Bringing in a co-author requires ‘reconstitution’ of book project

TextbooksFinding a co-author for your textbook should involve more than finding someone to share the workload, said Mary Ellen Lepionka, owner of Atlantic Path Publishing and author of Writing and Developing Your College Textbook.

”Rather than serving merely as a hired hand, each co-author should have content to contribute,” she said.

Senior authors often bring in junior colleagues working in areas at the edges of their expertise or in emerging fields, to serve as coauthors, said Lepionka, but among the best sources of co-authors are colleagues from the author’s past schooling, from his or her present institution or group, and individuals in groups the author interacts with at professional meetings.

Spouses and children don’t usually make the best co-authors, she said: “From what I’ve seen, authors with spouses or offspring as co-authors are taking a big chance. Textbook writing is in itself a marriage with offspring.”

In most fields, co-authors should be a Ph.D. with the rank of at least assistant professor and preferably associate professor, she said: “This is because if a textbook is successful, it will go into several revisions over a span of many years, and the coauthors need to be able to step into the principal author’s roles as needed.”

Unless hired just to provide pedagogy or serve some other specialized role, all the authors on an author team should also be credible and reliable as authoritative sources of the content, she said.

Once you have found a prospective co-author who is qualified and available to write a textbook, the next step is to determine whether his or her voice and style are a good fit, said Lepionka.

“The one thing that invariably makes textbooks successful, both academically and commercially, is the writing as a reflection of the authorial voice and style,” she said. “Textbooks that do not have unity of voice (e.g., purpose, attitudes, assumptions) and consistency of style (e.g., level and use of language) inevitably fail in the marketplace.”

To determine a prospective co-author’s voice and style, said Lepionka, you should read and discuss relevant writing samples, such as a chapter written as a sample chapter for the text, and gain complete buy-in on the following questions up front to avoid a whole host of potential problems.

  • What is, or what will be, the rationale, assumptions, principles, goals, and mission of the book?
  • What is or will be the scope and sequence of content and organization?
  • Who is or will be the audience?
  • What are or will be the writing style and tone?

Lepionka answers some additional questions about locating and selecting a coauthor:

What business and legal aspects should you consider when bringing in a co-author?

I’m not an authority on legal matters, but you should have a co-authoring agreement, reviewed by an attorney, whether you do this before or after signing with a publisher. The publisher’s agreement with the coauthor is between them. If you and a coauthor go together to a publisher, that publisher may write only one contract with both of you, as if you comprised a single author. Alternatively, a publisher may have separate contracts with each of you that do not entirely spell out your obligations to each other. The coauthor gets a percentage of your royalties (and, in fairness, of any advance or grant), and this is written into a contract. The amount is usually based on what percentage of content the coauthor will provide or be responsible for. (Often, e.g., in a litigation, the exact number of words a coauthor writes must be tallied to determine a settlement.) Aside from How will royalties be divided? related questions include Who will be listed as the principal author? and In what order will the author names appear on the cover and title page?

You should definitely bring in your publisher on the decision to choose a coauthor. You may even be legally bound to do so by your contract, which may also prohibit sub-contracting without the publisher’s permission. Your publisher is a major resource and already knows of prospective coauthors at good schools whose names and reputations would contribute to your textbook’s success and reach in the marketplace. Furthermore, you are already in bed with the publisher. The publisher has a right to know who will be joining you under the covers (or, more accurately, between the covers). The publisher has to arrange for new covers and copyrights to add the coauthor’s name and new marketing and sales materials to publicize it.

The publisher should be regarded as an ally. Your relationship should be collaborative, not adversarial. If faults in the relationship (your faults and/or theirs) cannot or will not be corrected, you perhaps should see a lawyer about getting a divorce and finding another publisher.”

What if you have already been working on the book for many years and are just now bringing in a co-author?

”Issues of ownership, power, and control doom many textbook projects. I always feel sad to see an author team struggling with these issues and extending them to the editor and publisher as well. I think the key word here is TEAM. The principal author must surrender some ownership, power, and control once he or she is no longer a one-man show. You can quarterback but must give up the other positions to other players. You can parent but you must give up the child to the school. The other players can help you win the game. The school can teach the child things you don’t know or don’t know to teach. This doesn’t mean you have to surrender quality. Your team can make you a better player too. (Please forgive all the metaphors, which I will dispense with now.)

So, assuming you don’t want just a shadow author (a silent secret hired hand, such as a freelance content provider on a work-for-hire contract), you don’t exactly ‘incorporate a co-author’ into your book so much as ‘reconstitute the book’ based on the new author team’s collaborative decision making under your leadership.

In my experience getting coauthors up to speed on a textbook project usually takes 2 to 3 months after the signing and/or approval of a sample chapter. It’s best to answer the following questions right at the start:

  • What are the specific authoring tasks?
  • How will the authoring tasks be divided?
  • What tasks will need to be outsourced and who will be responsible for that?
  • By what dates will each task and each phase of the work be completed?
  • Who will be responsible for ensuring that the work has a consistent overall chapter-to-chapter authorial voice and style? That is, who will be the uber-editor before the manuscript is turned in to the publisher’s editors or reviewers?
  • By what means, how often, and how extensively will the authors communicate with each other to collaborate?

I have worked with author teams who met with their laptops in airport taco stands, as guests in each other’s homes, in weekly or monthly teleconferences, and online via collaboration software (such a boon). Like any team or family, the more communication and practice the better.”

How have you made a new co-authoring relationship work?