“Will you be my coauthor?” and other questions about collaborating on books


A friend and fellow author recently asked me to be his coauthor on a topic close to his heart.

I said no. Quickly.

It has nothing to do with him. It has to do with the nature of coauthoring.

What a coauthor is, and why I won’t be yours

I’ve coauthored three books. Here’s the nature of the coauthoring relationship:

  • Two or more people decide they can contribute to a book on a topic they share an interest in. The shared interest is crucial.
  • Coauthors’ contributions are not necessarily equal or similar. In the case of the books I worked on, I did most of the writing, but the ideas came from all of us.
  • Coauthors typically expect to derive revenue from being known as experts on the topic. This revenue might include speaking, conducting workshops, or consulting, for example.

In the case of Groundswell, my first book, Charlene Li and I partnered because she had great ideas on social media and I had the time to write and was fascinated by the topic. She left our mutual employer, Forrester Research, soon after the book was published and successful. We both made ourselves successful (but separately) based on the launchpad the book created.

This is a fairly common type of collaboration. For example, Ann Handley and C.C. Chapman were coauthors of Content Rules, a book on content marketing. Now both are successful, independently, based in part on the reputations they enhanced with the book.

Similarly, Robert Scoble and Shel Israel boosted their visibility with several books including Naked Conversations, Age of Context, and The Fourth Transformation.

Now think about asking me (or anybody else) to be your coauthor on a book you are working on. Does it make sense?

  • Is the topic something we have a mutual interest in? If it’s your idea, why should I be interested in it?
  • How comfortable are we as collaborators? Coauthoring is an intensely shared process. I wouldn’t do it unless I was certain I was compatible with the other author based on previous collaborations on smaller projects.
  • Am I ready to put in the time on your project? I have my own book projects and consulting. I’d have to put them aside to be your coauthor.
  • How will my investment get paid off? Coauthoring involves a major time investment — unless you get a big advance, it doesn’t pay off until later. Even the advance doesn’t happen unless you’ve already put time into working together on a proposal. If I wanted to invest, would your project be the place I would invest?
  • Do I want to be an expert in your topic? I have my own areas of expertise. Do I foresee a speaking or consulting career in your topic, that I’m not known for now?

As you can see, you can’t just approach somebody and expect them to want to be your coauthor. You’re basically asking them to put in a big investment of time and effort on your topic, which is not likely to be their topic.

In all the cases I know of where coauthors were successful, they discovered a mutual interest in a topic and decided to mutually invest in a book on that topic. If the book was successful, both the coauthors were able to build off of that success.

Other ways to collaborate

Coauthoring is not the only way to work together on a book.

And author can hire me (or somebody else) as a ghostwriter. The ghostwriter gets paid for this work, which is to create the best possible expression of the author’s ideas. When the book is done, the author gets the credit, the speeches, and the reputation — the ghostwriter gets to keep the money.

An author can hire me as an editor or coach. I’ll help you make the book better, but it will be your book on your ideas.

An author can hire me to help improve their idea, or to create a salable book proposal.

Are you starting to see the pattern here? In these relationships, the book is about the author’s ideas, and the author gets the long-term payoff. What does the collaborator get? He gets paid. It’s work done for hire.

If the author is famous enough, the book will sell well regardless. This takes the risk out of it. In such cases, a ghostwriter, editor, or coach might work for a percentage of the proceeds instead of, or in addition to, a cash payment. But the fact remains — it is the author’s book, and the collaborator expects to get paid for their work.

If you’re not famous, you can’t pay, and you want help with a book, you might imagine that asking an experienced author to be your coauthor is a way forward. It’s not — it doesn’t make sense unless you’re already collaborators on other projects. You’ll just have to find a way to do the work yourself.

One response to ““Will you be my coauthor?” and other questions about collaborating on books

  1. You’ve made me feel better about how quickly I declined to coauthor a book with someone who presented it as coauthoring but clearly just wanted help with the writing. The topic was hers entirely and of no interest to me.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.