It’s vital to have a good ghostwriting contract before you hire a writer to begin a book project. An oral agreement should never replace a written one.
This nugget of advice is something I’ve heard from almost every successful professional. No matter what industry you are in, always be sure to have a good contract that spells out all the important details; that way there can be no room for misunderstandings later.
A few years ago, I spoke to a renowned serial entrepreneur who confessed to jotting down a partnership agreement on the back of a cocktail napkin in a bar. The two were friends and thought it would all work out. Well, the agreement (and friendship) blew up after a few years. It took time and the help of a couple of lawyers, but eventually the two found a middle ground and were able to sort out their differences and continue. They were lucky as it could have ended up much worse.
I’ve been a ghostwriter for two decades. I learned long ago to have a good, clear ghostwriting contract. That way you and your client know what to expect, and there can’t be misunderstandings down the line. Trust me, if you make agreements over the phone, it can be hard to remember exactly what was said months later.
Note to professional writers
If you’re a professional writer, I highly recommend you hire a lawyer to create your contract for you. When I first started, I used a very poor template as a base, one that I received from a fellow ghost. Now I was grateful that he shared his contract with me, but I would have been much better off hiring an attorney from the get-go. His contract was ambiguous which caused problems early on in my career.
When you approach a lawyer to help you, ask them to create a good basic template. That way you can adjust it depending on the parameters of a particular project. It’s well worth the cost to make sure your contract says what you think it says.
Some projects are so small that they don’t require a full-blown contract. In those cases, I would suggest you summarize the oral agreement in an email and send it to the client. That would give them the chance to confirm that you are both on the same page.
What to include in a ghostwriting contract
My ghostwriting contract is six pages long. I know, this is quite extensive, but I wanted to be thorough. The contract should protect the ghostwriter and the client equally.
If you’re just starting out as a ghostwriter and you wish to construct your own contract (or if you’re a client looking to learn what a good ghostwriting contract should contain), let me save you some time. As you put together your contract template, here are a few basic components to consider:
The first paragraph of my contract includes my company name and the name of the client, as well as the effective date of the contract. Later, I include the four major milestones, along with their deadlines.
The four milestones I use in my ghostwriting contract are the:
- Completion of the outline.
- First half of the first draft.
- Completion of the first draft.
- Final manuscript.
This milestone approach is something I developed after nearly two decades of experience as a ghostwriter. I tried many different methods when I first began. I found that billing the client monthly really didn’t work out. Often either I would get ahead of the project or the client would fall behind. Both scenarios made me uncomfortable. With the milestone approach, I’m paid for a specific delivery. Both parties know precisely what to expect. This is the best approach when it comes to ghostwriting a book for a client.
Because I use four milestones, I like to break up the payments into four parts. My policy is to be paid ahead of the work, which is the standard for the industry.
I bid on the project as a whole, based on the total estimated word count. I charge one dollar per word unless the client requires an accelerated deadline in which case I’d charge $1.50 – $2.00 per word.
My contract always includes the total price as well as the payments required for each segment. For instance, if the total price is $60,000, the compensation for each milestone would be $15,000. The first payment would be due upon the signing of the contract.
To learn more about the details regarding the cost to hire a ghostwriter, please review my article on the subject.
Most ghostwriters charge on a per-word basis, so the contract should specify how many words the author should expect to receive. The average length of a book is 200 – 300 pages (or 50,000 – 75,000 words).
Over the years, I’ve noticed that most clients think in terms of pages when they consider writing a book. This isn’t as precise for the purposes of a contract. Keep in mind that the number of words per page really depends on the font style and size chosen. It can vary tremendously. I like to include the agreed-upon word count along with a rough page estimate for clarity.
It’s a good rule of thumb to consider that there are 250 words per page, so a 100-page manuscript should run about 25,000 words. This would be a short book.
A Description of the Project
If possible, you might wish to include the genre or a rough description of the book in the contract, along with a working title. This description doesn’t need to be long. An example might be, “The life story of Mary Smith” or “A science fiction novel.”
It’s important to mention the specifics of the service you will provide in your ghostwriting contract. For instance, as a ghostwriter, I don’t have anything to do with the publishing process. Although I try to advise my clients in this area, I can’t promise that the book will be picked up by a traditional publisher. I also can’t promise that a self-publishing author will turn a profit. It is a good idea to state your limitations within your contract. For instance, I don’t create the cover design or work on the layout, nor do I provide illustrations or photographs. These are specialized skills performed by other professionals.
My job as a ghostwriter is to create a well-written manuscript that is as free of typos as possible. I often work with an outside editor to produce an as near-perfect product as possible. I think it’s important to have an extra set of eyes reviewing the final document before turning it over to the client. However, I also stipulate that I can’t guarantee that the manuscript will be completely error-free and I also state that directly in my contract.
As a ghostwriter, I never claim rights to the manuscript in my contract. I am paid well to write for my client. They own all the rights to their book.
Your ghostwriting contract must make it clear that the client will own all the rights to the final work and any derivatives of that book (like a movie adaptation, artwork inspired by the work, etc.). It’s important to remember that the book belongs to the client.
If you’re looking for a client and read anything contrary to this sentiment with their contract, walk away.
Most ghostwriters have a writing process similar to mine. They start with an outline and once that is nailed down, the book’s contents are determined. Then it is time to begin writing the first draft.
Once I start writing, I fully expect my clients to have notes for me. These revision requests are par for the course and an important part of the process. After all, the author and ghostwriter are partners. A ghost can’t pen a book for a client without their input.
However, if the number of revision requests isn’t specified, it can be a bit of a nightmare. Back and forth, back and forth can ruin a book and triple the time required to complete the project.
Personally, I usually allow the client one set of minor revisions per milestone. Since we always work off of a detailed outline, there usually isn’t a need for any drastic changes during the revision process. However, if the client were to change their mind about a major plot point, I would need to charge them for the time to make the adjustment. In my twenty years as a ghostwriter, this has only come up once or twice, but I was thankful this was covered in the ghostwriting contract!
Typically my clients require confidentiality because of the nature of the project. The reasons for this request are numerous. For some authors, their ideas are unique and cutting-edge. However most simply don’t want anyone to know they had help writing their book. They want to be the author. Period.
Things That Could Go Wrong
Most likely everything will go smoothly throughout the process, but it’s always good to put in a clause covering what happens if one party wants to terminate the agreement prematurely.
In addition, consider limiting the damages and agreeing to arbitration to resolve all disputes.
A ghostwriting contract is something you’ll need for any large project. It shouldn’t be taken lightly as it could save you from unnecessary headaches in the future. If you have any questions or concerns, please consult a lawyer. It’s worth the investment!
If you’re serious about writing and publishing a book, and wish to hire a ghostwriter, please contact me. Once we determine that I’m a good candidate for your project, I’d be happy to send you a copy of my contract to review in detail.
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