Six Things I Learned Co-Authoring a Book

There’s a reason I’ve been a little slow to return emails lately — my friend and colleague Mark Blevis and I have been writing a book together (due end of 2014). I’ve written three small self-published books before:

…but this will be the first book picked up by a mainstream publisher and hitting mainstream distribution like book stores, airports, and full e-book availability. (Check out TouchTheBook.com for more info on the book — the full title will be announced shortly! Also: The book’s Facebook Page and Twitter account.)

This week, after nearly a year of research, interviewing, and writing, Mark and I wrapped up the manuscript and sent it off to our publisher. Now that I have a bit of time to reflect on the process, here’s what we learned in writing the book together. Hopefully it’ll help you if you decide to co-author a book.

The Right Co-Author

Mark and I have been friends for years, both helping pioneer the podcast industry in Canada a long time ago. In that time, I watched Mark form a successful public affairs research firm, Full Duplex.

Mark was in town last year and we both took a book-writing workshop, as he was working on a book concept as well. The workshop was horrible. Truly horrible. The leader had self-published a dozen books which were, essentially, cut-and-paste jobs from email interviews he conducted with a handful of people.

Over lunch (where we both decided to bail out on the afternoon session), we realized that the book idea we both had in our respective heads were quite similar and he said “You know, we should just write this together.” Within a week of exchanging ideas, we were set.

Mark and I live 4,300 km apart from each other (me in Vancouver; he in Ottawa) but this summer we decided to meet in the middle and spent five days in a very boring airport hotel in Winnipeg, just planning out the book, going off for three writing sessions a day, and merging ideas at meals. It was a great process and meeting in person really helped enormously.

We also did a call with each other every Monday morning to plan out the week. Closer to the book deadline, we were in touch daily.

The Right Advice

When we first started negotiating with publishers interested in our book, we sought the advice of a number of friends who are best-selling authors in their own right — folks like Mitch Joel, Julien Smith, Scott Stratten, and others.. One email seeking their thoughts read:

Hey! :-) Mark and I are working on a book together, and a potential publisher has asked this:

Are you planning on including this book in your presentation fee?  That is, everyone who registers will automatically get a copy because you’ve built it into your fee structure.
Would love to get your thoughts on this… is this something you did? What’s the best approach that balances book sales, with collecting a speaking fee, with not impacting the speakers’ bureau’s cut?
Nearly everyone we reached out to helped out with a tonne of great thoughts and advice within a day. (One of our friends from the podcast world had his assistant reply, asking us to pay by-the-minute to talk to him. Um…?…)
And then, as a small token of thanks, we sent each of them a $50 Amazon gift card. It was hardly enough for the invaluable advice they offered.

The Right Tools

This took some considerable amount of trial-and-error. We knew we needed a shared document in the cloud where we could work on the book at the same time and review each others’ writing day-by-day, but so far such systems are really only meant for creating documents, not books. None of the truly cloud-based systems have a non-linear approach, meaning the categorization of our content into chapters would get easily confused.

We both liked the writing app Scrivener, which is totally non-linear, tracks daily targets you work towards, compiles the manuscript automatically and more. But there was one big problem — it’s lousy in the cloud. We put the document in a shared Dropbox folder, but soon discovered that if we were both “in” the document at the same time that very, very bad things happen. Chapters get removed, structure disappears, text vanishes, and so on.

In the end, we decided to keep using Scrivener, but set specific writing days (and, in the last month, hours) that we “owned.” I could be in the document from 11am-3pm every day, then Mark would take over. I don’t know how many hundreds of text messages we’ve sent each other which read: “Are you out of the document?”

We recorded all our interviews with dozens of thoughts-leaders using Save Your Call — a great web-based phone recording system that never let us down and provided an easy way to get people’s thoughts on the record. We usually had the calls transcribed for easier integration into the book.

The Right Accountability

We wanted to find a system that would keep each other up to date on our progress each day without having to send a daily report card. We found iDoneThis to be perfect for this — each day it prompts us to add to a digest how many words we got done, what interviews we conducted, and so on. Then, later that night, it would report back to each other our respective results.

There’s nothing more motivating than seeing your co-author packed in 2500 words in a day, when you only contributed 500!

The Right Working Environment

You could spend otherwise-productive weeks setting up “just the right” working environment. And believe me, I wasted countless hours doing it. I tried writing from home, from coffee shops, and from borrowed office space. At one point, I even booked a week at a downscale Las Vegas resort just to “get away” from the city and get a different atmosphere for writing.

Turns out, the most productive space for me was at home with one of those really goofy new age audio tracks playing — you know the kind: ocean waves, flutes playing, and so on.

There were also times when the perfect space was in bed. I’d drag my laptop to bed and sit there and hammer out words.

The Right Pace

I wish I could tell you that every morning I’d sit down at 9am with a cup of coffee and write my daily quota of 1,500 words. I know this is how Stephen King writes. It’s not how I write. Writing is a creative exercise as much as one of discipline. Some days just weren’t going to work. I could usually tell within the first hour, staring at the blinking cursor with a completely blank mind. On those days, I gave myself the grace to not work. I’ll admit — some of these days I spent hours playing Skyrim (because, let’s face it, my Enchanting Skill isn’t going to level itself!!). But then, more often than not, I’d return with a tonne of ideas and over-productivity.

And so, that’s what I learned. I hope it comes in helpful for you too!

Share This