Kathryn Page Camp
Sometimes the conversation between an author and an editor resembles this one between Alice, the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, and the Dormouse:
“Do you mean that you can find out the answer to it?” said the March Hare.
“Exactly so,” said Alice.
“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.
“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least—at least I mean what I say—that’s the same thing, you know.”
“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “Why, you might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!”
“You might just as well say,” added the March Hare, “that ‘I like what I get’ is the same thing as ‘I get what I like’!”
“You might just as well say,” added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, “that ‘I breathe when I sleep’ is the same thing as ‘I sleep when I breathe’!”
After you sell your book to a publisher, the editorial relationship changes. You are no longer the boss. Ideally, you will work with the publisher to reach a compromise that you can both live with. Or, as often happens, you may realize that the editor’s changes improve the book. You probably did mean “I breathe when I sleep” rather than “I sleep when I breathe.”
But what if, for whatever reason, you said “I sleep when I breathe” on purpose? Changing the wording could affect more than a single sentence or paragraph. If the publisher’s edits don’t change the focus or the overall style of the book, however, you may choose to shrug them off. That’s what I did with the first edition of In God We Trust. Actually, I had a good relationship with the editor. Still, there were some edits that weren’t worth arguing over.
It’s different when an editor wants to change the book’s philosophy or structure. What does a writer do then?
First, consider the editor’s suggestions. Maybe they make the book stronger. But if they change the overall philosophy of the book or violate your purpose in writing it, you may be left with two unattractive choices: (a) let the publisher have its way or (2) break the contract and take the consequences. The best way to avoid this issue is to do your research and know what you are getting into before signing the contract.
I wrote Writers in Wonderland for the average writer, not for academics or other lawyers. I needed a hook to get and keep my audience’s interest in what many consider a dry subject, so I went with a Lewis Carroll theme. When I submitted the proposal to publishers, I received a number of encouraging responses but only one bite. It came from an academic publisher that wanted me to tone down the Lewis Carroll references. Since that would have eliminated the hook and limited my audience, I declined the offer and ended up self-publishing.
If I had already entered into a contract, however, I probably would have given in and mourned the changes forever after. Unfortunately, that’s part of a writer’s reality.
So before you enter into a contract with a traditional publisher, consider what kind of editorial relationship you are likely to have. If you think you can live with it, go ahead and sign. But remember this:
When the editor pays you, it has the final say.
The drawing at the top of this post is by John Tenniel and was one of the original illustrations for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The quoted passage is also from that book. The image and the text are both in the public domain because of their age.
Kathryn Page Camp is a licensed attorney and full-time writer. Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal was a Kirkus’ Indie Books of the Month Selection for April 2014. The second edition of Kathryn’s first book, In God We Trust: How the Supreme Court’s First Amendment Decisions Affect Organized Religion, was released on September 30, 2015. You can learn more about Kathryn at www.kathrynpagecamp.com.