Who Wants to be the Indented Author?

By: John B. Roberts, II

Surf camp in Costa Rica is a funny place to realize you need a co-author. I was unsuccessfully trying to learn to stand up on a surfboard when my wife called to say an acquiring editor wanted to see an old book proposal. After passing on it years before, he’d changed jobs and thought it was right for his new publisher. But there was a catch. Two, actually. The original proposal covered the twenty years after the Dalai Lama’s exile from Tibet and a secret CIA program to support the Tibetan resistance against China. The editor wanted to dramatically enlarge the scope of the book and publish it to coincide with the fifty-year anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s exile. There was no way to meet this deadline without a co-author.

What to Look for in a Co-Author

A failed collaboration that ended with a $12 million lawsuit taught me what I didn’t want in a co-author. A judge dismissed that suit, but only after substantial legal fees. The project involved a principal author, his co-author, and me as a ghostwriter. Divisions of labor were ill-defined, the book bogged down, and the publisher cancelled the contract. To complete the Tibet book required a co-author with strong research and interviewing skills, the ability to conform his or her writing style to a common standard, and a track record of meeting deadlines.

My wife, Elizabeth, was the perfect candidate. We’d met working at The McLaughlin Group, a nationally-broadcast political show whose host was a demanding perfectionist. She later wrote for an authoritative publication, The Cook Political Report.  We’d already collaborated successfully on Best Bets, a Washington, D.C. visitor guide.

We approached the Tibet book like two professionals, creating a chapter-by-chapter outline, delineating assignments, determining who would be the lead (or sole) author for each chapter, setting deadlines, and holding frequent accountability sessions to assess our progress. Because foreign and domestic travel was involved to complete the interviews, we divided responsibilities and budgeted expenses. Photo research and permissions was another major task. Before we began writing we had a mutually-agreed plan of what we were each going to do and how we would get it done. We also set clear boundaries between our personal and writing lives.

Compatibility is Key

You and your co-author don’t have to think alike. In fact, it’s better if you don’t. Different perspectives challenge us and help sharpen the final product. Your experiences, tastes, and personalities can be highly divergent, but the key is compatibility working together.

If one writer is always productive and meets deadlines while the other is habitually late or blocked it’s a red flag. If one author is highly confident and the other insecure or prone to second-guessing it could become problematic, just as two highly-dominant personalities likely spell conflict. Take time to get to know the individual you are going to be working with as co-authors. No matter how brilliant their writing, make sure that your working styles and core personalities mesh well. Above all, if you respect one another, it will help a mutual writing project flourish. There will be hard choices and tough times in team-writing, and respect is what will get you through the contentious moments.

Put Your Agreement in Writing

Once you and your co-author decide to collaborate, make a contract. Whether you use Legal Zoom, share a lawyer, or each get your own, cover the key issues likely to arise. How will advances and royalties be divided? What will happen to ancillary rights, including story rights for film or television? In the event one co-author predeceases another, what happens to his or her rights? What about speaking fees? Does each author keep his or her own, or will the revenues be shared? What happens if the publisher rejects your work and demands repayment of any advances? How will you handle litigation if someone sues you over the book? If you have a falling out over the project, will you handle it through mediation or litigation?

Elizabeth and I didn’t have to worry about many of these issues because we have a straightforward marriage in which we share everything. But if you want to work with your spouse and keep your finances separate, you might want to consider these points and reach an agreement even if you don’t create a formal contract. Whoever you choose as a co-author, establish boundaries. If you work best at night and like to sleep late, let your co-author know you don’t want phone calls or texts before noon. If weekends are private or family time, make sure your co-author respects that.  

Rolling with the Punches

I value flexibility in a co-author. Just as a battle plan never survives the first contact with the enemy, in my experience no book gets published without lots of changes. With non-fiction, there’s the added complexity of how accessible and cooperative sources are and how easy it is to search archives. Highly-classified information was involved, complicating our task.

You get it. We made many adjustments to our initial plan for writing the book, some easy and others not so pain-free. It helped that we’d both worked in the highly-collaborative, pressure-filled world of writing for television. We knew how to press our individual point, but also how to concede. We’d learned not to reject an idea out of hand just because it was totally alien from our own viewpoint and truly disruptive. And we both embraced the mantra of our late agent, Mike Hamilburg, that “writing is re-writing.”

The low point came when our editor wanted us to cut 30,000 words from the final draft and add chapter sub-heads throughout the book. We spent a day venting about this to each other and relishing how surprised he’d be when we refused and took our masterpiece to another publisher. The next day, slightly calmer, we started to see where cuts might be made. Over the next few days we created a new, tighter structure for the book that actually looked like an improvement. With a more volatile co-author, it might have been the end of the book.

Today people still ask how we managed to write a book together and stay married. The same conflict-resolution skills that work in a marriage make co-authoring possible. We agreed to shelve some disagreements or unresolved problems until a better time to deal with it, but then set a date to handle it and stuck to it. We listened respectfully to each other’s views even when we didn’t initially agree. We applied the kind of rules used in writers’ workshops when it came to critiquing each other’s work. Professional courtesy is a good formula for working with any co-author.

There was only issue we couldn’t resolve. Although we shared equal credit on the book jacket, the Library of Congress catalogues co-authors alphabetically. Because E comes before J that made me the indented author! We still get a laugh out of that today.     


John B. Roberts II is a writer, television producer and artist living in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He was senior producer of the top-rated, Emmy-nominated weekly political television talk shows hosted by John McLaughlin, “The McLaughlin Group” and “John McLaughlin’s One on One.” He has written and produced thousands of television broadcasts.

He is the author of “Rating the First Ladies: The Women Who Influenced the Presidency,” (Citadel 2003) and co-author along with Elizabeth Roberts of “Freeing Tibet: 50 Years of Struggle, Resilience and Hope,” (AMACOM 2009). His most recent book is “Reagan’s Cowboys: Inside the 1984 Reelection Campaign’s Secret Operation Against Geraldine Ferraro” (McFarland 2020.) Story rights to “Reagan’s Cowboys” have been optioned by HBO. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Washington Times, Colorado Springs Gazette, and Colorado Springs Independent as well as George Magazine, Reader’s Digest, and The American Spectator, among others. He is a member of the Pikes Peak Writers, the Authors Guild, and Mystery Writers of America. https://www.jbrobertsauthor.com

Compatibility is Key for Co-authors