Thursday, February 7, 2013

Should you be afraid of ghosts?

Not that I've ever seen one but my understanding of ghosts is that they haunt people and places, lack any substance and, because of their actions, they can end up costing the haunted party dearly. This definition can easily apply to a typical ghost-writer.

Not that this has to be the case, of course.

What’s prompted me to write this blog post is that I've read a lot over the last month or so about how 'having a ghost-writer' is the way forward for a successful writer. Maybe it is, but I'd just like to temper that with some sobering thoughts of my own which are based on some pretty bitter experiences. It also explains why I don't and won't use such a service but, of course, you must make your own decision on the matter.

The advantage of using a ghost-writer is obvious and we’ve got plenty of ways of describing such a way of earning a living:
  • Sit back and watch the money roll in
  • Easy Street
  • Money for nothing
  • Let someone else do all the work
  • Taking care of business
We've all these expressions for having someone do our grafting for us (and a load more, too) yet it can very easily degenerate into:
  • A can of worms
  • Double-handling
  • Too many cooks
  • More trouble than it’s worth
  • Waste of time
I’ll come back to the rights and wrongs of using ghost-writers in future blogs but I just want to look at one aspect today – the legal side. This is often overlooked when dealing with ghost-writers and there are three basic temptations:

Firstly, there's the 'null' approach which I know an acquaintance of mine follows. It's the vague and rather forlorn hope that the simple act of paying for the services of a ghost-writer guarantees that copyright automatically passes to you.

That may well be the case but it's by no means a 'done deal'. Should it all go horribly wrong and the ghost-writer claim a percentage of your success, your first argument will be (no doubt) “Hey, I've paid you for this”, just like you might go into a shop and purchase some goods or eat a meal in a restaurant. Can you imagine, a week later the chef saying, "Hey, Mac, I made you that lasagna last week. I want it back now."?

This is fine and dandy for goods, but laws concerning subcontracts and the supply of labor are very different. Without a written agreement, it becomes a case (excuse pun) of "What's reasonable?". Not only is this not as clear-cut as might be thought, it's also potentially very expensive to fend off an all-out attack on one’s royalties.

An example of why copyright does not automatically pass to you is the existence of the numerous article depositories which showcase your work in return for back-links, writing business or the sale of the article itself. Obviously they will all have carefully drawn up agreements but, if you don't have anything in place, who's to say that you aren't offering some similar deal?

Of course, there's the other end of the spectrum where you shell out a fortune on a hot-shot lawyer who (no doubt) will draw up a wordy agreement full of legalese double-speak which will thoroughly flummox both you and your ghost-writer. You might even scare them off in the process!

Unfortunately (and as one who's had to fight the subsequent battles), getting a lawyer involved does not guarantee that everything's been taken care of. In my experience, it's commonplace for lawyers to shoe-horn clients into a one-size-fits-all contract which contain a lot of generalizations but bear little relevance to the specific situation. If you subsequently challenge the lawyer, you'll end up being blamed for not having told them something germane which you can't prove otherwise. At this point, you risk being at war with both your ghost-writer and your lawyer - an unenviable situation.

The best way to deal with the issue of ghost-writers laying future claim to your work is to spell out in very clear terms what you are agreeing to. Don't attempt legalese, don't try to be cute, clever or coy, just stick to the specifics. To help you on your way, here's a very rough structure plan for your agreement but you'll need to adapt it to suit.

  • Precisely who you are and precisely who the ghost-writer is.
  • Precisely what they are writing.
  • The payment - how much, what stages and when.
  • That full copyright and the right to withhold the ghost-writer’s name will pass to you on full payment of their fees.
  • What happens if the work is not up to scratch (expand on that if you can).
  • Both date and both sign
By all means THEN take this to a lawyer and ask them to incorporate ALL of your terms into a formal agreement but you quite probably don't need to as long as you've covered the key points.

This is a business arrangement so don't be shy or worry about hurting the feelings of the ghost-writer. Remember, if you've made it into the big league with your sales, you've created an 'it's worth a shot' situation for your ghost-writer to sue you. What have they got to lose? And, if you've nothing in writing, you're fair game for every shyster lawyer who fancies themselves at a spot of contract law.

After all, the whole point of hiring a ghost-writer is that you can exorcise them when they've finished haunting you. That’s the spirit!

Clive West runs Any Subject Books which publishes a range of quality books from up-and-coming authors. They're always interested in new submissions which are welcomed via their writers wanted page. Clive's wife, Damaris, has written a number of books including an account of their life in Italy called A Postcard From Umbria.


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  2. As a ghostwriter myself, I found this to be an interesting article. The legal side of things is extremely important for both parties! A contract that protects you and the client is crucial and it's necessary to make sure you both understand the expectations of the agreement. I never work without a contract and would not work with a client who didn't want one. Great post!

  3. Aside from the legal ramifications of ghost writing, there is the fact that some ghost writers are ghost writers because they've not been able to hack it in the corporeal world. Tom Clancy is a great example. He churned out some great spy thrillers and then all of a sudden it all turned to mush when the spirits arrived. I suppose the money kept rolling in but I like to believe that when my bestsellers start piling up I'll continue to give a crap about content. I hope I get to test that theory.

  4. You're very wise, Mary Ann. A contract is there to protect both parties from the "Well, I thought it was obvious ..." situation. I also do ghostwriting (although much less so these days) and I've lost a few clients because I've been adamant about stipulating precisely what is being expected of me. Just as ghostwriters can be incompetent, clients can also be chaotic.

    John, there are too many people out there who think that they can tell a tale. The trouble is that far too frequently they just don't have the talent, the story or (in some particularly sad cases) either. Some of the worst offenders are well-established authors who think that they can rest on their laurels and wing it.

    That's the trouble with reading on a tablet - its fragility stops you from flinging it across the room.