KOK Edit: Your favorite copyeditor since 1984(SM)
KOK Edit: your favorite copyeditor since 1984(SM) KOK Edit: your favorite copyeditor since 1984(SM) Katharine O'Moore Klopf

Friday, February 18, 2011

When an Author Goes Ballistic

I am pleased to present this blog's first-ever guest post. It was written by my colleague Carolyn Haley, a talented editor and author. She has some excellent advice for those rare occasions when we editors encounter authors who not only don't want to be edited but also are unprofessional in how they express their dislike of editing.

What do you do when an author goes ballistic over your edits and returns the manuscript loaded with vicious insults and rejecting all changes?

If that author is your private client, then you can respond as you see fit.

If you're employed by the author's publisher, then there's probably a code of conduct mapped out for you, or a manager who can advise you on the proper response.

If you're a freelancer hired by the publisher for this particular project, however, things aren't so simple. You've been made to look bad by people who could damage your reputation. Your weeks of careful and respectful work have been trashed, and your integrity, skill, and professionalism have been impugned. Like most folks, you'll want to storm away from the job or throttle the author!

Instead, you must freeze in place and let the anger wash through. Vent to your friends, family, colleagues—any place safe—so that you get it out of your system before reacting.

Next, be grateful that you're not the project coordinator, who has to deal directly with raging authors while handling irate contractors and stressed-out coworkers, under the eye of an employer who holds your livelihood in its hands. Yes, the situation could be worse!

To chart your way out of it, just remember that your obligation is to the hiring party—the publisher—as one business to another. The publisher's business is to produce the author's book; the editor's business is to apply a toolkit of skills that will polish the book to the publisher's standards.

Except in rare cases, the author has nothing to do with this relationship. The author, in fact, is out of the picture during the editing phase, until the manuscript is returned to him or her. At that point, the author's job is to accept or reject the changes, leaving you out of the picture until cleanup (if that's part of your job agreement). Either way, the author is not your responsibility.

So counterattacking would be foolish and would gain nothing beyond a short sense of relief. That relief might well be paid for down the road by losing the publisher client because you went around the coordinator to make a personal stab at the author, by inflaming the author into retaliation that escalates the affair into lunacy, or simply by harming your own energy because you've sustained a negativity loop that should have been cut and cauterized by moving on.

The coordinator is the only person you need interact with. Of course, you're probably mad at the coordinator too for passing along the author's venom without intervention. Such excuses as "Sorry, the author is a [bleep], but your work was OK, we still like you" don't cut it. The coordinator should share your offense and explain his or her position, saying something like "Yikes, this author is over the top! We think your edits are fine, but because of [ABC political or financial reason], we need you to stet as many changes as possible and only question the XYZ items so we don't all get fired or blow the publication schedule."

That's all it takes to defuse the outrage and reaffirm that you're a team. Some generous coordinators will go a step further, vetting the changes, striking out derogatory language, having a private word with the author, and sending you the manuscript with clear instructions. Unfortunately, that doesn't happen often.

In the absence of such support, you must initiate a boundary-defining chat with the coordinator. This chat has a two-part theme. On the professional side, convey that your priority is to serve the publisher's interests, which you believe are being compromised by the author's choices and downgrading the quality of the work to the point that it may cause embarrassment. Ask the coordinator for explicit directions on how to handle the author's responses because you find them so confusing and contradictory that you can't exercise your normal judgment. (Key concept here: Ask for help versus complaining.)

On the personal side, state that although the barrage of insults is unacceptable, you will happily be a good sport, because you love working with the organization, and who knew such a tirade was coming? We're all in this together, etc. But if anything like it happens again, you will return the manuscript and bill them for work completed to that minute. For this job, request that your name be mentioned nowhere in the final product. Then focus on getting instructions from the coordinator. Don't consider bailing out unless the coordinator turns hostile too.

Underneath it all, this is merely an exaggerated version of a common editing dilemma: being required to use house style that contradicts the Chicago Manual of Style or the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association or other authority on what constitutes good writing and clear language. In those cases, regardless of what you think and feel, the publisher’s preference rules. The same applies here.

So if the coordinator says, "Stet everything," then swallow your bile and stet it. If the coordinator directs otherwise, do that instead—even if asked to waste your time justifying every change to the author. Your goal is no longer to do the best job possible but to get this job off your desk ASAP and be paid for every bit of it, without closing the door to future work.

An author tantrum is a good opportunity to prove to the publisher that you are reliable and honest and professional and flexible, all of which might bump you up a rung on their contractor list and earn you more projects. It's an opportunity to honor old words of wisdom and make lemonade out of a lemon!


Carolyn Haley operates DocuMania, a freelance editing and writing service based in rural Vermont. She works with a diverse mix of commercial, environmental, and academic clients on their books and articles for publication, as well as teaches novice authors and editors.

Where to find Carolyn: businessLinkedIn profilebooksblogbook reviews


Anonymous said...

So refreshing to see a piece from an editor who is awere of her place in the publishing process. Too many editors seem to think their client is the author - this may be true in rare cases, but usully editor's client is the publisher, society or editorial office, so the editor should take care not to get personally or emotionally involved with the author. He who pays the piper plays the tune, and if the guests don't like it, that's not the piper's problem.

Katharine O'Moore-Klopf said...

I'm sorry to hear that you've encountered or know of lots of editors who break boundaries. I'm curious what publishing niche you work in.

I'm fortunate to know and correspond with plenty of editors from all over the world, through profession-related e-mail lists such as Copyediting-L and the private lists of the Editorial Freelancers Association and the American Medical Writers Association, who have no problem working within the chain of command. (Note: AMWA counts both writers and editors among its members.)

But some of us do work directly with authors; it's not as rare as might be your experience. For example, I edit medical-journal manuscripts for physician–researchers all over the world and rarely have contact with journal editors or in-house editorial staff members in those cases. Those authors pay me directly. At other times, my client is the journal publisher or a book publisher, and I have no contact with the author in those situations, other than to make sure that I employ a professional "manuscript-side manner" in my queries for the author.

Stephen Tiano said...

Perhaps my experience is way off the mark here, as I am a book designer/page comp artist, rather than an editor. However, 2010 was the busiest year I have ever had. And the largest part of that growth was due to the increase in self-publishing authors as clients.

Interestingly, 2009 was a disappointing year, yet it, too, featured significant growth in the amount of my income derived from self-publisher clients.

My point is that, more and more, working directly for authors is not the "rare" case, and, in fact, will likely continue to be the only expanding part of publishing ... at least in the near term.

Zetta Brown said...

I had some ugly experiences when I first started editing freelance. Lucky for me that the client publisher backed me up. Speaking as the EIC for our publishing house, we do have standards that we will maintain. So far, the authors we've worked with understand this because we make it clear that although we want THEIR work to shine, it also has OUR name on it as publisher.

Anonymous said...

Ah, this just happened today. A first-time author took umbrage at being "corrected" and reacted very defensively, complaining to the acquiring editor (I'm freelancing for a publishing house where I used to be a staff editor). He even objected to my pointing out that a graphic element was missing, saying that it was in the Figures MS (it wasn't).

So, taking a cheerful tone, I wrote to the production liaison and responded to the issues politely point by point; prefacing my message by saying I missed the old days when you could chat with a first-time author and prepare him/her for the process [this would involve talking about things like "house style," why we don't use boldface for emphasis of every other sentence, etc., which I did Not spell out in my email...].

I do hope that this smooths him down. But I have to fault the acq. editor for not looking at the MS and seeing how much work it would need: almost every paragraph was pocked with boldface phrases, bullets, numbered lists, boxes, you name it. "When you emphasize everything, you emphasize nothing," is the old adage about that. I know they have a ton of MSS to look at, but even a cursory inspection would have revealed this problem.

My two cents....

Katharine O'Moore-Klopf said...

I feel your pain, Anon No. 2. The amount of detail work that acquisition editors do on manuscripts has in general been steadily decreasing since the late 1980s. And it's only gotten worse since the bean counters decided that publishing must operate on a Fortune 500 financial model and since the medium in which we read has become electronic. When I work with publishers, I get plenty of book manuscripts that really aren't ready for copyediting, so that the copyeditor ends up having to do the kind of line editing that acquisitions editors used to do. Ah, the good old days!

Anyway, it sounds as if you handled the situation well.

Gwyn Nichols said...

Because I also work directly with author-clients, first we create understanding about what I do as a developmental editor. When authors are looking for final proofreading--and hoping I don't catch anything--I decline the project.

I have also had the financial disappointment and blessed luxury of firing an author with immature coping skills and another who loved my work and hated to pay for it.

Several times when authors insisted on hurting their work, it helped to remember whose name ends up on the cover. Of course, we editors notice when big publishers scrimp on editing, but critics and general readers hold only the author responsible for the results.

Cassie Tuttle said...

Words of wisdom, indeed! Thanks for sharing Carolyn's article, Kathy. And thanks to you and all the other folks on CE-L who have talked me through my recent author crisis.

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