Editing clauses are one of those publishing contract areas where there should be a balance between the publisher’s interests and the writer’s.
Publishers need a certain amount of latitude to edit a manuscript to prepare it for publication. They also need to have the right of final approval–they don’t want to be forced to publish a manuscript that the author can’t or won’t revise to their satisfaction.
Writers, on the other hand, need assurance that they will be a partner in the editing process, and that their work won’t be changed in major ways without their permission.
Whether you’re publishing an entire book, or a story in an anthology or magazine, the editing clause of your contract should ensure that content or line editing (the kind of serious editing that focuses on plot, pace, structure, style, and content) includes your cooperation in conjunction with the publisher’s editors (ideally, the editor will provide revision suggestions and you will carry them out yourself), and that alterations other than copy editing can’t be made without your consent. If the publisher isn’t happy with your revisions, or you don’t want to implement the publisher’s suggestions, the publisher’s remedy should be to refuse to publish–not to unilaterally impose changes, or, in a more extreme case, hire someone else to do the edits and charge you for it.
For copy editing–which is oriented to the correction of mechanical errors (typos, spelling/grammar mistakes, continuity, etc.) and formatting the ms. to the house style–the publisher usually has discretion. But you should have the opportunity to see and approve the copy edited manuscript before it goes to press.
Editing Clauses of Concern
Here’s an example of an editing clause that should be a dealbreaker (this and other clauses quoted below are taken from actual contracts in my possession):
Publisher shall have the right to edit and revise the Work for any and all uses contemplated under this Agreement.
What’s missing here? Any obligation on the publisher’s part to seek your approval before making the edits and revisions–or even allow you to see them before publication. A clause like this enables the publisher to edit at will without consulting or even informing you, and, if you do have the opportunity to see the edits, to unilaterally reject your concerns. If you sign a contract with this kind of language, you are at the mercy of the publisher and its editors. You shouldn’t be surprised if the publisher takes advantage of it.
This clause is more elaborate, but has the same effect (this type of language is fairly common, by the way; I’ve seen it in many contracts):
The Publisher shall be entitled to develop, alter, edit, and proof the content, usage, format, capitalization, punctuation, and spelling of the Work to conform to the Publisher’s style, the subject matter, and intended audience previously agreed upon by the parties of this Agreement.
Here’s another bad one, which is explicit about the publisher’s right to edit at will:
Publisher has the right of final approval of Author’s manuscript. Publisher will assign an editor to work with Author in making revisions. The Author agrees that Publisher can make editorial changes to the manuscript, including, but not limited to spelling, grammar and punctuation corrections, and abridgments of text without Author’s consent.
Less obviously a problem is something like this:
Publisher shall have the right to correct errors, and/or edit and revise the Work for any and all uses contemplated under this Agreement (collectively “Editing”), provided that the meaning of the Work is not materially altered.
Again, this is a very common formulation. On a surface reading, it appears to protect the work from major changes. But “provided that the meaning of the Work is not materially altered” can cover a huge amount of ground, including stylistic alterations, abridgements, additions, and all sorts of things that might not change your manuscript’s meaning but could seriously impact its tone and style.
For example, suppose you have a character who doesn’t speak grammatical English, but the publisher’s editor decides to correct all the character’s spoken “mistakes”. Or the editor has passive voice and/or adverb phobia, and re-formulates your entire manuscript to eliminate the word “was” and any word ending in “ly”, to sometimes nonsensical effect. Or the editor cuts all of your descriptive passages. Or the editor inserts their own writing into yours. (These are not hypotheticals: I’ve received documented complaints about all of them). Since the publisher isn’t required to consult you, you may not discover the changes until the proof stage; and while you can protest, the unilateral discretion given to the publisher in a clause like the one above means you may not prevail.
This one throws the author a bone, in the form of notification:
Publisher has the right of final approval of Author’s manuscript. Publisher will have the right to correct errors and revise the work for all purposes of this Agreement. The Author will be notified prior to any and all substantial changes.
But although this may prevent you from being blindsided by enormous changes in your finished book or story (or not–the publisher’s definition of “substantial” may not be the same as yours), it doesn’t give you the power to dispute or refuse those changes.
Alternatively, the publisher may be willing to give you input into the editing process, but reserves the right to ignore your suggestions:
Publisher shall have the right to edit and revise the Work for any and all uses contemplated under this agreement. Author shall be consulted if substantial changes are made, provided that in any dispute over such changes, Publisher’s decision shall prevail.
A related issue is a Revision clause, which may appear in addition to the editing language:
If the Publisher considers it necessary and in the best interests of the Work, the Author agrees to revise the Work on request of the Publisher. The provisions of this agreement shall apply to each revision of the Work by the Author as though that revision were the work being published for the first time under this agreement, except that the manuscript of the revised work shall be delivered in final form by the Author to the Publisher within a reasonable time after request for revision…Should the Author not provide a revision acceptable to the Publisher within a reasonable time, or should the Author be deceased, the Publisher may have the revision done and charge the cost of such revision against royalties due, or that may become due, the Author, and may display in the revised work, and in advertising, the name of the person, or persons, who revised the work.
While such a clause is appropriate for a work of nonfiction, which may need to be revised from time to time to keep it up to date, it does not belong in a fiction contract: novels and stories, once published, are rarely revised (at least, not while they remain with the original publisher). Literary agents routinely strike such clauses from fiction contracts, and so should you if the publisher will allow it. I’ve heard of at least one publisher that used a revision clause to unilaterally enforce unwanted edits…at the author’s expense.
What To Look For
Do clauses like these guarantee a negative outcome? Not necessarily. It’s entirely possible that the publisher will be conscientious and ethical, that you will be a full partner in the editing process, and everyone will wind up happy.
Problem is, you have no contractual assurance of this. These clauses give all the power to the publisher–and in publishing, the letter of the contract is the bottom line. You should never assume that what the contract says could happen, won’t happen. If the publisher has a dictatorial attitude toward its authors, or employs not-very-competent editors–both of which, unfortunately, are not uncommon, especially in the small press world–you could find yourself with a poorly-edited manuscript and no way to protest it or fix it. I have gotten hundreds of complaints over the years from authors who’ve found themselves in this position because the editing clauses in their contracts gave them no rights and offered them no protection.
So what should you look for? Here are several examples of better editing clauses, taken from various book contracts I’ve seen, including my own.
These two are good, though they’d be better if they mentioned copy editing:
The Publisher shall make no changes in, additions to, or eliminations from the manuscript, except for typographical, spelling, and grammatical errors, without Author’s consent. Any other edits will be requested of the author and agreed upon between the author and editor prior to preparation for sale.
Publisher has the right of final approval of Author’s manuscript. Publisher may assign an editor to work with Author in making revisions. The Author will be notified prior to any and all substantial changes, which will be made only with the Author’s approval and participation…Publisher may make corrections of typographical errors without Author’s consent.
This one does mention copy editing, ensuring that the author will see and have a chance to comment on the copy edited manuscript:
If the complete manuscript for the Work delivered by the Author is not acceptable to the Publisher, the Publisher shall give the Author a written request for changes and revisions for such work…After the Work has been accepted by the Publisher, no material changes may be made in such Work without the Author’s approval. However, the Publisher may copyedit the Work in accordance with its standards of punctuation, spelling, capitalization and usage. The Publisher shall send the copyedited manuscript to the Author, who shall make any revisions and corrections and return it within two weeks of receipt.
From an anthology contract:
The Publisher will make no major alterations to the Work’s text or title without the Author’s written approval. The Publisher reserves the right to make minor copy-editing changes.
And from a magazine contract:
The Publisher will make no alterations to the Work’s text or title without the Author’s written approval in e-mail or hardcopy. The Publisher reserves the right to make minor copyediting changes to conform the style of the text to its customary form and usage.
What’s common in all these clauses: the author’s consent is required before major changes are made.
If You Encounter a Bad Editing Clause…
Try to negotiate. Ask that the publisher add language ensuring that your consent is required for changes other than copy editing–a la the clauses directly above. Many publishers will be willing to be flexible–though not all. Especially in the small press world, publishers may flatly refuse any negotiation (which should tell you something about the publisher).
Don’t be swayed if the publisher assures you that in practice, you will always be consulted, or says something like “That’s just in there for the lawyers; we won’t do anything without your consent.” This may be true at that particular moment–but you have no guarantee that it will still be true at some future point. Extra-contractual assurances are not reliable (especially if your contract includes an Entire Agreement clause invalidating any promises or assurances that are not included in the contract itself). Again: never assume that what the contract says could happen, won’t happen.
Obviously, with even the best contract language, things can go wrong. But if you sign a contract that doesn’t protect your rights in the editing process, you are potentially making yourself vulnerable. Just another reason to be smart and careful out there.
For some tips on cultivating the right mindset when evaluating a publishing contract, see my 2020 blog post: Evaluating Publishing Contracts: Six Ways You May Be Sabotaging Yourself.