When a writing collaboration works, partners inspire and complement one other. The creative process is less lonely. But when collaborations 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.
To improve the odds of a successful writing partnership take the time to put the collaboration agreement in writing. Most people resist this idea. Like a prenuptial agreement, it kills the romance. They don’t realize the process of preparing an agreement may be more valuable than the result. If writers do a good job discussing issues at the start, they are less likely to have misunderstandings later.
So before you jump into a co-writing project, discuss and write out the following:
- Describe the Project
Fiction, nonfiction, memoir? Try to craft your elevator speech. Even better, create an outline.
- Draw a Creations Box
I mean this literally. Draw a box and write down what creations are inside the box (and project) and what creations are outside the box and may be used by the partners separately. Sequels, prequels, and competitive works? What about rejected ideas, characters, and scenes?
- Discuss Personal Goals
The most successful partners share common goals. If one partner’s objective is to make money with a genre piece and the other dreams of creating literature, expect friction. I suppose the partners might agree that their diverging goals will be complementary, but head-butting may be unavoidable.
- Describe the Writing Process
Will one partner write out the story in narrative form, and the other flesh out scenes and dialogue? Will you draft chapters and trade them for comments? Some writers work well brainstorming together; others prefer a silent room. How often and how will you meet?
- Set Ground Rules for Critiques
How will you give and receive criticism and comments? Some partners handle bluntness and sarcasm without missing a beat, but most require a gentler touch. The longer you work together, the easier it gets. Remember your partner’s criticism may be 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.
- 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). Yes, a partner who contributes 5% gets an equal share UNLESS you agree otherwise. 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 the partner who had the original idea own the majority interest, even if it is a token amount (51%/49% split). That little bit saves resentment later. If one partner handles readings and conferences that partner should keep a larger portion of sales made at the events.
- 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?
- 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 his share?
- Assign Non-Writing Tasks
Who will engage editors and designers, negotiate contracts, handle interviews, and manage social media? Assign tasks. 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.
- Plan for Conflict
You will have disagreements. View them as a sign that something is not working in the manuscript. Listen to each other. 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 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. If the partner breaches, that partner should cover costs and liabilities. Don’t be foolish about this. If your partner introduces material you suspect is problematic, rewrite it or reject it. No matter what your agreement says, both of you may be responsible to third parties.
- Call it a Collaboration
Although I have referred to writing partners, the agreement should state that the parties are collaborating for a specified project and are not creating a general partnership.
- Face Death or 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 terminates, who owns the work? Who has the right to complete the project? There are no right answers here. The partners need to talk this out.
Respect and Communication
A writing partnership is like any other relationship; it thrives on respect and communication. As you work on the project, keep the following in mind:
- Nip Resentment in the Bud
If you are feeling unfairly burdened, take the chance of bringing it up. The sooner the better.
- Let the little stuff slide
Entering into a collaboration involves 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
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.
Looking for sample agreements?
Basic form: https://jamesaconrad.com/writing/author-collaboration.html
Writer’s Guild form: https://www.wgaeast.org/index.php?id=35