“When things start to get that annoying in the editing process, I start to check out,” says Gabe Arana, an editor at the American Prospect. “I’ll take a really long time to get back to them. A new draft will come in, and I can’t bring myself to open it.”
So, if you should have heard back and you haven’t, odds are, the person on the other side of the email chain is stewing over your stubbornness, trying to convince their boss to kill the piece entirely, or cursing your name and every edit you made to whoever they can get to listen. If this sort of dodging goes on long enough, it can mean accidental death for the story: I heard about one editorial fight that went on so long that the institution the story was investigating changed its practices for the better, leaving the editor with no choice but to kill the story entirely, after months of work.
You don’t have a contract.
It’s these sorts of bad situations that contracts were made for—they’re a guide for how both parties should behave. But plenty of editors and writers send and sign contracts without thinking much about what’s in them. And often they work without a contract at all.
“Officially, we frown upon it. But I think everyone does it,” says Kim Kavin, who heads the American Society of Journalist and Authors’ contracts and conflicts committee. And, of course, “it’s inevitably one of those cases where something goes weird,” she says.
Suddenly, you’ve sunk hours, or weeks, of work into a project, and the assigning editor is fired. Or, even worse, your story’s already been published, and now the publication’s asking you to sign a contract on terms that are terrible for you—asking, for instance, for film rights to a story you think has more than half a chance of being a decent movie.
In theory, writers have some power in this situation. “The default under copyright is that the creator of the work owns the copyright in the work,” says Jonathan Hart, a lawyer who specializes in media at Cooley, a Washington, DC-based firm. Even if a writer agrees to publish a story, without a written contract, it’s not necessary clear what rights (digital, print, re-publication, and so forth) the publisher has. But if you haven’t been paid yet and the accounting department won’t cough up your fee unless you sign this contract, that won’t feel like much power at all. In the worst case, a Web publication might even take your piece down from its site—and good luck trying to sell it elsewhere once it’s damaged goods.
One of the strange features of bad editorial breakups is that, even with the editor-writer relationship in shambles, the story they patched together will often get published anyway. Once a story is assigned, the incentives, on both sides, align so strongly that often the estranged parties just grit their teeth and finish. Relief comes only with publication. Editors keep blacklists of writers they’ll never work with again; writers try to forget the story ever happened. (“What’s worse than a subtweet? Not acknowledging an article with your byline has even appeared,” Friedman wrote.)
Of course, sometimes stories do get killed. In a clean breakup, where an editor kills a piece, the writer usually gets to keep his reporting and whatever writing he’s done up to that point.
It can get messier, though. If the editor proposed the idea to begin with, maybe he gave the writer information or data that the publication wants to keep. If the writer is particularly well known, in rare instances, she might have retained the power to reject edits—or take her name off the piece, if she thinks its quality is below her. But in most cases, once a writer submits a draft, if the editor still wants to publish the work, he can, with or without the author’s input.
“Typically, the publisher retains editorial control over the work,” Hart says. “Once the author submits the work, an editor can turn it into something the editor deems publishable.”
That may be a better outcome than the alternative: Your editor doesn’t kill or publish the piece, which means she doesn’t pay you. “When people come to our committee, it has usually gotten to the point where they’ve gone round and round, they believe they fulfilled the assignment, and the publication still won’t pay,” says Kavin. The best way to avoid this fate is to make sure your contract specifies that you’ll be paid on acceptance of the piece—not on publication. Or even better, argue for a contract that specifies that the editor has to either accept the piece or pay a kill fee within a certain timeframe.