Why collaborations fail

by Stephanie Golden

Copyright © 2009 Stephanie Golden

In my experience, there are two basic reasons why book collaborations don’t work out:  

This article tackles the first reason.

Should this idea really be a book?

I was contacted once by a therapist who wanted to write a book based on the saying that the way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. She used this concept very successfully in her therapy. But when I asked her what the contents of the book would be, she was stymied. She hadn’t even begun to think about how her therapeutic work might translate into general principles and practical advice.  

Another prospective author wanted to write a book about relationships. He had a long, happy marriage and thought he could give good advice. He did have a number of quite sensible ideas, but not enough to fill a book. They could all have fit in one solid magazine article, with some lively stories as examples.

So the first question to ask is: does the expert have enough material to make a book? Are there enough ideas, with facts and examples to support them, to fill eight to ten chapters of 20 pages each?

If not, maybe the concept is best expressed in one or several articles in a magazine, or on a website or blog.

There’s no clearly focused concept of what the book is about.

This may seem weird—how can you not know what your own book is about? But in Author 101: Bestselling Book Publicity, authors and PR experts Rick Frishman and Robyn Freedman Spizman write:

Agents and editors tell us that a surprisingly large number of writers can’t clearly explain what their books are about. These authors usually can detail their motivation, philosophies, and their personal dreams, but they can’t describe the specific benefits their books will give their readers.

If you can’t describe your book clearly, Frishman and Spizman note, agents and editors will assume that they won’t be able to sell it.

I worked with a couple of other therapists whose ideas were much further developed. But they still couldn’t hone in on a central concept. In response to my questions, one idea would morph into another, then into a third. I kept rewriting the proposal, and though it changed, it never got clearer. There actually were several editors longing for one of these books, but they couldn’t buy it because the expert never came up with the 25-words-or-less “handle” (as the industry calls it) that the sales reps could use to pitch the bookstores.

As the writer, I shared some of the blame. I had far less experience then, and maybe my questions weren’t good enough. Or possibly the experts were just incapable of distilling their work into that elusive single concept, and I failed to recognize this.

Generally, it’s the professional writer’s responsibility to determine whether trying to write a book based on the expert’s ideas is just spinning both their wheels. It’s hard to say this to someone who’s in love with her ideas—but that’s part of the job.

The proposed book doesn’t seem to offer anything that’s not already out there.

An expert may be extremely knowledgeable and very successful in his or her field. But so may dozens of other people, some of whom have already written books about the same topic.

If there are one, two, or more books in print about treating insomnia, or finding a better job, or dealing with your teenage daughter, that’s not necessarily a bad thing: it demonstrates that there’s a solid market out there for your subject. But what will your book add that’s new and different enough to entice people to buy it? As the writer, it’s my job to explain this in the marketing section of the proposal, in a way that publishers find compelling. But it’s the expert’s responsibility to give me something solid to tout.

The expert doesn’t really want to tackle these problems.

Some experts I’ve known were absolutely determined to write their book, and that determination carried them past every obstacle. If the concept was fuzzy, they bit the bullet, faced the vagueness in their thinking, and figured out what they really wanted to say (with brainstorming help from me). If there wasn’t enough detail to support their points, they went out and did the necessary research. If one publisher said no, they went after another. They had the fire in the belly that you need to write a book.

With others, extracting material for the book was like pulling teeth—I turned into the enforcer, instead of the supporter. Sometimes I can do research or interviews myself that fill in the gaps. But I can’t make someone else’s book up out of whole cloth—especially if much of it depends on personal experience or specialized expertise that I don’t have.

I can write a book for someone whose ideas I don’t agree with, or even for someone who’s not so easy to work with. But I can’t write one if there’s no “there” there.