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 editing (the kind of serious editing that focuses on plot, pace, structure, style, and content) includes your cooperation (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.
For copy editing, by contrast, the publisher usually has discretion. But you should have the opportunity to see and approve the copy edited manuscript before it goes to press.
Red Flag Editing Clauses
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. A clause like this allows the publisher to edit at will without consulting or even informing you. If you sign a contract with this kind of language, you are at the mercy of the publisher and its editors (and if it's a small press, those editors may not be very qualified). You shouldn't be surprised if the publisher takes advantage of it.
This clause is more elaborate, but has the same effect (this 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. Many authors skip right over it, because on a surface reading it appears to protect the work from major changes. Not so. "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 change its tone and style. Plus, the publisher is not required to consult you or get your permission before making those changes--and if you don't like the changes, you may not be able to persuade the publisher to undo them.
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), you have no 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 clause like this one, 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.This is a Revision clause. While it's 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, once published, are not typically revised. If you see a revision clause in your contract, negotiate with the publisher to remove or strike 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
Are clauses like the ones above a guarantee of malfeasance? 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, or employs not-very-competent editors, or is just a deadbeat--all of which, unfortunately, are pretty common in the small press world--you could find yourself with a badly-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:
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.
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.
The Publisher shall request that the Author work cooperatively with the Publisher to make the Work satisfactory to the Publisher, in which event Author shall use best efforts to do so...Upon acceptance by the Publisher, no changes shall be made in the Work without the author's approval, except that the Author authorizes the Publisher to make the manuscript of the Work conform to its standard style in punctuation, spelling, capitalization and usage.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 serious changes are made.
What to do if the publisher that has just made you an offer has a bad editing clause in its contract?
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. If they aren't, as hard as it seems, you may want to seriously consider moving on.
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. 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 really 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 recent blog post: Evaluating Publishing Contracts: Six Ways You May Be Sabotaging Yourself.