Collaboration within a Business

Collaborator, Coauthor, or Ghostwriter? How to Decide Which You Need

Early in my career, I collaborated with CEO Jim on his business book. After I’d completed the first draft and he reviewed it, we sat together to discuss a few revisions. Primarily, he wavered over whether to include this or that anecdote collected from an interview with a client or staff member.

His wife didn’t like X story; could I remove it? His son really liked Y story, but thought it might be a better illustration in Chapter 6 than Chapter 5. But our strongest conflict? The phrase “win-win.”

During his review of the book manuscript, Jim inserted the phrase “win-win” throughout—about every third page. I pointed out the ubiquitous phrase, arguing that a “win-win strategy,” a win-win” deal,” “win-win pricing,” a “win-win partnership,” a “win-win negotiation,” and “win-win supplier relationships,” would soon get old to the reader.

He didn’t see it that way.

A conflict over editorial is just one small hitch that happens when you’re working with another person on an article or book-writing project. Believe me, there are far greater pitfalls to avoid. That’s why it’s critical to understand upfront the roles and responsibilities each person plays to keep the relationship humming.

How to Decide If You Need a Coauthor, Collaborator, or Ghostwriter

As with sports, you can’t tell the players without a program!  So let’s start by defining these publishing players:  coauthor, collaborator, and ghostwriter.

A coauthor is a full partner in both content and writing. Coauthors contribute ideas for the book and help write the book. Coauthors work in any number of ways––from writing alternate chapters on their own, according to their expertise, to brainstorming all chapter content together.

A collaborator, on the other hand, usually provides either content expertise or writing expertise. For example, if they’re a medical expert, they may offer their expertise to provide background research such as case studies and anecdotes, or, they may verify and clarify key content.

If they’re collaborating as a professional writer, they contribute expertise to structure the book properly, and present ideas in a clear, engaging style. Both collaborators typically get full credit on the book jacket.

Ghostwriters, like collaborators, contribute their writing expertise, often even creating content to fill out a skeleton outline by the “author.”  But unlike the writing collaborator, ghosts don’t seek credit on the book jacket. Authors often don’t want others to know they used a ghostwriter, and seldom even thank them in the “Acknowledgement” section of their book.

But never worry about that. Ghosts earn good money to keep their mouth shut! In other words, they trade jacket credit for a higher royalty split or upfront fee than if they shared jacket credit.

So obviously, as an author, you’ll need to decide which you need—coauthor, collaborator, or ghostwriter—before you can determine the scope of your working arrangement and any financial arrangements.

How Publishers Decide If You Need a Collaborator or Ghostwriter

One other point here:  Your editor and publishing house may actually REQUIRE that you have a collaborator or ghostwriter before they’ll sign a contract.

When I authored a technical writing book for engineers, the publisher wanted me to add an engineer-coauthor on the book jacket to add authority. So I complied for that specific purpose—even though the “collaborator” did nothing more than read through the finished manuscript and add his bio to the book jacket.

You may have a great personal story or a great platform to reach your readers, but the publisher may determine that you don’t write well enough to complete a great book.  If that’s the case, they’ll insist that you hire a ghostwriter before signing the publishing contract.

4 Key Criteria to Ensure Success in Your Publishing Partnership

After you find a coauthor, collaborator, or ghostwriter, the conversation begins. Serious conversation. In-depth conversation. Much better to work out the potential pitfalls BEFORE you begin than to let them stall your project down the road.

There’s a lot more to partnering on a publishing project than a handshake. You’ll need to discuss and put in writing your expectations involving these four key areas:

  • Vision and goals for the book and your commitment to reach these goals
  • Shared values
  • Compatibility of your work styles
  • Financial arrangements

For the most part, the basis of that working relationship will be this simple principle:  If you share in the risks, you share in the rewards. Fees, royalties, and contracts will vary accordingly.

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