The Importance of Contracts: Ghost Writers and Freelance Writing

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: if you work as a ghost writer or a freelance author–or if you employ one–always, always, always get a contract in advance.

Beginning a new project is exciting. It’s easy to fall into the trap of agreeing to write–or hiring a writer–and getting the article or manuscript started before you document the terms of the deal.

Don’t make this mistake.

In the beginning, the writing project seems exciting. Everyone is getting along, and the terms of the deal seem simple. The problem is, as time goes on, memories and relationships can change, and both parties need a written, executed contract to rely on.

Having a written contract that addresses the relevant issues can save time, money, and stress (not to mention potential lawsuits) when the work is finished.

Here are some of the most common problems that arise when a contract isn’t signed before the work begins:

1. Conflict over copyright and ownership rights in the work. Does the ghost writer own the manuscript, or was it a work for hire? Many times, the writer and the subject disagree on this critical point–whether or not they had an agreement when the work began. The contract should state who owns the copyright in the finished work.

2. Payment disputes. Will the writer be paid a flat fee, a percentage of royalties, or a combination of the two? When will payments be made and how will sales be accounted for? The contract needs to address not only payment terms but statements, accounting, and audits, if appropriate. If the writer receives a flat fee only, there’s no need for statements or accounting provisions. However, if the writer’s fee is tied to sales of a published article or book, the writer needs some way to confirm that payments are accounted for and made in a timely manner.

3. Disagreements over publishing decisions. Sometimes the ghost writer sells the finished manuscript, and other times that responsibility lies with the hiring party. Who gets to determine where and how the book is published? Make sure the contract explains this in detail.

4. Credit at publication. Sometimes, a co-author or ghost writer’s name appears on the published book, but many times the ghost writer gets no credit at publication. The contract should state, without ambiguity, whose name(s) will appear as “author” on the final work–and in what order and context.

5. Questions about reimbursement of expenses. Sometimes, ghost writers and freelance writers receive reimbursement for expenses incurred while writing the book or article. Other times, the writer bears his or her own expenses. The contract should clarify which, if any, expenses will be reimbursed and which ones the author bears.

The most common ghost-writing dispute I see arises from parties who enter into agreements and write projects (or start them) without a contract. All of these disputes are avoidable simply by preparing and signing a contract before the work begins. It’s tempting to think “that won’t happen to me,” but the likelihood of disputes is exponentially higher when parties don’t take the time to draft and sign a contract in advance.

Also: don’t try to draft the contract yourself, unless you’re a lawyer familiar with publishing issues. The money you invest in a professional ghost-writing or freelance contract will be far less than you spend on lawyers if litigation is necessary down the line.

Have questions about this or other ghost writing or freelance writing issues? Feel free to ask in the comments or email me through my website!