Orphaned Manuscripts

by Darcy Pattison

I’ve Been Orphaned: Now What?

One universally dreaded experience is when an editor calls to tell you that s/he is moving to a different publisher, or leaving the business.

This has happened to me four times: twice, young women decided to stay home with new babies; once, a family moved out of the NYC area and the editor moved out of the publishing industry; once, an editor just left the company.


It’s whispered the same way the word, “divorce,” was whispered thirty years ago. The topic makes agents, editors, publishers, authors and illustrators very nervous; few will give details. Understandable. In a business where gossip can easily get back to the wrong person, everyone wants to be discreet.

Yet, authors need to be aware of options for this situation. The question is this: What happens to your manuscript/book when the acquiring editor leaves?

First, there are different levels of complications. When the editor has clout–their own imprint, or when the author/illustrator has clout–minimum of ten successful books and/or a major award, then the resulting negotiations (broken contracts, requests for larger advances, etc.) are best left to agents, lawyers and closed doors.

For first-time authors or mid-list authors, who lack clout, the options narrow.

Second, nothing is typical: situations from run the gamut from no problems to cancellation of the publishing project. While you can compare situations or consider advice from others, you must decide what is right for you and this particular manuscript in this situation.

When you find yourself suddenly orphaned, here are some tips:

  1. Re-read your contract. For example, if you managed to negotiate a time limit (your book must be publishing within so many months), then remind the contact person at the publisher of this clause.
  2. Kristin Nitz emphasizes, “Be professional in all your dealings with the publishing house.” When her editor left Lerner Publications she sent a polite letter inquiring about how to proceed with the manuscript for a track and field book for the Fundamental Sports series. The Editor in Chief followed up, arranging the necessary photo shoot and the title was released in a timely manner.
  3. Communication is essential. You need to know to whom your project will be assigned. Unfortunately, this may not be clear for several months until a new editor is hired. During any interim, ask who is the best person to contact and keep your communications to a minimum. If you have the chance to attend a conference where your publisher is represented, then stop by their booth. Before Wendie Old?s editor left Charlesbridge Books, she had already planned to attend the American Library Association Mid-Winter conference. At the conference, she stopped by the Charlesbridge Books’ booth and was surprised to meet the new editor, who had just been with Charlesbridge for a week. While that was a bit of luck, meeting other editors or even the publisher can help you later when a new editor is hired; nice things will be said about you.
  4. Don’t panic. At most publishers, editors are aware of each others’ books. When an editor leaves, the title is reassigned any other editor who expresses an interest.
  5. In his book, Image from Amazon
    The Career Novelist: A Literary Agent Offers Strategies for Success, literary agent Donald Maass suggests that you remain pro-active. He says, “If you decide to stay, it is wise to consider the situation a major crisis. . . . When you are orphaned, it is fatal to sit around and wait to see what will happen. Take action. Sell the book all over again. A passive response allows your publisher to be passive, too.” Maass emphasizes the importance of an editor who is excited about your project.
  6. One option is to follow your editor to a new house. While it is tricky to get out of a signed contract, it is possible. (Consult a literary lawyer or an agent for more details.) Remember that if you opt to break a contract, you may have to repay advances. But _should_ you move publishing houses? Moving means that your backlist may not be as well supported and building an audience and market can depend on a strong backlist. First-time authors and mid-list authors should consider carefully before moving.
  7. If the worst happens and the project is cancelled, then move on. A career is built on successful books, not unpublished projects. Don?t let one situation discourage you to the point of giving up.

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