Editing for Publications

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Two Scenarios: Ethics in Publishing Non/Fiction

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Imagine for a moment that you have written a novel and are having a difficult time selling the manuscript to a publisher. Although your own personal experiences inspired the situations your main protagonist undergoes, for the most part, you have departed from the truth in order to tell a more interesting story. Still, you gave your main character your own name, and intentionally wrote the book in a confessional style.

You believe that your use of the first person POV allows readers a way into your narrative that encourages compassion and understanding. You spent many nights sleeping in your car, and you raided two or three dumpsters for cold pizza or fried chicken during that week after your parents kicked you out. You recall spending several nights in jail because you were wandering the suburban streets at three a.m., naked except for an American flag you stole from someone’s porch. Granted, in your book you describe spending a year living out of your car, and in truth, your actual public drunkenness arrest was less colorful and there was no flag involved, and you were bailed out the next morning by your uncle Harold . . . but still . . . You know something about being down and out and you tell a killer story.

You are beginning to lose hope that your book will ever be published when your agent recommends expanding your proposal to the nonfiction market as well, since you are telling a story about your own life and using your own name. Almost immediately, you begin to receive positive responses from editors at large publishing houses who suggest that your book has the potential to reach millions of readers and be wildly successful if you’re ready for the adventure ahead: promoting and marketing your book, agreeing to interviews, book signings and readings . . . there’s also a good deal of money involved including a hefty $50,000 advance. What do you do?


You are the prose editor for a literary magazine at a small college and at least three hundred submissions cross your desk each academic year, of which you accept about fifteen, in both nonfiction and fiction. Because you also teach classes and are a writer yourself, you don’t always have as much time as you’d like to query authors about improving the work you accept from them.

A friend from graduate school who has enjoyed some success after his first book sends you a short story that seems familiar. Then you remember that it was originally an essay submitted to workshop that caused a ruckus because it was about his affair with a married professor at his former college, whose wife (a famous poet) died from cancer not long after the affair had ended.

The essay was devastatingly personal and graphic, included numerous damning details about a closeted, unhappy marriage, and yet–you wondered if your friend wasn’t somehow enjoying the humiliating scenes he described, even when your nonfiction professor characterized his essay as “unpublishable.” There was even a moment in the essay where it wasn’t clear if the sex had been consensual . . .

So now it’s on your desk as a fiction story, and he’s changed the names, but he set the story in the town where you both went to graduate school. Not only that, but he’s interspersed the narrative with facts about the town’s history, and you question whether some of the facts are actually true. When you call him to talk about the piece, he says he made some of the facts up or altered statistics, but he reminds you that it is fiction, after all.

He’s a fantastic writer who has won numerous awards, and the story would fit perfectly into this year’s issue. Additionally, you remember that he published your story the year before, and you’d suggested he send you some work sometime. But then you wonder how many people will recognize the true story underneath the fiction from reading his bio, and what the effect might be. Aside from that, you’re a little behind schedule, and you don’t have the time for a drawn out back-and-forth revision process. What do you do?


Author: djen


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