Summing Up

Literary collaborations are joint ventures in which two or more authors write a book. Unless both are subject-matter experts (SMEs) in the same field, one will be considered the primary author and the other that person’s coauthor (sometimes called “as-told-tocoauthors because they express the SME’s story or ideas in writing). Typically, the primary author has had some significant adventure or achievement that the public wants to read about, but lacks the time, skills, or English fluency to put that story in book form. The best coauthors are veteran writers with the tact, patience, and skills to translate the raw material of life into good books that readers will buy.

One of the first decisions collaborators make is “deciding how to decide” the myriad editorial and business matters they will encounter during the project. No matter what methods they choose, coauthors should always document them in a written literary collaboration agreement before they begin.

Another issue in book collaboration is how the coauthor, who usually writes (with the SME’s input and approval), the first and subsequent drafts of the book proposal (sometimes called a book prospectus), as well as the book itself, will be compensated. If the coauthor writes on spec, short for “on speculation,” it means the coauthor will be paid only when the book earns money. If the coauthor’s contribution is work-made-for-hire, his or her compensation is paid incrementally by the primary author or a third party. In work-for-hire projects, primary authors may recover their coauthor’s fee by deducting it from later advances and royalties, often rewarding their collaborator with an agreed-upon bonus in case the book achieves extraordinary success—such as becoming a bestseller or has its film rights optioned by Hollywood.

Jay Wurts Writer and Editor
About Jay Wurts Writer and Editor

Professional Services: Coauthorship

Some aspiring authors such as celebrities, politicians, and professionals whose schedules prevent serious writing (including non-native English speakers who lack the fluency demanded by publishers), decide from the outset that they need a collaborator to tell their story.

How Do Literary Collaborations Work?
I approach coauthorship the way many actors prepare for a part: by submerging myself in the role. Like an actor who writes his own script, my job is to vividly recreate your experiences, feelings, and ideas on paper.

Some collaborators split coauthorship duties. They make the primary author (the subject-matter expert, or SME) responsible for all content while the writer has the last word about style. This is almost always a mistake. A well-written book is organic. Its ideas grow naturally from one another and it’s impossible to separate the meaning of the text from the way it is expressed. If coauthors divide responsibilities, it’s best to confine it to non-editorial matters like book promotion.

As a result, all editorial and business decisions in my coauthorships are made by mutual consent. Far from creating friction between collaborators, consensus guarantees us both that our best ideas and interests are represented in the project.

While the mechanics of literary collaboration are simple, the variations are endless. Typically, the primary author or SME relays information to me through interviews, rough draft manuscript, e-mail messages, audio or video recordings, photographs, clippings, maps, letters, reference books—anything appropriate to the subject. Then (after doing some independent research), I prepare an editorial plan for creating the book or proposal. When writing starts, the primary author provides more detailed content for each chapter which I augment from my research. For memoirs and autobiographies, I often prepare a detailed Author’s Questionnaire to capture the specific information we’ll need to build scenes and develop characters. Based on our model literature and the affect we want to achieve, I write the first draft in batches, which you review, until the entire first draft is complete. That way, we continuously improve our manuscript as we learn more about each other’s preferences and working style.

When we agree that the first draft is satisfactory, we deliver it to the acquisition editor, who may or may not request further changes. While we aren’t required to accept these suggestions, we ignore them at our peril. Much of what I learned about good writing came from talented editors, so even their minor comments deserve consideration.

What Do Coauthors Do After Publication?
Just as parents are still parents when their children come of age, coauthors continue to collaborate after publication—though the subject of those conversations change. In addition to helping the publisher promote the book, we may make decisions about licensing its subsidiary rights: for film, audio tapes, book clubs, excerpts for magazines and newspapers (called serial rights), or in electronic format such as e-books, not to mention foreign language editions—to name only a few.

At this stage, our agent’s job is to promote the work to these and other buyers, often using sub-agents in other countries or specialists in entertainment law. While most publishers maintain a permissions and subsidiary rights department, it tends to be a passive order-taker rather than an active order-maker like the agent. Book promotion (author tours, bookseller readings, autograph parties, broadcast interviews and so on) is best handled by you, the primary author. After all, you are the coauthor that readers associate most closely with the content and represent the “sizzle” on the steak. My work continues largely behind the scenes as we evaluate subrights offers and support our agent and publisher. Thus as coauthors we can and should do much after publication to increase the value of our work. And if the first book is successful, there is often a chance for a sequel.

For more information about coauthorship, please go to the FAQ and Contact pages of this web site.

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