How To Survive as a Co-Author

How To Survive as a Co-Author September 7, 2008

I was surprised at how many people read my last post, which concerned how a book I co-authored was unexpectedly edited. I figured, who would care? But I got a fair number of emails about that post, and a fair number of those expressed, basically, this sentiment: “How can you so sanguinely let someone change your words?”

Sanguinely! I just had it at Olive Garden! Too many capers!

No, but that’s a fair question.

And the answer is this: When you go into a co-authorship deal, you do so knowing that the final product won’t be yours. It’ll be partly  yours, of course—but mostly it will be the result of a collaborative effort. In a book that’ll have my name alone on its cover, I don’t let anybody change any word I’ve written without my permission. I’m a veritable Word Nazi when it comes to that; it’s an area about which I’m obnoxiously uncompromising. (Which isn’t to say my ears are ever closed to the ministrations of a great editor. I’m fond enough of the work I do, for sure. But I’m not stupid.) The simple fact is that the books I’m doing with Stephen Arterburn aren’t mine. I’m expected to chime in with my opinion on anything having to do with the text of our books, and, God knows, I do. But at the end of the day, I’m not famous. I don’t have a nationwide ministry. Nobody listens to the radio show I broadcast every day to some 250 stations across the country. I don’t speak to tens of thousands of people a year. My name’s not on the front of a major bestselling Christian book title.

That would be Steve. 

Which is why on the cover of my books with Steve his name is above mine, in larger font.

Steve’s the star here, not me. It’s his game. His name. His fame.

A while back Steve happened to read my book, “Penguins, Pain and the Whole Shebang.” He liked it enough to then ask me if I’d write something with him. I had a couple of suggestions, and the next thing I knew (sort of), we had signed an extremely nice four-book deal with Bethany House. We met a few times with the Head Honchos of Bethany, and I liked them a great deal. You couldn’t ask for nicer guys.

Steve opted to be exceedingly generous to me relative to my percentages on the books we’d do with Bethany. He offered me a significantly larger cut than is customary in such deals; he knew I’d have happily taken less than he gave. It was his way of initiating between us the kind of relationship he wanted us to have. He then went on to prove himself extremely easy to work with.

I just bought a new house that’s better than not just any place I’ve ever lived, but than any place anyone I’ve ever known has lived. I can’t even believe this place exists, much less that by some freakish confluence of circumstances my wife and I came to live here.

I’m pretty big on suffering for my art; I’ve spent the lion’s portion of my life doing just that. Learning how to write in my own voice, with my own style and tone and so on, proved a longer, more brutal, less forgiving haul than I ever imagined it would be. I don’t even like thinking about how hard it’s been.

Point being: This little chapter in my writing life is just fine with me.

Sometimes, to win a game, you have to let yourself not be quarterback.


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  • Christine

    John, I think your response to this situation is admirable, wise, courageous and very Christ-like. I think I would have gone down in flames, destroyed a friendship (and a working buddy) ruined my reputation and genrally been a bit of a jackass if this happened to me with out so much as thinking about it. When I read your last post I was so furious that someone would do that but now I have reconsidered. Some times it is easier to get mad than to be smart and really working with someone who is that famous (actually never heard his the name, is that bad??) will in turn boost your own audience and maybe one day a writer will be proud to have their name in the small lettering on the front of your book. Though I don't know you, have never met you, I am extremely proud of you and think that you should be really pleased with the way you dealt with that. God bless Johnny Boy

  • Wow, Christine. That was really sweet. Thank you very much. I really appreciate everything you've said here.

  • Christine

    No problem, I think that when people do the wrong thing we are really quick to point it out and yet when someone does the right thing, the hard thing, no one really takes the time to say anything about it. I just wanted you to know that you made me think about how I react to situations and you really impressed. (NB: hope you didn't mind the Johnny Boy :))

  • arlywn

    wow. who lied and said you weren't famous? Cause we'll beat them up. And I've never heard of this steve guy. Except through you. Which makes you way more famous then him!

  • Arlywn: Good point! I rock.

    Christine: Thanks again.

  • (that was a joke)

  • Paul


    By any chance are you a CCBS alum?

  • Live & Learn

    I'm convinced that co-writing has completely different challenges and blessings than writing alone.


    Almost like a married or dating couple, communication, trust and respect are crucial to build a co-writing relationship and create something worthwhile. The give-and-take that is necessary can be draining, and tests each writer's willingness to take a back seat when needed for the good of the project. It's a test of spiritual maturity as well.


    Because each writer brings strengths to the table, something new comes to life that neither one would have created alone. And sometimes the combination of two talents is so special that a little miracle happens, and the final product is much greater than even the sum of the two parts. Great surprises happen when the process of writing is a shared journey!

    'Can't wait to see all four of your co-written projects roll out, John!

  • Thanks, Live. Someday I'll share my personal ideas about co-authoring. But not this … week.

  • FreetoBe

    I just finished a book co-authored by 3 people…..and it was wonderful, seamless, and I really liked it. I, too, never understood the whole collaboration thing, but your response really is enlightening, and not just in the publishing world.

    I'm with Arlywn, I hadn't heard of Steve, but I know about you, read your blog and your books, and believe you really add something new and fresh to whatever Steve is writing.

    God bless you, John, and thanks.


  • arlywn

    sweetest? Really John? You've used this word at least 3 times and… its just not macho enough for you. lol

  • Wrong. It's BECAUSE I'm so macho that I'm free to wear high-heels when no one's around and …. wait. Never mind.

  • Christine

    Yeah please stop there John, that's getting to be an overshare 🙂 Paul if I knew what CCBS is then I would answer but that in itself is an answer so no, I am not. Is it a college in America or something?? Remember people, Southern Hemisphere chicky here

  • So how are you not certain that the changes you mentioned yesterday came from your co-author, and not the book's editor? I'm assuming Bethany sent the galleys to Steve for final approval?

  • I really like Steve Arterburn’s books – but, you know he asked you to co-author those books so he could sell more, right? You are really the headliner here! 🙂

  • You guys are so sweet. And right.

  • Christine

    Just a really random qu, put out there to all you comp literate people, how do I change my pic on this thing??

  • arlywn

    if you guys have accounts with wordpress, you can click on the top tool bar (says things like my account, my dashboards… ect) click on 'my account' and down to edit profile. From there you will see an upload picture thing. then you upload a picture and tada! No more random sqaures on the comments.

  • FreetoBe

    Christine, wish I knew cause mine is purple and not my favorite color. Arlywn? Your pic is up. Tell us how?

  • John, you are the best. Thanks for your kind words.

  • Stephen Arterburn, everyone!

    Everybody, this is Steve.

    Steve, these are some of my readers.

    Can I get anyone anything to drink?

  • Haha! I know I am late and yes, slow too but I LOVE this thread! And post. I guess the party's over but I'm still enjoying it.

  • No party ever really starts until you show up, Ric.