Friday, March 29, 2013

Co-Authors? How Successful Are Partnerships on Books--and What Are the Pitfalls to Watch Out For?

When my first book was contracted by a publisher, I was assigned an editor who also wrote for Men's Health magazine.  This editor, being a writer too, knew how scary it was to have a first book.  I knew very little about how to structure a book; my editor showed me the ropes.

Not long after that book got published, I got a call from the same editor.  Would I like to partner up with him on authoring another book? 

We proposed a topic that we were both passionate about.  An agent got interested and we signed a contract. 

The agreement for our co-author partnership was very like our author-editor relationship for my first book.  I would provide the "talent" or the content.  My co-author would help me shape it.  It was a journey we'd travel together--one of us deciding where to go, the other deciding how.

The book got bought by a good publisher--Rodale Press.  Rodale is big on research in their nonfiction books, so my co-author and I did some more talking.  Who was going to do the research?  We decided his load was slightly lighter, so he'd take care of the fact-gathering and I would work the facts into our chapters.

The book took about a year to produce, with both of us working on it part-time.  Because we worked out the details before the project began, our partnership was good.  For over ten years, we received royalties for that co-authored book.

Clearly Defined Roles:  Why Some Writing Teams Work So Well
Since then, I've coached many writing teams.  Some co-authored books worked out brilliantly.  Others floundered.  Reason?  The writers had not clearly defined each person's role in the project. 

My co-author and I worked hard on this.  We had it written down.  Each knew his or her role in the book's genesis, development, and publication schedule. 

Without clearly defined roles, a project becomes fraught with "too many cooks"--one writer ends up overlapping the other's work and resentments build. 

Like any business arrangement, books grow out of enthusiasm, a zeal to tell a story, the desire to market a good idea, among other reasons.  In the agreement, the writers must operate with their heads, not their hearts, in my experience.  Hearts have their place in the building of a book--where would we be without passion for our topic?

But if both writers come to the project with just heartfelt enthusiasm, that's a recipe for misunderstandings later. 

Business Agreement:  Take Your Partnership Seriously
Imagine going into business with your possible co-author.  Would you enjoy that relationship?  Are they someone you respect?  What strengths do they bring to the table? 

It's usually not enough to just like or be related to your co-author.  This bond isn't often strong enough to carry you through the business dealings that will come if your book is published.

So I suggest approaching your partnership like a business agreement.  Write stuff down--make a contract or at least a list of tasks and responsibilities..  Talk about what's important:  What is each writer going to do?  What are the deadlines for producing each part--and how will each writer hold to them?

Working with Different Timing Styles:  How Do You Each Approach Deadlines?
An obstacle I didn't expect, with my wonderful co-author, was our unique approaches to deadlines.  I like to be ahead of deadlines.  My co-author preferred to think about all the options until the final moment. 

Most of the time, I was ahead of schedule and he was down to the wire.  Sometimes this meant I had to scramble too, and it made me mad.  But we worked it out.  And the result was worth it--his work was so valuable to me, I swallowed my irritation (and occasional panic) and flowed with it. 

To avoid this,  talk about it ahead of time.  Get to know this side of your co-author, whether it's your brother, your parent, your uncle, your boss, or another writer who shares your passion for a topic.  Get your preferences out on the table and discuss what you'll do if one of you needs something the other can't deliver. 

Checklist for Co-Authoring Discussions
Here's a checklist.  I'd recommend starting with these kinds of questions, if you're considering a writing partnership for a book project.  Modify it to fit your particular situation.

1.  State why each person is committed to the book project--what's the goal of each writer, how do these goals differ, and what's your individual and team vision for the book?

2.  Who is going to do what?  Will both of you write?  Will one write and the other research and edit? 

3.  What is your approach to deadlines?  How can you flex with each other's style?  How will you communicate if things go south and resentments build?

4.  How often will you sit down and check in with each other to see how it's going? 

5.  What's your individual and team view about getting feedback?  Do each of you agree not to share the raw material unless with permission from the other--or are you OK with sharing it at any point? 

6.  How about the ownership and money?  Whose name is first on the title page and cover (libraries, bibliographies, and other filing systems can sometimes list the first person's name as the visible one on a search--how will this feel to the second author)?  If you have to pay for help (editing, etc.) who pays?  If you land a contract, what is the split of advances, royalties, fees? 

Don't let this serious talk discourage you from pursuing co-authoring.  It can be a marvelous experience.  It can save you tons of work.  Often, two creative minds are more fertile than one.  

But it pays to take this kind of agreement as seriously as you do your agreement with your own writing. 

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