There are multiple instances where a fiction or non-fiction writer will need or want a contract, or will be offered one by another person. Let’s go over the why, how, and when of contracts for writers.
Writer/Service Provider Contracts
This goes for every single service you wish to purchase in relation to your writing (editor, cover art, beta reader, formatter), YOU NEED A CONTRACT.
- The contract protects you. You can include a non-disclosure agreement to protect your work. You should include the agreed upon cost so it can’t be changed later. You should include what will happen should the service provider fail to provide the service.
- The contract is a clear, concise method of communicating and agreeing to expectations. Due dates, milestones, check-in dates, file specifications, project specifications – these should all be listed in the contract.
- The contract protects the person you are working with. You are agreeing to be held legally accountable for your end of the deal – the payment. Many service providers will not work without that guarantee.
This does not have to be a lawyer-official contract. Type up a document stating what you expect of the service provider, and what you are offering. Sign and date it. Have them sign and date it. Save it as a PDF and make sure you both have a signed, dated, unedited copy.
What if you’re not paying a Beta Reader? If you trust them, you probably don’t need a contract. If you are new to working with them you may get them to sign a non-disclosure agreement, or something simple with the deadline listed.
I’m writing this separate because there’s some extra stuff to consider as compared to other service providers, and that’s rights and royalties.
- When the art is complete, who owns the rights to the images, which rights, and for how long? Is the artist allowed to share some of the images in their portfolio, or on their website?
- In what formats can the pictures be used (ebook, paperback, hardcover – you need individual usage rights for each format)? Can the author use the images in their advertising?
- Is the artist being paid the 100% value of the art upon completion? Are they due any royalties from sales?
Hash this out beforehand, make sure both parties are clear on costs and expectations and put it down on paper so no one can go back and claim differently. This is for children’s picture books and graphic novels.
If you are planning to write with someone, you should have a contract for the same reasons as above – it protects you both, and it outlines rights and responsibilities. What should you include?
- How much of the project are each of you supposed to complete? How many words? Which pieces are each of you to work on?
- When is the project due? How often do you have to check in with each other? When is each milestone due?
- How will you communicate? How often? What needs to be discussed?
- Will you create a world bible? Who has final say on world building changes/additions?
- Will you self-publish or seek an agent?
- What percentage of rights, and which rights, do each of you own? What percentage of royalties will be paid to each of you? If self-publishing, who will manage the KDP (or other platform) accounts? If traditional publishing, who will be the contact person for questions from agents/publishers? Who has final say on contract issues?
Again, hash this out before you start writing. You don’t want to spend a year writing a book with someone and then have it fall apart because you’re fighting over royalties.
The difference between co-writing and ghostwriting is simple. When you co-write, both parties are contributing actual written words to the project. When you are ghostwriting, the client provides ideas and information and the ghostwriter does all of the writing.
Fiction – the client provides a plot and a list of main characters. The ghostwriter takes this information and writes a detailed outline which goes to the client for approval. Once approved, the ghostwriter writes the entire story, sending in the required milestones, until the book is complete. The client pays the writer (usually at each milestone). At the end, the client owns 100% of the rights and when it is published will receive 100% of the royalties. Generally a ghostwriter signs a full non-disclosure agreement and cannot acknowledge in any way that they worked on the project.
Non-Fiction – this is most often biographical. The client sits down with the ghostwriter and tells them the story of their life, or a memorable event, or a parent’s life, or whatever, and the ghostwriter makes notes of facts, details, and tone of voice/word choice while recording the interview. The ghostwriter transcribes those notes and the recording into a book. The manuscript is passed between client and ghostwriter until the client feels the story and tone are accurate. While the ghostwriter may have a non-disclosure agreement for the duration of the writing period, and owns zero rights to the work, their involvement is generally acknowledged (by CLIENT, with the help of a ghostwriter). The ghostwriter is generally paid a lump sum, at the end or over specified milestones, and receives zero royalties unless otherwise negotiated.
The contract for either should include:
- Scope of the non-disclosure agreement
- Milestone requirements and due dates, and what will be paid at each milestone
- Total finished word count (especially for fiction), total payment, any offered bonuses, and payment method (paypal, etransfer, cash).
- What happens if the piece is longer than the agreed upon word count (or shorter)
- When and how and how often the client and ghostwriter will meet/talk, and what needs to be covered
If you need to use an image, or a brand, or someone’s name, you may require some legal paperwork. Usage Agreements outline the conditions an artist, photographer, writer, brand, or celebrity have put on their product/name/likeness.
- Images – you need to get commercial usage rights to ALL images that are not in the public domain if you intend to make money off the book the images are appearing in. They will have a value cap (once you’ve sold more than a specified dollar value of books you will have to pay royalties on the image)
- Brands/Companies – Fiction and non-fiction – if you are mentioning a brand or company in passing (we walked to Safeway – Doritos were my favourite chip in high school) you can generally get away with it on 2 conditions – the mention is positive AND you have a disclaimer in the copyright that you do not own or represent this brand. If they play a more extensive role (you have a character working for that private company or they play a major role in your memoir) you may want to send a notice that you’ll be doing this, that you’ll be mentioning them by name, and that you are only discussing them in a positive light – still include the disclaimer. If you cannot talk about them in a positive way: Fiction – make up a new company. Non-Fiction – talk to a lawyer.
- Celebrities – if you are talking about them (a character puts on a Black Sabbath record, you mention your favourite band/actor/etc in your memoir) you’re fine. If you are writing them (Bob Ross is a speaking character in your novel) then you need legal permission to use their likeness in your book. If it is non-fiction and you’re recording a conversation or encounter that really happened, it needs to be true, respectful of privacy, and you may want to attain permission.
- Friends and Family – for memoir writers – Get written permission to use their names in your memoir. Change names when you need to protect someone’s privacy or when you are saying things that would damage their reputation. Research defamation of character and reasonable expectation of privacy.
Agents do not charge reading fees EVER. Agents do not charge editing fees EVER. An agent can ask you to make changes, but they cannot require you to take it to a specific paid editor, EVER.
Your contract with your agent should include:
- How many publishers will they approach with your book (a minimum)? How often will they send the manuscript out? For how long will they continue to try with that manuscript?
- What happens if no one wants the book?
- If it is accepted, how much does the agent get paid (they get a % of your royalties/advances when they are paid by the publisher)?
- Will the agent also represent other formats (audio, movie, etc) and translations?
- Does the agency have a lawyer you can use?
- How does the agent leave your service, under what conditions, at what cost to either of you? How do you leave your agent, under what conditions, and at what cost to each of you? (THIS IS ABSOLUTELY CRUCIAL)
- Does your agent want first-read privileges to future books you write?
- Is your contract with the agent or the agency? What will happen if your agent moves agencies or retires?
Traditional Publishing Contract, Anthology Contract, E-Zine/Magazine Contract
Congratulations! Someone wants to publish your work. What do you need to know about your contract?
- The contract should lay out clearly how much and when you get paid, by what method, and for what product (ebook, paperback, audiobook, hardcover, merchandise, etc).
- The contract should lay out ownership of rights – who owns what, for how long, and under what conditions. This gets complicated. For a new book, they should be asking for “first print and digital rights” for a set period of time (which means they are the only ones who can produce copies for that time period). If it’s a reprint they ask for reprint or second/third print rights for a set period. This also includes other formats (audio, video, translations), how much of the story the writer can share for free on their platforms, movie optioning rights, etc.
- There should be a timeline – editing, formatting, proofing, publishing – that lays out when the publishers will have things completed, and when the author is expected to return files.
- Author copies, how many? What format? When? At what cost to the author (at print cost, free)? Can you get more later? Do they count against royalties?
- Distribution and marketing – where will the book be sold? How will the book be marketed? Will they submit the book to writing contests and if not can you do it yourself? Will they arrange signings, when, how many, where? Can you arrange local signings and readings?
- How do you get out of the contract? Under what conditions are you allowed to leave? How does the publisher get out of the contract? Under what conditions can they cancel? What is the cost to each party in each circumstance of the contract terminating early?
- When the contract is up, what happens to unsold copies? What are the steps for negotiating a new contract?
- Does the publisher have first-look rights to other books in the series, books set in the same world, or unrelated works?
- Does the author have any say in cover design?
- Does the publisher REQUIRE you to pay for MANDATORY services you don’t want to purchase? THIS IS A RED FLAG, RUN AWAY! A legit publisher will not ask you to pay for formatting, marketing, cover art, or editing. This is done on their dime, ALWAYS. If they are marketing themselves as a hybrid press, the services they want you to pay for should be OPTIONAL (meaning you can outsource them to other people if you choose and pay those people instead as long as the end product is approved by the publisher).
Putting up templates and samples would make this blog post several dozen pages long. You can look up templates and samples online. If you’re not sure about something in a contract, ask someone. Your local writers’ guild will have a lawyer you can talk to and it’s free if you’re a registered member. Always research any publishing company or service provider you’re considering working with. If something is making you uneasy, trust that instinct and get a second (qualified) opinion or walk away.
Good luck out there!