Does a ghost get rights to your book?

Ghosts, by definition, should fade into the background. The entire business model of ghostwriting is, after all, that the ghost receives money to write a book on another’s behalf and the other party receives all the glory. Simple, right?

Except, it isn’t.

If two authors work together on a book, the law says that they are joint owners of the copyright of that book. Unless it’s pretty clear who contributed what, the legal position is each party has the same rights as a single author. 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 dividing 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. And, perhaps even more infuriatingly for the author who picked up the bill for the ghostwriter, the ghost could even potentially interfere with their efforts if the relationship broke down.

I’m pretty sure that any would-be author reading this will be in a blind panic by now. That’s not what I wanted at all, they’ll be thinking. It’s my book!

Rest easy, it is not what a ghost wants either.

And that is why contracts are so important.

Once an author has checked out their ghost, likes their work and the mutual chemistry is spot on, the next crucial step is to discuss rights. It is the norm for a ghostwriter to assign their rights to 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. They need to be part of a legal contract.

Professional ghostwriters will 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.

Authors should make sure the assigned copyrights apply to 100% of the rights to the 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. Again, the named author should 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: royalties and the agreement around the way they are split between the author and their ghost do 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. While you are looking at the subject of compensation, I would also tie down who will pay if the ghost has to travel widely to conduct interviews and stay away from home. Often, both sides will agree to share expenses, just as they agree to share royalties, but again it is best to discuss this openly.

Similarly, copyright is not the same as recognition. Here 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. Some ghosts 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 you are discussing rights, and who gets what, tackle the subject of ownership and control. Understand 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. Would they want to be unanimous over every decision on the book’s direction, or would a simple majority vote be OK?

Even if it is a straight agreement between one author and their ghost, they should still discuss approval rights over the manuscript. Most authors want peace of mind that the initial drafts are not 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 up front with an author, before the manuscript is widely circulated. It’s not unknown for a publisher to get very excited about an initial draft copy, only for an author to subsequently demand huge cuts because he or she 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.

As an author, don’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, the unexpected does generally 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, it is an exciting creative endeavour, but don’t 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. It’s 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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