The editor ruined my book! How to deal with a toxic publishing environment

Ninety-nine percent of all copyeditors are professional, intelligent and work focused individuals who add to your book and help it shine before publication.

At publishing houses, the copyeditor is usually the last person who sees your book before it is published. This means they have a huge responsibility to ensure your work is top-notch. I’ve worked with some amazing editors and publishers in my career as a six-figure author across five pen names spanning four genres.

This is a story about a time when that didn’t happen.

It was my second published book through this specific publishing house, and I’d already had some issues because the publisher himself was an arrogant, woman-hating a-hole who sycophantically gave all the advantages and promotional opportunities to older women who (I guess) reminded him of mommy dearest, and sidelined all other books.

He was a white supremacist conservative Christian hypocrite who didn’t drink or have sex before marriage but ran a small-time erotica outfit. Go figure. He even whitewashed my books, transforming black characters into white ones and telling me what skin tone my characters had to be. He rejected any story idea with a strong female character or a plot that wasn’t a rewrite of the three most successful books that publisher had ever released. And he was a control freak.

Naive and desperate to succeed as I was, I thought I had to accept all of this. I also didn’t really know that I could send my books elsewhere, because I’d had a terrible experience with another publisher, too.

Hilariously, I know of at least two novels where he was portrayed as the main antagonist. I wrote neither of them. The working environment ticked every single box in this article. Basically, the only way to leave was to go non-contact with him and his brainwashed fan authors, all of whom are presumably either old, high, or pretending they adore his work to get better marketing for their books. Or scared of being eaten alive by each other.

Sadly, I also know of more than a handful of authors who stopped writing completely because of his attitude and behaviour, and that of the people around him. They simply lost confidence in their (profound) abilities and gave up.

Dealing with a toxic publisher is a lot harder than dealing with a toxic boss, because in the author world, your work is contracted for a fixed term, whether you like it or not. No matter what fallings-out you have, short of spending a lot of money finding a legal loophole in your contract, you are at the mercy of the publishing house and they will keep your work and screw with it if relations turn sour.

There is no way to prove how much your books are making across various sales channels, Amazon will not release those figures to authors, and publishers can basically report whatever they like, a practice that goes on much more than anyone knows, especially when currency exchange and Paypal are involved.

If your publisher doesn’t like you, depending on your publishing contract, they can decide your work goes out of print (so it’s no longer on sale) while they still retain the rights. Far easier for them is making your book look so unprofessional and boring that no one buys it. This is the preferred MO of most toxic publishers.

It’s not hard to publish a book when it’s your job and you release 10 or more in a week. It’s not hard to design a cover for a professional graphic designer. It’s not hard to write a blurb for anyone who didn’t write the book which the blurb is about.

But the easiest job of all for someone who can spell and owns a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style? Copyediting. If you’ve ever wondered why some genres of books (namely, romance and steamy romance) are so badly written, it’s not necessarily the fault of the author. Bad copyeditors introduce errors into books and they even rewrite passages to revert your writing to a clichéd, hackneyed load of rubbish.

But the very worst editors only skim your book, miss large parts, and somehow still see fit to comment to say your continuity doesn’t work when actually it’s all correct. And the hopeless ones don’t want to know they’re wrong. In fact, hopeless anyones don’t want to know they’re wrong.

At that point, you know it’s a waste of time bothering with them because you’re not going to inspire them to suddenly give half a hoot about their work. They don’t care, they’re making it obvious. They’re probably also high. It makes you wonder why they’re being paid to do anything. I still haven’t figured that out.

In the worst copyedit I ever received, “sit” was changed to “shit” (she was absolutely sitting, not using the bathroom). “Hare in the headlights” (semi-fresh) was changed to “deer in the headlights” (cliché) and two character names were arbitrarily swapped around for a whole scene. That was the tip of the iceberg.

The copyeditor had completely rewritten large parts my book after I’d last seen it (which was at the end of the line edit) and because this was a small press, they didn’t follow normal procedure and I never found out about any of this until 2 months after the book was published, when I opened it to check a scene for something I wanted to write in a subsequent book in the series.

In some places, the copyeditor had reverted things that the line editor had told me I had to change in order for the book to be published. She was a loose cannon, just doing her own thing, and no one stopped her.

I’ve read a few books from that publishing house and honestly, all of them have random big errors like character names changing for a chapter or sentences stopping half-way through then jumping to a new scene.

If you’re in that situation, you have two options. The first choice is to say nothing for an easy life with that publisher, then go indie or switch publishers as soon as you can. For some people this will be really straightforward. Others might struggle.

The second choice is to make a complaint to the publisher and inform them of every errata in your book, requesting it to be fixed. If the publisher is the sort that I was dealing with, they won’t want to know. The one I had this problem with actually did not know what the Chicago Manual of Style was. Nor did the copyeditor, apparently.

I genuinely regret trying to address this but I stupidly thought any publisher would care about the quality of work they were putting out. Since my experience, I’ve come across other publishers where similar things have happened. One cut down a 25,000 word story to a 10,000 word story and left in random scenes from a story arc that now no longer made any sense. Another simply published the books unedited, which is another common practice in steamy books.

It can be troublesome when you’re hiring an editor for an indie project, too. I had one editor who added “ossicones” (despite it being so far out of that character’s ken that it was ridiculous) but missed “jumper” instead of “sweater” and other Britishisms (wardrobe, trainers) in an American story set in America.

I worked with another who didn’t start editing until the day before my preorder locked on Amazon, despite having been given the manuscript and payment in full two months earlier. She thought actions needed dialog tags. I had to go back through and change them all back.

These people charged me money for these edits and I had to pay them because editors have a lot of power in the writing community. Their anonymity means they can write fake one-star reviews of every book you ever wrote if you annoy them. As can publishers, editors and their friends and relatives. Amazon doesn’t care when this happens, despite what they claim whenever fake Amazon reviews get news coverage.

Some people are completely reprehensible human beings.

But at least in the indie market, I’m not handing over half or more of my book money to a scammy “publishing” outfit whose sole purpose seems to be to write the same book over and over again with different titles and covers.

My advice to anyone trapped with a toxic editor or publisher is to smile, nod, and fulfill the bare minimum of your publishing contract then flee. If you haven’t signed a contract yet, withdraw the book and run for the hills as politely as possible. If they are a narcissist, let them think they have won. As hard as it is, let them have the last word in any exchange that can’t be resolved to your satisfaction. But give them nothing more.

And if you’re looking to become an editor, if you can spell correctly and know how to check the Chicago Manual of Style, you’re ahead of the crowd when applying for jobs with a small press.

Have you ever had a copyedit from hell or dealt with a scammy publishing house? I firmly believe it’s a rite of passage for all authors, as sad as that is. Let me know about your experiences in the comments!

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