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What is Equitable in a Book Deal?
May 26, 2007 6:20 AM   Subscribe

I've been asked to co-author a nonfiction book with a woman who is an expert in her field, but not a writer. I have some questions about contracts and rights to the material.

She will be providing the book's content, based on experiences from her well established professional practice. But she has no professional writing experience. And after several failed collaboration attempts, she has brought me in to finally help her finish her book proposal, so her agent can shop it, at which point we will write the book together. I have six-plus years experience as a fulltime freelance writer and editor. My question is what should I expect from our contract? We have discussed a 60-40 or 70-30 split, with her getting the larger share because it is essentially her book. But I'm wondering if there is a standard for this type of collaboration. Also, am I entitled to a share of the royalties, or just the advance and a fee for my work? Thanks!
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (6 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Advance and fee, usually, with no royalties for the ghost unless credited with authorship, and you get whatever they decide you're worth. (With 6 years of freelancing, I'd think you'd know the range of possibilities, so don't start with a cheap price.) Because the book isn't even under contract, or in proposal form, you might be in a stronger position *now* to negotiate a deal for down the line, unless this person already has a track record of published books that have done well. If you've really been called in as the fireman here to save the day, and she's doing the asking, she's already made failed deals with people before you. If you think it's worth doing, then get (in writing) the best agreement you can before you shop the proposal.

Anyway, the whole thing sounds funky. Everyone wants to write a book proposal. Very few people have any idea what comes after that, which is to say writing a book. Are you sure this is worth your time? Is this person legitimately famous or brilliant?
posted by spitbull at 6:55 AM on May 26, 2007


what should I expect from our contract? We have discussed a 60-40 or 70-30 split, with her getting the larger share because it is essentially her book. But I'm wondering if there is a standard for this type of collaboration. Also, am I entitled to a share of the royalties, or just the advance and a fee for my work?

What you would be doing is called ghostwriting. Here's an article on ghostwriting in Wikipedia that has a good summary of the points you need to consider.

Please note especially the following points:

"Ghostwriters will often spend from several months to a full year researching, writing, and editing non-fiction works for a client, and they are paid either per page, with a flat fee, or a percentage of the royalties of the sales.

* In Canada, The Writers' Union has established a minimum fee schedule for ghostwriting. The total minimum fee for a 200-300 page book is $25,000, paid at various stages of the drafting of the book. Research fees are an extra charge on top of this minimum writing." (emphasis mine)

I would strongly recommend against getting into an agreement where you do a lot of work with only the potential for recompense if the book a) is accepted in its final form by the publisher and b) sells. You could sink a lot of time into something and then never see a penny for it. You're a professional--get paid for your work.

Also, it's a red flag for me that she's been in several failed collaborations already. Get everything in writing, and have your lawyer check it.
posted by Amy NM at 8:51 AM on May 26, 2007


You will get whatever you negotiate for, so negotiate hard.

The "content" in the book is the writing. You will be providing that, so don't let her get away with saying that's hers. She is a source, but that just means it's extra work for you to get the information out of her head and into yours so you can write about it. In other words, stop thinking "it is essentially her book." It is your book that you will be paid a sum of money to allow her to take credit (and copyright) for. That means, all else being equal, you should get more money than if the book deal was your own, not less, because you are giving up so much. Of course, her name may increase book sales beyond what you could achieve with your own name on the cover, and that's not devoid of value, but by no means should you accept a pittance.

If you go with a split of royalties, then you should be getting most of the money, certainly at least half, since she will have the professional benefit of having her name on the cover without doing the work, and you should get a healthy advance or better yet, a monthly retainer, that will support you during the time you're writing the book, taken against future royalties. A $25,000 advance wouldn't be out of line, assuming you can live on that for a year and think the book has enough commercial potential to earn you much more than that in royalties.

I am not saying the above is standard practice or even obtainable in practice. But it's what I'd insist on. If I didn't get it, there are plenty other projects out there where I won't be taken off a the market for a long period of time and paid too little money to write a book I can't use as a professional credit.

If you will be provided with drafts from the previous writers, and they are of any use, you may be willing to reduce your advance accordingly, since they will reduce the time it'll take to write. However, make sure she legitimately owns the copyright on this material, and make sure in the contract there's a clause assigning her liability for any violation.

Perhaps you should negotiate a flat fee for the sample chapters in the proposal and see where it goes from there.
posted by kindall at 9:56 AM on May 26, 2007


Returning to this thread, the key point is that there is no book contract. You're both on spec. I agree that you should see something serious up front, a fair compensation for how much time a proposal will take and the real risk it will never be accepted by a publisher for a contract. But you should also specify the terms you expect if it does make it past the proposal stage.

But you must know that very, very few book projects do make it past the proposal stage. Without a track record, it's nearly impossible to sell commercial nonfiction cold unless this person is someone quite well known.
posted by spitbull at 2:57 PM on May 26, 2007


The phrase "after several failed collaboration attempts, she has brought me in to finally help her finish her book proposal" jumps out at me as a major red flag. It's great that she's being honest about the past failed attempts, but now it's up to you to find out as much as you can about why they dissolved and, even if you can't find out anything, to protect yourself in the event that this time also doesn't work.

At a minimum I would suggest a very clear agreement in your contract with her about a kill fee, which, as I imagine you know, is payment you get if the project is entirely canceled or not finished for some reason.
posted by sparrows at 5:16 PM on May 26, 2007


You get the entire advance and half the royalties, if any. And it is not essentially her book. Book ideas are a dime a dozen; finished books are a lot rarer, because writing the book is a lot more work than thinking up one. Published books are rarer still, and books that make money are extremely rare.
posted by Pistol at 9:23 PM on May 26, 2007


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