Monday, January 29, 2007

Co-authoring Complications

A few months, I was approached by a scientist who wanted to explore the possibility of my working on a book with him. We made no commitments to each other, other than to discuss his general idea and to toss around some title ideas. When we parted, he was still deciding if he wanted to work with me, or even do the book at all. Coincidentally, during this time, he met with a former employer of mine who now runs a foundation whose work is related to his field. He had a long conversation with her about ways they might collaborate to help their ideas reach a broader popular audience. He mentioned to her that he was "thinking" of writing a book with me.

A month or two passed, during which I contacted him about the book, to see if he had come to any decisions. He didn't respond to my e-mail. Then a few days ago, I received a call from my former employer. She spoke glowingly of her conversation with the scientist, then asked if I
would be interested in developing a series of interviews or white papers for her foundation on him and other scientists working in the same field.

I followed up with the scientist to let him know about the foundation's offer, and that I was considering it. I told him it did not preclude my working with him on the book if at some point he decided to do so. He was incensed, and indicated he felt the foundation had stolen his idea. He didn't accuse me of impropriety, but the suggestion was there. I can't see that any proprietary idea has been stolen; the articles the foundation requests are quite different in nature from the book idea and would likely be complementary, if anything.

But now what? I am clearly obligated to keep the scientist's creative ideas confidential, and of course I will do so. But am I obligated to turn down the foundation's offer of work (which is
likely to be better-paying and more of a sure thing than the book)? Is it possible to rectify my relationship with the scientist, or is that bridge forever burned?

So...let me make sure I have this all straight: a scientist contacts you about potentially co-authoring a book. At the same time, he contacts your old boss at a foundation about ways that they can mutually help and promote each other. Your old boss asks you to write about said scientist and his specialty in order to do just that. And when you call him to find out if he's interested, he implies that you've acted unethically?? Oh, and he doesn't return your emails in the lag time?

To be honest, I'm not sure why you'd WANT to work with this guy on a book. I can't speak to the series of papers for the foundation because, well, I guess if the money is good and ultimately, you're working for your boss, not the scientist, then it might be a bearable situation. But one thing I CAN speak to is co-authoring situations, and this one has red flags waving from left, right and center fields.

I can't tell you how many co-authoring situations I've heard of (and in one instance been involved with) in which the writer is basically abused - taken advantage of because she's the lowly "writer," while the expert is the revered "source," (usually revered only by said source, I should note). Yet, funnily (don't know if that's a real word, but work with me here) enough, the writer is the one who is usually doing all the work. Go figure. Most times in situations like these, the expert views himself as a goldmine, a virtual godsend, and someone for whose book the world salivates. And I'm sorry, I can tolerate a TON of BS from editors, co-authors, etc, but this scientist strikes me as a major pain in the ass already. And you haven't even started writing! What happens when you guys have a disagreement over something small in the book or you start contract negotiations and you want a higher percentage of royalties?

I guess what I'm saying is that I can't see what you've done wrong. A) not only did you not sign a confidentiality agreement with this guy, but B) he approached the foundation looking for more publicity. So I really don't even understand why he blew a gasket. And if something like this will set him off, I'd be very wary of collaborating with him in the future. I suspect you'd always feel like you were walking on eggshells...a horrible feeling when you're supposed to be in an equal partnership with your co-author. I think that writers too often take work with the hopes that it might help their career or even just to have work period, but they don't give a lot of thought as to how it will affect their sanity and self-esteem. The bottom line, at least for me, is that entangling yourself in demoralizing and stressful situations simply isn't worth it...nearly every writer who does this has come to regret it. I'm sorry that you've found yourself in this position - truly - but I'd ask yourself how a long-term relationship with this guy would realistically play out, and if you sense that it might be difficult, I'd count your blessings that you figured this out before proceeding with him, and not give it a second thought.

I know others out there have co-authored books. What say you? Should she move forward with this project?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I haven't had experience co-authoring a book, but I'm going to say something anyway. :) Do you really want to work with this man for as long as his book project might take? It might be difficult, and it might be tedious.

Since you know you haven't done anything unethical with regards to the foundation's project and how that relates to the scientist's idea, I wouldn't worry about taking that assignment on if it appeals to you.

Hang in there. It sounds like a stressful situation.