Rescuing My Manuscript

August 27, 2003

I was really excited when my publisher notified me in the spring of 2002 that my book manuscript had been sent to a company for production. It was my first monograph, and in the world of publish or perish, its move into the production phase brought me an exhilarating satisfaction.

The production company served as a middle man, providing services to the publisher such as copy-editing and preparing electronic files. With great anticipation, I contacted the project manager -- let's call him A.H. -- who would copy-edit my manuscript and, I genuinely hoped, find ways to improve it. I had no idea things could go so wrong.

I had signed an electronic copy-editing agreement with the publisher, so I was waiting for computer files to arrive. Instead, in an e-mail message that June, A.H. wrote that he would be sending me a hard copy of the edited draft. No e-copy-editing? No, he wrote, because he was used to hard copies. I had no problem with that, so long as he kept the schedule.

The first batch of edited pages arrived on July 2. Scanning them, I noticed more than a few editing marks, so I sat down to take a closer look. First I noticed that the copy editor had added quotation marks around my italicized book titles. Flipping further through the pages, I found that all of my archival footnotes had been converted into the format of book citations.

This was disastrous. Dates of correspondence were moved to the very end of the citations, where they made no sense. Sometimes dates and collection file numbers were dropped completely. Moreover, some citations to correspondence were stripped of all information except the names of the people who wrote the letter and received it.

I was flabbergasted, and proceeded to spend an entire week restoring my archival footnotes. Had it never occurred to A.H. to ask before making such a drastic change?

When I looked at the text of the chapters, I saw few editorial changes to improve the writing and the flow of language. Instead, I found changes that only seemed to make the text mechanical and monotonous. For instance, every time I had used the words "as," "since," or "for," A.H. had changed them to "because" -- no matter the context. If I had placed the word "however" at the beginning of a sentence, it had invariably been moved to the end or middle of the sentence. A.H. had been unwilling to send me the edited pages via e-mail, but he had obviously used a software program to search for certain phrases and change them automatically, without consideration of the context.

After a week of feverish restoration work, I returned my manuscript to A.H. with many corrections and a cover letter that stated:

I have reviewed the copy-edited version and made some changes. Archival documents have a particular format of citations, which is different from book citations. I wish the copy editor had contacted me before he consistently made the changes. I spent much time restoring archival citations. Also, book and journal titles should be in italics without quotation marks.

I had sent the manuscript back weeks ahead of my deadline, since I hoped to help make up the time lost by the production company. I figured that my effort to return the pages so early would make it easy for A.H. to stick to the production schedule.

The pages were supposed to be ready for me to proofread in August. I waited and waited. By late August, there was still nothing from A.H. I began to e-mail him seeking a progress report. A whole week passed without a response. I decided to call. He finally answered the phone and said he was going to send me the pages the following week.

I waited again. For the next month, I heard not a word from A.H. Again I e-mailed him to inquire about production, but got no response. Finally, I contacted my publisher to report the problem.

My publisher immediately called the production company. Under that pressure, A.H. finally sent me a set of the main chapters on October 1. A week later, the table of contents and introduction arrived, and a week after that came the appendix, bibliography, and index. For the book to be published on schedule, I would have needed to return the corrected pages no later than October 14. Clearly, we would not make that deadline.

Knowing A.H.'s track record, I was prepared for a few surprises in the page proofs, and sure enough, he did not disappoint. This time, he had, for some reason known only to him, italicized the names of all the organizations mentioned in the manuscript. Moreover, one of my tables was missing and three others were screwed up. I had asked for a line of space to be inserted before the final few paragraphs of each chapter, so as to draw the reader's attention to the conclusion. Instead, A.H. had eliminated the space between paragraphs. (To be fair, he had followed most of my other corrections and changes from the first round of copy-editing.)

Sending off the corrected pages meant the end of my role in the production process. I would have no further control over the book. As a precaution, I contacted my publisher and expressed my concerns about the laxity of the production company. Sure enough, when A.H. sent the publisher the pages in late November, the production director at the publishing company had to instruct him to fix some formatting issues. Additionally, every single acronym and organizational name was still in italics.

Disappointed by the production company's overall performance, the publisher, I'm told, has decided not to use the company again. We still needed A.H. to make the final corrections in a timely fashion so that my book could be published as soon as possible, now that it was already behind schedule. A.H., however, did not return the corrected pages in December or January. After a strong demand from the publisher to explain the delays, the pages were finally sent to the publisher in February. All the same, A.H. went on a vacation before the project was completed. A woman in the company had to take over the project in his absence and finish what was left.

Now that my book has been published, I look back on the experience and realize that it could have been far worse had I not intervened to seek the publisher's help.

I have since learned that I was not the only one whose manuscript was trapped and damaged by the company. Two other manuscripts underwent the same traumatic treatment and long delays. One writer protested in a letter to the production company, which responded by telling the publisher that the writer's reaction was "unprofessional." For his trouble, the writer found his book delayed even further while the production company blamed the problems on the writer.

The other author tried to put up with the abuse without an open complaint. In the hope that his book would be published quickly, he even sought to do a lot of the copy-editing work himself. Still his book was delayed for months. He was not even given a chance to review the final draft of many sections and, as a result, the list of permissions is missing from his book. Blame for that lies both with the production company and the publisher.

My own book also retains some of the errors I had instructed A.H. to correct. Don't get me wrong: I consider myself lucky to have a published book. I also consider myself lucky to have survived the production process.

Diane Atkins is the pseudonym of an associate professor at a liberal-arts college in Michigan.