Clauses to Include in a Co-Writing Contract
Co-writing books is a growing trend that’s only set to continue as the writer community expands. Together, companies that aid self-publishing have made it more accessible than ever. At the same time, advancements in social media and video conferencing communication have enabled authors from around the globe to talk in real time without spending money or leaving their homes. All these changes aid creative collaboration.
In many ways, the recent boom in work-from-home solutions has made writing a less solitary activity, injecting extra fun into the work and even manifesting lucrative opportunities. Using the latest tools as a collaborating writer, you can pool your writing knowledge, effort and marketing resources with peers to produce more work faster and to a higher standard. The strategy can mean building a backlist of books at a speed that’s difficult to muster alone and promoting them to an audience that rivals traditional publishing houses.
It’s fun but beware; collaboration can come with headaches. After all, when authors co-publish, disagreements inevitably arise. And what happens when a project doesn’t go to plan? Collaborating complicates matters.
Who owns the project’s intellectual property rights?
Who has the final word on creative decisions?
What happens if one author wants to leave or dies?
Authors joining forces often dance around these delicate questions, but you must address them if you want to ensure a smooth future, ideally by writing pre-agreed terms into a contract. That might sound like overkill, but having evidence to immortalise your terms is the perfect solution to work out what happens if everything goes south. But what do you include in a co-writing contract? In today’s blog post, we will explore a range of potential clauses you should cover to help protect everyone involved and ensure you get a stress-free co-writing experience.
One of the first items on your agenda should be the issue of ownership. It’s a heated topic but one that needs addressing, because the matter of ownership isn’t always clear when a project has more than one author. Alone, a sole author owns all the copyright and publishing rights. They can sell copyright or licence publishing rights without having to consult any outside parties. Co-written works, however, come with more complicated rules. A contract can clarify the terms, though, to ensure everyone knows their rights and agrees on the deal before entering a joint venture.
If you publish a multi-author anthology, for example, each individual contributor could own their own copyright, control their own editorial decisions and retain all subsidiary rights, like movie and merchandise rights. All you need is a license to publish their work. Whether that license is exclusive or non-exclusive is up to you. If you co-write one cohesive story, however, the arrangement is less easy to dissect. You could decide to co-own the copyright or give up complete control to one organiser so they can license the IP on behalf of all contributors without having to ask for permission. There is no right answer. Whatever you decide, just ensure all co-authors know who holds the rights from day one to avoid unsavoury shocks down the line.
Traditionally published authors who sign away their rights often bemoan their lack of control after their publisher makes a decision that, they believe, tarnishes the vision they have for their work. Sometimes the publisher overrules them on an editing choice, changing a character or plot line. Other times, they decide to price their ebook format high despite the author begging them to discount it to lure in more potential readers. Most often, anger flares around the issue of the cover, the publisher choosing to go with design that the author either doesn’t love or outright hates.
Stories like these frustrate authors, but publish another writer yourself and you’ll quickly learn to empathise with both sides. Far from an exact science, publishing is highly subjective. What you believe is best for the book will not always align with what other authors feel it needs. Yes, you can gauge how well a design, editorial or marketing decision should impact a book by analysing market trends, but there are always outliers, and co-authors will refer to them in the heat of a debate. Hence, you will inevitably disagree on some issues. A contract clause that states who has the final say, however, can resolve arguments before they even arise. Get everyone to agree who has control beforehand and it can stop a disagreement grinding your publishing schedule to a halt.
Money can turn even the most rational people into monsters. History proves this to be true for families, business partners and even artists who claim they aren’t doing it for the cash. As a result, it pays to know how the finances will work for your co-authored project. Who foots the editing and design bills? Will one person manage the group’s marketing budget? Who collects the royalties? Do all co-writers get paid the same way? These are important questions to ask upfront, particularly if one author is investing more effort or money than another. Large authors, for example, routinely pay lesser-known co-writers an up-front fee instead of royalties while others opt for an unbalanced royalty split. You could, of course, split the pot evenly.
Historically among self-publishing authors, a project organiser has published books to their own publishing accounts, collected royalties on behalf of the group, then distributed them later. Nowadays, however, services like Publish Drive’s Abacus and Draft2Digital’s Payment Splitting can carve up royalties from multiple retailers in whatever way you predetermine and send them directly to individual co-authors, in return for a cut. You can and should state your financial preferences in your co-writing contract, bearing in mind all these potential trip hazards. Doing so can help you predict and skirt around perfectly avoidable confrontations.
Not all co-writers want a project to last forever. For some, linking their names on a cover is a temporary marketing strategy designed to pool audiences and attract more eyes to their work. A common example includes instances where authors co-launch an anthology to hit the USA Today or New York Times bestseller lists. In those cases, collaborators join forces to get the accolade but discontinue their book, say, six months after launch day so they can re-publish their individual stories at higher price points and make more money. Reverting the rights of a co-produced books isn’t always simple, though. While you can easily split a co-produced box set or anthology, those who co-write an original story don’t have such a simple way out.
If you want a clear-cut exit strategy, include one in your contract to ensure everyone is on the same page before the venture begins. That way, nobody gets forced into a long-term business relationship they would rather end and nobody can claim unearned ownership of the IP if the project achieves unpredictable success. To avoid disagreements, ensure you include a clause in your contract that clarifies key time periods after which the organiser must unpublish the collaborative work and individuals can publish their individual stories. You can always choose to continue if you all agree, but this clause means you aren’t locked into the relationship. Likewise, don’t forget to include a standard policy for reverting rights to collaborators, including who gets what at the end of the project’s agreed timeframe.
Authors die. It’s an unpleasant reality, but sometimes they even die in the middle of a shared project. And what happens then? If the project is in the early stages, it’s usually possible to come to a simple resolution, whether that means removing their contribution or including it under different terms. But when their work is impossible to separate, how should their collaborators handle the intellectual property rights of the project as a whole? Do they revert to the surviving authors? The deceased author’s family? And what about their share of the royalties? Having an author die without these issues pre-agreed can cause massive heartache on all sides, not least their family.
As a result, consider including a clause in your contract to determine what happens if an author passes away. Does control of their IP go to a trustee inside or outside the group? The author might be awesome to work with but what if their family is greedy and litigious? Can the project’s surviving authors pay off beneficiaries to limit their involvement? Should there be a pre-calculated limit to the value of said buy-out? This conversation doesn’t have to be awkward if you give everyone involved the same terms. Death might be a taboo subject but it’s worth breaching from a legal perspective to limit the damage it would cause if something unexpected were to occur. After all, most authors would never want to cause an avoidable feud between their family and co-authors.
Drawing up a contract for co-writers might feel like you’re starting a friendship on bad terms, but there’s no need to feel that way. If anything, the minor inconvenience will give the friendship a foundation that helps keep matters civil if everything does go sideways. A good contract accounts for all eventualities, protects everyone and ensures all collaborators share the same expectations before anyone goes to the trouble of writing a single word. Take the time to endure this small hassle now and it could save you weeks, months or even years of pain in the future.
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