Negotiating “Acceptance” of a Creative Work

Traditional publishing contracts typically contain a paragraph called “Acceptance” (or sometimes, “Delivery and Acceptance”) which details the timing and conditions that govern the publisher’s acceptance (or rejection) of a manuscript after delivery.

Many authors are surprised to learn that contracts contain an “out” for the publisher after delivery–but it makes sense in the context of the publishing deal as a whole. 

Today, we’ll take a look at how to negotiate and understand that “acceptance” paragraph in the context of a publishing deal. We’ll also look at some ways to help ensure your manuscript doesn’t run afoul of the publisher’s acceptance provisions.

Publishers generally don’t waste time on contracts unless they want (and intend) to publish your manuscript. The acceptance provisions aren’t there to trick you.

However, on occasion a manuscript (or an author) can’t be brought into line with the publisher’s needs & publishing guidelines. When that happens, the publisher needs the ability to reject the manuscript–even after final delivery.

In almost all cases, the publishing contract will contain some variation on the following language: “Publisher has no obligation to accept or publish the Work if, at Publisher’s sole discretion, the Work is unsatisfactory to Publisher in length, content, or form.” Remember, however, this isn’t intended as a trap for the unwary, & publishers rarely reject a work without trying to edit it into shape. Even when the contract has “take it or leave it” language, publishers usually try to work with authors to get manuscripts into shape.

Rejection normally happens only if the author refuses to make necessary changes or fails to deliver a manuscript that conforms to the contract terms.

Publishers won’t delete their contractual right to reject a manuscript, but some portions of the acceptance paragraph may be negotiable.

Let’s look at some parts of the acceptance paragraph authors may be able to negotiate with the publisher:

1. The amount of time the publisher has to read and approve (or reject/request changes to) the manuscript. Contracts may not state how long the publisher has to read and approve (or reject) the author’s work. Many publishers will agree to insert a “deadline” by which the publisher must notify the author of its decision. Typical publisher acceptance/rejection dates will run 30-90 days from delivery of the manuscript (though these time periods may vary).

2. The author’s opportunity to make edits and changes, if requested, to avoid rejection of the Work. Editors rarely reject a work without giving the author an opportunity to revise and/or edit the work. Many publishers will insert contract language giving the author a “reasonable” chance to revise to avoid rejection. Sometimes, the right to revise will come with a timeline – again, usually 30-90 days.

3. Sometimes, the publisher will insert language allowing the author to keep the advance (or portions already received) if the publisher rejects the manuscript. Pay attention to how your contract deals with the advance (if any) if the publisher rejects the manuscript. That’s important. 

Whether or not the publisher negotiates the other acceptance terms, the right to reject the manuscript is not negotiable. Even if the publisher loves your work, the publisher needs to maintain absolute control over what the house publishes. 

Many authors see this discretionary right to reject and worry that the publisher is trying to “pull a fast one.” Not so. Negotiating and creating publishing contracts costs the publisher money — and publishers don’t knowingly spend money on fool’s errands. Instead, the acceptance (and rejection) clause exists to ensure that the publisher has the final say on what the house produces.

Authors can help the publisher accept the manuscript by delivering a work that conforms to the contract & meets expectations.

Authors should listen to editors’ notes and suggestions–take them seriously, & make reasonable changes if requested. The editor wouldn’t have bought your book if (s)he wanted to “wreck it” or make substantial changes. Editors acquire books they love. For that reason, authors need to see the relationship as cooperative, not adversarial. You’re a team, working for the good of the book.

Ultimately, the “acceptance” paragraph isn’t something to fear – it’s another building block of the author-publisher relationship.

Have questions about this or other publishing legal or business issues? Please feel free to ask in the comments!