Friday, September 25, 2009

The Anatomy of a Coauthor

As some of you have noticed and pointed out to me, more and more often it seems that New York Times bestselling authors are coauthoring books with lesser-name writers. In many cases, in fact, the bestselling author’s name is the only name recognizable on the cover. After reading such a book, based on the NYT author’s name, one reader had a number of questions for me, first and foremost: What is the benefit of coauthoring? and that one I think is pretty easy for me to answer. It’s the money. By coauthoring with a big-name author the coauthor is pretty much guaranteed a rather large advance and easy sales. She’s riding on the coattails of a big name, and while she certainly has her work cut out for her, she knows that the payout is going to be much more lucrative than if she did the book on her own.

But what about the big name? Why would she bother working with a coauthor? Well, there are a number of reasons, some more altruistic than others. Some big-name authors feel that by bringing a lesser-name author on board they can give back to the writing community and hopefully launch the career of someone who is talented but hasn’t yet been discovered. Others, however, are simply expanding their brand. In much the way Star Wars turned into a massive franchise selling movies, books, action figures, lunchboxes, shoes, and anything a name can be added to, authors want to sell their brand and their brand is their name. By hiring a coauthor who typically writes the entire book, the author is further expanding her brand beyond just what she’s known for. This is an opportunity to branch out from just romance (for example) to YA, children’s books, or even nonfiction. It presents an opportunity to introduce new readers to your name and hopefully build an even bigger readership.

Now, before everyone starts getting excited and emailing NYT authors with ideas of their own, you should know that getting a gig like this is difficult, competitive, and often led by the publisher or the author’s agent. In other words, this is not something that is just going to fall in your lap. While you might not recognize the name of the coauthor, typically it’s someone who has already established herself as a force in the ghostwriting community and has built a name with publishers. How the contract is handled (another question this author asked) and who gets what in terms of the advance and royalties is determined and negotiated between the authors’ agents. Either way, the big-name author is going to get final say on how the book reads, what goes into it, and what comes out.



MeganRebekah said...

Blogosphere is such a connected place! I have a similar post about big name co-authors planned for Monday. I'll have to link over here to expand the knowledge!

Angie Ledbetter said...

Sounds like a win-win for both parties.

Sheila Connolly said...

I have to admit that this phenomenon mystifies me, not so much from the writers' perspective, but from the readers'. If as you said it is common knowledge that Big Name did no more than lend his or her name and "seal of approval" to the project (while the unknown did all the actual writing), does the bookbuyer assume that the book is similar to and as good as Big Name's? It's just an author blurb, in really big letters? And, in fact, Big Name is receiving payment for his/her endorsement?

Christine M. said...

So, basically, this is how James Patterson will manage to produce (write?) 17 books within the next, what, four years?

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...


While it's probably the co-writer does write the book, it's typical the big name author does a lot more then just slap their name on the book. Anyone who has ever written for Star Wars or Star Trek can probably vouch for how carefully those books are vetted before final approval is made. Again, this is a branding issue and Big Name Author will want to protect her brand as much as possible. That means carefully vetting the co-author for voice and style, having lots and lots of say and final approval over storylines and, yes, over the final product.

And it works. If Big Name Author wants to break into the YA market because publishers think there would be good sales there, but knows she could never write YA why wouldn't she hire a good, qualified YA author to do the job for her?


Karla Doyle said...

Christine - Three years!

Check this article for some interesting details:

Anonymous said...

I'll venture a guess that this question was posed by someone seeing James Patterson's latest book deal and/or one of his many co-authored books. The man has made more out of his brand than anyone I've ever heard of. From what I've gathered though, he doesn't just slap his name on. He's responsible for plotting and editing. He'll write a treatment, co-author writes the book and he edits. The man is going to have his name on 17 books through 2012, and I believe only 4 of them are just his. I'd really like to know what sort of terms the co-authors get on these, but honestly, even little payout for an automatic best-seller is worth it. I'd do it in a heartbeat.

Mira said...

Well, I really do understand that there are many writers who write as a craft and livelihood. Those people might be drawn to ghostwriting, for example, which, in a sense, this is. The newbie is ghost-writing for the big-name.

And as an artist, I would love to have an actual co-author experience with a big-name -or any name, for that matter - which would be lovely. Such an incredible learning experience and fun partnership. But not if it was about money.

About money - personally, I would not do that. Not for zillions of dollars. Not even if it meant a huge amount of money so that I could work on my own work. No, No, No, No, No.

So, James Patterson, I am aware you have your eye on me. I'm close to irresistable - a lowly unpublished, unagented, unwritten writer who posts on blogs, and sometimes write legibly - but look elsewhere, Mr. Patterson.

Write your own darn books.

Anonymous said...

I assume this has the opposite of the intended effect (other than making money for a select group). So now instead of just writing a great book, authors should try to attach themselves to established brand-name "authors" like James Patterson? That might help one lucky unpublished writer. But for the overall industry it just emphasizes the blockbuster model, which furthers the perception of the unpubulished as undesirable financially. As a money-making strategy, great job! But let's not pretend we're pushing a lot of struggling writers out of the dredges.

And Mira, I agree. There is no amount of money that would get me on board to co-author a book with James Patterson. Good authors don't need established authors to write good books. They need publishers and agents who admire craft more than garnering a vacation home.

Lily D said...

I've often wondered who gets involved in ghostwriting. How often is it a case of a well-reviewed author whose book(s) didn't sell because of the author's poor self-marketing skills, unwillingness to make appearances on behalf of the book, or life situation that makes promoting the book difficult or impossible?

Vivi Anna said...

James Patterson can call me anytime!!

Anonymous said...

I guess I don't have any artistic integrity because I'd be thrilled to co-author a book with James Patterson.

Laura Cross said...

I've been a professional ghostwriter for more than 16 years - and written 31 published books, none of which listed my name as "author". I've read that 75% or more of books published each year are ghost written - the practice is nothing new. And I've been able to make a good living doing it, though I am now transitioning into credited author gigs.

Travener said...

It's one thing to have a series like the "[Whatever] for Dummies" books. But turning novels into commodities is just one more step down the road to the end of civilization as we know it.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann said...

Except for the fact that novels have been ghostwritten for ages. My senior thesis in college was on Horatio Alger, and at least four different ghostwriters contributed to his nineteenth century opus, Edward Stratemeyer being the most famous.

Anonymous said...

If James Patterson is doing it for partly altruistic reasons (which I highly doubt), then good for him. But if he rakes in 90% of the advance/royalties while the co-author does 90% of the work, then that's just wrong and unfair. No wonder mystery writers can't break in when we have to compete with Patterson and his ghostwriters.

Debra L Martin said...

I actually write with a co-author and we are in the process of querying for our second novel.

Because I like this person, the give and take needed to vet and write ideas, characters, action, etc. is easier, but we still do get into some heated discussions about topics. Overall though, it's thrilling to get chapters/scenes back. We edit each others work constantly and the work is now seamless, but it took awhile to get there.

I keep him from going all macho and he keeps me from being too girly. For us, it's a win-win situation.

As far as writing with a big name author, I'm on the fence about it. It would certainly depend on how much creative license I was granted in writing the story.

Anonymous said...

The coauthor writes the ENTIRE book? Does the big name author provide the plot or is that also farmed out? Is this Patterson's pattern. Certainly it is obvious Tom Clancy has gone the entire enchilada route. But Patterson?

Anonymous said...

I hate going anon to comment, but I need to for this one.

So, a close friend of mine is a NYT Best Selling Author many times over, but wanted to break into a new genre--she knew that there was a guy out there with a platform already established in this genre through his blog, etc. and--she wanted her book to sell to men. So, she got him to co-author. His name appears on the book, he receives royalty checks, all that good stuff, but (and no one is EVER going to believe me here-but it's true) he's never read the book. He read a summary she sent him, and they talked some on the phone about it--but he's NEVER read the whole thing. She does ALL the press, the book signings, and so on.

Is that selling out? I think maybe.

Mira said...

Well, I hope I didn't sound judgemental...

I read somewhere that there are two types of writers:

a. People who write for a job.
b. People who write for creative expression.

For the a. people, maybe something like Patterson's thing would work out well. There is nothing wrong with wanting to make a living off writing.

But for me, I separate them - I'm a b. person.

However, I will say that I thought and thought about this, and I have a confession to make: I lied. I can be bought; I have a price. I would sacrifice my artistic integrity for a zillion dollars.

So, James Patterson, there is hope that you can have me. Pony up a zillion dollars, and I'll write a book for you.

Gilbert J. Avila said...

There are instances where an author takes on a co-author/protege due to fading health, like the late Andre Norton with Lyn McConchie, or the late Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter, or Anne McCaffrey, who's had many co-authors.

I sometimes wonder what people think of "posthumous collaborations," like what August Derleth did with H.P. Lovecraft. Most of them incorporated only single sentences and fragments of HPL's writings, the rest of which Derleth made up out of whole cloth.

Debra Lee said...

James Patterson can call me anytime. I'd be thrilled to work with the man.

Coral Press said...

It's interesting that so much of this coauthoring happens with novels. I would have thought it would stay within the realm of non-fiction, and that the co-author, rather than being a "nobody," would be a so far unpublished expert who happens to have the same vision as the Big Name and the right connections.

This post brings to mind many YA series, especially of old (Babysitters Club etc.), that didn't start openly crediting the ghostwriters until later on in the series. Is that a separate issue because it's YA? Or is it an example of co-authoring where the co-author gets the short end of the stick?

Anonymous said...

I read somewhere that there are two types of writers:

a. People who write for a job.
b. People who write for creative expression.

For the a. people, maybe something like Patterson's thing would work out well. There is nothing wrong with wanting to make a living off writing. But for me, I separate them - I'm a b. person.

I think you're missing a category:
c. People who write for creative expression but understand it's also a job.

Mike said...

Personally, I find the practice disgusting. Anne McCaffrey, Marrion Zimmer Bradley, Frank Herbert (although that's mostly his heirs doing it) - all these fine Authors with a capital A have managed to have their legacies erased by so-called "collaborations," posthumous and pre. It used to be that a credible reputation was something an Author protected with his very life (or at least with a posse of high-power attorneys). Now, a reputation only needs to be built to the point where gullible readers will buy whatever some hack "writes" in their favorite series/characters universe.

Frankly, the people who stoop to read such trash disgust me most of all. Most heirs and trusts aren't artists themselves, so it's quite understandable that they would want to capitalize on the legacy their Author parent/grandparent/etc left them. Readers (with a capital R) should know better.

Sadly, the phenomenon has been around since just about forever and will continue as long as there are greedy publishers and heirs and stupid readers. I just wish it were less of the norm than it has become lately.