That’s Right, Blame the Co-Author

Are you an And? A With? An As Told To?  A Ghost? Wherever you stand on the co-author ladder, there’s a good chance that sooner or later your partner will blame you for his own screwup.

The latest example is author Greg Mortensen’s  explanation for alleged factual lapses in his bestselling memoir Three Cups of Tea, written with David Oliver Relin.

How are co-authors selected? How are their qualifications evaluated? What is the legal relationship between authors and co-authors? The answers can be found in a two part piece we’ve posted, Collaborations,Part 1 and Part 2, but to summarize:

Generally speaking, co-authors are usually recommended to principal authors by their agents or publishers. The writers are seasoned professionals and are considered reliable, responsible and reputable. They are almost invariably skillful and, like members of an elite guild, proud of their craftsmanship.

Because in most instances they are equally liable with the principal author for libel, plagiarism or other claims, they must be diligent researchers who double-check every fact, take scrupulous notes at interviews, and accept no statement at face value made by the author. In fact they must be doubly diligent, covering not just their own ass but the author’s, too, because that author is all too often too busy, distracted or impatient to bother with details. Co-authors know that if they screw up, they may never work in this town again.

In the case of Three Cups of Tea, co-author Relin was recommended to Mortensen, presumably because Relin possessed the above qualifications.  Certainly, when the book rode high on the bestseller lists and minted tons of royalties, the choice of Relin was regarded as brilliant.  When doubts were cast on the book, however, the blame game began, and questions about Relin’s role were raised.  Rather than stand up for his co-author, Mortensen pointed a finger at him.

In an exclusive interview with Alex Heard posted on OutsideOnline.com, Mortensen explained himself thus:

It’s really complicated, but I’m not a journalist. I don’t take a lot of notes. David and I collaborated. He did nearly all the writing, and along with hundreds of interviews of those involved in the story, I helped him piece together the whole timeline, and from that we started creating the narrative arc and everything.

David insisted on writing the book in third person, which is really awkward. The publisher said, Greg, you’re too understated, so this needs to be in the third person. My wife, Tara, also told me that if I wrote a book, it would be a pamphlet.

What happens then is, when you re-create the scenes, you have my recollections, the different memories of those involved, you have his writing, and sometimes things come out different. In order to be convenient, there were some omissions. If we included everything I did from 1993 to 2003 it would take three books to write it. So there were some omissions and compressions, and … I don’t know, what that’s called?

Literary license?

Yeah. So, rather than me going two or three times to one place, he would synthesize it into one trip. I would squawk about it and be told that it would all work out.

What Relin’s role was in errors of fact, we don’t and may never know, but we’re pretty skeptical that it was his fault. Writers take the fall all too often for the foibles, follies and failures of their higher-profile principals. Co-writers don’t complain when someone gets rich riding on their backs. But they have every right to speak out when their riders kick them.  We need to stand up for collaborators.

Richard Curtis

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