The Generosity Theory

In every book there’s usually a note from the author—in publishing we call this the acknowledgments—and if you think editors don’t check to see if we’re mentioned there, you need to research a little more about human nature before you start that next novel. :) Sometimes I’m really touched by the messages left for me in the acknowledgments. Sometimes I’m a little disappointed to go unmentioned, but it’s happened enough times it doesn’t surprise me. When they get their I’d-like-to-thank-the-Academy moment, some folks are better prepared than others.

In this big world, it seems, everybody’s jostling for recognition for one thing or another. Some people manage to accomplish this without much effort (see: Justin Bieber) but the rest of us have to work a little harder to get noticed and appreciated.

My friends in academia—for whom publish or perish is a truism—hold their research close to the vest before they go public. The order in which one’s name appears in the list of authors usually indicates how much credit one actually deserves, in the way one can extrapolate how much fruit, say, is in that fruit juice by noting which ingredient is listed first … and last. But there’s bickering and personality conflict—no one’s immune from this, I guess—and some honest oversight too.

My friends in the music industry—particularly songwriters—call this process determining the splits (because they’re splitting the credit for each song into percentages). The film industry employs legions of lawyers to determine who gets credit for what and, you know, whose name will appear first onscreen.

It can get pretty tricky when you’re writing a (nonfiction) book too. Are you a ghostwriter? Will you be named on the cover or is the Famous Person going to pretend he or she wrote the book? If you’re named, will you be a with or an and (Famous Person with Unfamous Writer or Famous Person and Unfamous Writer)? (Hint: and is better.)

That’s all decided before the first word is written. At some point the manuscript will have to be reviewed by attorneys and by the FP and his or her associates. And you know what they say, right? There’s three sides to every story: his, hers, and the truth. (Or, in this case: Famous Person, FP’s Associates, and the writer.) A friend of mine who ghosts tells the story of FP’s spouse, who was determined to have, ahem, spousal stories included. (Again, that jostling for recognition. Behind every Famous Person stands … Someone Else.) In another instance, Famous Person’s assistant—who had been present during the events covered in the book and had a lot more time to talk to the ghostwriter—later insisted she should be credited as a coauthor. True story.

Everyone has an opinion, a perspective, a memory that may be different. The police call these folks unreliable witnesses and know how to recognize them, but when you’re writing a book, how can you be sure? If you remember it’s often less about who should actually get credit than it is about perception of who deserves credit, your decision might be easier.

A friend of mine sought my advice when she was entering her film in an important competition. Who should be mentioned on the entry form? She’d done all the work herself, she’d been paid, and the subject was happy with the end product. And yet … it’s really all about who gets credit. So the easiest thing to do, in my opinion, is to be generous. There’s no shame in shared glory. And win or lose, people remember that generosity.

When I was checking to be sure my memory was correct on songwriting splits, I came across this article in the Guardian that supports my generosity theory:

I sometimes get asked by songwriters what percentage they should ask for when they collaborate with other writers and artists. … I usually respond with the question: “Do you ever want to work with this person again?” If the answer is yes, I strongly advise equal splits all the way. Do you think Lennon and McCartney would have written half the classics they did if they’d spent their time arguing about who wrote what, and trying to get more songs than the other onto each album?

Yes, I understand, there’s often a lot of money at stake, not only in music but in movies, in science (who will get to patent, say, the cure for cancer, and how much will it be worth?), and in publishing. I’m not indifferent to money. It could be the difference between sending your kids to college and being comfortable in your old age … or not. But I still think—especially when we’re talking about a lot of money—there’s room for generosity.

And remember those acknowledgments? My friend the ghostwriter got a lot of grief from a minor player in a big story. Grandiose claims were made. But at the end of the day, all it took was a more generous mention in the acknowledgments to turn that frown upside down. The Generosity Theory.*

* I want credit for that now, y’all. :)


Tweet: There’s no shame in shared glory. And win or lose, people remember that generosity.
Tweet: In this big world, it seems, everybody’s jostling for recognition for one thing or another.
Tweet: Who gets credit for what? Sometimes it’s hard to tell without a lawyer.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


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  1. Great advice, Jamie. Now to get off my b*** and do the work.