I’ve been in this business a long time and I’ve seen some really amazing relationships go downhill fast the minute money is involved. I’ve mediated between authors, I’ve been bullied and seen coauthors bullied, and I’ve seen many relationships ruined. So before you go one step further with your coauthor, before you write another word, you need to establish some kind of an agreement between you and your writing partner.
This is a subject I’ve been meaning to write about for quite some time, but because it actually takes a lot of work on my part I procrastinated. Sound familiar? How many of you are working with a coauthor, whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, and thought briefly about the necessity of a coauthor agreement but procrastinated simply because it would take research and work or maybe even a lawyer? Well, I’m here to tell you right now, this very minute, sit down and get something on paper. You don’t need a lawyer to do it, you simply need wording you can both agree to.
Typically a publisher’s contract is either going to be a 50-50 split between two authors or it’s going to be a contract between the publisher and just one author, leaving the other author to rely solely on a coauthor agreement (the latter is most likely with nonfiction). In other words, don’t wait for or rely on the publisher’s contract to spell out what you’ll need to do when writing the book. For example, do you know whose name will go first on the book or what name you’ll be writing under? Do you know who is responsible for supplying what material? Do you know what deadlines you’ll be working under?
Every coauthor agreement is different and should be different. What I recently told a client when asked what was fair was, “If your agreement is comfortable for both of you, it’s fair.” And I stand by that. A coauthor agreement shouldn’t be a battle of wills, it should simply be a clear delineation of responsibilities and a level of comfort for both of you. However, that being said, here are some things that should definitely be spelled out in the agreement:
- Due dates. What are your dates for delivery? If you are both signing the publisher’s contract, but will need to have material to each other on certain dates for editing and comparison, that should be spelled out in the agreement. If one of you is acting as an editor while the other is doing the bulk of the writing, you definitely need due dates in writing. What happens if one author does not meet the dates or if the work is deemed unacceptable by the publisher? Can the remaining coauthor fire the first and hire a new coauthor? What happens to the material written by the fired author? What about payment? Who gets payment if the work is unacceptable? Who is responsible for repaying the publisher if the contract is canceled for unacceptable work?
- Publication Rights. Who has right to the material? Under whose name is the copyright? Who “owns” the material? Does one author have final decision-making responsibility or are all decisions equal between the co-authors?
- Advances and Royalties. How will these be divided? Who is responsible for any agency fees or commissions? How will advances and royalties be paid?
- Disagreements. What happens if things can’t be resolved between the coauthors? Does one’s opinion override the other? Does an agent or editor override both authors? Will this go to court? If so, where?
And then of course you need to finally decide what you both need and expect from a project like this. What agents and editors do you want to submit to? Who is responsible for submissions? Who writes the query letter? How are revisions handled? What happens if one of you wants to write a project on your own? Are you beholden to the other in any way? Is there a noncompete between the work you write on your own and the work you write with your coauthor? In other words, can you use the same characters in your solo project as you do in your coauthored project? What about the same subject matter, hook, or genre? What are your limitations?
A coauthor relationship should be harmonious and fun, but the truth is, when money is involved, anything can happen. Be prepared ahead of time and write an agreement that will make you both comfortable. To me it’s like insurance: hopefully you’ll never need it, but it’s certainly nice to have.