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Literary Contracts: Contracts Not Optional

by Jen Boucle

It's an interesting relationship, that between authors and editors. Sometimes it's strong and mutually beneficial; occasionally it's abrasive. I'm particularly aware of this particular relationship, as I sit in both seats: I'm an author who is edited, and an editor who works with other authors. That's reasonably unusual, and it gives me a lot of perspective.

Today someone on one of my professional internet discussion lists brought up one example of the author-editor relationship gone badly wrong. A Croation writer had a translated short story published in an American literary journal, only finding after publication that a number of the edits were unwarranted—and uncommunicated to her:

"As no one contacted me about any edits, I presumed everything was fine with the story. Imagine then my astonishment when the Anthology arrived at my doorstep (in December 2010) and I realized that a diligent Dalkey editor not only made quite a few interventions in the text, but they also inserted (!) a piece of text that changed/determined sex of my narrator! As this gender/sex ambiguity is one of the thematic pillars of my story, this benevolent editorial intervention (which made the narrator a man and the relationship heterosexual!) completely changed my story, its aims and effects. To be sure, the author is not, nor can they be, the owner of the interpretation, but surely they should be the owner of their text? The copy editor's job is not to rewrite or retell the story in their own words—but rather to intervene as little as possible and if they do change something, to check with the author before the text goes to print."

She has some legitimate gripes, there's no question about that. The editing was heavy-handed at best and unconscionable at worst. I understand her rage.

But … let's look a little earlier in the story:

"All seemed well; no one from Dalkey contacted me except to sign a contract that allowed the publisher to use the story, or parts of it, for their advertising and other purposes. There was nothing in the contract about the text of the story itself, nothing about editorial interventions, proofreading etc."

Aye, there's the rub. There was nothing in the contract about the text of the story itself…".

She learned, the hard way, the value of spelling everything out in a contract signed by both parties. I learned it the hard way, too. In my case, the offer on my second novel came in and I couldn't sign the contract quickly enough. They're paying me to do what I love? Hot damn! I'm not sure that I even read the contract. I lost a lot of control (like the Croatian author, above), and I lost a lot of money.

I learned a lot.

So here's the hope: learn from those of us who had to learn the hard way! Never, ever, ever make an assumption about what a publisher is going to do. Have it spelled out. If it isn't spelled out in the contract you're offered, insist on it—or at least open a conversation about your needs and decide on the basis of that conversation whether to sign the contract. Most publishers are willing to negotiate points on their contracts; and it's in everyone's best interests to be absolutely clear about what the relationship you're going into entails.

Don't make assumptions, ever. And then you'll be … beyond the elements of style!