Questions to Ask Before Collaborating

Book collaborations begin with the best intentions. Someone you know has an idea or area of expertise that, paired with your writing skills, should lead to a surefire success. You’re the best of friends, so surely you can work well together. What could possibly go wrong?

The answer is: Plenty. While many collaborations proceed without a hitch, others fail disastrously. Good intentions alone can’t sustain a partnership through the lengthy process of completing a book, and when those intentions fail, you may lose not only the work you’ve invested in a project, but the friendship that began it. To collaborate successfully, you need a plan — and the answers to the following important questions:

1) Who will contribute what? In nonfiction projects, it’s common for one partner to contribute ideas or expertise, while the other handles the actual writing. While this seems straightforward, you’ll also need to agree upon how much information the non-writing partner should contribute, how much control the writing partner has over what information is included in the book, and how much control the non-writing partner has over how that information is presented.

In fiction projects, both partners often share the task of writing. Again, you’ll need to reach an understanding about who should be responsible for what — which sections will you write and which sections will you leave to your partner? Will each write an “even share” of the novel? Will one partner focus on a particular aspect of the writing (such as action sequences) while the other concentrates on dialogue and character development? How will you ensure that your sections mesh, your styles match, and your work share remains equitable?

2) How will you determine the relative value of each partner’s contribution? Most collaborations begin with the intention of a 50-50 split. Often, however, those intentions break down when one partner perceives that s/he is providing the “lion’s share” of the work. If a 50-50 split begins to appear less equitable than you’d thought, consider developing another method of “valuing” each partner’s share of the work, such as a time-based percentage.

3) When will each partner be responsible for “delivering” their share of the work? Many collaborations fail (and many friendships end) when one partner fails to provide their share of the work in a timely manner. Different people have different work habits and different obligations, and as any writer knows, it can be difficult to sustain momentum through even the most exciting project. It’s vital to establish timelines for each person’s share of the work, and to live up to those timelines.

4) Who will have the final say over issues of style? If one partner is doing most of the writing, will that partner have sole discretion over the organization and presentation of the material? If not, how much control will the “information” partner have over these issues? If you are both writing sections of the book, how will you resolve differences in style or “voice”? Who will be responsible for a final “edit” of the book? Arguments over style and grammar can turn a project into a nightmare.

5) Who will handle the business side of the project? While you may both be involved in market research and make joint decisions about where to submit your work for publication, one person will probably end up doing most of the “paperwork” — writing query letters, printing manuscript copies, following up. Make sure you’ve factored these tasks into your work-share agreement.

6) How will you share expenses? Again, a 50-50 split is common — but you must also determine a method of determining and reimbursing expenses. It’s probably unrealistic to wait until the book has been sold and you’ve received an advance — so be sure you’re ready to reimburse one another for out-of-pocket expenses incurred along the way. You’ll also need to decide how to handle project expenses on your taxes.

7) How will you share the credit? Some collaborations crash and burn over the issue of whose name should be listed first on the cover. You’ll also need to decide whether your partnership should be defined as “and,” “with,” or “as told to.” Some fiction collaborators solve this problem by inventing a “single-author” pseudonym. Another solution is to list your names alphabetically.

8) What are your rights if your partner chooses to “opt out”? In many cases, a collaboration ends when one partner loses interest or is unable to complete his/her share of the work because of other obligations. Sometimes the end comes abruptly; sometimes the collaboration suffers a slow, withering death. Sometimes the partner formally withdraws from the project, but often the project ends simply because a partner simply ceases to contribute.

The dissolution of your partnership can be an emotional time, and therefore not the best time to try to reach an agreement regarding the project’s future or the remaining partner’s ongoing role in the project. It’s far better to decide in advance what will happen to the project if either partner chooses to leave the collaboration. Who will own the rights to the project? Will the remaining partner have the right to proceed alone — or perhaps even to take on a new partner? Will the withdrawing partner still own a “share” of the project based on work already contributed? Will that partner still have a right to control what happens to the work, or even block its publication? Will the withdrawing partner still receive credit (e.g., part of the byline)? Ask these questions now, while you’re still on friendly terms, and you may prevent a great deal of pain and heartache in the future.

9) What happens if one partner dies? While this may be the last thing you want to think about, it’s an important issue. If one partner dies, will the other become “sole owner” of the project? Or would you prefer to ensure that your rights (and profits) are inherited by your heirs? Don’t assume that you both have the same preferences in this regard; discuss how rights and proceeds will be handled in the event of either partner’s death.

Get it in Writing

At the very least, you and your partner should discuss these issues, and any others that might arise in the course of your collaboration. Talk to any victim of a failed collaboration, however, and you’ll hear the same cry: “If only we had had a contract!”

Unfortunately, many people consider it an “insult” to ask a friend to sign a formal contract. Nothing could be farther from the truth. A contract simply is a way of acknowledging that what you are about to undertake is not only a mutually enjoyable project, but a business arrangement with long-term ramifications. Developing a contract in advance is the best possible way to protect both partners from future misunderstandings. Circumstances, interests, and enthusiasms may change for both of you; a contract can prevent those changes from turning into major conflicts.

There is an additional benefit to spelling out the terms of your collaboration in a formal contract: By doing so, you and your partner become answerable to the contract, rather than to each other. Such a contract can act as a powerful vehicle of enforcement, reducing each partner’s need to “nag” the other for compliance. As such, it can help protect not only your work, but your relationship.

A collaboration can be a wonderful experience, and produce a far better book than either you or your partner might have produced alone. To ensure that this experience goes smoothly, why not make a simple agreement your first piece of “collaborative writing”?

Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com and the author of more than 300 published articles. Her books on writing include Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer’s Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals (Second Edition), and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests.