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Ask Author Law

What constitutes a revision?

Ask Author Law is a Q&A blog about legal issues for authors. I am a practicing attorney, freelance writer, and publishing consultant. I focus my law practice on the representation of authors, often consulting with or serving as co-counsel to other attorneys on publishing cases. This information is for general purposes only and is not legal advice. Asking a question or reading an answer does not create an attorney-client relationship.

Q: My editor recently approached me about a doing a revision of a trade book I wrote for her several years ago. But when I found out that the “revision” involved nearly doubling the size of the book and substantially changing the tone, I declined. Now the editor has hired another writer to do the “revision.” The new writer is going to share the copyright with me, get a substantial advance and then get half of my royalties when it earns out. What can I do?

A: Your question raises several issues that revolve around the revision clause of your contract. You should look at that clause to determine whether your editor’s “revision” and the deal with the revising writer is consistent with your publishing contract. Unfortunately, a broad revision clause is an invitation for the publisher to select to a collaborator for you who will share your credit, your copyright and your royalties.

The revision clause will dictate what amount of work may qualify as a revision, when the revision can take place and how the process will be handled. If revision is undefined in your contract, your editor will have some latitude in arguing that her plan is a revision. Ideally, however, your revision clause will include a definition of revision that caps the amount of new matter at no more than 25%. You should address this point when you negotiate the any future contract. If your editor is suggesting changes outside the scope of a permissible “revision” in your contract, you should bring this to her attention. If on the other hand, you have a broadly defined revision clause, then a major overhaul of your book is probably within their rights.

Another issue is copyright ownership of the newly-added material. The ownership of material added by the revision is less likely to become an issue if the amount of material added is small (i.e. a true revision). The issue becomes more complicated when a contract has an overly broad revision clause that permits a publisher to double the size of the work. But again, you must start with the contract - new material added to the book by a revising writer will either belong to the publisher (if the revision is a work made for hire/assignment) or the reviser (no work made for hire/assignment).

Your question also raises the issue of authorship credit. Some revision clauses are silent on the issue, while others give control to either the publisher or the author. Obviously, an author would want the contractual right to sole credit for his work, even if another author is hired to do a revision. In addition, look for a provision that permits you to withdraw your name if you don’t like the book.

The final issue is how you and the revising author will be paid. The revision clause will provide (some more clearly than others) how the payment will be made to a person hired to revise the work in the event that you decline to do so. Some contracts provide for sharing of royalties (on a pro rata basis or by a simple split). Others provide that the publisher will deduct the “actual cost of preparing the revision” from the royalties due to the author. In the latter case, the revising writer is paid a simple fee that will probably have to be earned out.

After looking at your contract, you’ll find that either your editor’s plan is within the contract or it’s not. If it’s not, or the clause is ambiguous on any the substantial issues, you should contact your editor, your agent, or your attorney to attempt to resolve the matter. If nothing else, be prepared to address these issues in your next negotiation.  Read More 
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