Thursday, July 28, 2011

Lesson 7: When the Book and the Publisher Clash

You've signed the contract, submitted the book, and told your Facebook friends that you are going to be a published author.

Then you get the publisher's edits and gasp because they change the look and feel of the story and eliminate your voice. Or worse, the publisher ignored your Christian worldview and turned your novel into something that glorifies sin.

Researching publishers before you submit is your best defense against the publisher that doesn't "get" your book. The contract is your next best defense.

Ideally, you want your contract to require your consent to any changes other than copyedits that conform the manuscript to the publisher's style manual. Second-best is language requiring the publisher to consult with you before making changes. But if the contract lets the publisher make the final decision and you are worried that it won't honor your Christian message, you may be better walking away without signing.

But here's another scenario. You get a a letter from the publisher telling you the book isn't good enough and it has decided not to publish your masterpiece. AND the publisher wants the advance back.

Most contracts contain a clause requiring the author to deliver a "satisfactory manuscript." Since many books are sold on proposals, this is how publishers protect themselves from wasting money on a bad book.

Doubleday & Company entered into a two-book contract with actor Tony Curtis. With the help of a skillful, hands-on editor, Doubleday turned the first novel into a commercial success. The second novel ended up with a different editor, who also provided detailed critiques and comments. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough. In the end, Doubleday determined that the manuscript was unsalvageable and asked for its advance back. When Curtis refused, Doubleday sued and won.*

So can a publisher use this clause as an excuse to terminate a contract merely because it has lost interest? That may be true if the contract simply calls for a "satisfactory manuscript" but not if it calls for one that is satisfactory "in form and content," as most do. When this additional language is included, the courts impose a good faith obligation on the publisher: an obligation that appears, at a minimum, to require the publisher to give the author a chance to revise and resubmit the manuscript and may also require minimal editing assistance. But even that may not help if the contract says you get only one shot or no editing help.

The best contract for you (as the author) will allow you to keep any advances the publisher has already paid unless you sell the book to a different publisher. In that event, you would have to pay back only as much as you get from the second publisher. However, if the contract allows a publisher to simply terminate the contract for any reason before the book is published, the contract should allow you to keep the entire amount you have already received. This protects you when the publisher simply changes its mind.

If the publisher has seen your entire manuscript before entering into the contract, it may not need a "satisfactory manuscript" clause. Even so, if the publisher considers your manuscript to be a diamond in the rough, it may want the clause in case the polished version doesn't sparkle.

As a reader and a consumer, I like "satisfactory manuscript" clauses that weed out some badly written books. And although it can be abused, the clause protects me as an author, too.

Because I don't want to build my reputation on a book that isn't good.

Kathryn Page Camp

* Doubleday & Co., Inc. v. Curtis, 763 F.2d 495 (2nd Cir. 1985).


  1. Very interesting article, Kathryn. Thank you! It makes a good argument in favor of agents, who would know the ins and outs of the contract maze. Of course, securing a good agent is another matter.

    Write on!

    Because of Christ,
    Sharon Kirk Clifton

  2. This is so good to know, Kathryn! Thanks. :)