Collaboration and Book Production

Collaboration on a book is the ultimate unnatural act. —Tom Clancy

The emergence of online book production tools is, of course, bringing writers online. Authoring books online seems to bring two apparently opposing dynamics into play – the social web and the author. The production in the context of the increasingly noisy, social web seems at odds with the typical conception of solitary writer and the juxtaposition simultaneously brings into focus the potential for collaboration or ‘social production’ together with questions of authorship.

The modern discourse around book authorship began in 1969 when Michel Foucault asked, What is an Author? he  drew attention to a shift in the definition of an “author’s” role that represented a “privileged moment of individualisation in the history of ideas, knowledge, literature, philosophy, and the sciences” ([Foucault 2002]). Scholars and theorists of various academic disciplines have spent the last thirty years responding to Foucault in what has grown into a vibrant intellectual discourse on authorship. We need to enter this debate to discover what might lie ahead for online book production.

One of the foremost participants in this discussion is Martha Woodmansee, who notes [Woodmansee 1992] that the modern concept of author is rooted in the Romantic notion that significant writers, “break altogether with tradition to create something utterly new, unique—in a word, ‘original.’” As Benjamin Mako further discusses [Mako, 1995], this popular belief in an author’s primary, even exclusive, role in the creation of a text, is referred to as Romantic authorship and before the rise, and eventual dominance of this notion, writing gained value from its creative affiliation with existing works, or what Martha Woodmansee describes as “its derivation, rather than its deviation from prior texts” [Woodmansee 1994]. Before this important shift, the authorial role was often compared to that of a commentator, compiler, or transcriber. Woodmansee references a definition by the thirteenth century St. Bonaventure who describes an author as one who “wrote both with his own work and others’ but with his own work in the principle place adding others’ for purposes of confirmation” [Woodmansee 1994] . This thirteenth-century definition of authorship places literary creation squarely within the context of collaboration.

In this time, through the support of author honoraria, the constant production of new work was insured without the need for system of intellectual property or ownership. This arrangement was essential as the dominant models of literary creation were fundamentally intertwined with borrowing and collaboration.

Prompted by the rise of copyright in Britain in 1709, the eighteenth century introduced a new concept of individualised authorship based on the idea of a creative genius working alone. This idea—one at odds with collaborative, collective, or corporate creation—has remained widely influential despite powerful arguments made by theorists like Foucault and Woodmansee and a growing body of evidence that collaborative and collective creation is more effective than individual work.

At its birth, copyright was lobbied for and designed to benefit publishers alone. For at least the first century of its institution, authors continued to write in the ways they had before. They borrowed as they had before; they collaborated as they had before; they plagiarised as they had before. Collaboration in the forms popularised before the institution of copyright remained popular. However, by selling the rights to their ideas, authors were presented with a new system of compensation for their work: a way to “live by their pen.” They realised that by solidifying their access to these rights, they might insure their ability to make a living. This coincided, and was intimately connected, with the explosive growth of the publishing industry in Europe. Authors felt they needed to insure compensation for their intellectual productions and saw their copyright, described in the Statute of Anne and similar acts in other countries, as an available method for achieving this goal.

This is not to imply that collective authorship is not possible today, however, joint authorship operates in an environment hostile to collaborative work, and, as a result, is difficult at best. Under current systems of literary production defined by copyright and Romantic conceptions of authorship, writers have few other options. By emphasizing ownership and control as the primary, and in most cases the only, method of compensation for literary work, meaningful collaboration becomes difficult in all cases and impossible in most. Rather than borrow and work together, authors will work alone. Rather than borrow an idea, passage or theme from another novel and risk a copyright suit, authors are more likely to not include the theme or passage at all. The fact that joint-authorship and collaboration can function at all in this hostile environment, is testament to the power and of collaboration. Without a strong system of control shaping the landscape of literary creation, it is very likely our idea of how books are made would be very different and collaboration would play a central, valued, role.

However there have recently been some changes that affect these issues deeply and there is reason to be optimistic about the future of collaborative book production. Creative Commons is often heralded as a free content license movement. A ‘free content license’ is one which gives more nuanced control over the rights afforded by copyright. Instead of using the standard ‘all rights reserved’ copyright license, more and more people are subscribing to this idea of ‘free licenses’ or ‘free culture’ and producing work under more liberal copyright licenses. This article, for example, uses a Creative Commons Share-Alike Attribution license which means that anyone can do anything with it, commercially or otherwise, without needing to get any authorial permission as long as they attribute the source.

Licences such as these are important as legal mechanisms for opening up the opportunities for the reuse of content, however they are also an essential environment for collaborative production. The whole process just becomes more fluid. There is no need to sign ‘work for hire’ or other legal agreements to enable collaborative relationships, one can simply get on with the job. Free licenses provide a legal framework which is not, in itself, hostile to collaboration and from that position we can look at single authorship as a choice, not a given.

However, we must recognise that 300 years of copyright and a long era of Romantic authorship has left us with inadequate tools for engaging in the collaborative process. It is difficult to get beyond our deeply internalised ideas of book production, and we find ourselves unwilling to leave behind the romantic notion of authorship, as it is, well, romantic and very enticing. Collaboration, on the other hand, is difficult to imagine and, we should not forget, it has an army of derisionists like Tom Clancy, not to mention the academic and commercial publishing worlds, that are invested in devaluing it. Can books really be produced collaboratively and what does the process offer? It is difficult for many of us to answer these basic questions whereas we feel we understand the value and the offer of sole authorship.

In order to ease into the question, it is perhaps worth avoiding the word ‘author’ to describe the book production process. Instead of talking about the author, or even multiple authorship, let’s forget the word all together and reframe it in another way. I propose we instead think about strong and weak collaboration.

It is evident that the books you see in the book stores in your town are not produced by one person alone. Let’s imagine that someone did, in fact, write the entire book and it was untouched by an editor’s hand – we can at least accept that the sole writer did not design the book or the cover or take the entire bundle to the printer to be produced. There may be some cases where this has happened, certainly in the self-publising world this is not uncommon, but thinking for now about the established publishing industry. That book by Tom Clancy had at least some one, or more, involved in the process unless Tom is hiding his desktop publishing talents from us.

However, let’s just limit our focus to possible collaborative relationships which effect the actual text. There is practically no book that goes through the publishing process entirely intact. At some point, someone put in their hand to make an improvement, even if small. Did Tom do a thorough grammar check? Any proofreading or editorial comments before printing?

I would characterise this kind of interaction with the text as minimal or weak collaboration. More than one hand was at play to make that exact text which appears in the book: this was a collaborative effort, albeit an extremely weak one.

Moving up the scale. Where a writer and an editor might interact often regarding the text as it is being produced, the editor offering suggestions for improvement, or editing the text directly, this could be characterised as having a stronger collaborative nature than the previous example.

Stronger still is a relationship of two or more writers working very closely together to produce a text. This is evident in any number of ‘single author’ classics such as Frankenstein, which is attributed to Mary Shelley although we know now that Percy Shelly had a strong hand in some of the text, or The Wasteland, which has been discussed by many as a case in point where T.S Eliot collaborated closely with both Vivienne Elliot and Ezra Pound in its production.

Lastly, at the far end of the scale, we have intense collaboration where the delineation between ‘who wrote what’ disappears even to the collaborators themselves as they are producing the text.

As it happens, most books feature not just collaboration but intense collaboration between writer and editor.

As Valerie Peterson warns, “Once you sign a contract with a book publisher, you’re essentially in partnership to create “the book,” and you both have a say in the end-product. From trimming the fat of your language (akin to “killing your babies”) to altering the logical flow of the chapters, your book editor will have much to say about how your text will look in print. While your editor is there to make the book (and you!) sound better–and a thoughtful, skilled editor absolutely will do that–you two may not always agree on what’s best for the finished book. If you’re going to publish, it’s good to be prepared for some “creative differences.”

An  editor may be so esteemed by writers wanting to be published that they choose publishers, where possible, by the esteem they have for the editor involved. A wonderful example of this is found in How a Book is Born: The Making of The Art of Fielding by Graydon Carter and Keith Gessen. Choosing a publisher is to choose an editor, which in turn is really choosing a collaborative partner.

If we allow ourselves to do away with the notion of authorship and instead characterise the interactions on a collaborative spectrum we can see that collaboration already plays an important role in a ‘typical’ process, and it has more value than we may have first thought. Book production is actually a collaborative process and quite an intense one. The publishing world has hidden this from view because of the reasons discussed above but we should not be fooled into believing that creating a book involves Romantic authorship. Collaboration is a technique we use to improve all books, and we should bring it into focus and explore it.

The advantage of producing books online is that we have an enormous scope of collaborative activity available to us. Until now, exploration of the possibilities has largely been limited because of our investment in myths of authorship but if we discard this notion we can explore the opportunities the web offers. The good thing about the net is that ‘the door’ can be regulated depending on the production needs. We may wish to fling the door wide and invite anyone to come in and work on a text, or we may shut the door completely and work in isolation. We may need to, for example, remain in a weak collaborative position for quite some time as we flesh out a work. Later, when we ask for feedback we move slightly up the scale, and later still when the first manuscript is in the hands of an editor we move up the scale to quite strong collaboration. The point is, we have the choice, and much more choice than we had before.

With thanks to Benjamin Mako Hill for asynchronous inspiration and collaboration on this text. Many thanks also to Rachel O’Reilly for improving this post.

This version expanded from  (11 December 2012)

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