Tips for Co-Authoring a Book

—Compiled by Rebecca Morgan and Ron Rosenberg

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All contributors have given their permission for us to post their comments.

-- Wayne McKinnon

Agreements can be made on a handshake but handshakes must be documented for reference.

I would not just rely on the publisher's contract; it's between you and the publisher. I would write up a partner agreement between authors stating responsibilities and expectations, and most importantly dates. Publishers have clauses stating that there are penalties if the book is late. So what will you do if your partner is late?

Other things to think about:

  • Who do rights revert back to when the publisher finally puts the book to rest?
  • Do you need to place any restrictions on who can excerpt what for articles etc?
  • What if one wants to do a second edition and the other doesn't?
  • Write down any uncertainties and address them one by one and there won't be any surprises.

-- Roger Herman

  • Be clear about who's doing what
  • Have a clear picture of what the final product will be like
  • Be prepared for lots of give & take
  • Set a schedule

-- Susan Pilgrim, PhD

Make sure you have a written contractual agreement with each other that spells out ALL the details, including how you're going to be paid, what happens if one wants out, what happens if one dies, who's the primary author, timelines for completing the work, whose name appears first, etc. Also determine what roles each of you will play. I recommend you do this before you do any real work. I've found that talking about the specifics makes people a little anxious. You want to get the anxiety out of the way at the beginning of the project, not half way through.

Also, determine who will be the contact with the agent and publisher so neither of them are confused about whom to speak with.

-- Bert Decker

It is smart to do. You basically share the work load (or better yet get a writer person to do most of the work using your expertise) and when you are speaking, or using your book, people really only look at you as the author. Tom Peters' big best seller was co-authored, yet most can't remember his name (Waterman). And when Robert Waterman is speaking, he gets his credit too.

-- Judith Briles

In WRITING, put down who does what. If it is truly equal writing/editing, etc--then split; if one of you does most of the writing, then make sure that a greater percentage of moneys -- whether advance or royalties goes to that person. And only do the book if it is a direct benefit to your speaking career.

I did a co with two others -- great people and friends -- and I would not do it again. I ended up doing 90% of the writing and the book (on divorce) is something I don't have much in contact with. One of the co-authors was going to put all her energy into marketing, etc, and little got done.

In looking back, I got caught up in "let's do this together, we will have fun and make a great book." We did have some fun, the book is quite good, but the $$$ return on my time was poor. It was a wrong fit for me. Be careful.

-- Michael Lee, CSP

I have successfully co-authored a number of books based on my multicultural marketing program. We have taken the basic content of my books and then gotten industry experts to customize them.

I'm working on a couple of books with co-authors right now. You should get everything in writing because this will be a true partnership in every sense of the word. Don't rely on friendship to carry you through lawsuits.

Things to consider:
  1. Who will hold the copyright?
  2. Who will apply for the ISBN?
  3. How will costs be divided?
  4. How will income from book sales be divided?
  5. How will speaking engagements that result be assigned? (You will probably get calls for speaking as a result of a good book. How will those requests be divided if both parties are speakers?)

Will the book be paperback or hardbound? How many pages? How will we decide on a cover design & graphics? Who will write what? All of these need to be agreed-upon before starting.

What I have done is split the costs of development and the printing of the first 2,000 books. After that, the authors can buy books in minimum quantities of 500 books at cost and sell them for whatever they can get.

Remember, for speakers a book is nothing more than an expensive business card. But they really do work to get bookings!

-- Brian Pomeroy

Simply put, a successful co-authoring effort is a delicate balance of egos and responsibilities. Therefore, it's no mean feat. The following are some points to keep in mind when initiating such an effort:

  1. Have a clear outline of responsibilities and leadership roles. Who's going to be the lead writer? Who's responsible for what portions of the work?
  2. Make sure all writers on the project are on common ground, and clearly understand the nature and purpose of the work. Nothing will kill a project quicker than writers who have radically different perspectives on the project.
  3. Ensure that there is sound project management, whether the lead writer takes this responsibility or someone else does (writers are not always good managers, so a third-party manager can be a good idea). Someone needs to make sure deadlines are met and that all the writers have good direction.
  4. Work out all the technical issues beforehand. Distribute phone numbers, e-mail addresses, fax numbers, pager numbers, etc. to the team. Ensure everyone understands the protocols for submitting drafts (a point person for e-mail, an FTP server, etc.).

-- Patti Hathaway, CSP

I loved co-authoring and it was a wonderful experience with my second Crisp book (Managing Upward).

Key Tips: Before you agree to co-author, read the other person's writing. Make sure styles are compatible and you respect the other person's ideas. After the 2 of you develop your detailed book outline, divide up the chapter writing equally. Be clear and explicit about deadline expectations and what should happen if you miss a deadline (i.e. call 3 days before and let me know what's happening). We each wrote our chapters and then edited for each other. Lots of communication in between our times together.

I highly recommend it!

-- Leslie Charles

This may seem obvious, but if both of you have the same word processing system it'll be easier for you to swap files. When writing "The Instant Trainer" Chris Clarke-Epstein and I both had Macs but not the same WP system and combining the final manuscript was a horror (time pressures) because we had to take time converting all of my files before we could work on them.

It helps to be organized and agree ahead of time on who will cover what. For our "divvying up" process, Chris create a spreadsheet and each of us selected the areas we had the most energy for, or experience with. In other words, we split up the chapters according to our strengths, knowledge, or level of interest.

One of the reasons Chris and I had so much fun writing this book was because of our matching values. This is critical! You both have to "come from the same place." We were completely compatible in this area and it truly enhanced our project as well as the experience of writing it.

Edit each other's work as you go along. Email your files to each other and blend your writing voices into one. The tone of our book is smooth and consistent. Chris and I have often remarked that sometimes it's hard to remember who wrote what.

For your last get together just before you send your manuscript off, give yourself one more day than you think you need (at LEAST one day - I wish we had had two!).

-- Chris Clarke-Epstein

I agree with Leslie that clear responsibilities was a key...I'm going to have to do some searching to find our "Chart" and will do so this weekend. Of course you can use it...if I can find it!

The only other comment I'd make is about values and working/writing styles..if you don't have a values match on the content of the project I don't think it works. Way too much stress...the values match will begin to surface over the table of contents...

Working and writing issues focus on deadlines, editing each other's "stuff" and compatible writing "voice"...are these self explanatory or do you need more.

A partnership for a book, like anything else can be heaven or hell...partnering with Leslie has always been heaven because we can laugh together whenever we've gotten close to the hot stuff!

-- Ed Peters

I've co-authored 2 books in the last 2 years and would be happy to answer any questions you have or help you in any way. 727/822-1272

-- Priscilla Richardson

I read a book about 10 years ago on co-authoring by Samm Sinclair Baker. The main thing I got from it was to "fall in like" with your coauthor. You'll be spending a lot of time together and will have disagreements, so you better like him or her and get along well.

The book is out of print. I got it from the library. I highly recommend it.

-- Kristin Anderson

Here's the BEST book on the subject -- "Publish and Flourish: A Consultant's Guide: How to Boost Visibility and Earnings Through a Publishing Strategy" by Garry Schaeffer, Tony Alessandra, Anthony J. Alessandra (Contributor). Unfortunately, it's out of print, but you may it through Tony's office. Contact Nancy Moser, 760/603-8110, $24.95 plus shipping.

This book contains a sample co-authoring contract and a great discussion of the pluses and potential pitfalls of co-authoring. (They are really talking about Ghost writing, but many of the issues are the same.)

Key is having clear agreements both about the technical stuff (who owns what, who will write what, who will do what) and about the interpersonal stuff (how often we will connect, that we will openly and honestly voice concerns, that we are committed to win-win, etc. ) I have a lot of opinions on this, and I do recommend it.

-- Don Blohowiak

Have a high trust, good working relationship before starting the project.

Get the ego issues out of the way first: Who's the lead author on the jacket? the point of contact with the publisher?

Whose vision will the project reflect? Yours, mine, ours? If ours, work on the initial outline together. Otherwise, share a proposal (the kind you send to a publisher) with the other person so they know exactly what you expect to deliver. Ask: How do you see yourself fitting in? If this were your own project, how would you have approached the subject? What changes to the thrust and flow would you have made? Get their perspective into the light of day. It's going to show up in their writing anyway sooner rather than later.

Collaborating (with an attitude of "I trust you, my peer") will add value to your writing. If the involvement of the other person starts to feel less like value-added and more like annoyance, think about breaking the engagement.

Define the process by which you will work together. Send whole chapters back and forth by email? Send partial drafts to each other? Share research? How? And so on. Thinking through the mechanics will help you envision the relationship.

Assign work by chapter or section in accord with expertise.

Agree on editing process. Each review the other's work? Everything the other writes? Make changes to the other's draft? If so, suggest you use the versions feature in your word processor so you can see who did what in the various iterations of a draft.

Define: who has the final say on the edits in question.

Set deadlines and commit to honoring them.

Schedule times for meetings (phone or in-person) to assess progress.

Prepare to spend a lot of time communicating in one way or another with your collaborator. If the thought of that spooks you, don't do the project together!

Be candid from the start. If things strike you as a little off from what you envisioned, get it on the table immediately. The longer you wait, the more difficult it will be to broach and correct.

Celebrate your milestones.

Keep the sense of partnership intact all the way through the writing. You'll need it for editing, modifying, and promoting.

Have fun!

-- Joseph Dispenza

I have limited experience with this -- only one of my 12 books is co-authored.

But it ended sort of badly...not because of the writing, which went very well, but because the co-author wanted her name listed first...I thought we had an agreement at the start how our names would be listed ... she changed her mind after the book was finished...and said that, unlike me, she probably would never write another book, etc.

My advice: agree on name placement WAY before you start the project...and then stick to it, no matter what transpires.

-- Nancy Zare

I co-authored my last book, Workplace Hostility, Myth and Reality. It was an experience that I would prefer to avoid. My coauthor and I had distinct differences about the message of the book, its attitude. Also, we didn't keep to the schedule we originally set and so there was much "down" time. He had the original connection with the publisher, having published previously with this organization, and so I was second fiddle right from the start. This too was a drawback for me as I wasn't able to communicate directly with the publisher. The best news is that I am now a published author; the worst news is that my coauthor and I have strained and limited communication with each other. Better luck!

-- Elizabeth Fried

I've co-authored articles, not books... but the principles are the same.

Decide up front if this will be a fifty/fifty split or exactly how you intend to divide up the work. The proportion should reflect the proportional fees or royalty...and... who gets first author? The first author is usually considered the lead on an article and reflective of expertise and contribution. If it is a 50/50... then you go alphabetical and live with it.

Make sure the write-ups about each author are about equal length if possible. If one author is truly more experienced and has more credentials, then live with that.

Lay out a time line when you divide up the work. Set expectations and review calendars to make sure this is doable. Publishing has a time line Put your agreement in writing so there is a clear understanding of each of your rights and responsibilities.

-- Nancy Stern

I had a terrific experience co-authoring my book and I think it was because Maggi and I had been friends and associates for over ten years and we really trusted each other. I really think trust is the key. Plus, we got real clear on who would do what and how the finances would break out. We wrote a one-page agreement and had it notarized. We set a schedule and stuck to it. The publisher stayed out of our way and it all turned out very well.

-- Ian Percy

What I have heard (and frankly the idea of co-authoring would make me nervous) is that it has to be someone's project with the other as a major resource. Like there is no such thing as a true "merger" in business, there may not be any such thing as true "co-authoring" either. In other words, it has to be clear who has last call on content, style, linkages, etc. One approach I have heard of is having a third party (an editor for example) having the last word where there is dispute or differences. The solution I think depends on how intimate and personal your writing is. Co-authoring "The History of Newsletters" would be a lot easier than "Overcoming Life's Regrets".

-- Maye Musk

When Macmillan Canada asked me to write a book, I thought it would be a fun opportunity to include 2 of my colleagues as co-authors. When Macmillan heard my suggestion they said no. They wanted my "voice" in my book. Also, it seems with their experience of co-authoring, one author always works more than the others. When the advance and royalties come in, there is much unhappiness due to unfairness. I wrote my book alone and kept my friends. They understood. Anyway, they were married and didn't like to work long hours. They certainly weren't marketers. Other colleagues of mine don't speak to their co-authors.

You work so hard you may be happier having total control.

-- Nancy Michaels

Writing a book with someone is like being married. You both have to be commited to the process, but flexible as well. There's no tally keeping allowed, it just gets in the way. Although Debbi and I are completely different individuals our work ethics are similar, our interest in the topic was the same, our willingness to share our resources and continue to make the project a success (long after the initial release) has got to be the same. I'd also recommend that you think about what financial investment each of you are willing to make to promote the book -- publishers are notoriously cheap when it comes to these matters. If you're on the same page on these issues, chances are the relationship will work. Going into a collaboration like this really does require the marital/partnership mentality.

-- Lola Gillebaard

I wrote a book with a psychiatrist and a business man several years ago and we self-published it. I swore I would never do that again, but actually it worked out great. We outlined the chapters together and then each of us was responsible for certain chapters with edits and rewrites. Deadlines were set up from the beginning. The business man kept us on track and he also kept me from killing the psychiatrist. The last step was the business man, his wife and I going through and making the book sound like one voice.It was quite a learning experience for me. GOOD LUCK!!!

We followed Dan Poynter's book to the letter!!

-- Wendy Warman

Two years ago George Morrisey gave me the wonderful opportunity to rewrite his book Loud and Clear: How to Prepare and Deliver Effective Business and Technical Presentations. Even though I was the one rewriting this edition as George no longer does this type of training, he was the lead in everything and made the final decision. I feel this was instrumental in the success in our partnership. He deferred many times to my recommendations as I'm in the "trenches" with this training and he isn't, but again ultimately he made the final decision. Someone must take the lead. It is also a must that you have a tremendous amount of trust and respect for the person you're working with.

-- Cyndi Maxey

I just finished co-authoring a 240 page book with a non-speaker who is an expert in the training and psychology fields. I recommend hiring a local editor right away who will edit both your chapters as you turn them in. This really helps equalize two writing and grammar usage styles. We paid ours an hourly rate and set a maximum.

-- Bette Price

Unfortunately my unpleasant co-authorship experience resulted in a pulled contract after the book had been pre-sold as the publisher's number three new book. Cause....last-minute resistance from the co-author to agree with the style and content of final re-writes and his actually arguing with the editor. As a result, the publisher felt there may be too many problems in the promotion of the book. They talked with the co-author about withdrawing from the co-authorship role, but to continue to profit monetarily. That was not acceptable to the co-author. As a result, the publisher felt their only option was to cancel the contract. A very heartbreaking experience, but one I certainly learned from.

A few learnings: Have EVERYTHING spelled out in the letter of agreement between the two of you who does what, specifically. Clearly define which one of you has final approval re content and writing style. Clearly define what happens should a disagreement at any point demonstrate that a withdrawal by one party is needed. Since nothing was in writing between us regarding this, the publisher had no alternative than to pull the book.)

Dick Shaeff is a very experienced author who had major problems with a co-author. They ended up speaking only between lawyers. Even so, he favors co-authorship when the right elements are put in up front. That's the key. Think of everything you possibly can that could be a problem should a good relationship go bad. Treat it as a business and protect everyone.

I, like Dick Schaeff, still believe that co-authorship can be a positive's just important to get all the possible problems handled up front because the unfortunate truth is that sometimes what started out as the best intentions, can unfortunately go bad.

-- T. Scott Gross

Better get it in the contract that you have the right to purchase books at cost... otherwise you will find yourself unable to discount for bulk sales... your partner should also have the right to do the same...

-- George Morrisey

Having coauthored a few books, one lesson I learned the hard way is that ONE of the authors must have final say on what is to be included. Otherwise, I guarantee there will be squabbles and hurt feelings as well as unnecessary delays in getting published.

-- Mimi Will

My best projects were the ones where we decided up front that it was going to be 50-50. Period.

Decide whether you are writing as equals or if one will be a "ghost writer" person working with the other's content, and who has the "final say." Sometimes editor rewrite your stuff anyway, to meld styles, so it may be a moot point!

-- Suzan St. Maur

I am a professional business communications writer here in the UK, working on marketing, training, motivation and other topics across a wide variety of industries.

I have written 5 published books, 2 of which were co-authored.

The first, a users' guide to buying and enjoying jewellery, was written with a jeweller/gemologist. That worked well because our skills and input were complementary. We worked to a very detailed chapter structure, and would sit down with a tape recorder once a week or so. During each session I would "interview" the guy in accordance with the structure and so obtained the technical material needed. After he had gone I would then write up the chapter concerned, which we would then edit as needed. No problems!

The second co-authored book (my fourth) was called "Writing Words That Sell." This was done jointly with a US colleague who works in almost exactly the same fields as I do. On reflection this was not a good idea, as we were equally qualified to write most chapters. We carved them up and shared them out, but of course with two writers producing material inevitably there were differences in style and approach. In the end I had to take over editorship of the co-author's work and wound up pretty well re-writing all that he had done.

The moral of the story, I suppose, is that co-authorship works well when there is symbiosis between the authors, but with each one supplying a different/complementary skill set. When both authors do similar things and can virtually replace each other, it doesn't work very well.

-- David Kohn

As a writer, I have done considerable co-authoring with people who don't have good writing skills. My job was - and is - to do the writing. As a result, I think I can offer some useful guidelines for people plunging into the writing of a book with someone else. First let me discuss those tips, and then I'll briefly mention why I'm familiar with the territory.

A cardinal rule: talk with the other person to see if you're comfortable. Chemistry is essential. Being buddies isn't required, but you have to feel that the relationship will be solid enough to last until the book is done. Bad chemistry makes for a bad book, no matter what your talents. I've turned down some very lucrative projects because I knew the chemistry wasn't going to work and I would be unhappy with the result.

Also, work with someone who will be truthful to you about what he or she is thinking and feeling and who will listen to you. You must offer the same honesty and willingness in return.

Even if those elements fall into place, be wary of someone who promises or is expecting the book to yield great riches, fame, and a slot on Oprah. Thousands of books are published each year. Very few help their authors achieve that status.

How you go about working may have much to do with what kind of publishing you have in mind. If you're going to self-publish, then factor that element into your contract with the other person. If you're aiming for a royalty publisher, then have your contract with each other reflect that fact. Also, one of you should know how to navigate the waters of royalty houses.

If you're the expert or you have a story to tell, and you're hiring a writer to work with you, find out if the writer is already selling his or her writing - that bodes better for the success of your book. And, of course, find out if the writer wants to be paid on a fee, hourly or other kind of basis.

My thoughts are based on being in the writing business for more than 20 years as a a co-author, ghostwriter and editor. Books in which I have had a strong hand have won an American Library Association, resulted in a sale to a national book club and landed an author a solo appearance on the Maury Povich Show and an interview on National Public Radio. In addition, I have a co-authored book coming out this fall which will be my publisher's lead book for the year.

-- Marita Littauer

I have co-authored six books, I think -- four with my mother, one with a client/friend, one with a different friend.

For one book I did with my mother, the book was my idea, my passion and my outline. I wrote the entire book cover to cover. She then went through and added what ever she wanted and doubled the size of the book. We wrote all in third person. Another one we did together, we assigned each other the chapters we were most passionate about. We wrote in first person and our names are on each chapter. Another book we did together, we had contributors plus we each wrote individual chapters, me two and her one. We edited the others work based on which of us had a feel for how to fix the writing.

The one I wrote with the client/friend -- Too Much Is Never Enough, he laid on the sofa and spewed out ideas while I wrote and asked questions. We wrote in first person as if he wrote it. The cover has his name and says "with" my name.

The other one I wrote with a friend was originally her idea. After she got a contract for it, we decided we'd really like to do it together. Since my name is better known than hers the publisher was thrilled to rewrite the contract. We divvied up the chapters and wrote the ones we'd assigned ourselves. Then we reviewed each others work and made additions as we saw fit. We wrote in third person. The royalty was 60/40 with the 60% going to her as it was her idea.

Each experience has been different, but none have been bad. Be sure you know what approach you are going to use and who will be doing what. You might have a plan "B" in place in case one party does not do their share. The girlfriend that I wrote with had a bad experience with a previous co-author. The other writer did not do her share. They had to hire a writer to get the book done.

Royalty percentage has been based on expected work, but has usually been 50/50.

-- Wendy Keller

Here's some advice. I've been involved in perhaps 50-100 co-authored books over the years, and even coauthored a few myself. ALWAYS specifiy in writing EXACTLY how many words each party will contribute AND/OR assign specific chapters. ALSO determine in advance who will handle the editing when it comes back from the publisher's copy editor AND when the deadline is, what the split on profits are, what the percentage for future revisions are (in other words, if next yr the pubr wants you to update certain info, and your partner doesn't want to help but you do, how does that change compensation?). Finally, NEVER trust ANYTHING to smiling handshakes, no matter how much you love your coauthor. Even spouse coauthors should have written agreements - coauthoring is a HUGE nightmare if one party ends up working harder than the other, or not delivering content promptly. Good luck - I cannot wait to see the result!

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