Monday, February 16, 2015

Co-Authoring Agreements

In a recent email a writer asked for advice on finding a publishing lawyer. She and a friend have been in the process of writing a project that's under contract with a small publisher. Her concern is that the project is, in her words, "far from a normal co-authorship" and they've never had a formal contract between them.

First let me clarify that there is no such thing as a normal co-authorship. In fact, I'm always willing to tell you that there are few things in publishing, or life for that matter, that are "normal". How an arrangement is made between co-authors is many and varied. I've seen all sorts of things, and I've seen no actual real arrangement. It's the latter that scares me.

If you ever make the decision to enter into a co-authorship with anyone (friend, critique partner, lover, spouse, child...) my first bit of advice, before anything else is written, is that you write up some sort of contract. If you have an agent it's something your agent can help you with. If you don't, feel free to get a lawyer, or write up something yourself, but something you can both agree to. The agreement should include, among other things, how to handle due dates, the split of ownership of the property as well as money, what happens if one person wants to quit writing and what happens if one of the partners dies.

Writing a book together is a business arrangement from the start. When Jacky Sach and I first made the decision to start BookEnds we immediately met with business advisors and other agents for their advice. And we made a business plan and a partnership agreement. We wanted to know, should anything horrible happen, that we could not only protect ourselves, but protect our friendship. I think it worked. Fifteen years later and a dissolved partnership and we're still friends. Having things in writing from the beginning made it easier to know how things would end, without hurt feelings.

The tricky piece of this writer's email is that they probably have some of these terms defined. If they have a contract with the publisher the contract is in either one name or in both which would mean either one author owns the material and the rights (as defined by that publishing contract) or everything is split 50/50.

I hope this duo is able to firm up an agreement quickly. I hope that anyone else starting such an arrangement does the same immediately.



Kathryn Clark said...

Very useful (and timely!) advice, thank you! My coauthor and I are still in the early drafting stages, and honestly, I don't think it ever occurred to either of us to write up an official agreement. It hasn't seemed necessary; we both trust their neither one of us is out to screw the other over, and have verbally agreed to split everything (the rights, any advance that we may someday receive, etc.) 50/50. Even so, I can see why it'd be a good idea to have something official, if only to protect against worst-case scenarios.

Stephen Kozeniewski said...

If it's not too personal/painful I think it would be fascinating to read a blogpost about how Bookends was founded and eventually your original partnership dissolved. I think that's a behind-the-scenes story I've never heard an agent tell before.