To collaborate or not to collaborate…that is the question

They say that there is strength in numbers.  And if you read a CV of just about any academic around (but it’s not reading that I recommend unless you’re an insomniac), you’ll be struck with the extent to which the books and papers they list as their accomplishments are penned by groups – occasionally rather large groups.  My CV is probably shorter than some, but my list of publications is just that – mine. No one else got tenured or promoted based on the same list of publications.  As I said, they’re mine.

My first co-authored book

A colleague recently suggested that I form a committee to work on a report.  This is what I told him: “I don’t play well with others.”  And the very notion of writing a report by committee – well, let’s just say that I value my time and my sanity, and the little bits of both it would take for me to make nice with the collaborators just are not worth the effort – usually.

If you peer very closely at the descriptions of four of my past books, though, you will, in fact, see that I have on those occasions actually worked with someone else.  I have “collaborated.”  That someone with whom I worked was my husband, and we’re still married.  So, it can work.  But when is a writing collaboration a good idea?

And before you jump to the conclusion that collaborative writing only works in non-fiction, there have, in fact, been novels penned by duos (think: Emma Mclaughlin and Nicola Kraus of Nanny Diaries fame).  The co-authors’ names, however, are sometimes combined into one so that the reader thinks the book has one single author.  Think Judith Michael.   Browse through an online bookstore in the non-fiction sections some time and you’ll see plenty of co-authored books.  Then, if you browse a textbook site, you’ll see an even higher percentage.

There are good reasons to collaborate and publish a co-authored book – such as when the knowledge and skills of more than just you are needed.   There are also reasons that it’s not such a good idea.  One problem relates to the ownership of “the good  idea.”  Every book starts with an idea.  Does a co-authored book originate in the mind of only one of the authors (in which case it will always be her baby and she’ll feel that sense of ownership), or does it come about as a double brainwave?  I can only answer this in my case.

It all started in the very earliest years of our marriage when my husband and I used to go out every Friday night.  It was nothing fancy; it was just a chef’s salad and a carafe of house wine at a harbourfront watering hole.  But sitting there gazing out the window at the harbour lights, sipping a glass of mediocre wine that at the end of a long week tasted like the finest French vintage,  engendered in us a kind of romantic notion of leaving a legacy.  What better way, we thought, than to write a book together. We had compatible – if not equivalent – backgrounds.  I had a graduate degree in health education/communication and he was a physician.  Surely there was a common ground we could explore together. When we hit upon it, it was a Eureka moment – a collaborative one.  I can truly say that neither of us owned the idea. It was ours.

My husband was the chairman of the Ethics Committee of the Canadian Medical Association for ten years, a post he vacated shortly after we married.  I had studied ethics and written about ethics in health care.  He no longer had to stay on message as it were.  He could have personal opinions again.  It was golden.  We’d be the ones to simplify complex ethics issues in health care for everyone.  The public would be smitten and they would see the wisdom in our ideas.  Well… it’s a long story.

But…

This was in fact the subject of our first book.  However, it didn’t come together exactly as we had planned.  You know the old saying: if you want to make God laugh, just tell her your plans.  That was what sort of happened in our case.

As you know, I had developed these incredible book proposal writing skills (no self-promotion here – at all), so I took charge of the book proposal writing.  We put our two perspectives on the topic together and mined our individual knowledge to come up with what we thought was a well-rounded approach to helping the average, interested reader to understand the ins and outs of ethical dilemmas in modern health care.  At the same time, we decided that the same research could be recycled into another book aimed at a different audience.  We’d also write a textbook – an interdisciplinary textbook for all kinds of health professions students, and it would be a book that they would actually read, but that would be for later.  It would be unlike some of the ethics tomes we had to slog through as students.  But our idea was to be sure that the book for the general public – the trade book – would be published first.

I have but a fuzzy memory of how it all came about, but after pitching our ideas to suitable publishers, one small publisher in Toronto was interested in the textbook idea and offered us a contract.  So Healthcare Ethics was born.

Then the real work began.  At least four evenings a week, after our very young son had gone to bed, we’d hole up in our home office and work.  We’d discuss the organization, content, references etc of the book.  Art, my husband the doctor, would keep notes that he added to each day se he saw patients in the office.  We’d talk about each chunk of the book as a team and then I’d write it.  I think that collaborations work best when you are really clear about each person’s skills.  That realization needs to begin with an honest determination of your own skills.  So, I’d write and then it went back to  him.  He’d make copious and substantive notes and I’d rewrite.  This process happened a few times for each chunk of the material until we had a draft we were happy about.

In  the end, the publisher was really happy with the book and we had found our  writing rhythm.  This was the first of four books we would write together (and we’re working on a fifth all these  years later).  The most important lesson we learned is that you have to really like and respect the person you’re working with.