Conflict Resolution 101: An Author’s Guide

No author is immune to conflict. Whether the disagreement is sourced in a contractual dispute, or concerns about edits, or in the misinterpretation of a social-media post, authors will inevitably have to engage in some classic dispute-resolution activities.

The Thomas-Kilmann instrument provides five different conflict modes for assessing conflict resolution:

  • Competing — win/lose
  • Collaborating — win/win
  • Compromising — minimally acceptable without damaging relationships
  • Avoiding — withdrawal and neutrality
  • Accommodating — conceding to the other to maintain harmony

In general, you’ll find that collaborating or compromising makes for the best strategy. Locking into a win/lose paradigm, or hiding from the conflict, will serve no one well; those strategies encourage escalation or bullying behaviors.

Authors experience conflict from one of two points of view — when the author is the victim of bad behavior by a publisher, editor or agent (author as hero); or when the author is the person who’s engaged in the bad behavior (author as villain). Let’s explore both scenarios.

Author as Hero

For whatever reason, you as an author occupy the moral high ground in a dispute. The problem could be anything — maybe a publisher missed a deadline. Maybe an agent lost your manuscript. Maybe an editor introduced errors into your story. Doesn’t matter what caused it, what matters is how you deal with it. Some suggestions:

  1. Read your contract. Verify whether there are provisions that govern dispute resolution and, if there are, then follow them. Sometimes contracts extend a specific make-whole clause, or a notification-of-breach clause, that must be honored before the contract itself is in jeopardy.
  2. Reach out in good faith. It’s always better to bring something to the other party’s attention in a brief and polite way, by assuming error instead of malice. A friendly tone and a charitable approach helps set the framework for subsequent discussions about the problem. Most disputes go off the rails when one party accuses the other — implicity or explicitly — of acting in bad faith. In the publishing industry, bad-faith behavior is much less common than good-faith errors related to capacity.
  3. Don’t make it public. Never take a disagreement to social media, or a blog, or a writers’ forum. Not only are you backing the other side into a corner — opening the door to unhelpful tit-for-tat commentary — but you’re also leaving a public paper trail for subsequent partners (editors, agents, publishers) to find. No one wants to work with prima donnas. If a future partner is interested in you, but then they discover that you have no qualms airing grievances in public, your odds of receiving a contract may be substantially harmed. No publisher, agent or editor worth his salt will contract with an author who’s established his willingness to engage in public reputational assaults. In addition, “going public” exposes you to potential civil action for defamation, especially if your side of the argument isn’t proven to be as solid as you thought it was when you first typed your angry Facebook rant.
  4. Avoid going “pseudo-legal.” Terms like breach of contract and default are legal concepts that sometimes require a finding by a court of competent jurisdiction. Unless you’ve consulted with an attorney, it’s safest to avoid asserting that the other party is legally deficient in his obligations. Instead, simply point out the part of the contract you think the other party has missed and open a dialogue about how to rectify the problem. Starting your conversation with an indictment rarely promotes collaboration.
  5. Omit the 95 Theses. It’s never necessary for you to recite a litany of perceived abuses or your beliefs about the other party’s competence or integrity. Focus on one problem. Avoid blowing a molehill into a mountain by venting spleen about all the things that frustrate you. Avoid personalizing the situation or offering opinions about the other party that aren’t related to solving a specific problem.
  6. Watch the clock. With contracted authors, it’s usually safe to request a 30-day response window. Avoid putting unreasonable response deadlines in your correspondence, especially when you know that the recipient’s typical response time is much longer than what you demand.
  7. Consider whether you want to die on that hill. Not all problems necessarily require a solution. Even if you are technically in the right, think about whether the situation really needs a fix. Sometimes, just letting a process play through to its conclusion proves the wiser strategy.

Author as Villain

Maybe you screwed something up. Or writers’ block precludes timely manuscript delivery. Or you got caught introducing copyrighted material into your work. Or your just not happy about something that’s legit, but not to your preference. In any case, the publisher/agent/editor caught wind of it, and now you’re on the hot seat. Some suggestions:

  1. Read your contract. If you’ve been accused of violating the terms of your contract, read the contract to identify the relevant provisions and whether the contract offers an adequate make-whole clause that you can take advantage of. Although it can be scary to hear that you might be in breach of contract, recognize that sometimes such notification is just a formality and can be easily fixed without undue drama. If you cannot understand parts of your contract, seek guidance from a licensed attorney in your community.
  2. Negotiate a good-faith fix. If you didn’t hold up your end of the deal, offer a solution that might be mutually acceptable to both parties. For example, if you were required to submit edits within 90 days, and you got a notice at day 100 that you’re late, commit to delivering by day 120 — and stick to it. You will usually have no difficulty in minor adjustments as long as you offer a reasonable alternative. You need not be apologetic or fall on your sword, either; admitting to a default isn’t usually a good idea should the matter later be subject to litigation. But politely offering a counter-offer, without belaboring the point, can often prove a useful solution.
  3. Take a deep breath before responding. Authors are creative people, and creative people can sometimes be quick to anger. Rule of thumb: Never answer when your blood pressure is elevated.
  4. Avoid social sandbagging. If you’ve had performance challenges under a contract, or even if you’re just in general not thrilled with progress even though the contract is still being met, it’s best to not get passive-aggressive with snarky social-media posts or emails, or bad reviews on Facebook or author sites. By engaging in this kind of behavior, you risk poisoning the well should there be a need for dispute resolution later in the process.
  5. Ask for a second opinion. Sometimes authors and editors disagree about something in a manuscript. Usually, such disagreements can be negotiated away. However, occasionally a point can’t be finessed into non-existence. If your editor, agent or publisher insists on a specific change and won’t take no for an answer, it’s best to take a step back and bring that disagreement to a circle of trusted peer writers. Solicit their honest feedback. Odds are good that the “other side” has seen several different skilled professionals arrive at the same conclusion, so you’ll do yourself a favor by having your own critique group help you to determine whether you really should buckle down for a fight, or concede that the scene you love so dearly isn’t as good as you thought it was.
  6. Don’t light a forest fire. If you’ve made a mistake, own it. Don’t make matters worse by trying to find some mistake — however obscure — by the other party and thereby turn it into a tit-for-tat situation. Your goal should be to stop the fire that’s consuming a single tree, instead of seeing the fire and then spreading gas on the surrounding forest.
  7. Respect the editorial division of labor. Some things important to authors — e.g., cover designs — may not be under the author’s control. The division of labor between authors and publishers follows from each partner’s role in getting a book to market. Even if you promised Aunt Sally that she could design the cover of your debut novel, the decision about that cover is rarely at the author’s pleasure. By getting hung up on the things that aren’t the author’s responsiblity, the author can inadvertently create tension that makes dispute resolution about other problems much more difficult. Focus on doing your part of the process well, and let your parners do their part of the process well.

Ultimately, your goal as an author should be to minimize or fix problems as they occur, in a way that does not alienate the other parties to an agreement. Publishers, editors and agents should do likewise. By focusing on collaboration and compromise instead of winner-takes-all ego battles or hide-in-the-sand avoidance behavior, you can build a robust partnership with your professional colleagues that can survive the occasional bump in the road.

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