Designing a custom book (ghost)writing collaboration process

Any nonfiction book with more than one contributor needs a carefully designed collaboration process. Not all tools are appropriate for all authors. So before you begin, plan how you’re going to move from ideation to research to drafts to completion and how everyone will contribute or approve content all along the way.

To demonstrate how this collaboration design works, I’ll walk you through the process I designed and implemented for my most recent project, a book I ghostwrote for two executives at a high-end consulting firm. To start, I settled a few questions:

  1. How many people are contributing? In this case, there were three: me and the two authors. Process design for three people is more complicated, because you can’t just toss drafts back and forth between writer and reviewer. (This was the second time I ghostwrote a book for two coauthors.)
  2. Who is writing? We agreed that I would write all the drafts and manage the process.
  3. What are the roles of the other contributors? For this book, the two authors contributed source material, collaborated on ideas, and edited and approved everything I wrote.
  4. How comfortable is everyone with technology? My coauthors and I were quite comfortable with collaboration technology, so we could tools from both Google and Microsoft for shared folders, online markup, and video meetings.
  5. What are people’s availability for collaboration? It became clear early in the project that the authors were so busy that I needed to get meetings on the their schedules to get decisions made and move the project forward; we couldn’t just settle things by emailing. Since this was my main project for six months, I accommodated my schedule to their availability.

With all that settled, I designed a process that helped us march forward steadily to a completed manuscript. Here’s how it worked, by stages.

1 Idea Development

I started with my typical idea development kickoff conducted by video, in which we worked together to settle the title, subtitle, and marketing treatment. While that went well, I felt we needed to put more work in before I could really get the project on a firm foundation; it became clear early on that I couldn’t get what I needed from them by just requesting source material by email.

So we scheduled an in-person meeting for most of a day at their offices in Washington, DC. I set the agenda for the meeting, which looked like this:

  • 9:00 – 9:15 Clarify objectives for the day
  • 9:15 – 10:30 Authors deliver their corporate overview deck
  • 10:30 – 10:40 break
  • 10:40 – 12:30 Review/inventory authors’ main IP and the ideas that the book must cover, collaborate on table of contents aligning with those ideas
  • 12:30 – 1:00 Lunch
  • 1:00 – 2:00 Catalog existing and possible case studies to match table of contents
  • 2:00 – 2:30 Design a process for drafting and reviewing of chapters and content
  • 2:30 – 3:00 Resolve any remaining issues

We worked together very productively and generated exactly what I needed to move forward: a list of chapters and a set of case studies. We built the chapter list using the reader question method, identifying what question each chapter would answer and how those questions connected into a story.

It was important to me to get the case studies moving, because they tend to have a long lead time. Equally important was to nail down the table of contents, because that essentially creates a discrete set of subtasks — chapters — to work on and complete.

I assembled those into a Google Sheet, with separate sheets for the chapters (including a writing schedule) and the list of case studies.

This isn’t necessarily the same process you’d use for your next collaborative book. But whatever process you use, it should generate 1) an agreed upon title, 2) a solid main idea, 3) a list of case studies to begin generating, and 4) a list of chapters to begin work on. It’s unwise to begin work until everyone is agreed on those four elements.

2 Assemble research

I set up a Google Drive folder for everything associated with the book, with subfolders for each chapter for source material from the authors. This set us all up for an organized way to collect the raw material I would need to assemble chapters.

One of my coauthors worked with others in her organization to upload lots of material I could use into those chapter folders. These were mostly marketing PDFs and presentation decks that the company typically used for selling, but with the research folders organized by chapter, I could begin to dig in and get familiar with the authors’ ideas and terminology.

The same coauthor also started to set up interviews with people internally who’d worked with the companies that would be profiled in the case studies. She, I, and selected members of her staff participated in these meetings, during which I solicited detailed information about what happened in the client engagements that would be the case studies. I took notes in Google Docs and included them in the research folders along with the other source material. The authors also set up interviews with people within the companies that I’d be profiling, who could speak firsthand about what happened.

Another essential source here was an online survey of corporate decision-makers that the authors’ company had commissioned. I went through the results of that survey and identified specific data charts that I could use to support the content of different chapters.

The process for assembling research for a chapter looked like this:

  • Meet by video with the authors to hear their ideas about the chapter, take extensive notes in Google Docs (saved in the research folder for the chapter).
  • Meet with relevant subjects who could provide source material for the selected case study or chapter concepts.
  • Get suggestions from the authors for other research I could use to fill in gaps.
  • Assemble relevant quantitative data from the survey.
  • Do my own online research, looking for definitive sources like The Harvard Business Review, Sloan Management Review, McKinsey Quarterly, Boston Consulting Group, and the like. In some cases, this online research helped provide definitive and authoritative sources for the ideas we’d discussed.

3 Drafting chapters

One chapter at a time, I began to draft chapters. That process looked like this:

  • Assemble source materials for the chapter into a fat outline blocking out the flow of the chapter.
  • Review the fat outline with the authors to get approval on the chapter content; add, edit, or rearrange material based on that review.
  • Draft the chapter in Google Docs. Share it with the authors and ask for feedback in Suggesting mode.
  • Go over the feedback in a video meeting with the authors, concentrating on edits that would require agreement from all or additional research or content.
  • Revise the chapter based on the feedback.

Based on what was rapidly becoming a compressed schedule, I met with the authors once or twice per week. Every one of those meetings had an agenda. One meeting might include reviewing the schedule, shaking loose resources to help get interviews to happen, brainstorming ideas for a chapter, going over the fat outline for another chapter, and reviewing feedback from yet a third chapter. This brisk pace enabled me to efficiently move from gathering content to making outlines to writing drafts and acting on feedback, with chapter after chapter making its way down the assembly line.

I chose Google Docs for this activity because it allowed the authors to see and review each others’ comments on a draft. I chose that tool and method because it had worked well on the other dual-author ghostwriting project I had done.

With this level of input, I was able to produce about one chapter every two weeks, accelerating to one per week at the end of the project. The demands on me to master so much new material, as well as the limits on the authors’ time, meant I couldn’t go much faster than that.

(I was also getting daily prostate cancer radiation treatments while this was going on, which swallowed up a lot of time and put limits on my energy as well, but with careful planning I could work around it in a way that these challenges didn’t slow us down. Our disciplined process, my authors’ dedication, and their ease of collaboration with each other are what made it possible to handle this unexpected challenge as nimbly as possible.)

4 Assembling and editing the book

Eventually, I’d drafted and gotten author reviews on nearly all of the chapters. There were, as there always are, a bunch of inconsistencies, repeated content, and gaps to work out; you learn stuff on the last few chapters that revises your thinking on the first few chapters.

This was about two weeks before the manuscript deadline. At this point, I glued all the chapters together into a single Microsoft Word file. This had several benefits:

  • I would eventually be turning the manuscript over to the publisher in Word format, so it had to get poured into that format eventually.
  • I could iron out formatting and text inconsistencies in a single file.
  • I could pull out small excerpts and share them with interviewees for fact checking.
  • I could correctly format footnotes.
  • My authors could see and review the whole manuscript at once in a single, relatively easy-to-handle file.

There was a drawback as well — now my authors couldn’t see each others’ edits. But they had a manageable number of comments and edits, so this wasn’t a huge issue. We continued our weekly meetings and spent time on remaining areas of confusion and disagreement in those meetings.

While I was waiting for the authors’ reviews, I created a PowerPoint of all the graphics in the book, to use a source material for the designers who would create the final graphics.

My authors handed back the manuscript segment by segment, starting from the beginning and going through to the end. This allowed me to create a final draft copy with all the edits in it as redline edits. I actually hand-copied edits from the authors’ markup to my own master copy. This enabled me to fix any inconsistencies or errors in their edits before they went into the master copy.

In the final stage, I accepted all the edits and addressed all the comments. Then I mailed the manuscript in Word format and the PowerPoint of graphics to the publisher.

5 Book production

I’ll now work with the publisher on reviewing copy edits and page proofs. I won’t involve the authors unless something unusual comes up.

I’ll also be using this stage to nail down the last few permissions and fact verifications that I couldn’t get completed before the deadline. (There are always a few.)

The importance of collaboration processes

The most important quality in a book collaboration is to have collaborators with a common vision and dedication to quality. But that, while necessary, is not sufficient.

Just as important is a collaboration process that everyone understands and contributes to. How you collaborate on research, the tools you choose, when you meet, what you handle by email or other electronic methods, and how you handle versioning are all essential.

If you design and follow a disciplined process that’s well suited to the individuals and their capabilities, collaboration can yield an excellent result. If you don’t, you’ll end up screaming at each other, wrangling incompatible file versions, and wasting time on processes that don’t contribute to a quality end product. Creating a book is hard enough. That kind of waste is just sad — and ultimately, avoidable if you plan properly.

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