Ghostwriting contracts: how to protect yourself

A successful author ghostwriter collaboration pretty much guarantees a highly readable book, produced in an agreed and acceptable time frame, fulfilling 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 encountered a project that has not gone as they’d like. And, this is why contracts are so important to protect both author and ghost.

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.

Ghostwriting contracts usually begin with a brief description of the project and the genre, with the working title and an estimate of its word count. The key points a contract will then move on 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.

Let’s start with compensation, which sets out how much the ghost will be paid and whether or not they are due a percentage share of royalties. Ghosts will structure this in a variety of ways, but in almost all cases payments will be made in instalments over the course of the project, keeping pace with the work done and agreed milestones. A proportion of the fee is generally paid up-front before the process begins. This section of the contract will also cover expenses and tie down which party 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 up front.

The ownership and control section will include details 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 unusual for a ghost to impose a reasonable time limit on the approvals process. They may, for example, ask for at least 30-days after receiving the author’s comments to resubmit a draft manuscript. There might also be a provision for what constitutes a ‘satisfactory’ manuscript and this 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 purposes 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, acknowledgement 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 should be clear right from the start what an author brings to the party. It certainly should be more than their name on the front cover. 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.

A clause on confidentiality should be included, because authors have to feel comfortable that anything they tell their ghost will remain between the two parties until it is approved for publication. They may also like assurance that the ghost will not reveal their contribution to the project.

One of the most important clauses from an author’s point of view concerns copyright. By law, if both parties contribute to a project, they will share the copyright. However, it is the norm for ghosts to sign over all the rights to the work. However, this must be recorded in writing.

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 business transactions, 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.