Does a ghost get rights to your book?

The entire business model of ghostwriting is that a ghost receives money to write a book on another’s behalf and the named author receives all the glory. But, if this is a joint endeavour, does that mean a ghost shares the copyright?

The short answer is technically ‘yes’, which is why contracts are so important. In this business, it is the norm for a ghostwriter to assign their copyright in exchange for compensation, or recognition, or any other negotiated terms and this is the basis for a solid ghostwriting agreement. However, it doesn’t just happen with a nod and a smile. Copyrights cannot be transferred verbally. It needs to be part of a legal contract.



Let’s start with a little whizz around copyright laws. Basically, if two authors work together on a book, or a ghostwriter and an author, the law says that they are joint owners of the copyright of that book. Since, by the nature of the job, a ghost and author work together on every chapter, there is no obvious way to differentiate who did what and therefore no solution to fairly and accurately divide copyright. To extrapolate this still further, this means both authors are fully entitled to commercialise and monetise the end product in any way they see fit. This opens the way for a ghostwriter to potentially interfere with an author’s plans for their book if the relationship broke down.

A key part of any ghostwriting contract is a provision whereby ghosts to assign the rights to the named author. Professional ghostwriters automatically have this written into their standard contracts which they will be happy to show to prospective clients. I would be very wary of any ghost that doesn’t have a basic contract to hand. The assignment of copyright should also include provision for a situation where the book contract is terminated for any reason (except not paying), so the author still maintains his or her rights.

When scrutinising contracts, authors should make sure the assigned copyrights apply to 100% of the rights to their book. If it became a bestseller, or achieved critical acclaim, there may be opportunities for the book to be turned into a film, or a TV adaptation, or to be distributed around the world. The named author would clearly want to reap the benefits of that, and that means he or she should make sure that they are assigned the print license, plus rights to film, TV, international, translation and adaptions. Ghostwriters should be fine with this too: I would never expect to keep any rights to a book, ever.

Note: any agreement on the way royalties are split between the author and their ghost does not impact on these rights. Royalties are the profits from book sales and some authors will agree to reward their ghost with a percentage. I should say, this is quite rare. Most ghosts prefer to work for a lump sum on a flat fee basis, but a cut of the royalties is a nice bonus. It’s really a matter for negotiation between the parties. The important factor to remember here is; it won’t impact the rights agreement, but should definitely be agreed up front as part of the contract.

Another point to note is that copyright is not the same as recognition. By recognition, I mean the credit a ghost gets for their side of the collaboration, if they get one at all and, if they do, how prominent it will be. While ghosts will sign over their rights, some will push hard to get some sort of recognition somewhere in the book, even if only a mention in the acknowledgements, but it is up to both parties to agree.

While an author and ghost are discussing rights, and who gets what, it is also crucial to tackle the subject of ownership and control. Both parties should agree up front who is taking the lead on a 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. This is particularly pertinent when there are more than two authors involved. Say a group of entrepreneurs got together with a ghost to write a ‘how we did it’ inspirational book. It is essential they set out how they would all work together beforehand. Would they want to be unanimous over every decision on the book’s direction, or would a simple majority vote be OK?

The approval rights over the manuscript need to be agreed upfront too. Most authors want peace of mind that the initial drafts will not be shown to any third party, such as a publisher, or agent, until they themselves have seen it and signed it off. This clause is a good thing for a ghost too, because it makes a lot more sense to agree everything with an author, before the manuscript is widely circulated. If copy is shared too soon, a publisher may get very excited about an initial draft copy, only for an author to subsequently demand huge cuts because they didn’t get a chance to go through it properly first. That is not a good situation for anyone and certainly not a healthy start to a publishing relationship.

It is not unreasonable for a ghost to impose a reasonable limitation on the approvals process within the contract. 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 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 the other collaborator’s wishes.

Authors shouldn’t be surprised if a ghost pushes hard to insert some detail into contract about what they expect out of the collaboration. Rights do work both ways. While the onus is very much on the ghostwriter to come up with the goods, the author is expected to bring more than just their name (and fee) to the party. For a collaboration to work, an author has to commit to an agreed 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.

However agreeable the initial meeting between an author or ghost, sooner or later, something unexpected may happen. Fortunately, most relationships grow to be strong enough to withstand the odd bump in the road. Even so contracts in ghosting collaborations are as important as in any other business deal. Yes, writing a book is an exciting creative endeavour, but it is important not to get carried away before everyone knows and understands what is expected of them. The role of a contract is to define rights and remedies should everything not work out as expected and is about managing expectations on both sides. This way, everyone has something to refer back to should things not work out as expected. In an ideal world, once it is signed, neither ghost or author would look at the contract again. However, it’s there if they need it.

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