Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Art of the (Jointly Authored Book) Deal

"I can never understand how two men can write a book together; to me that's like three people getting together to have a baby."-- Evelyn Waugh

Nearly everyone has heard the oft-repeated statistic that 50% of all marriages end in divorce.  The odds are no better with creative partnerships than with romantic ones.  Pity the poor writer, expert, or public figure who enters into a creative partnership without thinking about the financial, emotional and practical challenges ahead of them.  If the relationship falters, a well-drafted collaboration agreement (written during the romance stage of the relationship) can be consulted.   

Good Contracts Make Good Writing Partners

Contracts define the parties' goals, their rights and remedies, and recognizes what could go wrong.  The key reasons collaborations fail are lack of commitment, lack of communication and unrealistic expectations.  And, the inability to deliver a final manuscript that is complete and satisfactory in the amount of time allotted.

The art of converting a deal into an effective agreement, requires you to address the following: (i) money (how much and when paid), (ii) business and creative decision-making authority, (iii) ownership, (iv) authorship credit, and (v) how to handle disputes.

How you choose to address these issues depends largely on your sense of fairness, your bargaining power, industry custom and practice, and, if you are represented by an attorney, their support and guidance in reaching a workable agreement.   And yes, sometimes it's not about the money, but what the book can do for you, your brand, or a cause that matters to you.  

The Law Presumes 50/50 Ownership

In the absence of a formal agreement, the way copyright law deals with authorship is black and white.  When two people blend their independently copyrightable contributions with the intent to write a book, or other creative work, each party is presumed to co-own the copyright.   That allows either party to publish the work without the other's permission.  If there is no written agreement, each co-author receives 50% of the profits. Judges do not apportion a larger or smaller share based on the collaborators' contributions, experience, reputation or seniority.   

Decision-making problems arise when there are multiple offers for the work or requests for exclusive rights and no written agreement exists between the parties.  If there is no written agreement, or the agreement fails to address the issue, an uncooperative co-author (or a deceased co-author's estate) can prevent the other party from licensing or selling book, film or other rights, as no publisher, or producer, will acquire rights on a non-exclusive basis.  If the book is a memoir, or an extension of one author's business or brand, then that party should be concerned about controlling business and creative decisions. Relinquishing control, or foregoing credit, however, does not necessarily mean the party giving up those rights receives a smaller financial interest.  Neither does it equate with lack accountability or transparency, provided those concerns are advanced by the party drafting - or negotiating - the agreement.

Ghost Written & "As Told To" Books 

If you are a ghostwriter of a memoir, or the writer of an "as told to" based on conversations with the subject, are you delivering a “warts and all” portrait?  Alternatively, is your role to put the best face on your subject’s story, without resorting to blatant deception?   You need to flesh this out.  In drafting the agreement, the subject's attorney will structure it so payment to the writer is tied to delivery and acceptance of the manuscript.   

Compensation is generally in the form of progress payments tied to satisfactory (and timely) delivery.  A portion of the writer's fee is paid on signing the ghostwriter or collaboration agreement.  A further payment will be due on delivery of an acceptable book proposal. If the book is is sold to a publisher, further payments will be tied to payments of the advance.  The greater you detail what is to be delivered, the less arbitrary the acceptance standards will be.

If you can't hold it together long enough to see the work published, the impact of a literary breakup can be devastating.  One such disaster scenario is the unilateral termination of "as told to" collaborations, such as the failed collaboration between Fay Vincent, the former commissioner of baseball, and writer David Kaplan, who worked without a contract, on the chance a publisher would acquire the book and pay them an advance.  The authors signed a deal with Little Brown, which promised to pay them an advance of $300,000, half of which was paid on signing, with balance due on delivery and acceptance of the complete manuscript.  After 90% of Vincent’s memoir was completed, Vincent withdrew the project from his publisher, which required him to repay the advance. However, he allowed Kaplan to keep his share of what had already been paid, or $60,000.  While Kaplan and Vincent had exchanged draft versions of a collaboration agreement before their relationship devolved into an intractable dispute, the issue before the court was whether Vincent could prevent Kaplan from publishing any of the work they created.  See, Kaplan v. Vincent, 937 F. Supp. 307 (SDNY 1996).  Because they were friends, Kaplan "did not believe a formal agreement was necessary."   If they had a formal agreement – as opposed to an oral understanding -- costly, time consuming and psychologically draining litigation would have been avoided.

The Elements of the Deal

Some of the deal points found in these agreements are quite simple and other are not.   Below are the major elements of a typical ghostwriter or collaboration agreement.  Whether you push and push, or settle for less, is between you and your attorney (or agent).  But, don't lose sight of  the fact a workable agreement, is often a reasonable agreement. 

Responsibilities. Be specific.  What must be delivered?  What is the date it must delivered by?  When you engage a writer to help you write a nonfiction book, generally, the writer will prepare a book proposal before completing the manuscript.  A book proposal is a detailed overview of the book, it contains the author’s credentials and information about how the book can be marketed, plus one or two sample chapters.  The proposal is the bait used to solicit interest from publishers. A nonfiction book proposal is usually written with the understanding that substantive work on the actual manuscript will not begin until there is an offer from a publisher. 

In some circumstances, where one party is more knowledgeable in publishing matters, it may be appropriate to grant that person the exclusive right to negotiate with agents and publishers. If you are not the one shopping the proposal, you will either reserve the right of final approval of the publishing contract, or predicate approval on receiving some minimally acceptable payment.  

Compensation.  If one of the parties has greater immediate financial needs -- whether money is needed to pay their rent or for travel-related research -- the other party can defer all or part their compensation from the initial advance.  As discussed above, it is customary for commercial publishers to advance a sum of future royalties to the authors when they sign a publishing agreement.  It's been likened to a pay day loan.  Once that money that has been recouped or refunded from future proceeds, the author who deferred can start getting paid, perhaps on more favorable terms than if they had not deferred payment.  Deferring payment is also a way for the subject of a book to obtain the services of a more experienced writer without having to go out of pocket for a large sum.  

Delivery dates in publishing are tied to publisher advances.   A missed deadline can result in cancellation of a book contract. That, in turn, can trigger an author's obligation to repay their advance.  Any agreement between collaborators should deal with the return of the portion of the advance paid to each collaborator.   

If the subject gets cold feet and pulls out (assuming both writer and subject are parties to a third party publishing agreement), stipulating in the collaboration agreement that the writer does not have to repay their portion of the advance will take some of the sting out of a failed collaboration. In other types of creative divorces, it may be possible to separate out each author's contribution, and transfer those rights to the original contributor. These strategies overlap, and are not at the exclusion of each other.

Keep in mind, even those who do not qualify as joint authors for copyright purposes (for example, individuals who made an important – but not copyrightable -- contribution to the manuscript) may still share in the profits and control of a work through an appropriate contractual arrangement.   

Credit. By some estimates, up to 70% of nonfiction books are ghostwritten. For example, it is widely believed that Theodore Sorenson wrote John F. Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Profiles in Courage,” for which JFK took both the prize and sole author credit for. Clearly, a talented writer, who knows the ins and outs of publishing, can be a great asset in helping a public figure or an expert (but not an expert writer) go from idea, to book proposal to finished manuscript to published author. 

Writing credits take various forms.  The most common writing credits are: "by Subject and Writer" or "Subject with Writer" or "as told to Writer." By definition, if the book is ghostwritten, sole authorship credit for the work will be in the subject’s name only. In that case, the writer-for-hire must make peace with the fact the subject will receive sole authorship credit. Some might argue that ghostwriters should receive higher fees, because their names don’t appear on the finished book.   In the case of an equal in credit collaboration agreement, the size and prominence of names, as well as the order of names on the cover and title page, needs to be negotiated and agreed to in writing. 

Copyright.  A work for hire is a term defined by statute.  It can either be a work specially commissioned, or one created by a regular employee in the course of their employment. If you are the hiring party, it is especially important to clarify the nature of the writing services before you hire the person you wish to perform those services.  Later may be too late if your objective is to own all of the rights. After-the-fact attempts to classify a work as "for hire" often fail, which is why an effective contract includes a back-up copyright assignment.  

Death & Disability.  In the event of  either party's death, disability or an intractable disagreement, the agreement should have rules for hiring a new writing partner to complete the book. The agreement might specify that the authority to enter into contracts, and make creative decisions, vests solely in the subject's estate, or the writer (subject to a duty to account).  If a work is likely to be revised, the agreement should include a clause that allows the remaining author to revise the work and reduce the compensation paid to the other's heirs or representatives if it becomes necessary to hire an outside writer.  The agreement should also specify whether the person hired to complete the work is entitled to receive credit as an author.  

Control of Business & Editorial Matters. Control of business  affairs (e.g., who is responsible for seeking out and approving book deals?) and editorial matters (e.g., who has the authority to approve the final draft of the work or authorize revisions?) are critical issues. Unanimity may be required for certain decisions (e.g., approval of the initial publishing contract).  If one party retains approval rights over the manuscript, the other party should try to impose reasonable limitations, such as a chance to correct the manuscript within (e.g., 30) days after receipt of the other party’s comments.  Requiring the party with approval rights to provide detailed editorial reasons for any dissatisfaction, arguably, establishes objective criteria by which the writer can revise and have their contribution judged. 

Representations & Warranties.  From a ghostwriter, or "as told to" writer's perspective, the subject must provide representations (or promises) and warranties that they have or will: (i) provide access to pertinent documents, whether diaries or memorabilia, or business papers; (ii) provide reasonable access to themselves; (iii) use their best efforts to provide the writer with access to other individuals as may be required to write or finish the book; and (iv) cooperate in good faith with the writer in pursuing a publishing deal.  Special attention should also be paid to the indemnity clause.  An indemnity is a promise to reimburse the other party should they breach their warranties.  

Reciprocal representations and warranties are the norm as well.  They include: (i) no contractual commitments (e.g., a confidentiality agreement) exist that will interfere with the ability to perform their obligations; (ii) their contributions are original and will not violate any copyrights, proprietary rights, or rights of privacy, publicity, or constitute a libel against, or violate any other common law rights or other rights of any person or entity.  

If any liability arises because of a breach of either party's’ representations or warranties, the non-breaching party should be reimbursed for costs and expenses (including reasonable attorney's fees), and damages paid out to others.   If you are a "for hire" writer, meaning, the copyright vests in the party that hired you, the agreement should require the hiring party to make best efforts to have the publisher name you as an "additional insured" on the publisher's media liability policy.  If a writer is relying on material provided them by the person who hired them, they should exclude this material from their own representations and warranties.   
TIP.  Since verifiable truth is a complete defense to libel (at least in the United States), your agreement should require that both parties retain copies of all recorded interviews, transcripts, books, notes, letters, emails and other research materials used in preparation of the book. If there is a lawsuit, you may be required to prove the truth of the statements that are published. (see §9.12.1, The Copyright Permission and Libel Handbook (John Wiley & Sons).
Confidentiality & Non-Disparagement Clauses.

Confidentiality clauses are huge issues for celebrities and other public figures.  The downside of not dealing with confidentiality and non-disparagement issues is reputational harm.  Here's an example of the confidentiality clause from the unexecuted collaboration agreement between Fay Vincent and David Kaplan discussed above:  
All material whether oral or written contributed by either party for use in the manuscript, including materials and information provided prior to the execution hereof, shall be considered confidential, and neither party shall use any of such material or the facts or the information contained therein that have been provided with the parties' collaboration except as permitted hereunder or under an agreement with a third party to which both parties have previously agreed in writing, without the express prior written approval of the other party. In no event shall any confidential material otherwise be used by the party that has not furnished the same in the event there is any termination of the agreement. Specifically, Kaplan agrees not to participate in interviews, write any articles or books, or take any actions in or by which he discloses in any manner any of the unpublished information furnished to him hereunder, or any portion thereof, in connection with the work which is not publicly available or independently discovered by Kaplan, including any non-public aspect of the relationship of the parties involved in the preparation or the writing of the Work and/or its adaptation for use in any media whatsoever ....
An effective contract might also include a non-disparagement clause.   This is particularly important if you are a public figure, or represent a public figure.  
You agree that you will not (nor will you cause or cooperate with others to) publicly criticize, ridicule, disparage or defame Subject, his family, his business associates, company, directors, officers, shareholders, employees, agents, or attorneys, with or through any written or oral statement or image, whether or not they are made anonymously or through the use of a pseudonym. 
The subject's lawyer will also include a provision that requires the writer to agree to treat the ghostwriter agreement itself as confidential.   One common error is not to include exceptions, such as sharing the agreement with your agent, attorney, tax preparer, or as compelled by a court or  government agency (e.g., the IRS).  In terms of remedies for breach, in addition to injunctive relief (necessary because "A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes." -- Charles Spurgeon), the ghostwriter might be required to forego royalties, or repay amounts previously paid, but any such remedy will be subject to scrutiny by the courts and a possible finding of unenforceability.  


The time to address these issues is before the actual creative process begins. Although collaborators might not feel comfortable discussing long-term financial and other issues, an effective agreement deals with these matters up front, rather than after the brickbats start flying.       

© 2013 - 2016.  Lloyd J. Jassin  

Disclaimer: This article, parts of which were previously published, discusses general legal issues of interest and is not designed to give any specific legal advice concerning any specific circumstances. It is important that professional legal advice be obtained before acting upon any of the advice contained in this article.

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