You’ve been told not to judge a book by its cover, right? I understand the sentiment, but we really can’t help ourselves. Covers contain crucial information both in their design and in their words. There is some information on a book’s cover that many people don’t know how to decipher. Let me tell you how to make sense of the information about authors, co-authors, editors, and contributors.
When you see the names of two authors separated by the word “and,” it indicates they are co-authors. In general you would expect this means they have made roughly equal contributions to the book, in either the ideas or the writing. Usually the authors’ names are listed alphabetically, though if one person is much better known, his name may be first simply for purposes of marketing. In some circumstances one name may be in a bigger font than the other one. This tends to indicate that one person’s contribution was more significant than another’s, though it could also simply be marketing to emphasize the name that is most likely to catch the eye of a potential purchaser. In a co-author situation, you expect that both authors are compensated by drawing a royalty from the book’s sales, then dividing it among themselves.
When you see the names of two people separated by the word “with,” it indicates the first name is the author while the second is a collaborator. The author is the person responsible for the content with the collaborator the one responsible for the writing. This could mean it is a memoir with the subject of the memoir listed as the author and the collaborator as the one who has made that person’s story into a book (Cecil Murphy takes this role quite often, as does Lynn Vincent). It could also mean it is a book based on a series of sermons with the preacher listed as the author and the collaborator as the one who turned the content of the sermons into a book. (You may think of a few books by Matt Chandler with Jared Wilson”). Publishers may use a collaborator when an author is a poor writer or when he is too busy to turn original material into books. Alternatively, there are some people who are particularly skilled at adapting existing material into books or study guides. In an author/collaborator situation, the collaborator will usually be paid a set amount for his work while the author is compensated by drawing a royalty from the book’s sales.
“Edited by” and “Contributor”
Sometimes a book will be made up of contributions from a number of different authors under the guidance of an editor. In this case you will see “Edited by” to indicate the person who took the lead on the project and “contributor” to indicate people who prepared one or more of the chapters. The contributors are assigned a topic, then submit them to the editor for approval and inclusion in the book. Contributors tend to be listed alphabetically, though the ones who are best-known may be listed first for purposes of marketing. In the Christian world these books are most often collections of talks delivered at a conference or academic books on a single topic. For example, a few months after a Desiring God, Together for the Gospel, or Gospel Coalition conference you will usually find a book containing edited versions of the sermons delivered there. In this situation, the contributors are sometimes paid a flat rate while at other times they and the editor are all compensated through a royalty.
One thing that is whispered about in Christian publishing is the use of ghostwriters–unnamed and unacknowledged writers who are paid to prepare books on behalf of a prominent personality. There are stories, perhaps apocryphal, of “authors” who only learn they have written a book when they see their name on its cover. This certainly happens often in the general market, and undoubtedly happens from time to time in Christian publishing as well. It was at one time declared a secret that haunts the Christian publishing world and there was good evidence it was a common practice. If the practice continues today in the Christian world, it would be primarily among people whose books sell in the many millions. If it does happen, I am not at all certain how the payment structure works, though I suspect the ghostwriter is most often paid a fixed amount for his work.
So there you have! Now you can properly judge a book by its cover by deciphering the information about authors, co-authors, collaborators, editors, and contributors. Now you know who you’re really reading…