Ghostwriting contracts: how to protect yourself

If you are a regular reader of my blogs you will know that I (perhaps unsurprisingly) sing the praises of the advantages of working with a ghostwriter. A successful collaboration pretty much guarantees a highly readable book, produced in an agreed and acceptable time frame, which fulfils all the criteria for embarking on the project on the first place.

But, what though if it doesn’t go to plan? What if one, or both, sides of the partnership are unhappy with the process? It is rare, but it can happen. Pretty much every experienced ghostwriter I know has had an experience where a project has not gone as they’d like. There have been some very high profile differences of opinion too.

One of the most publicly acrimonious breakdowns of a collaborative agreement in recent years was that between the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and his ghost Andrew O’Hagan. Three years after the pair began to work together on a project that publisher Canongate had sold to 40 countries in a $2.5 million deal, the pairing collapsed. O’Hagan subsequently wrote in the London Review of Books that Assange was ‘a mercurial character’. In a detailed expose of the relationship he said his co-writer was, by turns, passionate, funny, lazy, courageous, vain, paranoid, moral and manipulative. The ghost concluded quite early on that Assange’s book wouldn’t work because he felt the man who put himself in charge of disclosing the world’s secrets was not willing to tell his own, which is why Assange made one excuse after another not to complete the project.

Another high profile ghosting spat was the disagreement between Pablo Fenjves the ghostwriter of OJ Simpson’s controversial book ‘If I did it’. Fenjves went on the record to vehemently deny the US football star-turned-actor’s account of the creation, content and hypothetical description of the slaying of his former wife Nicole Brown Simpson. He said if there were any errors in the controversial book, they were fed to him by Simpson, or the star failed to correct them.

The (albeit much less high profile) disagreements I most frequently hear about are where the author suddenly gets cold feet. When they read a draft and see their life laid out on the page in front of them, they find it too raw. Looking in the mirror is just too difficult and that is where the process begins to unravel.

By far the simplest way to ward off any potential falling out is for the ghost to share chapters with an author as they write them. That way, the author can be fully involved in the process from the off, checking the content and tone and indicating if something has been omitted. Then, if something is not quite right, it can be addressed before the process descends into argument and recriminations.

However, it is crucial that both sides of a collaboration are prepared and fully understand what to do if it does begin to go wrong. This is why agreeing a legally binding contract is one of the most important first steps of the whole ghosting process and should be done before a single word is written. Although the basis of a good collaboration is a good degree of trust between the two parties, it always, always makes sense to sort out a solid written agreement right from the off. This way, everyone has something to refer back to should things not work out as expected.

The key points for a contract to cover are compensation, ownership and control, credit, responsibilities, dispute resolution, copyright and libel. There may also be a miscellaneous section for items such as media rights, licensing and sequel rights.

In terms of compensation, this is how much the ghost will be paid and whether or not they are due a percentage share of royalties. There should also be detail on when and how the payments will be made. A proportion of the fee is generally paid up-front, with the rest paid in agreed installments up until and including delivery. This section should also look at expenses and tie down who will pay if the ghost has to travel widely to conduct interviews and stay away from home. Sometimes, both sides will agree to share expenses, just as they agree to share royalties, but again it is best to discuss this openly.

Under the ownership and controlsection there will be details of who is controlling the project in terms of whose responsibility is it to seek out book deals and who has the authority to approve the final draft of the work, or seek revisions.

It is not unreasonable for a ghost to impose a reasonable limitation on the approvals process. They may, for example, ask for at least 30-days after receiving the author’s comments to resubmit. There might also be a provision for what constitutes a ‘satisfactory’ manuscript and it will probably reference the original book proposal ie if the book closely follows the format agreed in the initial plan, it should for all intents and purposed be deemed satisfactory. This protects both parties in case either one of them tries to move the goal posts during the process, contrary to their co writer’s wishes.

The contract stage is also the time where an author and their ghost need to agree on what credit the co-writer will get, if at all and, if they do get one, how prominent it will be. Opinions vary wildly over how much, or how little, credit a ghost should get and where on the book their name should be included. Again, it is good to get an agreement at the earliest opportunity and certainly well before the book begins to take shape.

It is very useful from a ghost’s point of view to insert some detail into the contract about what will be expected from the author. While the onus is very much on the professional co-writer to come up with the goods, it is worth making it clear right from the start what an author brings to the party. It certainly should be more than their name. For a collaboration to work, an author has to commit to X number of hours of interviews with their ghost. The amount can vary from writer to writer, but if both parties agree up front on at least roughly the number of hours needed, there will be no surprises later on.

Authors may also like a clause on confidentiality, because they have to feel comfortable that anything they tell their ghost will remain between the two parties until it is approved for publication.

Finally, what are the procedures for dispute resolution? The contract should detail the steps that both parties should take if they feel unhappy or uncomfortable with the progress on the book. As with most things in the corporate world, a successful collaboration, or at least a successful dispute resolution, comes down to agreeing strong contract terms across the board at the outset. If things do go wrong, but the contract is solid, both sides should at least be able to walk away relatively unscathed, even if they are hurt by the experience and relieved it is all over.