1 Ghostwriting Contract’s Perfect Importance


During one scene in the 1942 movie “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” George M. Cohan (James Cagney) admitted that he and his partner Sam Harris (Richard Whorf) did business for sixteen years with nothing but a handshake. Cohan said it was all they ever needed.

They never had a written contract. They were lucky. Today, they’d probably get screwed. 

Twentieth Century Fox likely felt that way in 1975. According to the Internet Movie Database, Fox sued Wayne Rogers for breach of contract following the actor’s exit from “M*A*S*H” after playing Trapper John for three seasons—only to have the suit fall apart because there was no valid contract with Rogers.

Rogers had never signed his contract.

Contracts serve as a record of rights, duties, obligations, responsibilities, collaborations, agreements, and payment schedules, among many others. Ideally, they protect both sides so everyone stands to gain and no one assumes undue and unnecessary risks (after all, ghostwriting requires some collaboration and communication). 

Also ideally, contracts prevent disputes, but since that’s not always the case, contracts also make private promises legally enforceable, according to juro.com.

Professional ghostwriters, like any occupation in which large sums of money are involved, should always operate with a written contract. It might seem a burden—and an expense considering one might hire an attorney to write or examine a contract—but it saves time, money, and aggravation in the long run.

Before I was a ghostwriter, I was a journalist. Once, I took a job covering a school board for an online publication. I was given a salary; there was no contract. After a couple of months, the checks bounced, and the owner laid me off. I got a state labor board judgment against him and attempted to collect. 

Sixteen years and three attorneys later, I’m still trying to collect. “He’s a professional deadbeat,” my most recent lawyer told me.

Lesson learned: I would insist on a contract for ongoing jobs like this.

Then I became a copywriter, and I did jobs for less than $400, so I thought an oral contract would suffice. Then I had a coffee meeting with a woman who wanted me to create a 30-second commercial for her in the style of a Dr. Seuss rhyme, which I had done for myself.

We met and worked on it, then I sent it to her along with an invoice for $99. I had told her that was the going rate when we started working.

Instead of paying, she claimed I hadn’t mentioned any price to her and she refused to pay. I reminded her that she had asked me at a networking meeting how much it would cost. She continued to deny what we discussed, even when I quoted it back to her. Her emails get more and more belligerent as she threatened a restraining order against me if I continued to ask for payment. It ended when two things happened: a fellow networker told her she was wrong and I said if she didn’t use the rhyme, I’d leave it alone.

From that point forward, I decided that I would demand full payment up front for small jobs. But I wasn’t ready for a contract yet. That came later when I started writing websites for $2,000. The dollar amount was simply too big to go without a contract.

If $2,000 was too big to go without a contract, and since ghostwriting projects can run between $15,000 and $50,000 (and into seven figures if it’s a celebrity that needs a ghostwriter), it stands tor reason that ghostwriting contracts are necessary.

I recommend always have legally binding agreements, which come in handy if one ever has to go to court to enforce any provisions (but that is a story for another time).

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