Ghostwriter contracts 101

So you want to hire a ghostwriter? Here is what you should find in a ghostwriter contract.

Your search for a ghostwriter is complete. Now it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get to work. What comes first? The contract, of course. Make sure that the contract covers everything important. Here is a quick guide of what to watch for in a ghostwriting contract.

Rights

The most important item to cover in a ghostwriting contract is your rights.

(NOTE: Nothing that appears in this article is intended to serve as legal advice; for that you should contact a duly accredited attorney.)

According to international copyright practices, supported by the Universal Copyright Convention, the writer is always owner of his or her own words. In this case, the writer is a hired gun, so you don’t want copyright for your project to be owned by the writer. It is critical to make sure that any contract you sign with a  ghostwriter assigns all rights to you.  That includes film rights, audio rights, foreign rights, etc.

Just how important are rights? It is mostly for this reason that we work with contracts when writing books for clients rather than just invoicing.  There are many reasons people hire ghostwriters; for most smaller projects, we just quote a price by email, and complete the project if the client agrees.  But for books and screenplays, it is essential to specify the copyright.

Ghostwriter contracts must assign rights

Pricing

As important as rights are, I have found that pricing is the most obvious item clients look for in a contract.  You want to know how much you will be paying and when each installment is due.  The contract should be very clear on this point.

Payment can be arranged in a number of ways, including a portion up front and a portion upon completion.  Or it can be all up front.  Part of the payment might be in the form of royalties, although you will find that option as rare as a penguin drinking margaritas on the Playa Del Carmen.  As Laura Sherman puts it:

“Never ask a professional ghostwriter to work solely for a percentage of the back end (royalties). It’s not something a reputable writer would do. However, a student, who wishes to gain experience, might jump at such an offer.”

Some ghostwriters will demand scheduled payments, others prefer to use milestones.

We use milestones. We typically divide payment into thirds, but we are flexible on that.  The idea is to work at the writer’s and the client’s pace, making sure the writer can eat along the way, protecting the client from having to dump the world’s largest piggy bank on the table all at once, while still keeping our administrative work to a minimum.

Length

The second most obvious item in the contract is the length of the document.  When you hire a ghostwriter, you’ll be paying x amount of money; you’ll want to get y amount of writing.  The length of the document can be expressed in a number of ways:

  • chapters
  • pages
  • words
  • characters (that means characters like A or B, not characters like Harry Potter or Anne Shirley)

We like to count by words, as it is the most accurate (or least inaccurate) way to count the amount of writing we will deliver to a client.  Chapters could mean almost anything.  Comparing a Michael Crichton chapter with a Gregory MaGuire chapter is like comparing the height of Mother Teresa with the height of Nelson Mandela.

Even pages are hard to quantify as the same text can vary by as much as two dozen pages, depending on page size, font size, font face, kerning, white space, margins, line spacing, average paragraph length (lots of dialogue will probably mean many short paragraphs that don’t fill complete lines) and even indentation.

As for characters, that’s just silly (not Harry Potter or Anne Shirley, of course).

Words are the best way to establish the length of the manuscript.  Although the average word in the English language is 5.1 – 7.9 characters long, the average length of words used is 4.5 – 5.0 characters long (depending on which source you turn to); remember how often we use short words like “to”, “a” and “of”, and how rarely we use longer words like “defenestration” and “hyperpigmentation”. For those who are hopping on the edge of their seats with excitement over these numbers, you’ll really get a kick out of this data.

Just for fun, I put three of my blog posts to the test for the length of their words using this tool.

What you can learn from this is that I use too many big words or not enough small words.  I tested each of these posts for readability using this tool, and fortunately, it likes my work anyway.

Phew.

While word count is my preferred means of identifying the length of the manuscript, I am careful not to get too restrictive.  If the contract was to specify that a manuscript is to have 60,000 words, what happens if it comes in just beautifully at 60,178?  Or at 58,251?  Should the ghostwriter add in a couple hundred words just to meet an arbitrary and rounded word count?  That’s not serving the client well, and all it does is stress out the writer.  Nobody wins.

Our contracts all commit to a range of words, such as 55,000 – 65,000.  That way the client has a good sense of what he is paying for, the writer doesn’t have to stress too much about word count, and the manuscript will be as good as it can be.

Hire a ghostwriter

Timeline

It’s not just the length of the manuscript that is important to clients; the length of time it takes to complete is also often an issue.  This is understandable.  You want a timeline specified, so that the ghostwriter you hire does not drag her feet too long. You are eager to see your book in print.

In the real world, the writer is a professional (Our writers certainly are!) who pretty much sticks to a as rigorous a schedule as the client will let her.

The client, on the other hand, is living his life, with all the complications, schedule changes and unexpected events that come with living life. Sometimes the client does not have time to review each chapter as it comes back from the writer. I have seen busy people take a month to get back to the writer with an “OK” or a list of changes required. I have seen clients disappear for three months or five months.

In one case, the client disappeared for nine months without any way to reach him by phone or email, then return full of pep and verve and motivation and vim and energy and all sorts of other words from his Thesaurus.

A six-month job can easily take 12 months.  Our contracts all specify an “expected” end date – much like an “expected” end date to a pregnancy – at the end of which, a book is born.

With the timeline as with manuscript length, mutual expectations are important. But nobody benefits from rushing either the writer or the client. We do not want to force clients to meet a contractual deadline while trying to juggle a change of jobs, a cross-country move or an unexpected hospital stay of one of their parents. That does not serve the client well, and the quality of the input and feedback would really suck.

Ironically, those few times that clients have stomped their feet and insisted on specific dates, they have inevitably failed to provide timely information required for the project. Not even close.

Research

Do you expect the writer to do research for you?  If so, take the time to outline exactly what is expected. Asking “How much work does it take to do research?” is like asking, “How deep is a hole?” or “How long is time?” or “How far is away?”

The default in our contract templates specifies that no research will be done. Our writers usually do some research anyway, such as checking small details about a location or an event, but if there is specific information you need included in your manuscript, either provide it yourself or detail exactly what needs to be gathered by the writer.

CAVEAT: If you are dealing with a hoity-toity, gold-plated writing agency, one that charges $30,000 or more for a 75,000 word book, you should expect unlimited research.  That’s just my opinion, of course; don’t try telling them that I said so. Just make sure if you need research to be done, the contract lays down the rules.

Confidentiality

If this is ghostwriting, you might not want it known that you had help.  Some of our clients are very particular about this.  Others don’t mind their collaboration with a ghostwriter being known. If this is important to you, make sure it is included.

Contact

You might want the contract to include details about the type of contact you will have with the ghostwriter. On a rare occasion, a client will demand face-to-face meetings with the writer, although that obviously leads to higher costs. Some clients want frequent contact with the writer; others want to let the writer run with the topic.

The default in our contract template specifies that it is the client’s responsibility to make sure he is satisfied with the content as it is being produced, so we build a chapter-by-chapter contact into our process. The default in our contract template also offers a default price for face-to-face meetings, should the client wish to make use of that option after signing the contract.

Ghostwriting contracts in summary

The bottom line is that you want a contract to address any legal matters, such as rights, and to set basic parameters so that you know how much you are paying and what you can expect for that money.

At the same time, it is important to remember that writing is a creative task; it has to be a collaborative process between you and the writer, built on trust and a mutual drive to make the manuscript amazing.  Setting parameters is a good thing; making them restrictive is a bad thing.

READ ALSO: How to get the most from your ghostwriter.

No contract will ensure a successful ghostwriting project. Success depends on the client and the writer.  You need to decide if the ghostwriter you have chosen is easy to work with and knows her craft, and whether the writer and the agency are accommodating in their approach, with their focus on delivering the most powerful manuscript possible.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, this article has 5.6 characters per word.





About David Leonhardt

is President of The Happy Guy Marketing, published author, a "Distinguished Toastmaster", a former consumer advocate, a social media addict and experienced with media relations and government reports.

Read more about David Leonhardt



Comments

  1. Eric James-Olson says:

    As a ghostwriter I’ve found that the process of working out a contract serves as a trial-run for how it will be like to work with my potential client. I’ve turned down jobs at this stage when it doesn’t seem like I can work with someone. It’s important for anyone hiring a ghostwriter to know that there’s plenty of work out there and they need to hold up their end of the bargain if they want to keep a writer who actually knows what he or she is doing.

  2. GREAT ARTICLE! For many people the timeline is as important as the price. Kind Regards from Germany!

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