When collaborations work, co-authors complement and support one another. But when they fail, the drama may be as ugly as a Hollywood divorce. For every successful writing partnership, there are dozens of failed ones, despite the best of intentions. Not everyone is a team player, and not every team is a winner.
The best way to improve the odds of a successful writing partnership is to take the time to put the collaboration agreement in writing up front.
Most people resist this idea. Like a prenuptial agreement, it kills the romance.
But the process of preparing an agreement may be more valuable than the result. If co-authors discuss issues at the start, they are less likely to have misunderstandings later. Or, you may discover you can’t work together. The sooner you realize that, the better.
Guidelines for Co-Authors
Before you jump into a co-author project, write out the following:
Describe the Project. Fiction, nonfiction, memoir? Even better, create an outline.
Identify Personal Goals. Successful partners share common goals. If one partner’s objective is to cash in with a genre piece and the other dreams of creating timeless literature, expect friction.
Discuss the Writing Process. Will one partner write the story in narrative form and the other flesh out scenes? Will you draft chapters and trade them for comments? How often will you meet?
Establish Ground Rules for Critiques. Some co-authors handle bluntness and sarcasm with ease, but most of us prefer a gentler touch. The longer you work together, the easier it gets to give and take criticism. Consider your partner’s comments as a gift; she cares enough to help make the work better.
Set Realistic Deadlines. Expect the project to take at least twice as long as planned.
Decide on Credits. Will both names appear on the work and in what order? Will credits be listed as A and B, A with B, or A as told to B? Will you use a pen name?
Specify Ownership. Unless you agree otherwise, all partners own equal shares in jointly-created work. Plus, each partner has the power to sell or license the work without the other partner’s consent (although income must be shared). Put your ownership percentages in writing. Agree that no partner may sell, license, or transfer any interest in the project without the consent of the other partner. Register the copyright under all names, or the pen name, or all of the above.
Allocate Income. I recommend that the partner who had the original idea should own the majority interest, even if it is a token amount (51%/49% split). That little bit saves resentment later. However, if one partner handles readings and conferences, that partner should keep a larger portion of sales made at the events.
Deal With Expenses. If one partner pays for research, editing, design, and marketing, does that partner recoup expenses before income is shared? If income never covers expenses, does the other partner kick in a share?
Assign Non-Writing Tasks. Who will engage editors, negotiate contracts, handle interviews, and manage social media? Don’t take the shortcut of saying responsibilities will be shared equally. It never happens. People gravitate to the tasks they do better, and unpleasant work will be left undone.
Rules of Engagement
Plan for Conflict. You will have disagreements. View them as a sign that something is not working in the manuscript. Let go of your ego, and look at the problem a new way, your partner’s way. If you cannot agree, decide up front who gets the final say. If the project was one partner’s idea, typically that partner decides. Or pick a third party who is trusted by both sides.
No Door Slamming. Agree that neither of you will quit without giving the other party notice of what’s not working and a chance to fix it. Respect requests for cooling-off periods.
Address Legal Responsibilities. Each partner should promise that all work contributed will be original, will not be defamatory or infringing, and will not invade privacy or other rights. Don’t be foolish about this. If your co-author introduces material that is suspect, rewrite or reject it. No matter what your agreement says, both of you may be responsible to third parties.
Face Death and Disability. What if one of you gets hit by the proverbial bus? Does the other have the right to finish the project with an equitable adjustment in ownership and income? Does all decision-making authority transfer to the surviving partner, or will the heirs or representatives of the deceased or disabled partner have a say?
Deal with Termination. If the partnership ends, who owns the work? Who has the right to complete the project? There are no right answers here. Co-authors need to talk this out.
Let the Little Stuff Slide. Entering into a collaboration means giving up some control. Your partner may have a different approach to a scene, character, or problem. Consider that a good thing. This is why you are working as a team. Laugh together, especially when everything is going wrong.Reward Yourselves. When you finish each chapter, share a bottle of champagne. When you complete the first draft, take yourselves out to dinner.
Keep Communicating. If you are feeling unfairly burdened, take the chance of bringing it up. The sooner, the better. Years ago, a friend told me the motto of a happy marriage: “I can’t read your f**king mind!” The same is true in writing collaborations.
Some Help Getting Started
Looking for sample agreements?
Writer’s Guild form: http://www.wgaeast.org/index.php?id=35
Disclaimer: Helen Sedwick is an attorney licensed to practice in California only. This information is general in nature and should not be used as a substitute for the advice of an attorney authorized to practice in your jurisdiction.
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