Monday, November 03, 2008

Coauthor Agreements

I’ve been in this business a long time and I’ve seen some really amazing relationships go downhill fast the minute money is involved. I’ve mediated between authors, I’ve been bullied and seen coauthors bullied, and I’ve seen many relationships ruined. So before you go one step further with your coauthor, before you write another word, you need to establish some kind of an agreement between you and your writing partner.

This is a subject I’ve been meaning to write about for quite some time, but because it actually takes a lot of work on my part I procrastinated. Sound familiar? How many of you are working with a coauthor, whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, and thought briefly about the necessity of a coauthor agreement but procrastinated simply because it would take research and work or maybe even a lawyer? Well, I’m here to tell you right now, this very minute, sit down and get something on paper. You don’t need a lawyer to do it, you simply need wording you can both agree to.

Typically a publisher’s contract is either going to be a 50-50 split between two authors or it’s going to be a contract between the publisher and just one author, leaving the other author to rely solely on a coauthor agreement (the latter is most likely with nonfiction). In other words, don’t wait for or rely on the publisher’s contract to spell out what you’ll need to do when writing the book. For example, do you know whose name will go first on the book or what name you’ll be writing under? Do you know who is responsible for supplying what material? Do you know what deadlines you’ll be working under?

Every coauthor agreement is different and should be different. What I recently told a client when asked what was fair was, “If your agreement is comfortable for both of you, it’s fair.” And I stand by that. A coauthor agreement shouldn’t be a battle of wills, it should simply be a clear delineation of responsibilities and a level of comfort for both of you. However, that being said, here are some things that should definitely be spelled out in the agreement:

  • Due dates. What are your dates for delivery? If you are both signing the publisher’s contract, but will need to have material to each other on certain dates for editing and comparison, that should be spelled out in the agreement. If one of you is acting as an editor while the other is doing the bulk of the writing, you definitely need due dates in writing. What happens if one author does not meet the dates or if the work is deemed unacceptable by the publisher? Can the remaining coauthor fire the first and hire a new coauthor? What happens to the material written by the fired author? What about payment? Who gets payment if the work is unacceptable? Who is responsible for repaying the publisher if the contract is canceled for unacceptable work?
  • Publication Rights. Who has right to the material? Under whose name is the copyright? Who “owns” the material? Does one author have final decision-making responsibility or are all decisions equal between the co-authors?
  • Advances and Royalties. How will these be divided? Who is responsible for any agency fees or commissions? How will advances and royalties be paid?
  • Disagreements. What happens if things can’t be resolved between the coauthors? Does one’s opinion override the other? Does an agent or editor override both authors? Will this go to court? If so, where?
And then of course you need to finally decide what you both need and expect from a project like this. What agents and editors do you want to submit to? Who is responsible for submissions? Who writes the query letter? How are revisions handled? What happens if one of you wants to write a project on your own? Are you beholden to the other in any way? Is there a noncompete between the work you write on your own and the work you write with your coauthor? In other words, can you use the same characters in your solo project as you do in your coauthored project? What about the same subject matter, hook, or genre? What are your limitations?

A coauthor relationship should be harmonious and fun, but the truth is, when money is involved, anything can happen. Be prepared ahead of time and write an agreement that will make you both comfortable. To me it’s like insurance: hopefully you’ll never need it, but it’s certainly nice to have.



Anonymous said...

This brings back nightmares. I did it once, figured it might be fun and different. And while we were writing it was fun, it wasn't until we sold that it became an absolute nightmare. I won't go into detail, but suffice it to say that I had to make a very tough decision. In the end I opted to drop all my rights to the book, frankly it wasn't worth it to me. I think it was easier for me to decide that way because we sold the project to an epup. In the end there is just no way I could ever coauthor again, or if I did I'd really make sure there were rules we were required to follow after it sold.

Great blog as always.

Annette Lyon said...

Amen. Ugh. The memories. Our never got that far, but there were already problems rearing their heads. I'm glad I backed out when I did.

Anonymous said...

Do you shy away from representing coauthored novels? Do you think that agents in general are leery of coauthored projects? Is there a best way to represent one's partnership?

Diana said...

I've wondered about how this works. Thanks for the post. (Oh, and thanks for adding the "share on facebook" option!)

Mark Terry said...

Spend some time on the internet. There are a lot of examples of co-author agreements and ghostwriter agreements, etc. They're easily adaptable for your own needs--some are ridiculously complex, some ridiculously simple, but it gives you something to work with.

In my limited experience--I'm currently "collaborating/ghosting" a book proposal with two other "authors"--you really have to view the agreement as a guideline and expect things to vary--often a lot--from the document.

ChristaCarol Jones said...

Anon 8:54: I'm in no position to honestly answer your question, however I do feel that with certain non-fiction books, a coauthor probably wouldn't be frowned upon with an agent if they are bringing extra knowledge or have an educational background concerning what the book is about. If the author, who has the idea and a lot of the knowledge but none of the educational background, I'm assuming will be urged to find a coauthor to bring in some "clout" regarding the subject. It all depends on the subject though.

But I'm glad this was posted, as I've been considering whether to pair up with another author for a non-fiction book proposal I've been mulling over. Thanks, as always Jessica. :)

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

I don't care how many authors are on a project. That has no impact on my decision and I would think most agents, unless they've had a really bad experience, would be in agreement.


Kate Douglas said...

Really a fascinating post, Jessica, as I've often wondered how it goes with writing teams. I'm such a control freak that I doubt it would ever work for me, but when you think of the number of potential problems in store for a multi-authored project, it boggles the mind. Thanks for this--I actually read it as a cautionary tale!

Judy Croome | @judy_croome said...

THANKS for this post! It's most timely as my husband is busy co-authoring a non-fiction book (on South African tax law)with a colleague. I'm forwading this post to him asap! Your advice is much appreciated!

Keri Ford said...

Oh, wow. *note to self, avoid co-authoring*

I don't think I could do it, especially with fiction. I'd be steadily worrying whether or not my partner was picturing one our characters accurately!

Deborah K. White said...

I'd been wondering how co-authoring worked. Thanks for this interesting post.

Anonymous said...

In addition to the excellent points you raise, I'd underscore the need for writers to enter into these agreements with care, and to seek advice from an attorney, from their (hopefully knowledgeable) agent, or from an organization that provides contract review and/or referrals, such as The Authors Guild or California Lawyers for the Arts (or its equivalent in other states). Many libraries also have publishing law handbooks that are written for authors, and these can serve as helpful guides. While there are many useful resources on the web, there's also a lot of noise and misinformation. Not all coauthor or collaboration agreements are equal, and the variations can be meaningful, particularly if any problems arise.

Whether the work is one of true coauthorship, whether one party assigns their copyright in their contribution to another, or whether one party owns all rights to the work as work made for hire are important distinctions with legal--and business--consequences. Putting a label on someone's work doesn't necessarily make it so in the eyes of the law or a potential publisher: I've been called upon to help untangle arrangements in which writers have believed their agreement said one thing, only to learn that the publisher found it inadequate or inaccurate.

This is an important and often overlooked (intentionally and not!) aspect of authorship. Great to see a thoughtful post on it.

- Lisa Lucas
Lucas LLP

Unknown said...

This is a topic that got hot here at Ellora's Cave some months ago, when I realized how many co-authored books we seemed to be acquiring. I now have a lengthy explanation about the need for co-author agreements that I send out to all such partners. All the points you mentioned, plus others like "survivorship" type issues - what if your co-author is unable or unwilling to continue the project? Who gets what rights, can you continue on alone. And what about the extreme case where your co-author dies or becomes incapacitated? What rights do the heirs have over a co-authored WIP or contracted book?

Raelene Gorlinsky, ECPI

Briane said...

"when there's money involved..." is one of my warning phrases-- money makes even the closest relationships problematic. Any lawyer can tell you about families torn apart by it, let alone partnerships and loose affiliations writers.

Good advice here.

Anonymous said...

I completely understand the frequent necessity. I feel fortunate to have had such a wonderful experience co-authoring a non-fiction book with a long time friend. The fact that neither of us had financial expectations probably contributed to our success.
Now that I'm writing solo, it is REALLY hard to imagine doing author events all alone! How will I bear them without my friend? With whom will I share those difficult silences before a radio interview, or those long minutes before the first sale at a signing?
Despite the complexity, there are wonderful benefits to co-authorship.

Alexis Fleming said...

I've coauthored three novellas now with my critique partner. Moreover, we've done it long distance. I live in Australia and she lives in America, so we're combining not only two distinct voices, but two cultures. To date, it has worked exceptionally well for us. We have these incredible long phone calls when we're plotting and discussing the work, and we each do our share of writing and editing.

Surprisingly enough, we seem to have developed a third distinctive voice for these combined works, so much so that our editors, who know our separate voices well, can't tell who had written what part of the story. I must admit though that I never gave any thought to drawing up an agreement between us.

Anonymous said...

This blog hits the mark. I can't stress enough how important this is. It's in these beginning stages of working out the agreement that you can get a good look at the person you're working with. I entered a co-author agreement to ghost write a book for a (at the time) sensational person and it was a nightmare. Even with the agreement, and a great agent, it was difficult to get my co-author to do what she promised (provide access to people, and get media attention). I ended up doing much of that work myself and I started wondering what she was there for. Like Linda Hall, I made the decision to bow out and forsake my rights. My instincts were probably rights as the co-author went through three more ghost writers and the book wasn't written/published before the sensational period ended.

Bottom line, not only have an agreement, but be sure both parties can hold up their end of the bargain.