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Self Publishing a Co-Authored Book: What You Need to Know

Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing advocate. Author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. Former trade newspaper editor.

Co-authoring a self published book can be fun or frustrating! Find out what it takes.

Co-authoring a self published book can be fun or frustrating! Find out what it takes.

Self publishing a co-authored book is really “ourself” publishing. Collaborating on a book can be a fun and fulfilling project between family, friends, or colleagues. But co-authored books add several issues to all the challenges of individual self publishing.

What is a Co-Authored Book?

A co-authored book is written jointly by multiple authors. Two-author books are common, although books with three or more authors have been done.

Typically, each author will write a segment of the book. The writing does not have to be evenly distributed among the participating authors. Sometimes even a small section by an influential author might be acceptable to the other author(s) on the book.

Unlike an anthology, a co-authored book is usually not a collection of writings. The finished co-authored book would seem to the reader as if only one author penned it. Some differences between authors’ writing styles might be evident. But a good editor can edit it to smooth out those differences so that it appears as a unified whole.

All co-authors share in the revenues or royalties, with percentages paid and payment terms being negotiated.

Examples of Co-Authored Books

Suspense and thriller author, James Patterson, has co-authored many novels with others. Marketing expert and author Jay Conrad Levinson also wrote many business nonfiction books with other authors.

The author with the most star power is usually given top billing, even if the book is almost entirely written by the co-author. In these examples, the book would say something like, “By James Patterson with [co-author’s name].” This can help book sales since the star author is putting the power of his or her brand behind the project.

In traditionally published books like these examples, the publisher would handle a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to marketing, editing, contracts, and much more. But when it comes to self publishing it can get messy.

Who's the Boss on a Co-Authored Book?

In traditionally published co-authored books, the star author may exert a lot of influence and control over the final manuscript. But what about non-celebrity self published authors who collaborate on a book? Who’s going to lead the project and who will have final say on the final manuscript? Let the self publishing co-author tug of war begin!

In traditional publishing, the publisher serves as the administrator for just about everything, including payments to co-authors. But on platforms such as Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), accounts are usually those of individuals. So the co-authors are going to have to decide whose account this will be published under. This also means that the control of the project and the book’s future and financials will also be under only one of the authors. This puts the remaining co-authors in a precarious position. How will they get paid royalties since they are under the control of another author? How do they know if the controlling co-author is being honest with reporting?

This, of course, requires a huge amount of trust. As in all relationships, if the relationship sours, it could be a battle. And what if the controlling co-author dies? What happens to the book? How can co-authors maintain their rights and continue to get paid?

For me, this would be the main reason I would hesitate on entering any self published co-authoring arrangement. But if I did, I would insist on having an attorney draw up an agreement that spells out every single aspect including rights, copyrights, responsibilities, revenue and royalty payments, taxes (both income and sales taxes), and succession of all of the above should one author die. These collaborations typically wouldn't create a business partnership entity; however, that should be clarified in the agreement language.

Where it gets even messier is if the book is a runaway success. The non-controlling co-authors could feel that their contributions are now worth more and may wish to renegotiate terms. With most self published books selling merely hundreds of copies in their lifespan, this is a less likely scenario. But it could happen. So renegotiation issues should also be addressed in the agreement between the authors.

How Co-Authoring Could Go Awry for Self Publishing

Here’s a real life example that illustrates the challenges. Though this was for an anthology, the circumstances were very similar to what could happen in a co-authoring scenario.

In exchange for their financial investment and contribution to the book, a self published anthology editor would give each contributing author an electronic copy of the final book that they would be allowed to sell on their websites. The editor made it clear in the project terms that no Amazon or other revenues and royalties would be paid to the contributing authors.

Because I was curious about the book, I wandered over to Amazon and looked up the title. There were multiple entries for the exact same book, but each entry had a different author. What several of the contributing authors had done was republish the manuscript on KDP as a separate Kindle eBook, instead of selling it direct on their websites. Some were kind enough to list the other co-authors, but others didn’t.

This presents a host of issues for the editor controlling the project, including:

  • Which edition would readers buy? The official one published by the editor? Or one of the many co-authors?
  • Would readers think these additional listings for the same book might be pirated editions?
  • Would the rogue contributing authors sell it for less than the list price set by the editor of the project, which could reduce sales for the editor in charge?

You could understand why the contributing authors wanted to self publish the manuscript as their own on KDP. They might have wanted to make it convenient for their readers who read books on Kindle. Or they might have wanted to let Amazon handle the sales and pay royalties to them. But I think the book’s editor was hoping they would sell it direct. What a burden that created for the contributing authors! Selling direct would mean they’d have to handle payment processing, file storage and distribution, and sales taxes.

What legal remedies would the book’s editor, the controlling author, have against these authors who went rogue and published on KDP by themselves? Not many except for possibly asking Amazon to take down offending duplicates. This scenario should have been anticipated and addressed in any agreement between the editor and co-authors.

I actually considered a similar type of contributing author project many years ago. But then when I realized all these potential problems (and many more!), I scrapped the whole idea even before any of the contributing authors submitted anything. Whew! Disaster averted!

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2020 Heidi Thorne

Comments

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 12, 2020:

Flourish, as evidenced by you bringing up the taxation issues (sales and income), this article barely scratches the surface on the issues these efforts involve. That's why I'm always puzzled by these "gurus" on social media that laud "collab" efforts. Maybe I'm too cynical, but I don't trust some many people for a project like this, even if I like them personally.

I love the example you shared! It perfectly illustrates how far a rabbit hole project like this can go.

Thank you so much for adding your experience to the conversation! Have a wonderful day!

FlourishAnyway from USA on August 12, 2020:

What a quagmire! The scenarios you described are hardly worth it. I immediately thought about tax reporting, an issue if sales were substantial. I guess this may be reportable income yet only one person bears the burden of reporting? I had a similar situation with a psychometric scale I developed with a friend/fellow psychologist. The other party wanted to sell it for commercial purposes to a large organization they worked for, but I had done a lot of the work collecting the data and validating it. I didn't want want a her employer to own what was half my intellectual property, particularly knowing the money offered wasn't substantial enough. No deal.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 12, 2020:

Pamela, in theory, co-authoring can be a wonderful projects. It's just that when it comes to self publishing, it can be such a mess. Probably better to consider getting a book deal with a traditional publisher to handle all the details, as opposed to self publishing where it can be problematic.

Thanks for chiming in and have a wonderful day!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 12, 2020:

Adrienne, co-authored book can truly be a great combination of talents and knowledge. But I think these kinds of collaborations are best left to the traditional publishing world where the publisher can manage the book for the authors, as opposed to self publishing where it can be a battleground.

Thanks for adding that to the conversation! Have a great day!

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on August 12, 2020:

The potential probems you discussed in this article certainly makes co-authoring sound like a bad choice. It is so complicated. This is another interesting article, H

Adrienne Farricelli on August 11, 2020:

I have enjoyed reading several co-authored books, especially when written from two different experts on the same subject. I find it refreshing to see things from two different points of views. Too bad that things can go sour with this approach, as you have highlighted. It's important to keep all these things in consideration.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 11, 2020:

Liz, I almost ended up emulating that example and am so glad I caught myself before I wandered into that territory. Thanks so much for chiming in and have a beautiful day!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 11, 2020:

Linda, I so agree! Just handling my own self publishing stuff is work. I'm not interested in adding to that workload.

Glad you found it helpful. Thanks, as always, for stopping by. Have a lovely day!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 11, 2020:

Doris, that happens to me all the time! Aaargh! But so appreciate you took the time to rewrite your comment.

Glad you discovered some points to consider. It gets much more complex when authors collaborate on a book. Good luck with that adventure.

Thanks for your thoughtful comments, as always! Take care!

Liz Westwood from UK on August 11, 2020:

I found your example of what happened with a co-authored book very interesting. It clearly illustrates the point you make about the problem of self-publishing a co-authored book.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on August 10, 2020:

Self-publishing a book would be enough of a challenge for me. I would hate to handle all the extra problems that would arise from working with another author! Thanks for sharing the information and the warnings, Heidi.

Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on August 10, 2020:

Heidi, I had a nice long comment written, but for the second time tonight when I tried to correct a word, my whole comment was deleted. So I'll just say that it was an informative article and learned some things. I've just self-published a co-authored book, and there were some points that we didn't know to consider.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 10, 2020:

Bill, you're always supportive of other people, but I don't see you being a co-author. Same for me. I'm realizing that I'm not a good team player when it comes to these types of projects. Actually, the worst thing that I would hear in school is "group project." Oh well, I'm doing fine by myself, thank you.

Appreciate you popping in to start the week! Make it a great one!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 10, 2020:

Hi Peggy! A lot of authors don't give the legal issues even a thought. Yet the consequences could be significant. Appreciate you stopping by and commenting! Have a wonderful week!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 10, 2020:

Nicholas, glad you found it helpful. Keep us posted on your publishing adventures. Thanks for stopping by and have a great week!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on August 10, 2020:

You have given people definitive reasons to shy away from entering into any type of co-authored book sale if the books are self-published. I would never have given thought to the legal ramifications. Thanks for writing another informative article.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on August 10, 2020:

No thanks! I won't co-author a book. End of story for this boy. lol

But thanks for the information should I ever weaken.

Which I won't!

Happy Monday my brilliant marketing and publishing guru!

Nicholas W King on August 09, 2020:

Good points. Definitely something to consider if I ever go down this road as a self-published author.