Not so long ago, I spent four days with a client at his office near Cleveland, Ohio, to work through a second draft of his manuscript. By day three we agreed that we could do with some fresh air, so we grabbed some sandwiches for our lunch, then took a walk by the shores of Lake Erie. As we chatted, Sam, the youthful head of a flourishing non-profit, led the way along a rocky path that would take us right to where the lake waters lapped on boulders. He glanced down at my wedge heels, pretty much the opposite of what you want to be wearing for rock-hopping.
“We should turn around here,” he said. “I really don’t want you to fall. If you die, I’ll have to write this book all by myself.”
I enjoy Sam’s peppery sense of humor, which is one of the reasons why we work so well together. But he had a point. The idea of writing a book solo was highly unappealing to him, and for good reason.
The idea that a writer has to seclude him- or herself in an attic, alone with only a writing device (be it laptop or pen and paper) for company, and pour out the words is a myth. Maybe for a novelist that could be the way it happens, where the greatest tool they have is their imagination. Even then, a manuscript is rarely born out of one person’s brainwaves alone.
Think of a crime writer. They are going to be putting in calls to detectives, hitting up forensic specialists, tapping local knowledge—whatever it takes to ensure they paint a detailed picture that bears enough relationship to reality to make for a convincing story.
The legend of the lonely writer is related to the fable of the solitary founder. Isolation, I believe is never a good idea for entrepreneurs. The best businesses are built through user testing, smart advisers, and business partners with complementary skills. And of course, the dauntless support of a loyal spouse. (I’ve been one of those myself, so I’m always barracking for the long-suffering spouses of founders.)
Gavin Paterson, CEO of the BT Group, agrees that innovation comes from collaboration. “Most of the world’s real innovations come not from individuals laboring away in isolation, or even from ‘eureka’ moments, but from working together.” [https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/01/innovation-eureka-moments-and-the-myth-of-the-solitary-genius/ ]
In his book Multiple Authorship and the Myth of Solitary Genius, Jack Stillinger reels off celebrated examples ranging from Thackeray to Dickens to show how authors have always collaborated in order to turn a good manuscript into a great one.
To get a picture of how wide and deep that collaboration can be, just take a look at the long list of people that successful authors credit in the final pages of their books. Adam Grant, a Wharton professor and a New York Times bestselling author, gives over four pages to acknowledgements in his second book, Give and Take. Those pages represent a densely packed name-check of literally hundreds of people who brainstormed the book content, offered constructive criticism on early drafts, tackled research tasks, participated in interviews, edited the complete manuscript, even motivated him to rewrite three chapters from scratch. (Yes, Adam thanked that person, though he may have been cussing at the time.)
You may not need or want a cast of hundreds to help your book become reality. But anyone who wants to write a book—whether it is a book of business wisdom gleaned over decades, a memoir of your life experiences, a series of case studies that have inspired you, or something else entirely—should think long and hard about the kind of help they need and want.
- Consider outsourcing the tasks that you would begrudge spending precious hours on. Maybe you would appreciate help hunting down case studies to prove your theory, or securing permissions to use material in your book.
- Get assistance with jobs that are not in your realm of expertise. Maybe you can bring in a local journalist to conduct some interviews, or find a bright college student to lend a hand on social media promotions.
- Authors may even choose to outsource the writing work. My current client Sam is an outstanding speaker, but he is not so comfortable with preparing written material. He “speaks out” chapters, then I work up the transcriptions into effective written pieces.
With all of these extra hands, it may feel like you’re letting go or even losing control of your “baby”. Consider the benefits of collaboration and it may help you to loosen your grip a little.
- All those fresh eyes will benefit your book. Pick your advisors carefully and watch their outside perspectives bring a freshness to your concept. Draw on people with different capabilities to ensure the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
- Collaboration will keep the work fresh for you, too. Writing a book takes months, if not years, and everyone wearies at some point along the way. An injection of someone else’s ideas or energy can be just what you need when the joy of creation feels more like a never-ending slog.
- If you have a business to run or a professional life to maintain, the sheer amount of work involved in writing a book means collaboration makes sense at a dollars and cents level too. Spending a couple of hundred dollars on a researcher may save you many hours of your own time that would be better spent within your business.
If you are set on keeping a hold of every word contained in your book and you simply do not feel that you need assistants or collaborators, consider this. Even that rare beast, the solo author, needs a team to transform their manuscript into a successful book that exists in the wider world. Even the solo author needs:
- An editor
- A cover designer
- A typesetter
- A proofreader
- Maybe an indexer
- A publicist
- A publisher
… And that’s just for starters.
Sometimes those roles double up. The author may be their own publisher, or they may secure a publishing deal that provides them access to editors, designers, publicists and so on. Whichever way, the work still needs to be done.
It is wisdom, not weakness, to see your book as a team effort. Respect the effort that is required to make the kind of book you will be proud of. And take reassurance from the fact that you don’t have to do it all yourself.
But whatever you do, make sure your writer doesn’t break their leg clambering on the rocks.