The Contract Doctor Is In - Session # Three

The Contract Doctor Is In

Session # Three

by Bill Minor
copyright © 2001 Bill Minor

Contract Doc: One · Two · Three · Four

The "relationship" between editors and writers is fascinating: mutually fulfilling on occasion, holding fortunate rapport; and, on others, just plain frustrating. There are the legendary tales of Maxwell Perkins/Thomas Wolfe "marriage" or accord, of course, in which an editor actually enhances (through relentless paring down or focus) the work of an author. And there's the fascinating case of James Thurber and Harold Ross. Thurber himself was first hired as an editor at the New Yorker (in days when, office space and supplies at a premium, Dorothy Parker squelched Ross' criticism of her not showing up to write a piece on time with her reply, "Somebody was using the pencil"), and he went on to establish -- as a writer -- a "growling bulldog and trembling poodle" relationship that would eventually turn into solid friendship ("[Ross] was one of the closest and most important persons in my life," Thurber wrote). Would that we all could be so fortunate! Like ordinary foot soldiers or impressed sailors, or even seasoned lovers, every writer has a tale to tell about her or his relationship with an editor: the High Command or Superior Officers of our trade. Tales of woe, or tales of workable relations. Cross-purposes or co-operation. And what writer has not submitted an article or even a book length manuscript, had it approved and accepted for publication, only to discover -- once the thing is staring you in the face, in print, indelible -- that the work bears disturbingly little resemblance to what was originally submitted?

One of my favorite instances of such discrepancy occurred when, doing reviews of jazz performances for a local paper (I won't say where, just to protect the not-so-innocent), I would find -- once they were printed -- that an entire paragraph (or two!) had been stripped away in favor of an ad sold to the Nu-Art Theater, an "adult" operation in town (which made it pretty clear just what the publication's value system preferred). Or, when I was doing book reviews for a major Midwestern paper, my editor (acting as censor) would simply lop off any negative, or compromising, opinions I may have offered regarding the work of an author soon coming to town on a book tour.

I don't intend -- using myself as guinea pig -- to fill this column with personal horror stories (although I probably could!), but one of a writer's worse nightmares is, involved in a large project (such as a book), having an editor with whom one has worked compatibly (right up to the production stages), suddenly leave the press for a better job elsewhere and turn the project over to an editor who tells you, flat out, that he/she would never have approved of the book in the first place. Ouch! And watch out for what follows. Again, to protect the not-so-innocent, I won't mention any names, but I think you can imagine the consequences of such an abrupt change. At such a time, it may not hurt to call in a little help from your friends: in some cases I've been told (sticking with the ypothetical, ho ho), an excellent Grievance Officer with the National Writer's Union. I don't think cases of editorial "abuse" or unwarranted "editing" abound, but they do occur; so just what can a writer do to protect oneself from them? Well, lots, but it's best to make provisions for yourself, to protect yourself or take up "preventive medicine" (so to speak), before any infraction -- that is, beyond-the-call-of-duty editing -- takes place. There is not, unfortunately, all that much you can do after, unless you are willing to file a grievance. And this brings us back to contracts, which, properly negotiated should safeguard against and allow you to avoid any such instances of unwarranted or unanticipated editorial infringement.

We've already discussed copyright (making sure its yours, and getting it properly registered). Actually, on the latter score, it should be -- in a good book contract -- up to the publisher to not only register the copyright ("in compliance with U.S. copyright law") but guarantee that "every copy of the Work" will include a copyright notice "in the Author's name," including all editions of the Work issued by licensees. Once again, copyright is an excellent reminder (for everyone concerned) that The Work is truly yours, with regard to both content and style.

I should more than likely devote a separate column to the tricky matter of subsidiary rights (and I will someday), but let's move on to what can be done to insure that the manuscript you submit to an acquisitions editor, once the work has been "accepted" (which does not guarantee, unfortunately, that it will end up in print), will -- if and when it does end up in print -- bear a favorable resemblance to what you wrote. In the National Writers Union Guide to Book Contracts (available to NWU members; but excellent information can also be found in the National Writers Union Freelance Writers' Guide, available to everyone, and a book I highly recommend for all practitioners of our art), these matters come up under "Manuscript Delivery" (or in Philip Mattera's fine "Building a Better Book Contract," under "The Manuscript and the Book" specifically, in the Freelance Writers' Guide).

A contract should stipulate the estimated length of the manuscript to be delivered, but watch out that you don't get caught in a discrepancy between page length and word count (as I once did, the editor pointing out that their manuscript pages contained fewer words than mine, and demanding that I remove a substantial portion -- 35,000 words! -- of the work). "Permissions" are important, obviously (you will not be allowed to retain what hasn't been approved for use); but most important of all is actual contract language stating that, once editorial guidelines have been established (and get those in writing! so that you'll have a substantial "paper trail" to prove that -- should you find it necessary to do so; and no matter what any subsequent editor might claim -- you have been following the initially prescribed editorial guidelines), no "substantive changes" can be made to the final manuscript "without the consent of the author." Contracts generally attach a clause regarding "Production" considerations, stating the publisher's right to copyedit the manuscript to make it conform to "accepted standards of spelling, grammar," etc., but I'd try to get language that makes it clear that, with regard to the entire editing process that leads to production, "substantive changes" cannot be made without your approval.

And, should the submitted manuscript be found "unsatisfactory," a good contract will require the publisher to present a detailed written statement of "perceived deficiencies" (with a clause stating that the publisher will convey such comments, regarding "acceptability," within a specific time frame; say, 60 days of manuscript delivery). An editor's desired revisions should be clearly, specifically, conveyed; and mutually agreed upon -- along with a "mutually acceptable deadline for the delivery of the revised manuscript." That way you can protect yourself against any (and hopefully all) unpleasant surprises that might appear once the book is in print.

Can anything be done about a sudden change in editors? Of course.

You can build a clause into the contract that states that, if at any time during the writing, editing or production of the Work, the acquiring editor (and cite name) departs (becomes "disassociated from the Work for any reason"), the previously approved editorial guidelines will be adhered to, will remain in effect with the new editor or, should push come to shove and the situation grow unbearable, you can terminate the contract with some measure of aplomb (but more than likely not your "advance," unless you fight.

Another area that writers tend to overlook is "Production decisions," or creative control: the most important of which is the dust jacket copy or advance "pitch" for the book (make sure that it's aligned with what you feel is most important, and most marketable, about the work).

You can also go for a clause that gives you consultation rights and guarantees that "all creative decisions" (including cover design) shall be subject "to the approval of the author."

Does the same hold true for standard journalism contracts? Not in terms of "scope," obviously, and periodical editors or publishers may attempt to convince you that they haven't time, once an article is assigned, for such considerations (even though they may miraculously find time -- perhaps too much time -- to delay printing the piece). But a solid journalism contract should provide provisions for (1) printing and payment within a set time frame after "initial receipt" of the assigned article, (2) a clear stipulation of subsidiary rights the publisher retains, and those which you shall keep (especially "electronic reproduction"), and a guarantee that the publisher/editor will make "every reasonable effort" to make the final, edited version of the article available to you for approval "while there is still time to make changes."

Journalism contracts would more than likely make a good, suitable, and important topic for discussion at our next sesssion at our next session, don't you think? Until then, the Contract Doctor is "in" again, and any responses to or questions about what has been presented here will be appreciated -- and responded to.

JJA member Bill Minor, an authorized grievance officer for the National Writers Union, will convalesce fast from knee surgery to be on hand and foot at the annual Monterey Jazz Festival.

Discussion on this article may be carried out on our BBS. If you want to send the doctor a totally anonymous message, use the form here.