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Acceptable Manuscript Clause  

The duties and dangers of the "acceptable manuscript" clause in a book contract.

I was once offered a book contract which had an "acceptable manuscript" clause in it which would have permitted the publisher, after having received my completed manuscript, to declare the manuscript "unacceptable" without giving me an explanation or a chance to defend myself, or to appeal the decision or remedy any "flaws." If the ms was declared "unacceptable," I was to repay my advance in full, at once. Furthermore, the clause allowed the publisher to publish the manuscript in book form (despite its having been declared "unacceptable"), and to put my name on the cover and title page as the author, and to use my photo for publicity purposes!

When I called the publisher, outraged, the response was "It's a standard boilerplate legal form, and everybody signs it."

Neither statement was true!

Needless to say, I didn't sign. What would be the point? The contract allowed me nothing but the chance that I might be paid something for my work.

Most guidebook publishers have "acceptable manuscript" clauses, because most publishers get burned now and then by authors who turn in truly substandard work. I don't blame them for wanting the clauses.

I've signed contracts with "acceptable manuscript" clauses which gave the publisher sole discretion in deciding if a manuscript was acceptable or not. I've done it because of good, strong relationships with the publisher. But I'd prefer that the "acceptable" decision was to be done according to "general standards of acceptability within the industry," and was appealable to at least an arbitrator.

Most acceptable manuscript clauses provide for the return of money (advances) paid to you. They shouldn't. Both author and publisher are assuming risks when they agree to begin a project. The publisher has placed his confidence in you by accepting you as the writer on the project. You are going to spend considerable sums in expenses to get the work done. If you incur those expenses in a good faith effort to do the job, and if then for some unforseen reason the work cannot be completed (war, revolution, natural disaster, serious illness), or if the publisher capriciously judges your work "not acceptable," it should not be your burden to indemnify the publisher.

Most of the time, if the work ends in disaster, the author doesn't have the money to repay the advance anyway, or has skipped town, or stonewalls. Publishers rarely get their advances back (except if the advance was huge, which it never is in guidebook publishing!), so I don't know why they persist in irritating authors with such I-have-no-confidence-in-you clauses.

The contract should also provide for these things:

  • A chance to bring an "unacceptable" ms up to acceptable standards, that is, the contract should require the publisher to set forth the reasons for which the ms is being rejected, and should allow the author a reasonable time to attempt to fix the flaws

  • Arbitration, that is, the publisher's decision should be appealable to an industry panel, an arbitrator, or a court

  • Return of all rights. If the publisher declares the work unfit to publish, he or she must return all rights—of copyright, of publication, etc.—to the author, and the terms of the contract should be null and void.

All About Contracts

All About Guidebooks



Tom Brosnahan