Can someone else revise my book?

Q. The contract for my new nonfiction book has a revision clause that says that if I don’t revise the book, the publisher can choose the reviser and pay the person from amounts that would otherwise be paid to me under my contract. This seems pretty broad since it means the reviser can get everything and I could get nothing. What changes do you suggest I ask for in this section?

A. The best thing to do is substitute language saying that the book can’t be revised unless both you and the publisher agree. That way, you don’t have to worry about the issue or spend time negotiating the clause until the situation arises.

Some publishers of certain nonfiction books, especially textbooks, won’t agree to this. In that case, there are at least four changes you should make in the clause (and which most publishers are amenable to):

  1. Provide that if you are unable to do the revision (or simply don’t want to), you will have the right to choose the reviser (subject to the publisher’s consent, not to be unreasonably withheld) and determine the amount to be paid to that person. Also provide that if you are dead, your estate will have that right. This should ensure that the monies paid to the person doing the revision are reasonable and commensurate with the amount of work the person is required to do.
  2. Provide that if neither you nor the estate exercises this right, the fee paid to the reviser has to be negotiated on an arms-length basis. This could lessen the possibility that particularly favorable terms are given to a friend of the editor or publisher or to a company employee. It will also help, if you can get it, to add that the compensation paid to the reviser won’t exceed what is traditional and customary for the type of book involved and the type of revisions to be done (both, admittedly, fuzzy concepts but you get the idea).
  3. Provide that the reviser’s work will be done on a work for hire basis, with the copyright in that work to be in your name. This will facilitate your republishing your book (with another publisher or as an ebook) if the revised edition goes out of print and the rights revert to you. It is particularly appropriate since, even if the publisher pays that person an advance, that amount will ultimately be deducted from royalties and subsidiary rights income otherwise payable to you.
  4. In situations where neither you nor your estate select the reviser, limit the amount paid to that person that can be deducted from amounts otherwise payable to you, especially if the amount payable is stated as a percentage of what you would otherwise get. In particular, if the reviser will be getting royalties, limit the percentage of your royalties that can be paid. It’s okay for the percentage to increase each time a new revision is done without you, but it should never reach 100 percent or even get close to it. Remember, the book became successful enough for the publisher to want to revise and republish it because of your work on the book at the start (whether because of how it was structured, what you wrote or because of your reputation). You and your heirs should always be entitled to a percentage of every revised edition — no matter how much it changes — because of that. In my opinion, that percentage should never go below 25 percent no matter how often the book has been revised, though you may think it should be higher or lower and should use your own judgment in negotiating that.

(Originally published in the Summer 2011 issue of the Authors Guild Bulletin. © Mark L. Levine)

Answers to questions on this site are general in nature only. You should consult a lawyer for information about a particular situation. For more information about book publishing contracts and issues, see Levine’s book.