9 Things to Know Before You Collaborate


At some point in your writing career you might be asked (or need) to collaborate with someone else on a project. You may co-author a novel together, you may need someone with scientific experience you don’t have when you write your non-fiction book, or you may need to hire an illustrator for your children’s book. Whatever the reason, a collaboration can be a great way to advance both of your careers and result in a great project that neither one of you could complete alone.

It could also be a disaster that makes you question why you ever wanted to write in the first place and drives you to drink. Heavily. To prevent disaster, consider the following before you agree to collaborate with others.

  1. Identify why you need/want to collaborate. Can you simply not handle the workload alone? Does your collaborator have information/expertise that you do not? Do you want to attach this person’s name/credibility to your project so that it will seem more respectable? Figuring out exactly why you want a collaborator is the first step in choosing the best person for the job. Or, you may decide that you really don’t need a collaborator, in which case you can save yourself a lot of potential trouble.
  2. Choose someone you trust. This should be obvious. Pick collaborators that you trust. You’ll be putting a portion of your writing career in their hands, so choose wisely. A “brand name” collaborator is worthless if they’re going to make your life miserable for the duration of the project or ruin the project altogether. You also want to choose someone who has verifiable credentials and not just someone who says they are an illustrator or an expert in topic XYZ.
  3. Clearly assign tasks and deadlines. The time to argue about who will do what and when it is due is at the beginning of the project, not midway through. Set forth your expectations and deadlines before you begin. Make sure that all partners will be able to handle their parts of the work and get things done on time. Adjustments can be made as needed, but at least begin with a solid framework to avoid disagreements and misunderstandings.
  4. Make sure you can communicate. Your collaborator should be someone that you are comfortable communicating with and who is available and open. Don’t choose someone who intimidates you so much that you won’t speak up, who never returns calls or emails, or who is mysteriously never available.
  5. Make sure you fight well. At some point you will fight with your collaborator. Guaranteed. Make sure the person you’re working with is someone that you can fight with productively and move on. You don’t want to get stuck with a bully or a sulker. Ideally, you want someone who will work with you to find the compromise position.
  6. Specify payment arrangements up front. Will you split the payment equally? Will you split the pay based on number of hours worked, amount of words written, or base it on the amount of illustrations to text? Put whatever arrangements you decide on in writing to prevent problems later.
  7. Specify credit arrangements up front. Will you share equally in the credit for the work? Is one of you the main author with the other relegated to a smaller byline? Will both of you get bylines at all, or will one person be the ghost writer? Sort these things out before you begin so feelings aren’t hurt later.
  8. What happens if one partner decides to walk away or dies? While unlikely, there may come a point where one of you says, “That’s it. I’ve had enough,” and wants out. Worse, one of you could die. What will you do? Will the project continue with the remaining partner working solo, or will it just be shelved? Is the remaining partner allowed to choose another partner? What about any money arrangements that have been made? Who gets what? Specify the contingencies in writing.
  9. Protect yourself. The most important thing when collaborating is to get everything in writing. You hope it never comes to litigation but if it should, you’ll be glad you have the back up. It’s not being pushy to insist on contracts, even if your collaborator is your best friend. It’s just smart to make sure that everyone is protected and all arrangements are understood.

The idea of collaboration used to bring back visions of school projects when teachers would partner me up with some bozo who would leave me to do all of the work while he took all of the credit. However, a collaboration amongst professionals can be a lot of fun as well as professionally rewarding. I’ve had some very good experiences over the years. (And there have been some bad ones.) The good experiences have been the ones where I followed the tips above. The bad ones have almost always resulted from my impulsiveness and trying to shortcut these tips. Nothing’s ever guaranteed, but using the ideas above can smooth your collaboration, or at least smooth the exit process if the whole thing goes awry.


(Photo courtesy of diannehope)


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