The Collaboration Agreement: A Literary Pre-nup

Collaborative writing has always been prevalent in non-fiction, but it seems to be becoming more frequent in fiction as well. To that end, I want to talk a little bit about collaboration agreements and what they cover—and don’t.

I am not a lawyer, but I have been involved in two collaborative projects—one non-fiction, one fiction. In both cases, we made sure to sign a collaboration agreement. In the non-fiction project, we were all strangers so it made a lot of sense to protect ourselves in this way. In the fiction project, we are friends, so it was even MORE important to sign an agreement.

Why, you ask? If you’re friends, doesn’t the legal stuff strain the relationship?

Absolutely not. In fact, it is essential that friends sign an agreement in order to KEEP their friendship intact. Face it, people get nuts when money is involved. Knowing up front how money and rights will be divided takes all that pressure off and lets you just do the project and be friends.

I’m not going to cover in detail what is in a collaboration agreement. You can read a sample one from the Writers Guild of America. The National Writers Union is also a good resource for all things freelance.

Basically, a collaboration agreement lays out what the work is that you are collaborating on, how rights and money will be divided, and what happens in different eventualities, such as one partner dying or deciding to quit the project.

What I think is also important, but is not covered in this legal agreement, is creative control. By that I mean, who has the final say? If the two of you (or in my case, three) don’t quite see the vision the same way, whose wins out? In my case, we have talked it out until we reached consensus, but that can 1) be slow and 2) lead to something that no one is completely happy with. It can also lead to fantastic synergistic ideas that never would have come about on your own!

Another aspect of creative control is final editorial control. When you’re working on plot and scenes and the language and those end-stage revisions, and you disagree whether a scene should be in or out, or whether using “gorgeous” is better than “breath-taking”, who wins? In a case where one partner is a writer and the other is not, the writer should have final say. In a case of multiple writers? Well, once again my experience has been with the haggle system, which works fine but is deadly slow when you reach the line-by-line stage of revision.

My suggestion for who gets final say over the creative control is this: 1) The Writer always wins if the other partner is not one. 2) In the case of multiple writers, the one who brought the original idea should be the overseer.

While modifying the collaboration agreement to include a Creative Control person might not be legal (you’d have to ask a lawyer), it is a good idea to discuss and decide on one with your partner(s).

The Creative Control manager needs to beware of becoming a dictator. Remember why you teamed up with your collaborator in the first place—because this person(s) has valuable contributions to bring to the project. Keep an open mind, because synergy can strike when you least expect it. In my own fiction case, I know that my partners’ ideas and plotting and research and writing skills have made the book a thousand times better than what I could have done alone.

So sign that collaboration agreement and get on with the fun stuff—writing!


  1. Kerry, great post and an issue not promoted enough. thanks!

  2. The National Writer’s Union is another valuable source for contract advice. Membership includes access to sample agreements and even a basic review of one you’ve worked up. I agree with donnagalanti; this is not an issue that is promoted enough. Great post.

  3. Thanks Donna and Ruth!

    Ruth, I had been trying to think of the National Writer’s Union as a source, but I couldn’t find their name in my notes, so thanks for mentioning them. I’m going to update the post with a link to them, too.


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