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Publish, don't perish – Instalment 28


Working with co-authors

Working with one or more co-authors can be a great way to ease into the writing process; what better comfort than having someone with whom to share the work and responsibilities? Working with an established co-author, whether you approach them or they approach you, can help you get published in the library literature, as their name recognition and familiarity with the process help break down barriers. Working with any co-author can help produce a stronger work, as you rely on multiple strengths, benefit from another pair of eyes, and approach problems from different directions. The academic literature in particular lends itself to collaborative work and research; take a look at the professional literature with an eye to which articles are co-written and whether the research and/or writing seems to benefit.

Before you jump into a collaboration, though, there are a few factors to consider.

Picking partners

Or, how do you find someone – or multiple someones – to work with? Look for co-authors first among your colleagues, whether within your institution, an association, or online. Working on a project together? Suggest that you collaborate to write an article about it. Discussing a hot topic on an e-mail discussion list? Identify someone with similar views whose writing you admire, and propose a collaboration. Working with a non-library colleague within your institution? Think about collaborating on a piece for either the library or subject literature. Have a colleague who's also seeking tenure? Think about co-authoring an article, helping each other through both the tenure and writing process. Our profession lends itself to collaboration; writing with another person (or people) simply extends those skills into another dimension.

Be sure, though, to think long term. It's tempting to invite a close colleague or friend to write with you; after all, you know them, you know their style and their background and their habits. Should you argue or become frustrated during the creation of this work, however, remember that you will still have to see this person every day when your project is done. Also, be careful not to pick a co-author based solely on your friendship with her. You may get along great, but this doesn't mean that she can write, or that you can work on an extended project together.

Step back and look objectively at any potential co-authors' strengths and weaknesses. Can you work together? Can they write? Do your writing and work styles seem to mesh? Do they meet deadlines? Are they interested in your topic; have they done previous work in the area?

What if someone invites you to collaborate with them? If you're new to professional publication, you may be tempted to say "yes" to every opportunity, and this can be a great way to get started. Before agreeing, though, do take some time to evaluate your potential co-author (and project). Is this someone you can work with? Why do they want to work with you? Are you inherently interested in the project, research, or topic they are proposing? Have they published before? Where? On what topics?

Breaking up the work

Or, who will do what? Will you divide all the work equally, each doing half (or a third of, or…) the research, half the writing? Does one person have better access to research databases, or does one person's strength lie in editing rather than in writing? Will you have a team conducting research, but pick just one or two lead authors? Who will write the abstract, be the contact person for editors, be responsible for any revisions?

Lay down responsibilities and boundaries before you start, so that each person has a clear idea of what he or she is supposed to do, and stick to your end of the agreement. For a large-scale project, such as a book manuscript, you may even want to lay everything down in writing.

Sweating the small stuff

Or, how do you work out the details? As in any relationship, seemingly insignificant points can strain co-author arrangements. The best way to avoid complications? Establish ground rules from the very beginning. Think about:

  • Who's listed first on the finished work? This may seem silly, but can take on importance in tenure reviews and promotion. Decide whose name comes first based on who needs credit the most, alphabetical order, who will be doing more work, picking names out of a hat – but do decide, before you even start. If you co-author more than one piece, think about taking turns.
  • How will you manage workflow? If you're collaborating with multiple people at multiple institutions, you may wish to explore newer electronic tools that enable group communication and collaboration. Set up a temporary Yahoo! or Google group to manage e-mail messages and share files. Think about using online word processing services like Zoho Writer or Google Docs, which allow each invited individual to edit documents and provide easy rollback to previous versions.
  • Who makes the money? For many publications, this won't be an issue – for those that pay, you'll need to decide how to distribute the proceeds. If you've broken down the work equally, you'll want to share any gains equally; if you've taken on different roles, you'll need to work out what seems fair. (Realize, though, that there won't generally be enough here to warrant arguing about!)

Clarifying these issues at the beginning will save a lot of argument later.

Ending a partnership

Or, what do you do if things aren't working out? If you and your co-author(s) are working on a single project, see if you can stick it out until the end, then chalk things up to lessons learned and resolve not to work with that person again.

If you are working on a large project, such as a book-length manuscript, and your co-author isn't holding up her end of the deal, talk to her honestly about it. See if other obligations have intruded; see if she might be willing to renegotiate, back out, and take a flat fee and/or contributor mention for her trouble so far. (Yes, this leaves you holding the bag for the rest of the manuscript, but if she isn't holding up her end you'd be doing so anyway; cut the aggravation short.)

If you are working on an ongoing project, such as a monthly column or blog, things get a little more complicated. See if you can stick it out until the end of your contract, usually the end of the year. In the case of a more informal arrangement, such as a blogging partnership, you'll need to work out the terms of a (hopefully) amicable separation. In this discussion, focus on your need to move in a different direction rather than on the ways in which your co-author has disappointed you; the professional version of "it's not you, it's me".

With just a few ground rules, though, working with others can help jumpstart or reinvigorate your writing career. Keep your options open, and keep on the lookout for others who share your passion for the profession. If you find someone whose work meshes well with yours, this might just be the beginning of a beautiful partnership.