What You Should Know About Writing a Co-Authored Book

From Jane Friedman:

When people hear about my feminist, humor book, Jokes to Offend Men, first they ask: Do you actually hate men? (The answer of course is no, only on Thursdays).

And then they say: Wait there’s four authors? How does that work? A four-person book is an outlier, but what’s even stranger to me is that I am one of those authors.

Prior to writing this book I had none of the qualities it requires to write collaboratively. In fact I rejected the premise. But now, two plus years after I started, I am a convert. If you are also a type-A, control seeker that’s been scarred by having to work on group projects in school, I see you. I am you. But done right, group writing has some surprising benefits I hope you’ll consider.

When it comes to writing, I have always been wary of sharing the spotlight. In college, I took comedy writing classes in male-dominated spaces where I had to fight to have my voice heard. And on those rare occasions when I finally got people to listen to what I had to say, I held on for dear life.

I internalized those experiences throughout my twenties. I was always deeply protective of my writing and highly suspicious of anyone who was trying to “change my words.” I took all feedback extremely personally and didn’t know how to accept it without compromising my vision.

When people critiqued my work, all I heard in my warped brain was: You are not cut out to be a writer and you should give up now. What I didn’t realize until years later, was that (1) writers are not judged on the quality of their first draft, and (2) my self-preservation method was holding me back.

If you want to write collaboratively, you can’t be afraid to show the ugly stuff.

In my thirties, everything changed. I managed to get a few clips under my belt, writing humorous personal essays about my holy trifecta: 1990s pop culture, teen angst, and the suburbs. I also started writing satire for sites like McSweeney’s. This boosted my confidence and then, critically, I joined an online community of writers who I grew to respect and trust. Eventually that led me to achieve the very thing I was terrified of in my twenties: Being vulnerable.

We swapped pieces and gave each other feedback and for the first time I had some measure of what other people’s early drafts looked like. I was relieved and genuinely shocked to find out other people worked through multiple revisions. With the assurance that I would not be laughed out of the group, I began to solicit feedback, and then I watched as my writing *miraculously* became so much better.

You have to trust each other.

Over time, I developed a rapport with a few particular writers who both shared my sensibilities and were incredible editors. Then, a few years after I joined the group, the stars aligned. I finally had an idea and had the people who could help me write it.

The viral McSweeney’s piece, which served as the inspiration for Jokes to Offend Men, started out as a single joke. I knew it had potential, but on my own I had no clue where to go with it.

For 25-year-old Ali, the story would have ended there. I would have abandoned the idea, too afraid to show anyone my half-baked thinking and the judgment I was sure would follow. But 35-year-old Ali was learning to trust the people around her.

I emailed the other writers the joke: “A man walks into a bar. It’s a low one, so he gets a promotion within his first 6 months on the job.”

And then I asked, “Is this anything?,” knowing that at worst they too wouldn’t know what to do with it, but at best, it might inspire them and together we could make it “a thing.”

Through some mix of right time, right place, right painful lived experiences, the four of us were able to co-write and publish Jokes I’ve Told That My Male Colleagues Didn’t Like in a whirlwind 24 hours.

. . . .

Writing collaboratively means taking the time to hear each other out, consider other perspectives, allow someone to talk through their idea even if it’s not fully there. While our book is funny, we’re pulling from heavy source material re: sexual harassment, reproductive rights, the gender equity gap. I had to learn to give my co-writers the space to express what was important to them and what was frustrating them.

There were many times throughout the process of writing our book where I so desperately wanted to skip ahead to the pretty, finished end. I am nothing if not a conflict avoidant child of divorce and I hate the murky middle of things. But that is life and as it turns out, it was those lively discussions where we hashed it out and dissected the validity of every single joke, that made the material stronger.

You have to be committed to the idea and each other.

Another rule that applies to all authors: you better love your idea because you’re going to be spending a long time with it. But the particular nuance of co-writing comes from the commitment to each other. I think one of the scariest parts of writing on a team is that you are relying on others to get the job done. You have to be accountable to yourselves, and I’m talking about even before you sign any contracts holding you legally responsible.

Our original piece was published in February 2020 and shortly after we began meeting virtually on a weekly basis to write and talk. We were buoyed by the success of our one piece, but we knew writing a book-length volume of jokes was a totally different beast. It was awkward at first. We had to find our rhythm, not just in the writing, but as partners.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

Yes, PG is a man. PG is also an attorney to boot.

With two strikes against him in the eyes of some, he will comment.

Perhaps the author of the OP didn’t think it would further the stylish flow of the OP to mention anything about an agreement between the authors. Perhaps the author thought it would be obvious to the reader that the four intelligent women who likely wrote or reviewed the OP would have such an agreement. Perhaps PG missed the mention of an agreement when he skimmed through the OP.

(Note, PG skims through a great many items he posts on TPV. He does have a life away from the blog and would like to keep it that way. To further clarify, he mostly doesn’t notice the author’s name(s) or gender(s) until he’s done with the post and it’s not unusual for PG not to notice an author’s gender at all on or off TPV. For example, he didn’t know George Sand or George Eliot were female until he was mostly done with college and didn’t realize that Isak Dinesen was female until he watched the movie version of Out of Africa and, even then, he first thought Isak was a male name used in one or more Scandinavian countries.)

Back to PG’s attorney thing: Regardless of the gender or genders of the authors of a multi-author creative work, it’s a good idea to have an agreement about how the distribution of money is decided, how disputes between one or more authors are resolved, hopefully without litigation, who’s on the copyright and who isn’t and whether anything is different about how subsidiary rights to the joint creation are handled.

Dispute resolution is, to PG’s way of thinking, the most important element, especially when one considers that the copyright to the work will continue for many years after the four authors are all dead. Perhaps the book will be a bright star that flames out in a couple of years, but one of the things attorneys think about is future events that have a small probability of occurring, but could have significant financial or personal consequences for the parties and their heirs should they occur. Collections of legal case opinions are rife with this sort of thing.

PG thinks he may have previously mentioned a case on TPV with which he was involved during ancient times where 13 attorneys were representing different groups of heirs and would-be heirs of a wealthy woman who had a will drawn by a competent attorney. The woman then crossed out some parts of it and added other parts, all in pencil. Then, as we all must, she died.

If his recollection is correct the deceased woman was named Lodima Long.

(PG just checked on Google and it didn’t show anyone named Lodima Long. Under under US law, as a general proposition, you can’t defame the dead, so go ahead and defame Millard Fillmore to your heart’s content.)

In PG’s recollection, Lodima Long’s estate litigation had continued for over thirteen years with the executor having deposited all the money into a bank savings account before PG strode into the fray. His clients, who were named in the will, mostly wanted to get the whole thing finished and done with.

PG asked for a trial, a bunch of local judges disqualified themselves from hearing the case because they knew what a mess it was. A visiting judge from a distant place was appointed to hear the case and set a trial date. We tried the case over a couple of days. So far, so good.

Then the jury came back, having failed to agree on a verdict but did unanimously agree that the parties should settle the matter on their own and not bother any more jurors with it.

The judge ordered all the attorneys and their clients to return a week or two later. At the appointed hour, the judge gathered all the attorneys without their clients and effectively ordered them to come to a settlement.

It took 4-5 hours with some breaks during which the attorneys asked the judge how he was likely to rule on this or that. He would give us his non-final thoughts on the question and send us back for more negotiations, exhorting us to settle the (bleep) case. The judge didn’t allow the attorneys to break for lunch to encourage them to move it along.

In the end, all the attorneys and their clients agreed on how the proceeds were to be divided and who would draft a decision and opinion for the judge to sign. The judge went home and signed the decision a couple of weeks later. After a wait to make certain nobody would appeal the judge’s decision, the executor of Lodima’s will sent out checks to everyone.

PG notes that this is an example from a day, place and age that doesn’t exist anymore (well the town is still there, but it’s changed a lot, the judge, many of the attorneys and clients are dead and the law has likely changed as well).

He recounts this experience as a cautionary tale about how things can sometimes go sideways and the absence of a competently drafted document signed by the collaborators (which hasn’t been amended with a pencil) can cause a huge amount of trouble.

A contract is always cheaper than a lawsuit.

So, PG advises co-authors to have a written contract prepared by competent counsel.

This contract will set out the terms of their agreement to cooperate with each other in a joint project involving the creation of a book, article or other work that may be published or self-published and is expected to generate a financial return. It will clearly state what happens to the money and how decisions are made.

To avoid the backlog that often plagues trial courts in the United States, it will include a competently-drafted arbitration clause which will govern any disputes between the parties. PG will resist going into detail about arbitration and arbiters, but it’s generally a better way and virtually always a much faster way of resolving business disputes than the civil court system.

For one thing, most judges have never had dealings with publishing disputes. You are likely to be able to locate an experienced literary attorney to act as an arbiter (for a fee) and you won’t have to educate the arbiter about publishing law.

You can find knowledgeable arbitrators in a variety of different ways. The American Arbitration Association is designated to choose an arbitrator and set the arbitration rules in the large majority of business contracts PG has viewed that include arbitration provisions.

The AAA website even provides a variety of arbitration clauses you can cut and paste into your contract. Here’s an example:

Any controversy or claim arising out of or relating to this contract, or the breach thereof, shall be settled by arbitration administered by the American Arbitration Association in accordance with its Commercial [or other] Arbitration Rules, and judgment on the award rendered by the arbitrator(s) may be entered in any court having jurisdiction thereof.

Since PG stopped practicing law a few months ago, none of what he’s written here is legal advice, just an old guy opining.

6 thoughts on “What You Should Know About Writing a Co-Authored Book”

  1. Lack of documents between parties who really, really need to have a written agreement (because, under the Copyright Act, an oral agreement is null and void) is A Problem.

    A common problem.

    One that leads to litigation — the kind of litigation in which only the lawyers are winners. As bad as that was, keep in mind that each coauthor has the full right to license, make derivatives, etc. under the Copyright Act (so long as the profits are split, but then there’s the question of what expenses may be deducted and so on, let alone unequal credit/use, or worse yet a partial relicensing of “just my parts so I don’t have to share any payments”)… unless there’s a written agreement between them that governs the work. Let’s not concern ourselves with the tax consequences this close to Halloween, ok?

  2. PG, your response, aside from being very informative and even quotable, was also entertaining. At times, it teetered along the edge of being Dave Barry-esque. You should write a book. Unless you already have, in which case you should write another one.

    • Thanks, H. Dave Barry sells a whole lot of books. I don’t know whether books based on lawyer war stories have a large potential audience or not.

      Perhaps you have just developed a crush on the long-dead Lodima Long. 😉

  3. The book described in the OP is traditionally published, from a pretty substantial publisher. Indeed, their list is quite impressive. I would expect that they have a contract that deal with most of these issues, if only so they don’t get sued for distributing royalties to the wrong party.

    • Unless it was specifically negotiated, Richard, that particular publisher’s boilerplate relies upon the agency clause, which circles right back around to the dispute I noted in my comment above.

      And it’s been that way for over a century: The publishers outsource resolution of coauthor disputes to the agent community by default. What could possibly go wrong?

    • I agree with C. on this.

      I expect the publisher just had everybody sign a boilerplate publishing agreement and called it good. That was enough to cover them and they didn’t worry if the authors fought about the royalties or not.

      It’s quite possible that no lawyer was consulted regarding the publishing agreement. They usually aren’t.

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