Letter to a Reader
Dear [name withheld] –
Thanks for your email. As I understand your situation, you are a brand-new literary agent who has a client with a newsy story but no writing ability. You are negotiating a contract between your client and a well-known newspaper reporter who wants to help tell that story – for credit and money, of course. The question is co-writing vs. ghostwriting, and who gets what kind of credit, rights, etc.
First, some clarity on terms.
A co-writer usually gets public credit and equal billing with the other writer or writers (in terms of type size on the cover, in the ads, etc). Usually co- writers both put writing time and energy into a book. As an example, Michael Baigent, Henry Lincoln and Richard Leigh are co-authors of the series of books beginning with Holy Blood, Holy Grail. All three men get equal and visible credit.
A ghostwriter is not publically credited on the book cover, though he/she may do most or all of the actual writing work. He/she stays unidentified...that's why he/she is called a "ghost." Most celebrity biographies are done by ghostwriters, with the celeb getting sole billing...in other words, the celeb gets all the public credit for writing that she/he didn't actually do. Few celebs can write...and few ghostwriters are unhappy with the big bucks they make by giving up credit. So both parties are happy with this arrangement.
In your case, the project is an "as told to" with the newspaper writer. In other words, the byline will read "By John Doe, as told to John Doe II." This is basically a public-credit situation. With "as told to's," the person telling the story is a celebrity or newsworthy person who is not a professional writer, and therefore is telling the story to the professional, who will actually be whipping the mass of interviews, archive material, notes, etc. into a publishable book. Sometimes the celeb or newsy person can negotiate getting their name in bigger type. But logically, the story can't be "by John Doe" unless it is actually told in the first person and John Doe supplied first-person material himself.
Now and then, the "as told to" scenario can shade into "authorized or unauthorized biography". Example: "Diana: Her True Story": by British tabloid writer Andrew Morton. This was the first biography of the Princess, published around the time of her separation from Prince Charles. It had everybody buzzing about whether the author had gotten information directly from Diana herself, or from secondhand sources. The mystery made the book all that more desirable to Diana fans, and it walked out of the stores. According to The Publisher, "In 1995, she revealed in a BBC interview that she had indirectly cooperated with Andrew Morton. What has not been known, however, is that 'Diana: Her True Story' was in fact almost entirely based on her own words, supplemented by interviews with her friends." The book has been styled as the closest thing to an autobiography by Diana.
But notice that Andrew Morton got the sole writer byline.
You ask if there are any "rules" that govern negotiations like yours. As far as I know, terms are usually thrashed out in negotiation...there are no "rules" other that laws that might apply. Everything depends on who is negotiating, how much juice they have, how high the stakes are.
You ask what monetary arrangements are usually made. Again, everything is negotiable. But your client has a right to share heartily in the monetary benefits no matter how he is credited, simply because it's his personal story. Your client should also be careful to retain ownership or co-ownership of the copyright – as well as a share in, and equal creative control of, ALL the different publishing rights and subsidiary rights, including film and TV rights. If the newspaper reporter is given sole copyright ownership, and/or sole control of any area of rights, especially film, he can do his own thing and exclude you and your client from all future deals.
And I can see your client's story as having some strong movie or made-for-TV or documentary potential.
Once the book is ghosted or co-written, the next hurdle is the book-publishing contract. Beware of book publishers who demand control of the copyright and the subsidiary rights, or any other kind of deal that will push your client out of the loop. Today even small publishers are trying to grab this broad ownership of rights. Nix, nix! Authors and their agents should make every effort to retain ownership of as big a piece of the rights pie as possible – especially when it is the author's real-life personal story.
Sometimes, with a co-written or ghostwritten book, it happens that the two parties each have an agent, and the agents get together and organize the whole thing. But remember that each agent will want their piece of the pie. In a project like this, fees to several people can eat up a great deal of the advance. And make sure it's clear that money owing your client will be paid directly to you, not to the other agent.
You say your client wants to "cut you in" for a share of the writing credit and income because you've already compiled some material for him, plus you have done some initial rough drafting. You wonder how to "tactfully" refer to this in your dealings with the newspaper guy and (down the line) the publisher. Don't worry about being "tactful." Just be up front! Let all parties know that you are wearing two hats – agent and writer. The terms of your creative participation should be written into the contract – including how you will personally will be paid, credited and acknowledged. Mention in the acknowledgments is the more usual thing for an "assistant writer," editor or researcher.
It's easy for a newbie to get screwed in this kind of book project, if things aren't clear up front. Years ago, as a young Reader's Digest book editor, I provided an original idea, plus all the initial research and outlining for a major nonfiction book. The project was turned over to a bestselling writer team. I did enough to qualify for co-writer or ghostwriter status. But I wasn't smart enough to negotiate terms of my creative participation in advance and in writing. So the big writers got all the credit, a major international bestseller and millions of dollars, including a film sale. All I got was a poke in the eye with a sharp stick – $500 finders fee and mention as "a researcher" in the acknowledgments. It was one of those mistakes that you only make once.
You say you feel that an attorney should review this contract. NO KIDDING. Big agencies have staff lawyers. Small agencies like yours have to go "out" to lawyers on an independent contractor basis. You absolutely must have a competent publishing or entertainment attorney review this complicated deal.
Most attorneys bill by the hour, including the time they spend on the phone with you. So negotiate the legal cost up front, especially if you're on a tight budget. You won't want surprises when that attorney sends you the bill!
If you do a good job negotiating this contract, and the book sells to the movies, and your client is happy when it's over, well...you're on your way to being one of the hottest agents in town.
Patricia Nell Warren