A War of Words

Earlier this week, I received a newsletter for authors from one of my former publishing houses. I still earn royalties from them, as they still have rights to some of my books, so they consider me one of their authors, even though I haven’t written for them for years. This newsletter is always amusing to me because it has such a hard spin in favour of traditional publishing – as if no other options exist for authors. This week, it made me laugh out loud.

Then shake my head.

One of the lead articles was on the topic of what editors look for in a first draft. The implication is that these “rough drafts” are the book manuscripts submitted for consideration at the publishing house. The reality is that no rough draft would ever be submitted to any editor at this publishing house. The house requires all submissions to be agented, and no agent would send a rough draft to a Big Six house. Increasingly, over the past decade, editors would not acquire a book for publication that was not already essentially edited and ready to be published – which shifted the editorial responsibility to agents. As the market has grown tougher, even agents are unwilling to take on a book that isn’t a “slam dunk” (there’s a phrase I’ve heard too often this year), which means the business of freelance editors has grown astronomically. Authors are taking on the responsibility for the bulk of editing themselves, at their own expense. I know NYT bestselling authors who use a freelance editor (if not two) before delivering their books to their editor at their publishing house.

So, what’s all this talk about “rough drafts”?

What’s going on here is a war of words and it started a while ago. I had an editor a few years ago who also liked to call my delivered book manuscript “a rough draft”. I took issue with her over this, as I never show anybody my rough drafts, and I certainly don’t deliver them to my editor for publication. Doing so would also put me (and any other author) in violation of the publishing contract, which stipulates that the author will deliver a book manuscript suitable for publication — not a rough draft. This editor told me that I was being too picky and that it was “just semantics”. It is just semantics, but words are our business as writers and should be the business of editors, too.

It’s also not an accidental choice of words. At the same time as the editorial role of the editor diminished, there has been a decided attempt on the part of publishers to highlight the editor’s role in the process of preparing the book for publication. Think about it. When the author delivers a book manuscript to the publishing house, the editor’s role is subsidiary. The editor should make suggestions to strengthen the work , or to make it more of what it already is. In changing the terms used in this process – from “book manuscript” to “rough draft”, for example – there is a deliberate effort to make the editor a key contributor in the process of bringing the book to market. This same editor of mine used to always talk about how we were “partners”, that we were “working together” and often how we needed to adhere to her vision of the story, etc. etc. The underlying idea, of course, is that editors are so crucial to the process that an author couldn’t possibly publish a book without a traditional publishing house and the services it provides.

Further, editors in recent years have become more concerned with ensuring the marketability of the works they edit, which means ensuring they have hooks in the stories that the sales team likes to present to clients. Publishing is and always has been a risky business – no one knows what will sell until it does – and this is an attempt to diminish risk. If Twilight sold well, then all YA books should be just like Twilight, so they, too, will sell well. (We won’t explore that logic today. You can just shake your head along with me.) Instead of suggesting the inclusion of what they see as key elements, editors insist upon them – as equal partners in the process of developing the book, they see this as their right.

This editorial shift toward editors determining more of each book’s content moves the traditional publishing model closer to work for hire. There’s nothing wrong with work for hire, but it’s a different kind of work. Work for hire means that the publisher comes up with the story idea, retains the copyright on the work, and is totally in charge of all editorial decisions. Traditionally, work for hire was published under a pseudonym owned by the publisher (think of those Hardy Boys mysteries) and the writer’s involvement stopped with the delivery of the book. All marketing was done by the house for the house-owned brand. Traditionally, work for hire paid very well, too. Now, it seems to me that publishers want the editorial control of contracted work as if it was work for hire, even if it isn’t. That means they don’t have to pay work for hire rates, plus the author still needs to do all the marketing and promo. In a way, it’s the best of both worlds – for the publisher.

For the author, not so much. I’ve done work for hire and learned a lot from the experience. But when it’s my book, my idea, my name on the cover, my marketing efforts behind the book and my brand, the editorial content should not be forcibly defined or modified by the publisher. That also means I deliver a finished book manuscript, suitable for publication, not a “rough draft”.

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