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He Said, She Said: How to Make Co-Authorship Work


April 13, 2024


Search that Writerly Soul of Yours

You and your long-time business partner have decided to write a book together. What better way to share with the world your joint knowledge and expertise after all of these years? Heck, it might even become a bestseller. One author + one author = double success. Right?

Unfortunately, when it comes to co-authoring a book, the math isn't so simple. Two authors means two sets of opinions, two kinds of creative processes, and two sets of goals. Add it all up, and you can end up with one giant mess.


To see if you're ready to share a pen, ask yourself the following 3 questions.

#1. Does My Big-Picture Message Align with My Co-Author's?

Unless you and your coauthor share the same vision for your book's overall message, you'll end up with a blob instead of a book. I once started working on a manuscript with two authors who thought that their differences in opinion about education reform would make for an interesting read. Unfortunately, it became impossible to create consistency throughout the chapters, and the book couldn't hold its shape.

My advice is to have several discussions with your partner about your topic before you agree to writing together. Even if you see eye to eye on the major points, a lengthier conversation might reveal certain disparities that down the road will make you—and your reader—see double. To avoid the problem, it's best to do a vision test early on.

#2. Am I Willing to Compromise on Certain Points?

As you already know, the subtle art of negotiation is the cornerstone of a great working relationship. You and your partner may be good at this in the workplace; however, with writing, the stakes are a lot higher. Print is permanent, and what you commit to paper is exactly what the world is going to read. Again. And again. And again.

To see how much you'll both be willing to compromise, my advice is to start out small. Try writing a few articles together first. You'll learn during the revision process just how easily you can let some of the finer points slide. Are you able to give in to certain edits you might not favor? Does your partner's writing process drive you crazy? Do your styles blend or clash? Trust me, it won't take you long to find out.

#3. Can I Invest the Same Amount of Time, Money, and Energy into the Project as My Partner Can?

Deadlines are important when you're writing a book, especially if you've signed with a publisher. External circumstances such as work, family commitment, and health issues can easily get in the way of meeting them. And then there are the expenses. From hiring an editor, book coach, or ghostwriter to paying for book design, publicity, and marketing, the costs can quickly add up.

My advice is to do an assessment of your year ahead and have a candid discussion about it with your partner. Have you both cleared enough time in your schedules to devote to writing and editing? What are the perceived costs of the project? Are you okay with one person shouldering more of the burden than the other if need be? How will this translate into profit-sharing and book credits in the end? It's better to know the answers sooner than later.


When Two Need to Become One

Once you've decided you've both got what it takes to co-author a book, the logistics start to get real. Practically speaking, how do two people's ideas and opinions effectively make it onto the page? What if your writing style or talent is vastly different from that of your coauthor? How do you distribute the workload?

The simple answer is, hire a ghostwriter to make all of those challenges go away.

Let me break it down for you why this could actually be the ONLY answer.

Writing in Two Voices. Can and Should You?

Option A: Talk it Out

I'm writing a book now with two authors who work in digital consulting. Their initial idea was to make the book one long dialogue* between them.

Me: Have you ever seen a book like this?

Co-Author 1: No

Me: Ask yourself why.

Co-Author 1: Well, I'm willing to prove that it can be done.

Me: Just because it can be done, doesn't mean it should.


Why it Won't Work:

Fiery discourse might make for a riveting "Pivot" episode, but it won't hold the reader's attention for a 200-page prescriptive nonfiction book. Besides, just how fiery can a book about digitalization get?

*If you're stuck on the idea of a dialogue, fellow ghostwriter Tim Cooke has a creative suggestion that has worked for him in the past.

Tim: You could write a short, italicized 100-word dialogue at the beginning of each chapter and then explain it with a story, saying something like, "That was a conversation we had three years ago when we visited our glove factory and discovered the secret to faster distribution. . ."

Me: Oh, I see! And then we could launch into the case study and the lessons learned, etc.

Tim: Precisely, my good lady! (Tim is British.)

Me: Thanks, Dude! (I'm not.)

My caveat with this technique is make sure that the dialogue is engaging enough to be worth it.

Option B: Divide and Conquer

You could divvy up the chapters or sections of chapters between you and your coauthor. I've seen this done with sidebars (sections set apart either by a different font, color, or design) with the author's name clearly stated. The truth is, when I saw it, this technique didn't add a single bit of value to the book, only perhaps to the author's ego.

Veteran editor Sandra Wendel has this to saying about naming names: "Unless it's a business-card book and both authors are looking to promote themselves separately and/or together, there's no reason to differentiate between authors. The reader doesn’t give a #*?! who is speaking. They just want the information."


Why it Won't Work:

The obvious drawback to splitting up chapters or sections of your manuscript is you'll lack a consistent voice. Also, since one of you is bound to be a better writer than the other, the quality among chapters or sections will be uneven.


A good editor at the end could help fix this.


But hiring a ghostwriter from the start will ensure that the problem never shows up.


Option C: One Voice- The ONLY Way

Hire a ghostwriter and have them put the entire narrative into first-person plural (we). Some excellent examples of co-authored bestselling sensations that have most likely been ghosted this way are:

Freakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Built to Last, by Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras

The Art of Strategy, by Avinash K. Dixit and Barry J. J. Nalebuff

Rework, by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hanssen

In my opinion, one clear, resounding voice is the ONLY option that will work for a coauthored book. But don't just take my word for it. Business book ghostwriter Jeffery Mangus says, "In the past I've worked with two authors who wanted to split up their voices, but after a couple of chapters, they realized how tedious it would be, not only on their part but for me, to capture their voices. So, we decided to write from one universal author's voice throughout the book."

Still not convinced that hiring a ghostwriter is the right thing to do for your coauthored book project? Besides creating one clear, consistent voice throughout your book, a ghostwriter will also become the project manager. They will conduct all of the interviews, keep you organized, and make sure you both stay on track to meet deadlines.

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