Writing a nonfiction book: does it help to work with a buddy or two?

The prospect of writing a full-length nonfiction book can be a lonely one. Here are some options that could help you on your journey, involving a choice of partnerships…

Co-authors

If you are considering writing a book with one or more others, it’s worth working into your planning process exactly who does what, and on what criteria you will agree on structure, content, editing and so-on. (Saves arguments later!)

I have the experience of working with a co-author on two of my books. In both cases we split the proceeds 50-50, and I believe that’s customary when both co-authors contribute equal amounts to the project. This issue can be a tricky one if you don’t know what to watch out for, especially as people are likely to have differing views on what constitutes 50% of the effort.

One expert and one (topic-literate) writer:

In the first case, on The Jewellery Book, I worked with a jeweller/gemmologist. That turned out well because our skills and input were complementary. He provided all the technical content and I provided the pastoral content, plus I did all the writing, which was a reasonable 50-50 split. We worked to a very detailed chapter structure, and would sit down with a voice recorder once a week or so. During each session I would “interview” my co-author in accordance with the structure and so obtain the technical material needed. After he had gone home I would then write up the chapter concerned, which he and I would then edit as needed. No problems.

Two experts (both professional writers)

The second co-authored book (my fourth) was Writing Words That Sell. Although it was my concept and structure, the content was written jointly with a US colleague who at the time worked in almost exactly the same fields as I did. On reflection this was not a good idea, as we were equally qualified to write most chapters – perhaps a case of “too many cooks spoil the broth” and certainly, too much crossover. We carved the chapters up more or less 50-50 and shared them out, but inevitably there were differences in style and approach.

In the end I took over editorship of the co-author’s work and re-aligned his material so that it more closely matched the tone of the book, although I didn’t change his style. He didn’t mind my doing this but it was a lot of extra work for me.

In my experience, then, co-authorship works well when there is a rapport between the authors but each one supplies a different/complementary skill set. When both authors do similar things and can virtually replace each other, however, it’s less likely to work successfully.

If you are considering writing a book with someone else, it’s worth working into your planning process exactly who does what, and on what criteria you both will agree on structure, content, editing and so-on. It may not seem important to set the guidelines early but trust me, it’s worth doing right up front. This way you avoid disputes and misunderstandings later on.

Anthologies

This type of book is popular now and as you know, consists of a main theme to which various authors contribute short stories (fiction), essays or articles (nonfiction) and so-on.

In an ideal world where you set yourself up as the editor, you send out a call for submissions and then judge which of those deserve to be included, and off you go towards publication. Unfortunately there can be very sensitive political issues here, especially depending on who you ask to submit.

Much as it would seem like a very good way to get the best of writing, opinions, advice etc. into your book, those whose potential contributions don’t make the grade can become grumpy over that rejection.

The other issue with anthologies is about royalties. Unless the book is very good and very lucky, it won’t sell sufficient copies to earn the authors very much, if anything. As such then it shouldn’t really be regarded as a money-earner, but it can be a useful PR tool for the authors and publisher concerned.

If you want to publish an anthology book, make sure you employ a panel of judges to make the whole process fairer, and avoid making yourself – as an individual – a single target for unhappy rejectees.

Ghostwriters

If you really can’t face the prospect of writing a book yourself, there is always the option to hire someone to do it for you. Good ghostwriters charge a lot of money for doing the job, and quite rightly: usually it represents months of extremely hard work. If you find someone willing to ghostwrite a book for you cheaply, be careful because they may not be very good.

A bad ghostwriter still costs money but in the end you have to do most of it yourself or hand over an inferior manuscript to be sorted out by your editor/publisher. If you’re self-publishing you may need to hire a freelance editor to sort out the mess or worse still, not be aware that the text is awful and publish it unedited.

The people who use ghostwriters are not necessarily bad at writing. Many are very good at writing but because they have other more important tasks to deal with (e.g. leading major corporations, running countries, etc) they simply don’t have time to write their own stuff. In these cases it makes economic sense to pay someone else to do it, even if they do charge a lot of money.

Some ghostwriters will charge a little less if their name appears on the book. Or, the ghostwriter may accept a combination consisting, perhaps, of a lower fee and a percentage of your royalties. Also the ghostwriter may want a credit on the book, e.g. as “edited by…” It’s all down to negotiation.

Ghostwriters aren’t all that easy to find. Because people who use ghostwriters don’t normally want anyone else to know they’ve used one, ghostwriters’ wares do not tend to get advertised widely.

Probably the best way to find one is to ask your trade publishers, if you have gone that route, or if you’re self-publishing contact a publishing services company and ask them.

You can also run a search on the web, of course, but check the person’s credentials before you contact them. Then invest some quality time in getting to know them. Good chemistry is very important if you’re going to work this closely with someone.

How you work with a ghostwriter, again, varies enormously according to their methods and your availability. What is true universally, though, is that you will need to allocate quite a lot of time to work with the ghostwriter, even though that is far less than you would need to write the book yourself.

Often ghostwriters are journalists and because of their training they can do a lot of research and background assembly of material for you. But usually what makes a book interesting is the “author’s” own spin on the subject matter. And no matter how good the ghostwriter is they are not psychic and cannot become you. You need to provide them with the raw material they need to craft your book, and be generous with it.

Author coaches

Ah, this is a tricky one, if for no other reason than this is what I do these days! If you are going the route of trade publishing you shouldn’t need a coach, as your editor at the publishing house should provide those services once they have agreed to publish your book. Before you get to that stage, though, a coach will be handy in helping you to develop the concept and structure of the book, the chapter breakdown and at least one sample chapter … plus the proposals themselves. These are a crucial selling tool: a coach with an advertising background should be good at this.

For assisted or DIY self-publishers an author coach should deliver help and support right the way through from concept and planning, to publication and marketing communications. and in fairness, most of the good ones do.

So what next? A coach, or not a coach?

Most author coaches have been there, done it and got the large-size T-shirt so can save you a lot of time you’d otherwise waste barking up wrong trees. Coaches have heard all the scams and fiddles and will help you steer clear of the many people in the business who are less than honest. Coaches also have (or should have) a good range of contacts to bring into your team for the (self-publishing) specialist roles like book design and production, file conversion, uploading to Amazon or other book publishing service, etc.

The other useful role of an author coach is that they provide accountability.

From my own experience I know it’s easy to let a book project slide, especially when you’re busy doing everything else as well as having a life. Knowing that your next meeting or Zoom/Skype call with your author coach is next Tuesday when you’ll need to discuss your week’s writing and how it’s working out, will help you meet the deadline. It’s a little embarrassing to tell your coach that you haven’t done anything since the last discussion, and it’s surprising just how much that potential humiliation can be enough to spur you on.

Punchline: writing a nonfiction book with someone’s else’s help and/or input can be great. But make sure you actually like the person and that here is ‘good chemistry’ which will make the whole project much easier and a more enjoyable experience.

Adapted from How To Write A Brilliant Nonfiction Book by Suzan St Maur, to be published 2020 by Better Books Media.
Image by Yvette W from Pixabay

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