Sometimes professional writers are offered the opportunity to work as a co-writer. Should you do it, and if so, what the best way to protect yourself should problems develop?
Co-writing can be an ideal arrangement, when you have long been friends or business associates and you both share a passion for the project. Then, you can bounce your creativity off each other and create a great project together.
But what happens when you are approached by someone who thinks they have a great idea, and now they need a writer to make that happen? In many scenarios, this can turn into a paid project where the writer works as a ghostwriter and is paid on a work-for-hire basis by a client, or this can turn into a co-writing agreement when both parties work well together.
I believe starting with a work-for-hire agreement is an ideal arrangement when you are approached by someone you don’t know, because you don’t know how well you will work together or if you will share a similar vision for the book or a film project as it develops. This way, if the person with the project has the budget, he or she can maintain control of the project, while you write what the person wants. Then, if the relationship works out and you both want this, you can turn the book or film into a shared royalty agreement. One common scenario is for the writer to finish the project at a lower fee, such as less 25-35%, in return for a percentage of the royalty (commonly 50-50) after anything paid up front is deducted.
Often the situation of a shared royalty arrangement from the start comes up when the person with the idea, notes, or a rough draft has a limited budget. This shared agreement can work well, if you soon come to share the writer’s vision of the final project and you feel comfortable sharing in the project. Also, it can work well if the project is in your own field of expertise, and you feel the project has a good likelihood of getting sold, so you aren’t giving up the regular income you depend on in return for something that’s a risky bet.
However, there are a number of cautions to watch out for in co-author arrangements with someone you don’t know well, such as when you respond to an ad for a writer to be a collaborator or co-writer. One problem is that you may start off agreeing that this is a shared project, but then the original author becomes controlling and you start to feel like a hired hand, as happened to one writer who was enticed into doing some chapters for a book by a psychologist. The psychologist claimed she wanted someone to be a true collaborator and share the authorship and royalties. But then the psychologist turned into a tyrant, who was very critical of what the writer wrote, because she wanted everything expressed a certain way. Eventually, the writer was able to escape the nightmare with a signed work-for-hire agreement and got paid in full for what he had discounted to be a collaborator.
Another problem in a co-writer project occurs when the original author has less and less time to contribute to the project or loses interest, because of other commitments. So there isn’t enough information to complete and sell the project, and the writer is stuck with getting less or nothing, because of agreeing to a collaboration. For example, one writer faced this situation after writing situation when the client writing his memoir suddenly decided that he shouldn’t do this book now, because his psychiatrist thought it wasn’t a good idea. Besides, now if he did pursue the book, he wanted full control of both the book and the possible film based on it. Fortunately in this case, the writer was able to turn the collaboration into a work-for-hire situation for the work already done and get paid accordingly. But in many cases, a project simply dies at this point, and the writer doesn’t get paid.
The other big problem with a collaboration is that when the project is completed, it may not sell or may only bring in a very small advance, which is less than the author would get paid for writing the book, proposal, or script as a ghostwriter. Then, if there is a very low or no advance, any future work on the project has to be written largely or solely on spec.
Thus, given all these potential problems, my usual approach is to start off as a ghostwriter for at least the beginning stages of the project. Then, if the project is in a field I normally write about and we both feel a co-writing arrangement is desirable, we sign a co-writing agreement, and I reduce the total costs on the project by 25% in return for sharing in the proceeds should it sell. Thereafter, the original author is paid back in full for anything paid to me, before we share in the royalties 50-50. Such a deduction before sharing royalties is a typical arrangement, and I have found this approach works best for me.
What’s best for you? I suggest treating each co-writing arrangement on a case by case basis, taking into consideration the topic, how much you like both the project and the author, the potential for selling the book or film, and how much a sale is likely to bring. Then, compare that to what you would make as a ghostwriter, since normally the most you will earn on most books and films is what you are paid as an advance. Additionally, consider your own income needs and whether you can afford to take a chance on getting less up-front as a co-writer, and whether starting this project as a co-writer is the only option, because that’s all the original writer can afford.
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