decide to terminate the contract and not publish the work. You may have to decide whether it's more important to fight some change you hate than to have the work published with the hated change in it.

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An author has all power about his work, because he is the creator. If you have signed a contract which allows the publisher to change your work without asking you, then it was your power which transferred this right to the publisher.

As the commentators already said: Read the contract. That's the number one key. Asking a lawyer is the first smart move, but it's not enough. Let the lawyer explain you the contract till you (not only the lawyer) have understood every detail in there.

You do not need an agent. You can do that yourself. The help of a lawyer should be sufficient. Because I'm not a lawyer and I do not know which laws come into play in your country, I cannot say if there are laws which nullify parts in your contract. But the contract is what you and the publisher have agreed upon. So read and understand it.

Before you sign a contract, you should not only be sure, that you do not give up control which you want to keep to yourself; also you should have the willpower to fight for your right. Otherwise you do not need to sign anything, you can just toss your book to the publisher and say: "Do what you want." If you are not willing to sue them, don't sign anything.

Luckily in these modern times, you can maintain full control over your work. Selfpublish your next book and you do not have to worry about the publisher.

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Upvoted an excellent answer. One note: I believe in your first paragraph you meant to say, "If you have a signed contract which allows the publisher...." (removing the comma). The comma changes the meaning significantly, because it implies that ANY signed contract allows the publisher to change the work. Without the comma it means that if a writer's particular contract grants this right, then the publisher has that right; I think that's what you meant. –  John M. Landsberg Mar 6 '13 at 0:04
    
Some day I will write an essay about the power of commas. Obviously not this day. Thanks, @JohnM.Landsberg. BTW, you can edit the post yourself. –  John Smithers Mar 6 '13 at 17:37

"The lawyer told me that I didn't have a legal problem, but I had a problem that most often dealt with by an agent. I asked for clues about how to move forward and the lawyer said writers have very little power once the contract is signed."

I'm surprised any lawyer would tell a client with a contract question that they didn't have a legal problem. That's like a restaurant manager telling a customer who'd been served the wrong wine, "Hey, it's not me, you don't have a food problem." If you've a contract, you've a contract problem.

What you might not have is a contract solution. Most states will grant great deference to the contract, with the assumption being that you have negotiated the very outcome you received. There might be some wiggle room depending on the wording, but that is going to be very specific to the individual agreement you reached.

No contract can force you to commit a statutory wrong, however. If the editor's changes to your memoir wind up falsely casting someone in a bad light, or suggesting that you are culpable for some wrongdoing yourself, the contract itself might end up being nullified. Even if it isn't, you or someone else might have a tort suit if the changes were egregious enough. It all depends on the specifics of your situation.

Then there is the final question of how much your artistic integrity is worth to you. Any contract can be breached, but are you willing to accept the resulting penalties? Will doing so sour your relationship with the publisher? Will this publisher then tell the next publisher, making it difficult to get published elsewhere? Are the changes really that bad, or is it more about them changing your words without your permission?

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Another good answer. The problem in question might be a matter for a lawyer, but generally speaking, the lawyer was correct that this kind of problem usually falls to an agent, or to the writer. The exact substance, nature, quality, and quantity of editorial changes tend to fall below the level of the specifics of a contract. As a very crude illustration, a contract might say, "The publisher may request up to three full-text revisions without further compensation." The details of these revisions then are a matter of on-the-spot negotiations of the type we have discussed here. –  John M. Landsberg Mar 7 '13 at 6:30

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