Collaborations, Part 1

One of the liabilities of being a professional writer is that you attract people who want to collaborate with you. What author has not been collared at a party by a drunk who wants him to write his life story or has this fantastic idea for a novel?

Few such propositions have any commercial value. But from time to time you may meet someone whose story is compelling enough to entice you into collaboration with him. Or your agent may offer you an opportunity to team up with a famous movie or sports star, doctor or astronaut, beauty expert or political figure. If that happens, do you know how collaborations work? How the proceeds are to be divided? Whose byline goes on the cover of the book? Who pays the expenses of flying to Washington or Los Angeles or Hawaii to interview this person or to do research? Whose name goes on the copyright?

As a writer who has collaborated on seven or eight works of fiction and nonfiction and as an agent who has welded together scores of collaborations for clients, I can testify that teaming up with someone on a book can be richly rewarding, elevating, and great fun. It can also turn out to be a nightmare if the parties are ill matched, have unrealistic expectations of each other’s contributions, or fail to spell out their contractual arrangements before getting down to work. Collaborations are complex undertakings because the authors have to please themselves, each other, and their publishers at one and the same time, the literary equivalent of three-dimensional chess. In this two-part post, perhaps I can show you how to enter into a collaboration with your eyes wide open.

For openers one might ask, Why collaborate at all? Collaborations often sound like twice the headaches for half the money, and sometimes that turns out to be the case. But the opposite may also be true: You can end up making more money than you can writing solo, doing less work and turning out a better book. Collaborations can broaden experience, create new areas of expertise, and open up markets for a writer’s work. They are also refreshing changes of pace from the isolated, solitary nature of freelance writing. Indeed, some writers thrive on the stimulus of another mind and a second pair of hands, preferring collaborations to writing alone. In my collaborations on a number of novels, I found that my co-authors’ contributions made for much more rounded characters and plots than I could ever have produced on my own.

What kinds of book projects and co-authors lend themselves best to collaborations? The most obvious is the autobiography of a celebrity, the movie or sports star, television personality or famous politician, who feels (or is persuaded by a publisher or agent) that his or her story would make compelling reading for a large audience. There are other well-known people – business leaders, scientists, and psychologists, for example – who want to expound on a subject they know well – to comment on the decline of American business initiative, the dangers of nuclear armament, the threat of Latin American insurgency, the fragmentation of family life. Then there is the person suddenly vaulted into the limelight, in whom the public becomes interested overnight: a released political hostage, a captured notorious criminal, a dedicated crusader whose cause is at last taken up by the majority. There are also the obscure people who have a great tale to tell if only someone could help them publicize it with a book: the valet-housekeeper-butler-nanny-secretary of some great household who is prepared to reveal the intimacies of the master or mistress; the victim of some affliction whose bravery in the face of acute suffering will inspire those in similar circumstances; the dedicated crusader whose cause has not yet been taken up by the majority.

Finally, there is the common case of two writers whose strengths and weaknesses complement each other: One is good at plotting, the other at narrative; he writes better male characters, she better female ones; one hates research but loves to interview people, the other can sit in a library all day but won’t hold a microphone in someone’s face and ask a lot of personal questions.

These people have one thing in common: a story to tell but insufficient time, talent, or energy to tell it without help. That’s where the collaborator comes in. But collaborations, like any other genre, are an art form, and not all writers are constituted to handle them well. Their personalities, views, and working habits must blend with the subject-author’s, and considerable tolerance on both sides is therefore necessary. The subject-author may be difficult, demanding, extremely busy, and excessively vain. He may be so close to his own story that he insists on stressing the dullest aspects of it and glossing over the most intriguing and exciting. He may respond with dismay and even horror to the picture his collaborator has created, even though every word of the book has been taken verbatim from tape recordings. Collaborations are often mirrors that reflect what one doesn’t want to see.

Co-authors, too, may be poorly matched to the people they’ve been hired to write books with. They can be headstrong, insensitive, and impatient, unused to working with and deferring to another person. The subject-author may feel that his collaborator is “writing his own book,” subordinating the essential material to the collaborator’s own vision, content, or style.

Bad collaborations, then, are like houses built by warring contractors: The seams are poorly joined, the materials don’t match, the style confused and uninspired. If you have misgivings about your writing partner, drop the collaboration before it goes too far. How are collaborations put together? Do they start with the principal? The writer? The publisher? The agent? Sometimes it’s one of these, sometimes another. Often it depends on how well known the subject-author is.

For instance, if he is a celebrity, the chances are that he will be pursued by a publisher. Once he has committed himself to doing a book, finding a collaborator is relatively easy. Sometimes the celebrity initiates the search for a publisher, perhaps because he has decided to go public with his life story or because he wishes to promote his career or practice or views. Here again, it’s relatively easy to assemble a collaborative deal, for the publisher is virtually sold on the book and doesn’t require convincing. The publisher can make a commitment with little prompting, assess the book’s value and sales potential, and work the collaborator’s fees into the project budget. Unless the celebrity already has a co-author, the publisher will usually contact literary agents and negotiate with them for their clients’ services as collaborators – assuming the subject-author and the collaborator hit it off together.

If the subject-author is not a celebrity, however, it is much harder to find a collaborator, for a great deal of development must be done to interest publishers and make them feel the story is worth investing in. A writer must be found who is willing to sit down with the principal, interview him, and write an outline for prospective publishers. That in itself is no easy feat, for professional writers like to be paid for their time, and because in this case there is no guaranteed publication deal, the writer must do all this preparatory work on speculation. Of course, if the subject-author has money, he can be asked to pay for his collaborator’s time during the development period, usually on the condition that the first monies collected from a publishing deal go to reimburse the subject-author. But if the principal cannot pay, the project could die right then and there unless the writer is so wildly enthusiastic about the book’s potential that he considers his time a good investment.

There is another way, and that’s for the subject-author to interest a big-name writer in collaborating with him. For the big-name writer is a celebrity himself; presumably he has a following that will buy and read any book he sets his hand to. If this writer is enthusiastic about a story, however obscure, that’s often good enough for his publisher and a deal will be struck requiring relatively little presentation. But – famous writers are approached every day of the week by people who feel their story will make best-selling reading if only some big-name author will work with them on it. In short, if it’s not one helluva story, it had better be one helluva celebrity, or one helluva writer, writing it. (Or, I might add, one helluva literary agent selling it.)

In the second installment we’ll discuss common contractual arrangements for collaborations.

Richard Curtis

From How to Be Your Own Literary Agent by Richard Curtis, published by Harcourt Houghton Mifflin

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