Because nonfiction books are often acquired before the manuscript is complete, sometimes it happens that the manuscript turned in to the publisher is not fit for publication.
Although it is rare, I have twice copyedited projects that were later canceled because the manuscript was submitted in such a state that it was deemed unacceptable.
In one case, the sentences simply did not make sense when put together in a paragraph. There’s no other way to describe it. I alerted the publisher of the problem, the managing editor reviewed the manuscript, and when it was determined that the book was not salvageable, it was canceled outright.
In another case, I was tasked with cutting 30,000 words—a quarter of the manuscript—in order to weed out the tangents and uncover the true narrative of the book. This author was then faced with an ultimatum: accept these changes or cut ties. The author chose the latter.
Under these circumstances, the publishing house has the right to recoup the first portion of the advance. The author has the right to find another publisher. Both are examples of times when working with an agent may save an author considerable heartache and legal trouble. From an editor’s perspective, working with a critique group and employing some heavy self-editing may also have been in order.
If you are seeking a traditional publisher, be sure you know exactly what is expected of you before you sign. Open lines of communication with the acquisitions editor regarding how you are shaping your manuscript will also help head off problems. Enlisting the help of beta readers will further aid you in crafting a manuscript that is ready for production.
Like this blog? Look for Perfect Bound: How to Navigate the Book Publishing Process Like a Pro, coming Fall 2014.