How important is the contract between a ghostwriter/co-author and a client?
It's vital. Do not work without one! I don't care if the client is your best friend. That contract is vital because it can save you from a lot of hassle and heartbreak in the long run.
Notice I've mentioned the words ghostwriter and co-author. They really are two separate things, but both require that you sign a contract.
But why? What's the big deal?
A contract offers you protection, as well as, the client. It helps you set deadlines, expectations, and payment amounts. That piece of paper can keep you and your client walking the straight path together and keeps everyone on the same page. It's a tool you can refer to when a client becomes demanding or wants you to do something that is different from your original agreement. Of course, there are times when you may need to stray from the contract or you find that whatever the client is asking is not something unreasonable. Yes, it's okay to do a verbal agreement in those cases, but I would suggest creating a short addendum to your contract that included the new arrangement. If nothing else, at least get it in an email so you have something to fall back on should things go sour.
If you are ghost writing, you want your contract to be clear on a few things. For example, you need to know when you're getting paid and how much. How long will the word count be? How many re-writes are you going to be expected to do? What is the time frame? How flexible is the client on that? The client will probably make sure the contract includes information regarding the fact that your name will not be anywhere on the final product nor will you receive royalties from future sales.
When you co-author a book, you will want many of the above things to be listed as well. However, I think the expectations for co-authoring need to be outlined even more. For example, how involved with the client be in the writing part? Is it just their idea and outline that they want you to turn into something more? Or are they going to write a few chapters, too? Again, the time frame question becomes very important here--especially if you are juggling other clients or work. Sometimes a client will stall and stall on that final draft, which means your payment is withheld. Having that contract serves as a reminder to the client that all good things must come to an end.
I've enjoyed working as both a ghostwriter and a co-author, but have found that having a solid written agreement about expectations is crucial. Several times, I could have been in a real bind if it weren't for my contract.
Here's a little red flag warning that I've picked up on: If a client repeatedly ignores a particular question in an email or in several emails, that's a problem. Something about the question bothers the client. For example, if you are asking when something will be completed or when you will get their revisions back and they never answer, that's not good. It means it's a question you need to keep asking.
If you find yourself with a problem client, be professional. Send an email that gently reminds them of the contractual agreement they signed with you. Try to be flexible--everyone has bad days or months. Hopefully, you can work this out. I find that the email communication is better than a phone call. It gets everything down on paper and allows you to keep your emotions in check. Remember, it's business. Always do your best to be polite, but lay it out so that the client knows exactly what the issue is.
Having trouble with a co-authoring/ghostwriter contract? I'd love to chat with you! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.