A verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on, according to the famous quote from Oscar-winning producer Sam Goldwyn. Never mind that Goldwyn always claimed it wasn’t his line (the joke had been around for decades before it was attributed to him). If he didn’t say it, he should have done. And as the leading Hollywood mogul of his day, he certainly knew more about contracts than most.
But how much do you need to know about contracts before you sign a deal with a ghostwriter? Do you need to get your lawyer involved? Does everything need to be specified and tied down in black and white?
As a non-fiction author, I signed up several years ago with a leading London literary agency. To my surprise, there was no formal contract – just a two-paragraph letter confirming that my agent would work to get the best deals for me and take 10% of the proceeds. We didn’t need anything else. We both knew what was expected.
But it’s not like that when an author and a ghostwriter first decide to work together. There are any number of possible assumptions and misunderstandings that need to ironed out before you can both be reasonably sure you know what you’re getting and how it’s going to work.
Each of the members of United Ghostwriters is an independent operator, so we don’t have a standard contract. But all of us have been around long enough to have tried and tested draft contracts we can adapt to the circumstances of a particular job.
My contract, for example, includes fairly routine clauses confirming that the work will be original and not copied from anywhere else, that copyright will pass from the writer to the author on payment of the agreed fees and that the author’s confidentiality will be maintained indefinitely.
If we’re being realistic, though, there also needs to be some indication of what should happen if there is a dispute and either party fails to deliver (usually formal notice, with 14 days to put things right, followed by an option to terminate the agreement).
But most of the details that apply to your specific project should be covered in a separate schedule.
The target length of the manuscript needs to be indicated, though it’s generally best to build in a wide-ish margin (for example, ‘between 55,000 and 70,000 words, unless changed by mutual agreement’). Some ghosts like to stipulate a maximum of two rewrites per section. If the author is working to an immovable deadline, such as a fixed publication date or a conference appearance, this should be made clear in the contract.
The fee for your book is likely to have been agreed well before you reach draft contract stage, but it is important to specify when each part payment will be made.
I try to structure the payment schedule so that both sides are exposed to as little risk as possible as the project progresses. That often results in the fee being split into four equal parts, with an initial payment of one quarter, followed by two interim payments (usually triggered by delivery of a certain number of words) and a final tranche on acceptance of the completed manuscript.
All these details are negotiable, and there’s plenty of room for compromise. I had one Middle Eastern client who insisted, for his own reasons, that 50% should be paid on signature, with the other half being paid on completion. I had no objection to that, as you can imagine. But it did mean that he could potentially have been exposed if things had gone haywire halfway through.
Interim payments do impose a useful discipline. Ghosts are only human, and there’s nothing quite as motivating as the knowledge that a quick burst of energy now will carry you past the next milestone and trigger the next payment.
Ultimately, of course, the author/ghost relationship has to depend on trust. You are going to be working together for months on end, and no contract can possibly tie down every aspect of your arrangement.
Illness or external circumstances may slow the writing down. Authors – especially business people – may suddenly find themselves spending half their lives in airports or locked in negotiations that have to take precedence over meetings about the book.
I’ve known authors dry up completely and run out of ideas after 25,000 words, and it’s been part of my job to rebuild their confidence and get them fired up again. I’ve also known writers who’ve taken on too much and simply can’t keep all the plates spinning. It’s not at all unusual for one of the United Ghostwriters professionals to be brought in, late in the day, to rescue a half-finished project that’s just been too much for an inexperienced ghost – often a journalist who has not realised the special skills needed for our niche trade.
In the end, you can’t cover everything. If you read the draft contract carefully and discuss anything you’re not sure about with the ghost, you should not need to involve a lawyer. No-one is trying to trip you up or catch you out, and the last thing an experienced ghost wants is to set out on a book in an atmosphere of mistrust or antagonism. The job is hard enough anyway, and we’re all used to turning down far more projects than we take on.
You’re looking for a quiet life – and so are we. A sensible contract sets the framework, but the rest is down to two people working calmly and flexibly towards a common goal. And that’s something no amount of contractual ingenuity can guarantee.
Ian Shircore is the author of John F Kennedy: The Life, The Presidency, The Assassination and of Conspiracy: 49 Reasons to Doubt, 50 Reasons to Believe. His latest book, So Brightly at the Last, about the poetry of Clive James, will be out in October 2019.