CO_Authoer-ImageA lot of fans have dreams. Meeting their favorite author. Getting sneak peeks at an anticipated book. Getting two favorite authors to team up — oh, yeah, that’s one that will get people excited.

But that brings up a can of worms that might not be obvious at first look. Who’s ultimately in charge? If there are disagreements, how do they get resolved? Whose name comes first on the cover? If it’s not a 50/50 royalty split, why? And how is that determined?

This is something that shows up a lot in academia, because whomever shows up first in the list of authors has pride of place (unless possibly, but still often the case when, it’s just determined by alphabetical order). In a multi-author academic paper, the first name is not always given to the one who did the most work, but rather the one who will get the most notice and bring the most credibility to the findings. The last person on the list might well have been the one who did the lion’s share, but the first name usually gets most of the credit.

Unfair? Well, there’s a reason for this arrangement. 

AcademiaIt can be abused (and it’s often the source of heated tension in ways that only university professors can truly appreciate, thanks to our “publish or perish” standards), but the system is set up on principled grounds. The first position is intended for the one who truly caused it to happen. This may have nothing to do with the amount of work actually done on the paper; rather, it may have everything to do with the one who gave access because of seniority, resources, or simply the one who sparked the idea.

For an example from a different area of society, look at Thomas Edison. He took credit for a lot of things developed by his employees. It’s often argued that he shouldn’t have. While it’s certainly appropriate to credit the one who did the most work, Edison’s own argument holds some merit: without his company, those inventors would not have been able to accomplish their tasks so easily.

The same is true in the academic world. A team of grad students may have done the work, but the first name on the paper is usually that of their supervising professor, who opened doors, managed their ideas, directed their research and/or experiments, and who lends authoritative weight to the audience and the peer-review process. Without all of that, it would have been much harder to get their findings, much less get them looked at seriously. Like it or not, human psychology is wired to more readily accept something when it comes from a familiar source.

And, as you might guess, the same is true in the fiction world.

In academia, you’re often looking at terms like “lead author.” In fiction, the usual term is the senior author. The name that goes first on the cover is almost always going to be the one with the larger fanbase (which, frankly, is how you determine the seniority pecking order in the fiction world!), because when people browse the bookshelves, they’ll find it under that senior author’s name. You want the section of the shelf that more people are going to be looking at, after all. A famous name tends to be more of a draw.

This happens even in the case where the senior author doesn’t really do much. The absolute best example of this in the current market is the 1632 series, started by Eric Flint. He’s the senior author on all the books, and so you’ll find them under F in the bookstore. And yet, as you read through the books, it’s obvious that the books are mainly written by the junior author listed on the cover. Eric Flint is managing the entire series, and he clearly works on each book to make sure they’re consistent and sound right, but it’s just as clear that the books coauthored by Charles Gannon are different from the ones coauthored by Virginia DeMarce, and so on. They’re putting in the majority of work on their individual titles, yet Flint still comes first. He created the series, and he’s responsible for making sure everything works together. He has seniority.

1633The series is also good for a counterexample, showing how the seniority system can actually fail. Eric Flint wrote the initial novel in the series, before he ever planned on making it a multi-author project. That was 1632. The next book was, predictably enough, 1633. But it had a problem, as you can see on the cover to the right.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, it’s a pretty awesome cover. I like the covers for the series, because they show the clash of timelines so well, sometimes riffing off of famous paintings. But I’m not talking about the visual.

That’s right. David Weber comes first on the cover. He’s got seniority. He’s got a huge fanbase. A lot of people picked up this book just because it was a Weber novel. But it also means it’s the only book in the series that is found under W rather than F, unless the bookstore staff know what’s going on (or *cough* if some vigilante shelver moves the books . . .  not that I would know anything about that sort of heinous practice . . .). They fixed that for 1634: The Baltic War, also co-authored by David Weber, and 1633 is often listed with Eric Flint first in digital markets.

But while it’s a counterexample, it also proves the rule on multi-author projects like the 1632 series. Seniority might not actually be the best rule in all cases, because consistency is even more important. Even today, in our digital age where books can simultaneously exist in as many categories as you please, sitting on however many virtual “shelves” as you can think of, we still have brick-and-mortar bookstores with finite space. Until we’re up to at least 80% digital share, these conventions are going to stick. And even then, at least for now, our devices will sort by the first author, not the second or third or anything else. (I hope that will change soon, frankly. Come on, programmers. Just a few more lines of code . . .)

But what does the junior author get out of this? Why should someone do more work on a book yet get less credit for it?

The David Weber/Eric Flint example is really an exception. Most of the time, coauthor relationships are dominated by two categories: married couples and mentor relationships. It’s actually pretty rare to have two big-name authors collaborating on the same book, and still rare (increasingly less so, but still rare) for two small-time or unpublished authors to collaborate as well.

Thin Man bookMarried couples tend to be a straight 50/50 split; frankly, if you’re not already great at working together on something like a book, it’s time to look up the number of a marriage counselor because you’ve got bigger problems. They might advertise their relationship by sharing the same name, as with David and Leigh Eddings; or the woman might use her maiden name, as with Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta. (I like the Eddings example, personally, because of the reason why his wife shows up on his later novels. He said he realized that she was giving him so much help in writing his books that she should be getting credit as a coauthor. He then started insisting on her sharing his cover. Good husband.)

Mentor relationships, as I call them, are the ones that best show the benefits of this coauthor arrangement. This is when a more well-known author comes up with an outline and passes it off to a lesser-known author. who then writes most of the words. The senior author reads over the junior’s shoulder, making corrections, tweaks, and suggestions. The junior author, ideally, will learn a lot about the way the senior author writes, incorporates that into his or her own writing, and gets better at it. In a successful mentor relationship, it becomes a one-on-one graduate-level seminar class in how to write a novel. (Mind you, I don’t have a high opinion of MFAs in writing, so that comparison might not sound as great considering the source.) Once it’s prepared for publishing, the publisher will do what the audience does: look at the first name first, and be more likely to give it a try because of the senior author’s experience.

The example that always comes to my mind when talking about this is another Weber series, but one where he didn’t write very much. This is The Empire of Man, a series he co-authored with John Ringo. Ringo took Weber’s outline and did the grunt work of putting words on the screen, so very little of it has the Weber flair. Yet, at the same time, you can see how Ringo took Weber’s instructions to heart and let them influence his own style. Now, years later, Ringo has a very non-Weber style, but he’s also picked up many of Weber’s peculiarities (such as always beginning a paragraph which contains dialog with a quotation mark; neither of them like mixing narration and dialog in the same paragraph). I’ve had the opportunity to talk to John Ringo about this relationship, both in person and over email, and it was very interesting to hear the details.

In my case, I’m the senior author on a YA fantasy series for Chesterton Press, hopefully coming soon to a bookshelf near you. Elizabeth Hajek is my junior author on The Mermaid and the Unicorn, and she just handed in the finished first draft. We definitely fit into the “mentor” style of coauthorship, as she’s refining an already considerable talent with my tweaks and suggestions. Yet I’ve always been privately amused that she is going to be the one bringing in more of an audience, because she’s got more fans among the target demographic. However, because it’s a multi-author series, my name comes first, thanks to the need to keep all the books together on a shelf.

Still, I would like to think I have more to do with the series than simply creating an outline and being an editor. Actually, it’s been somewhat relaxing, because in this case I don’t have to worry about stepping on an author’s vision. With this series, I can go through and tweak more, change more words, move things around, and rewrite whole sections without overstepping my bounds as an editor — because I’m not just an editor for this series.

Ultimately, though, even a senior author can’t run roughshod over the junior. No matter how big the senior author is, the junior author is always doing at least 50% of the work, and usually more. I don’t know how most coauthored books get split up in terms of royalty, but I do know that the ones that the good senior authors take the time to acknowledge the efforts of their coauthors. By definition, the book wouldn’t get done without them, or else there wouldn’t be a second name on the cover.