May 7, 2024 #ContentChat Recap: Collaborative Book Publishing 101— What to Know Before Taking the Leap

A Content Chat header image featuring an array of flowers behind a text overlay that says today’s topic is collaborative book publishing 101: what to know before taking the leap, with guest Marc Maxhimer.

In this #ContentChat recap, Erika Heald is joined by Marc Maxhimer, director of growth and partnerships at The Tilt, to discuss what it took to write The Content Entrepreneur, a new book with 33 authors, including themselves. Erika and Marc reflect on their lessons learned and tips for keeping a book with multiple contributors on schedule.

Watch the entire conversation on YouTube or read through the highlights below.

You can read Erika’s chapter about how to use AI for content repurposing (one of three chapters she wrote) and learn more about the book from author Joe Pulizzi in this #ContentChat recap

Q1: How should someone get started when planning a collaborative book effort?

There should be a general vision for where the book will go. 

“When you start this process, you have to have a little bit of an idea of where you want this to go. If you’re the ringleader, if you’re the circus master like Joe, you have to know where you’re going to go a little bit. And then let it happen organically after that with the group.”—Marc Maxhimer

Designate a project manager to manage deadlines.  

“You have to have somebody who a.) Wants to do it, because it’s a lot of work and b.) They have to be good project managers. They’ve got to keep the train moving on those tracks. You can’t get derailed. With 35 people, it’s going to get derailed very quickly.”—Marc Maxhimer

Q2: What should authors do right from the start to make the book feel like a cohesive whole vs a collection of short stories?

Identify the essential areas to get your book from point A to Z. 

“At the very beginning because we had that direction from Joe about this is what we’re going to do. we talked in the meeting and then we divided the book up into sections of here’s the stuff you need to get started.”—Marc Maxhimer 

Expand the outline as your idea evolves and the draft takes shape. 

“It evolved as we wrote the book, as any book does. And anytime you’re writing, you start out with this, but you end up way over here with something because it just naturally happens when you write. So we had a loose outline, which was good.”—Marc Maxhimer 

Use collaborative documents so you can easily edit your outline and content. 

“You need a collaborative document to do a project like this.”—Marc Maxhimer

“I think it was really smart that we fleshed out the table of contents in a Google Sheet because it allowed that framework of ‘Okay, we’re gonna do the beginning, middle, and later stage of the content entrepreneur journey’ and what are the topics at the different stage. And then we allowed people to put in their takes on it, because it meant that we got some sections with a lot more nuanced and robust content than we would have if we were just like, okay, you’re gonna sign up to do this entire chapter.”—Erika Heald

When working with multiple authors, give each person an opportunity to volunteer for topics and propose new ideas. 

“We allowed people to put in what they thought their strong points were, what their expertise was, where they wanted to be in the book, and where it fit. The good part of that is that then people were writing what they knew, and it allowed them the comfort [if a topic wasn’t claimed] because they thought ‘oh, I could write about that, I didn’t think I could because I thought there was someone better than me, but no one volunteered. But I know that I can write about that.’”—Marc Maxhimer

“That allowed the book to start to take shape in terms of a true outline of a book. We set it up to be a guide on how to be a content entrepreneur. If you just let everybody pick whatever they want to write about, that’s when you get the individual stories.”—Marc Maxhimer

Play to each writer’s strengths to tell a robust story. 

“There are certain cases where I signed up to do an element of a chapter. So I just have 1,000 words to talk in my component here. Because somebody else is going to tackle a different part of it.”—Erika Heald

Create tone and style guidelines to ensure each chapter is consistent, despite being written by different people. 

“In the end, we sent it to a professional copy editor before publishing. But ahead of time, we set up an editing team. And we had a whole page in the spreadsheet and in a document of here are the things about the book, the tone, how you want to write about it. We set a list of guidelines that every chapter needed to have. That helped, because when the first draft came through, we were able to go back and say ‘Hey, you need to change it from this to this.’”—Marc Maxhimer

“We were very clear with all the authors that you submitted your work, but it’s gonna go through us as the editing team, and it’s gonna go through a copy editor. So what you submitted and what’s actually published may not look the same.”—Marc Maxhimer

“The core tenants were there and we had to change some of the author’s writing, just because of their writing style. We kept their voice but wanted to make it cohesive with the whole book. It definitely was a lot of work, and you definitely have to pay attention to it if you’re doing a project like this.”—Marc Maxhimer

Set clear expectations that not every submission will be included in the final book.

“The one thing Joe was very clear about from the beginning: Just because you’re in the meeting doesn’t mean that all of you are going to be in the book. We wanted to produce something that was high quality, very well defined what the steps were, and finished and worthy of all of our names being on the book. I think we accomplished that and went above it.”—Marc Maxhimer

Collaborate with writers on edits. 

“Don’t be scared to say ‘This is the caliber of book we’re producing.’ You have to give them the chance to rewrite it because they’re probably going to surprise you. A couple chapters came in and we were like I don’t know about this. And then we went back, gave them the guidance, and it came through. Sometimes people just need that guidance, especially for first-time authors.”—Marc Maxhimer

“If you’re not the editor, find somebody who is an editor and project manager who’s not scared to give people the feedback. But do it in a constructive way. We want you involved, you need to do this, this, and this, let us know. We’re willing to work through this with you.”—Marc Maxhimer

Q3: What would you do differently managing a process like this?

Have a more defined foundation for each chapter.

“I would define what you want the end product to be a little better in the beginning. I know that’s tough, because it organically takes on a life of its own. We weren’t clear that we wanted actionable steps from the beginning. And in hindsight, I actually felt bad having to go back and tell people you put a ton of work in this, it’s really good, and you might want to save it for your own book, but it’s not what we’re looking for.”—Marc Maxhimer

“I wish we would have defined things better from the beginning to give people more structure on what they needed to do, so they didn’t waste their time writing and that they didn’t feel like we didn’t want what they had. We did want what they had, but we wanted their content in a little bit different way.”—Marc Maxhimer

Profile your reader personas for the authors.

“What would have made it easier for me as a writer of this project? I think if we’d had a nicely fleshed out reader profile reminding us of the biggest challenges, goals, and stumbling blocks for the person who is going to be the one picking up this book.”—Erika Heald

Create a style guide.

“The other would have been having that style guide where you could have had some of those things. I’m an actionable writer, I’m very practical, I do lots of step-by-step kinds of articles.”—Erika Heald

Set deadlines early.

“You work your butt off all the time. And this was an extra. They all wanted to do it, but deadlines creep up very fast. I did this when I was a teacher: If you want something on Friday, you tell them the previous Thursday, because it’s going to be at least Wednesday or Thursday of the next week till you get it. There were a couple times where we had to say if we don’t have this in three days, it’s out.”—Marc Maxhimer

Prioritize communications.

“Don’t put too many things in one email. If you load it with information, they’re only going to read the first two. So if you do load it with information, make sure the two things you want are the first two things.”—Marc Maxhimer

Stay flexible.

“Things are going to come up. They’re going to have different ideas. Interpretations are going to be different. And you have to be a little bit flexible and not very rigid, which is tough for someone who is very detail-oriented and wants to keep the train moving.”—Marc Maxhimer

Prepare for the timeline to extend (there is always more work than you expect).

“When you think you’re done, you’re not done. You have three more months of work. We had a draft. I read the draft, Joe read the draft.  He and I met, and we both looked at each other, and we’re like this isn’t it.”—Marc Maxhimer

“When you’re reading chapter by chapter and editing it piecemeal, you don’t really get that feeling of what the whole book is. And when we sat down and read it start to finish, we both were like it’s almost there, but it’s not there.”—Marc Maxhimer

Closely align the book content to the intended reader’s level. 

“Take a step back, look at what the true purpose is. If you’re teaching someone, you’re teaching someone from the beginning. Or if you’re writing a book for the advanced user, that’s fine, and make sure you don’t go through all the beginning stuff, because that’s going to turn off the audience it’s intended for.”—Marc Maxhimer

“My AI chapter was the easiest one to do that way, because everyone I’m talking to about my approach for using AI for repurposing content, everyone is pretty much a beginner, so I automatically do that.”—Erika Heald

“But on the flip side, I had to rewrite my brand voice chapter, because I’ve been speaking about and writing about and coaching and all that kind of stuff around how you develop that documented brand voice. But I primarily do this with organizations that already have a sense of who they want their brand to be. This was my first time really trying to condense, thinking about the importance of brand voice for an audience who probably has never even thought about what is a brand voice.”—Erika Heald

Q4: What is the value of doing a project like this?

Diverse perspectives create a more holistic final product.

“It’s a lot of work, and it’s crazy to get 30 adults who are full-time professionals to do something on a deadline. But the benefit of having all of these experts come together to write a book, like your chapter, for example, on the brand voice. Yeah it’s something that needs to be included, but I probably wouldn’t have thought to include that. But after reading it, it needed to be there. I think those are the examples that having a group project like this can really make the project and the book better because you have all these different viewpoints that are coming in and providing.”—Marc Maxhimer

Group authoring builds community.

“More communities could really show how great their community is. And I think community leaders should consider doing a group project like this. If nothing else, it’s a great marketing tool. Hey, this is my community, look what we produced, you want to be a part of this, because the minds that are in here.”—Marc Maxhimer

A book can cement your thought leadership. 

“That’s what I love about how we set the book up with all the experts. We really went down through and you get the best advice from the best people.”—Marc Maxhimer

And you can make a real difference in someone’s life. 

“My hope is that somebody picks this book up who is thinking about starting or has started and realized this is way harder than they thought. And they can pick this book up and almost like a checklist: Boom, I’ve got my website. Boom, I’ve got the legal stuff. Boom, I’ve got the brand voice.”—Marc Maxhimer

Q5: What is your one big takeaway or piece of advice for someone considering getting involved with this kind of project?

Create the necessary structure, but allow flexibility for the authors to shine.

“Define what you want the end product to be at the beginning, along with some style guides, so people that structure to work within, but still give them the chance to show their expertise and find other areas that they can write about that they didn’t think they could write about.”—Marc Maxhimer

It will take longer than you expect.

“It’s gonna take longer than you thought, and it’s going to be more work than you thought, but the end product is way worth the process. After I read the book and then I saw the final cover, I was like ‘Nan, I’m an author in this book with all of these experts, these people I never thought I’d be beside.”—Marc Maxhimer

Donate the profits to a charitable organization or group cause. 

“Make sure that the profits go towards something, not the authors, because it prevents so many issues. We’re going with the Orange Effect Foundation to help children with speech issues. If you do it with your community, you could have the money go into the community for something for the community.”—Marc Maxhimer

“You can’t split it up amongst the people. It’s a nightmare. You’d have to have all kinds of contracts signed. Plus, the goal of the book is to help people. And that’s it. You’re helping people with the charity, and you’re helping people with the content.”—Marc Maxhimer

“Knowing we were doing this for the Orange Effect Foundation, it really did make it that much more meaningful. We knew that it wasn’t just about us trying to make a few extra dollars, it was about us trying to make a difference.”—Erika Heald

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