A couple years ago I ran a post speculating that as authors got the rights back to books they had sold to publishers, we would start seeing “author’s cut” editions self-published. I hadn’t really seen anything like that come across my reading/writing-blog spheres, and I completely forgot about the question. Until this week. On Friday I saw a post on The Passive Voice about how a fantasy author was finally releasing a sequel to his first book because he and his publisher dissolved their contract.
Turns out John D. Brown got his work freed from his contract with Tor over creative differences – not just books two and three in the trilogy, but the first book, as well. Not only that, but he went back and re-edited the reverted book to his original vision of the story. The changes weren’t major – shuffling opening chapters the publisher had asked him to move and adding a bit of denouement to the end that sets up his version of book two better – but yet those changes ARE major in the sense that they represent a re-exertion of artistic control over the story. Making the changes to the text in the first place was a compromise that represented getting the work published/not getting it published and were not major enough for him to walk away over. Unlike, apparently, the changes the editor wanted for the second book. Now he has the confidence in his own storytelling, and a viable alternative to a large publisher, to be able to actually publish his story…not a compromised second draft re-written to a publisher’s aesthetic or perceived market imperative.
This story makes me feel all warm and fuzzy on the inside. One of the biggest drawbacks, to me, of working with a publishing house is fear of this sort of artistic tinkering. My thought on it is that a novel should be treated like a boyfriend (or girlfriend) – you take it the way it is, not on condition of “if you change x, y, and z.”
I don’t want it to sound like I don’t believe in editing or that a macro-editor (story editor, content editor, etc. – basically I just mean not a line/copy editor or proofreader) can never be of value to a writer. But the writer should have the final say in what the story is. An editor can point out where something doesn’t work or is a miscue or a hundred other problems, but the writer is the one who should then be left to work out a solution to that problem. It might not actually be in that scene, but an earlier scene where a character’s action/thought/etc. wasn’t emphasized properly, or a later scene where what was supposedly set up for the character in the “problem” scene isn’t drawn on. And editors are humans; they can fall prey to the same mindset as readers, of expecting one genre/subgenre/trope/mood only to be dissatisfied with a story that turns out to be something else. Maybe the miscue was because of something the writer did early on, or maybe it was just the editor’s own expectation of how the story should play out. In any case, in my opinion, a good editor will point out the issues and offer possible suggestions but ultimately leave it up to the writer how they want to handle addressing that problem. (I know for me, with my beta readers, 80% the time they find a problem and offer a suggestion, I address the problem in a different way that feels more in line with my vision for the story. When their suggestion is exactly what I would do had I seen the problem on my own, then I take it.)
Beyond the fact that editors should be pointing out problem areas but not demanding (or even urging) specific fixes, editors at publishing houses are working for businesses who want to maximize the market appeal of their products. They have a vested interest in either providing what the market wants (or seems to want) or avoiding what the market seems not to want. Often, in my observed experience as a reader, publishers rush to produce “more of the same” and in doing so pander to the audience that wants that sameness while snubbing the audience that wants something different. Therefore, the changes requested by a publishing house editor are not necessarily to bring the writer’s intention with the story into sharper focus – sometimes they are to blunt it or change it entirely.
All of that is long-winded way of saying, the only person who should have dominion over the tone and execution of a story is the author, and I am very happy that Brown had a strong enough sense of vision not to compromise his story and that he was able to negotiate a return of all his rights in order to give his readers the real story.
If you care to read John’s account, here are the relevant posts: