Publisher-author clashes: How to deal with the most common areas of conflict


Working with authors has to be the best part of any commissioning editor’s job. At Open University Press, I have been lucky to work closely with leading executive coaches, psychologists, therapists and literacy experts. My authors are some of the most entrepreneurial and inspiring people I know, many have become friends. When the publisher-author relationship works well, it is a creative, collaborative partnership of equals. And yet every editor will tell you that some of their most trying times professionally have been with their authors. So what do authors and publishers fight about? In my experience the most commonly experienced conflict is around the following three issues:

1) No manuscript and no response

‘I know I haven’t been in touch in the last 6 months, but my marriage broke down, I had to move house and then it burnt down.’

As editors we understand that life can get in the way of writing but doing the ‘disappearance’ act and then coming up with improbable excuses is not the way to deal with it. It leaves the editor unable to plan a new publication date, so colleagues can easily lose confidence in the project and it can be difficult to secure an extension as doubts about the author’s reliability creep in. Make sure your authors understand right from the start how important it is to communicate even when things go awry. Be upfront not only about what the impact of missing their deadline is on publisher but also how much easier it is to mitigate it when having plenty of notice.

2) The endless rewrites

‘You might think you’ve handed over the final manuscript, but you haven’t!’

My author was very persuasive, my assistant understandably shaken up and I had to be very firm in saying ‘no’ despite the crying on the phone. We’ve all had authors who want to keep re-writing even when the manuscript is typeset. Often the ‘not being able to let go’ comes from a place of anxiety about their work finally ‘being out there’. When I was editing my PhD to get it published as an academic monograph, I remember feeling terrified about the thought of anyone actually reading it. I still can’t open the book without wanting to rewrite it. If you have an anxious, perfectionist author, reassure them they have done a good job and you are confident their work will be well-received, while standing your ground that the manuscript in production is the one you are publishing.

3) The cover crisis

‘My son dabbles in graphic design and I’d like him to design the cover.’

This is not what any editor wants to hear – we all know that such attempts can be disastrous. So while we are sympathetic to the fact that for many authors the book is their baby and they can be very sensitive about the way it looks, it is our professional responsibility to ensure the cover is right for the market and maximizes the commercial potential of the book. Be collaborative by asking your author their preferences for colour and images but explain that as their publisher, you understand the current graphic design trends and what style will work best for their audience. If your author is not willing to accept the suggested design, bring them on your side by stressing that your marketing and sales colleagues are sure the design will help sell the book. If you still cannot agree, give your author a choice between two visuals that are equally strong.

Monika Lee is a Senior Commissioning Editor at Open University Press, McGraw-Hill Education. Her book Djuna Barnes, T. S. Eliot and the Gender Dynamics of Modernism (2010) was published by Routledge. You can follow her on Twitter @Lee_Monika

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  1. How about contracts? I have recently had a very upsetting outcome when the authors of a joint autobiography refused to sign the contract after having done most of the work with them beforehand. They produced a sort of agreement which was unacceptable, as if they were doing the press a favour. I csn’t enter into details but my advice is to have the contract signed before working with the author snd involve yourself too much. I would love to hear stories like these from Bookmachine in which small independent publishers are taken for granted by aurhors

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