When you have an idea for a book, before you put pen to paper or finger to keyboard you have some decisions to make. One of those is: should the book be sole-authored, co-authored, or an edited collection? Having now been involved in producing several of both kinds, I have come up with some pointers which I hope may help less experienced writers.
Each of these formats has pros and cons. Writing alone requires no negotiation with co-authors, co-editors, or contributors, which saves time and effort. However, you need to be sure that you know enough about your topic to fill 80,000 words, and that you can find out what you need to know to fill any gaps. Also, you need to be sure that you can convey what you know to readers in an engaging way. If the peer review process works as it should, the reviewers will help you with this, but that is not something you can entirely rely on, because despite publishers’ best efforts it can be difficult to find reviewers for books, or to persuade them to write sufficiently detailed reviews. As sole author, all of the responsibility rests on you, so it is essential to be really sure that you’re up to the job.
Co-authoring can be a delight, if you have a co-author who is on your wavelength, and whose working style is similar or complementary to yours. I had this experience with Richard Phillips when we co-wrote Creative Writing for Social Research; we had a lot of fun, as well as some serious debates, and created a book we are both proud to have written. It is sensible to check out whether this will be the case before you take on any co-writing work. Co-authoring that goes wrong is time-consuming and stressful, and this can almost always be pre-empted. Being invited to co-author with someone else can be very flattering, but even so, find out about your co-author’s views and working style before you say ‘yes’. And if you develop misgivings, act on them, particularly at pre-contract stage when you can still pull out. Once you have signed a contract, withdrawing becomes more difficult.
When co-authoring with one other person goes well, it can be a delightful, intimate, enriching experience. There is also an argument for co-authoring in teams. I co-authored Creative Research Methods in Education with three colleagues, Narelle Lemon, Dawn Mannay, and Megan McPherson. Each of us brought different knowledges and experiences to the task, and I think the book is a much better book than it would have been if any two of us had co-authored alone. Also, more authors means less work, overall, for each person. We each led on 2-3 chapters, which meant drafting the chapter and then implementing feedback from our co-authors as we revised. This was a serious chunk of work for each of us, but significantly less work than sole-authoring a book or even co-writing with one other author. But, again, before you take on team writing, you need to have a conversation about working styles and expectations, and ensure you have a sufficiently similar approach. Also, with a team-written book, one member of the team needs to take responsibility for the final polishing stage, to ensure the ‘voice’ of the book is as consistent as possible.
Editing or co-editing a collection is useful when you are dealing with a topic where you want to hear from different voices, and/or different locations, or where nobody knows enough to write a whole book. I have just finished co-editing Qualitative and Digital Research in Times of Crisis: Methods, Reflexivity and Ethics with Su-ming Khoo. Neither of us knew enough about this to write a book, and we wanted to hear from researchers working in different fields and disciplines around the world. So creating an edited collection was the obvious way to go. I wrote a how-to post on editing collections last week so I won’t repeat that here. In brief: it is overall less work than co-writing, but there is still an amount of work to be done, including project management, writing or commissioning a useful introduction and conclusion, and quality control. Even though the bulk of the book will be written by other people, and the publishers will do some copy editing and proof-reading, it is your name which will be on the cover so the buck stops with you.
Disciplinary influences may come into play, as in some disciplines sole authorship is more common, while other fields are more inclined towards co-writing or edited collections. However, if you have a choice, think about what is best for you and for the book. If you are a complete control freak, you may only want to sole-author. If you are a devotee of team-working, you may only want to co-author or co-edit. But you also need to think about what is best for the book. If you have an idea for a book that really needs to be an edited collection, but you can’t stand the thought of creating one of those, you could always pass on the idea to someone else who might want to take it on.
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