Thursday, December 31, 2009

How to Interview an Author

I wrote a companion post for authors about a month ago, titled, “How to interview a ghostwriter.” This post is for potential ghosts.

Before hiring you, most authors will want to talk with you. Whenever I talk with an author, I try to determine three things by the end of the conversation:

1. Is this someone I want to work closely with for four or more months? If you are desperate and your electric is about to be cut off, then you might be willing to work with anyone who is willing to hire you. In lieu of that dismal situation, however, it’s probably a good idea to make sure your potential author is mentally balanced and is someone who will respect your boundaries.

2. Does this person have a compelling idea that I can turn into a successful book proposal or book? Not every idea can be spun into a book. I prefer to work on successful projects. I also want to make sure that this is a project that can net me my fee.

3. Does this person have a platform to support the “compelling idea”? Similar to #2, if the platform is non-existent or not big enough, the author is not going to get an advance big enough to cover my fee.

I’ll go into how I determine each of those one at a time.

#1. There are a few red flags that I look for to determine whether or not a potential author will turn into an author from hell. They are:

· If the author wants me to call back immediately—particularly if it’s a national holiday. That means the author has boundary issues.

· If the author has delusions of grandeur (this is going to be a worldwide best seller, I’m going to get on Oprah, this book is going to make me rich and allow me to give up my [insert career here]). People who only want to do a book in order to get rich or earn fame are usually incredibly disappointed by the realities of book publishing, and they usually blame this disappointment on their ghostwriter. I like to ask authors, “Why do you want to do a book?” The ones who answer that question with, “To help people” or “to make a difference” end up being my favorite authors.

· Anyone who wants me to sign an NDA just to talk to them on the phone. That means they have trust issues.

· If the author tells me that she or he is a “writer.” That usually means that the author thinks I’m a typist, and that’s not what I do.

· If the author asks me if I’m willing to write for free, for trade or for half price, or whether I’m willing to take on this project because I “believe in it.” This means that the author does not value what I bring to the table.

#2. A compelling idea is one that other people want to know about. If the author tells you about his or her idea and your first thought is either, “Been there, read that” or “yawn, is it naptime yet?” then you’ve got a problem. I don’t necessarily give up on the project at this point, but I do ask a lot of questions to try to see if there is anything salvageable: Are you willing to go more commercial? Are you willing to work with me to make your idea stands out from what’s already on the shelf? What is it that your patients/clients thank you for? Why do you think you are successful at what you do? How does your program work?

#3. Platform. This is becoming more and more important in publishing. The platform needs to be both credible (not someone with a mail order degree) and broad. The author needs to have close media ties, a big mailing list, a speaking career, and/or a huge online presence. If these things are absent, it’s nearly impossible to sell the idea to a publisher. I can usually get a sense of an author’s platform by looking at his or her bio and CV, but these are the kinds of questions that I ask: Have you been on TV and how did that go? Do you do public speaking? How large are your audiences and how often do you do it? How many patients/clients do you work with on any given day? Do you have people who would be willing to serve as testimonials for your program?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Landing Your First Book Deal

I teach an online class on ghostwriting and without fail the No. 1 question students ask me is: how do I land my first book gig?

I wish I could tell you there is some secret portal for ghost jobs. There isn’t. However, there are several strategies that any working writer can execute to jump start a career in ghostwriting.

1. Network. The best way to get your first ghostwriting book job is to work with someone who already knows you. Tell the people you already work with that you’re interested in ghostwriting books. Approach interesting people you’ve interviewed, tell them you’d be interested in ghostwriting their book. Networking isn’t so much about asking for favors. It’s about spreading the word. Be sure that everyone who works with you knows your goals.
2. Respond to ads in reputable forums. Lots of people advertise for ghostwriters, but lots of those jobs can be problematic. They are posted by people who don’t really have a good handle on what the book business is like. So when you troll the want ads, be choosy. Try the job boards of professional organizations. Or forums for which the job poster has to pay a fee (that helps to screen out the truly clueless.)
3. Be prepared for your first book to pay poorly. The first book I ever wrote was a co-author project for a toy expert. I wrote the proposal on spec. I split the advance and the royalties 50-50. This was not a great deal for me financially. I had to revise the proposal twice. The advance covered about half of the time it took me to write the book. And like many books, there were never any royalties. That said, once I had my first book, I could market myself as an experienced collaborator and that allowed me to charge more favorable rates on my subsequent projects.

Readers, anything to add? What advice do you give to newbies on how to land your first ghost book gig?

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Ghostwriter’s Guide to Reading Want Ads

The Internet is full of ads from people who say they want to hire ghostwriters. Some are legit jobs. Some are tar pits of despair. How can you tell the difference? Sometimes the ad itself will offer clues.

So begins my recurring series on how to read a ghostwriting want ad. Whenever I spot a doozy, I'll share.

This first one was is a job posting forwarded to me by a friend. The writer of the ad is a businessman in search of a ghostwriter for his thought leadership book.

What he says:
"Payment: We split the profits 50/50, total compensation capped at $1 million."
What he means:
"I am delusional."

Two king-sized fantasies here. The first fantasy: Profits. Many books never earn out their advances. That means no profits. And nothing from nothing leaves nothing. The second fantasy: $1 million. A client who goes into a project with grandiose expectations -- Oprah, The Pulitzer, $1 million -- may be the kind of client who can never be made happy. Nothing wrong with aiming high and going for it. But clients should be aware of just how hard it is to be even modestly successful as an author, let alone an Oprah pick. The fact that this fellow felt the need to put a million-dollar cap clause into his Internet ad says to me that he's not especially realistic about his prospects.

What about you? Seen an ad for a ghostwriter that made you chuckle? Or scream? Email me. Or post yourself in the comments section. No names, please. We're not trying to embarrass the authors so much as educate the ghosts.

Friday, December 4, 2009

A Ghostwriting Community Sounds Really Good to Me

At my writing desk in my home office in Southern California, I've often felt lonesome to know someone else who does what I do. I met Alisa through her amazing blog,, and Ellen through her, and they've invited me to contribute here. I feel like I just got that coveted sorority bid I never got back in college.

I have worked with one particular fellow writer -- she's the one who introduced me to this business, and I credit her with giving me a leg-up and an education without which I could not have been as successful as I've been as a ghost. But she's best described as a coauthor. Her name always appears on the books she works on, and she has had enough success that people who hire her WANT her name to appear.

I, on the other hand, am happy as a ghost. I get to sit here writing and learning, looping and swirling words together, spiriting someone else's voice, selling and burnishing someone else's ideas. I listen to the author's speech, pick his/her brain, and fill in the blanks with my own research. It's freeing, kind of like the exercises we used to do in school where we'd try to imitate a great writer's style and rhythm.

My road to ghostwriting was circuitous. I earned my undergraduate degree in the performing arts while accruing a lot of coursework in language and literature, which had always been passions for me. After a couple of years thrashing about in retail and waitressing jobs while working for free as a dancer, choreographer and actress, I stopped wanting to count on the arts to support me financially. I returned to school and earned a graduate degree in Exercise Physiology, with the notion of being a highly paid personal trainer for rich folk. I thought, hey, I can hang out in gyms, work out a lot, be buff, and make a high hourly wage - then I can go off and be an artist on my own time!

Problem was, I didn't like being a personal trainer. Fortunately, I ended up with a client who was a writer, and who needed help, and was willing to give me a tumble. She's the one I mentioned earlier. I had a lot of foundational knowledge about human physiology and medical matters from my graduate education, so I stepped into the health niche pretty smoothly.

That was 13 years ago. I've branched out from health and medical writing to write about education, psychology, and spirituality. When I started having children, I became passionate about topics related to pregnancy, postpartum health, parenting, and breastfeeding, and got to write about these topics a good deal. At this point, I'm starting a new health/medical assignment that will stretch over the next several months.

Although I'm more than happy to work behind the scenes as a ghost, I have felt the need to write as myself from time to time. I started my own blog at Open Salon: I have about 40 pages of a novel written, and I've written some good poetry. Still dancing and performing, too.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Celebrity Ghosts Speak

I had to chuckle today while reading the WSJ take on celebrity ghostwriters.

While there was lots of interesting information throughout, the best line came from David Ritz, ghostwriter to the likes of B.B. King and Aretha Franklin. A high profile mogul was willing to pay him an additional $40,000 to $50,000 to keep his name off the cover, "because he wanted people to think he’d written the book,” Ritz said. Ritz turned down the job.

Now I have to admit that my first reaction was: Dear Mr. Ritz. Please send that gig to me. My silence is for sale and $50,000 sounds entirely reasonable.

Still, in truth, Ritz makes a good point to all us ghosts out there: A client who really really really wants you to keep it quiet may be raising a red flag. In some cases, there may be perfectly good reasons to keep the ghost’s name out of it. As ghostwriter agent Madeleine Morel points out in the article, sometimes it’s easier to market a book with just one name on the cover.

But staying off the cover and staying completely off the radar are two different things. If the client is fibbing about his or her writing skills to the outside world, ghostwriter beware. The client who lives in fear of being found out can be very high maintenance. I've had those kind of gigs and there were many moments when the paranoia of the client made the work that much more difficult.

Although an extra 50 thou might have sweetened it ;)

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Controversy Over Medical Ghostwriting

A form of ghostwriting has been in the news lately, shining a less-than-flattering light on the practice. So-called medical ghostwriting--where pharmaceutical or medical device companies pay ghosts to independently write journal articles and papers, then seek out researchers, professors and other experts who are compensated for allowing themselves to be named the authors of these papers and articles--is being challenged as unethical. The New York Times recently reported that Senator Charles E. Grassley (R-Ohio), ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee wrote to the top 10 medical schools and asked what they were doing about their professors who put their names on these papers and comparing the practice to plagiarism.

Ghostwriting, however, is a longtime practice and most ghosting arrangements bear no likeness to the shenanigans that are currently under Congressional fire. There are two important distinctions that make such "medical ghostwriting" different than most traditional (and ethical) ghostwriting arrangements.

Intellectual Collaboration: First and foremost, any intellectual collaboration that went on--the crafting of ideas and making a case for a specific point of view--was not done between the named author and the ghostwriter. In my collaborations, I spend hours speaking with the author, making sure I understand his or her ideas, insights, experiences, and the information he or she wishes to convey through the work. And while the author may have a point of view that he or she wishes to use to influence a way of thinking, the difference is that it's obvious. The author's name is on the cover of the book or the by-line of the article. First, a commercial or special interest creates a body of work that will be published or presented in a medium that is supposed to be "objective" and then pays an expert to lend his or her name and credibility to the piece without any input from that expert. Invariably, that means the collaboration is biased in favor of the sponsoring organization and the persuasion does not come via the expert's own intellectual property, experiences and viewpoints. Since medical journals, papers, and reports often shape current medical thinking, this type of veiled promotional activity may have serious implications for the public at large.

Conflict of Interest. Whether it's true or not, it is often assumed that a writer's allegiance is to the entity writing his or her check. So, if a writer is crafting a paper to be presented at a medical conference and being paid by a pharmaceutical company, it's a safe bet that the paper will not contain negative information about the pharma co, even if it's valid. At the same time, the so-called "expert" is being compensated for lending his or her name to the piece. It's safe to assume that the organization footing the bill is not going to enthusiastically fund anyone who doesn't toe the company communications line. In traditional ghosting arrangements, the writer is paid by the named author. They're on the same team, working toward a common outcome in the work. And once a writer is compensated by the author for such a collaboration, that expert goes into the do-not-use file because of similar conflict-of-interest issues when the writer reports for other media. After having been compensated by a source, there is an inherent conflict of interest in using that source for objective reporting.

Alisa Bowman rightly pointed out to me that this is similar to advertorial creation, where a writer may very well work directly with the funder to craft the message and then someone else's name is put in the piece. The difference there is that those sections are clearly labeled "Advertisement," "Advertorial," or "Special Advertising Section" to distinguish them from objective editorial. That was not the case in these instances of medical ghostwriting.

When an author and ghost work together to create a piece of work based on the author's ideas and knowledge, the ghost is a facilitator, helping the author get the right words written. When the ghost collaborates with a special interest in secret and then uses the credibility of another to influence public health decisions without any kind of disclosure, a serious breach of ethics has occurred.

What are your thoughts on latest medical ghostwriting findings? Join the conversation in the comments section.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

How to Interview a Ghostwriter

Before most authors hire me, they want to talk to me over the phone. This, I think, is good protocol. After all, hiring a ghostwriter is a huge investment of time and money. It takes at least a few months and much more than a few thousand dollars to get a book written for you. You want to go into the experience knowing you’ve hired the right person.

It’s perhaps not quite as important as making sure you’ve hired the right cardiac surgeon, but it’s close. It’s definitely up there with hiring the right divorce lawyer or investment banker.

Yet, invariably, I find that I end up interviewing the authors during these calls, rather than them interviewing me. Usually the author tells me all about the project and about him or herself. I ask a lot of questions because I have a lot of questions. (More on those questions in an upcoming post).

Then a half hour or so later, I can tell that the author likes me a lot—but knows absolutely nothing about me. I know this because I’ve said little to nothing about myself. So I ask, “Is there anything you want to know about me?” Usually the author asks something innocuous, like whether I tape and transcribe my interviews.

I can only assume that most authors don’t know what to ask. That’s why I came up with this list of questions. If I were going to hire a ghostwriter, this is what I would want to know:

1. How will you capture my voice?

2. Have you ever missed a book deadline? If so, why?

3. How much time will I have to devote to this project? Will you do all of the heavy lifting, or should I be more involved?

4. How will you gather information for the book? (Note: if it’s a health book, I would ask, “Will you find the studies you cite, or do I need to supply them for you?”)

5. My agent/editor is telling me that my book/book proposal needs to be highly commercial. What does that mean and can you help me do that?

6. How do you work with authors to develop their unique message, program or hook?

7. How will you ensure that I am happy with the final product?

8. How do you usually work with authors? What generally happens?

9. How long does it take you to write a book?

10. What unique strengths do you bring to the table that other writers lack?

11. Why should I hire you over some other writer?

12. (If applicable) Other writers charge less than you do. Why should I pay more for your services?

13. How did you get into this anyway?

Coming soon: How to interview an author.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

8 Reasons People Hire Ghostwriters

Many people are floored when I tell them what I do for a living. “You mean, people don’t write their own books?” they ask incredulously.

I answer, “Some people write their own books. Many people don’t. They hire people like me to write them instead.”

I’m often met with one of those facial expressions that says, “Dang, how much money will I get by selling this revelation to the National Enquirer?”
The answer to that question, I believe, is none.

Personally, I don’t get the shock value. When we want a new house, we hire other people to build it, don’t we? We hire other people to decorate our houses, too. We hire them to landscape our lawns and to paint our walls. They install our carpeting and our bathroom tiles.

We generally get the credit for this sort of stuff. When friends and family visit, they ooh and awe about our taste in decorating or about our new carpet, even though they know we did not do these things ourselves.

That’s because most people understand that, to be done right, such work requires a unique set of skills and talents. Therefore people with those skills and talents must be hired to get these sorts of things done.

It’s the same with books. Very few people know how to write a book. Book writing requires a unique skill set—one that goes far beyond the mere ability to write. In order to write a successful book, one must know quite a bit about the book market, the publishing process, and reading habits.

For instance, I’m just going to toss out a random question to you. Let’s say you want to write a book. How long should it be? Do you know the answer to that question?
Think about it as you read. I’ll give you the answer at the end of the post.

It takes a lot of people to write and publish a book—a lot more people than most people think. Often, the author serves as a director: the person who hires key people and gives them direction on what needs to be done. These key people might involve a ghostwriter, a recipe developer, a photographer, a graphic artist, a researcher, and more. And then there are all of the people who work for the publisher: the line editor, the copy editor, the proof reader, the interior designer, the cover designer, the sales team, the marketing team, the publicity team, the indexer, and so on.

In the end, the author gets all the glory—just as film actresses and actors do. But plenty of other people worked behind the scenes to make that book a success.

And the ghostwriter is just one of these behind-the-scenes people.

Here are some of the reasons I’ve been brought in on a book project:

1. The author has a great idea for a book, but doesn’t have time to write it.

2. The author is famous and an agent and/or publisher has talked this famous person into doing a book. The famous person likes the idea of having his or her name on a book, but he/she has no idea what the book should be about. A writer like me is then brought in to work with the famous person and try to get an idea to gel.

3. The author has a great platform and lots of credibility. The author might even have great writing skills, but the author doesn’t know how to take what she/he knows and turn it into a book with a unique commercial message. Someone like me is then brought in to help the author develop the “hook.”

4. The author has a great platform and lots of credibility, but writing is not one of his or her strong suits and he or she knows this. Such authors usually breathe a great big sigh of relief once they learn that it’s really okay to hire someone else to put the words on the page.

5. The author already has one very successful book. Now the author and the publisher want to extend this book into a series. The author feels completely tapped out—as if he or she only had one book to write. Someone like me is then brought in to find the words that belong in the rest of the books in the series.

6. The author thought he/she could write a book, but he/she got 20,000 words into it and then ran out of things to say. Then someone like me is brought in to find the rest of the words.

7. The author thought he/she could write a book but now the book deadline is just a couple months away (or it already came and went) and the author still has writer’s block. Then someone like me—who rarely suffers from writer’s block—gets hired to make things happen quickly.

8. The author thought he/she wrote a great book, but the publishing house does not agree. Someone like me is brought in to help the author and the publishing house meet in the middle.

Now, let’s get back to the quiz I posed earlier. The answer is that it depends on the book category. A book’s retail price is based on its page count. No one wants their book to be the most expensive book on the shelf, which means that most publishers will require authors to write to fit the category. If most of the books in the category are 200 pages, then your book will be roughly 200 pages.

A 200-page book comes to roughly 60,000 words—and that’s a short book folks. A professional writer like me can crank that many words out in just a few months. That’s why people hire us, among many other reasons.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Got Ghost Gigs?

Why yes, I do. Thanks so much for asking.

This has been a good week for me. I signed two new ghostwriting deals. Both are books. One is for an entrepreneur with a great success story. The other is for a big company with an existing title that needs updating for the modern marketplace. But you don’t want to hear me brag. You want to know: How can I do that? Without further ado, these are some of my tips for getting ghost gigs:

Tell people you’re a ghostwriter. Sounds silly but it works. You never know who needs a ghost. You never know who knows someone who needs a ghost. Make it known this is what you do not just to classic “networking” marks but to friends, family, neighbors. Word gets around.

Create a ghost-centric web presence. The big company that hired me for the revise job said I got the call in part because when they were still researching writers (before any of us even knew we were candidates) they looked at websites, etc., to see “who was really committed to ghostwriting.”

Volunteer. Careful with this one. It’s a good marketing tool, but used poorly, it can backfire on you. Lots of worthy organizations need ghostwriting done – a fund raising letter, a speech, a newsletter. Volunteer to ghostwrite for the organizations you care about, preferably ones where the people know you personally. When you’re thanked for all your hard work, be sure to say: “You’re very welcome. I was happy to do it. And I’m always looking for paid ghostwriting gigs so if you ever hear of someone looking for a ghostwriter, I hope you’ll think of me.” What’s the potential backfire? Be careful not to get sucked in to doing a ton of work for free. Some here and there is fine. But it shouldn’t start taking up huge swathes of your time. That just keeps you from finding paying work.

That's a few of the ones I use. What about you? How do you drum up ghosting work?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Why Do Some Ghosts Choose to Be Invisible?

Yesterday, I wrote about the attention that Andre Agassi's ghostwriter, J.R. Moehringer, is getting for his work on Agassi's book. In her review in the NYT, Janet Maslin writes that Moehringer was offered cover credit but turned it down. Some might wonder why anyone would do that.

It's a complex question and, while I certainly can't speak for Moehringer, I've turned down credit in the past, as well. If a writer moves from writing her own books to helping others write books as a ghost, it can be confusing for publishers to look at the body of work, especially if the writing is about disparate subjects and in varied forms. A collection of memoirs, how-to, and pop culture books written with various authors may distract publishers from the writer's own work in narrative nonfiction. A children's book ghostwritten with another author may not "make sense" coming from an author whose primary work is in business and finance.

Sometimes, though, ghosts collaborate within their areas of specialization. In those cases, being a named collaborator can be a boon to one's own publishing efforts, especially if the collaborator has a significant platform and the book sells well.

The issue of credit is one that should be decided early in the ghostwriting process with as much specificity as possible. Will the name be on the cover? Will the ghost be mentioned in the acknowledgements? What will be said about his or her particpation? Include the details in the collaboration agreement to avoid any misnunderstanding about giving credit where credit is (or isn't) due.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Ghost Citing: J.R. Moehringer, Ghostwriter on Andre Agassi's Open: An Autobiography

Andre Agassi is out and about promoting his new book, Open: An Autobiography. While much of the attention has centered on his hairline, love life, and meth use, Janet Maslin took the time and space in her New York Times review to give props to Agassi's ghostwriter, J.R. Moehringer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of The Tender Bar, his own New York Times-bestselling memoir. And The Christian Science Monitor's Marjorie Kehe rounds up what some critics are saying here. Nice to see a ghost getting well-deserved recognition.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Before the Book: Building Platform

Many an eager would-be author has formulated a book idea and rushed out to hire a ghost to help move the publishing process forward. But there's a critical step that needs to happen between those two actions, whether the plan is to court a traditional publishing house or self-publish.

The missing link is platform. Essentially, before you embark on any publishing process, you need to establish yourself as a minor celeb in your own right. (This is not necessarily true if you have starred on any of Bravo's Real Housewives shows.) In this crazy publishing environment, publishers want to know that you already have a following--people who know you and would be likely to buy your book--and that you have the ability to promote yourself and your work. In fact, some publishers look more closely at the marketing plan in your book proposal than they do at the content of the book. And if you're self-publishing, your platform may be even more important to help you find distribution channels for your book.

So, how do you build this platform? It takes many planks, but here are some of the best ways I know:

Speak. I know you hate it. Almost everyone does. But get over it. At some point--probably many points--you'll need to get up in front of a room full of people and talk about your book subject. If you're new to speaking, start small. Start at some local Chamber meetings or business networking groups. Hit a Toastmasters meeting or two. Then, build to bigger and bigger audiences. Develop a menu of topics you can cover. And look into non-member resources offered by the National Speakers Association (once you start getting enough paid gigs, you may even qualify for membership, which can be attractive to publishers). Think about it: From a publisher's perspective, if you're out there speaking to large groups of people on a regular basis, you 1) know your stuff; and 2) are probably getting people interested in what you have to say. That usually translates into book sales.

Flack. I'll probably get into trouble for using that word, but what I mean is that you need to be your own media relations person. Pen by-lined stories for trade magazines. Come up with relevant topics that will get you booked on TV or high-profile radio shows. Send out commentary to top newspapers on current events that relate to your industry. Follow the calls for sources on Help a Reporter to get yourself interviewed by reporters and bloggers. Build a healthy dossier of media appearances that you can highlight in your book proposal. Bonus points for getting on a morning show or a certain talk show that rhymes with Soaprah.

Collect. Names that is. And contact info. Whenever you speak or participate in an event, ask for permission to add your audience's contact info to your database. (Always ask permission to avoid running afoul of spam regulations.) You may wish to offer a free white paper or email newsletter from your web site--I hope it goes without saying that you need a web site--in exchange for visitors offering up their emaill addresses. Also, use social media like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn to build audience. The bigger your network of contacts, the more attractive you'll be to a publisher and the easier it will be to reach out and sell books.

Network. Get out there and find people who can help you reach bigger and bigger audiences and connect with others in your industry who can help build your reputation as an expert in your field. And you'll also want a few big names in your area of expertise who can write "blurbs," those flattering quotes you see on book jackets, once the publishing process gets underway.

Of course, there are many other ways to market yourself--guest blog on high-profile sites, sponsor trade shows or events, start an online or off-line radio show, integrate your persona into your own company's marketing, to name a few. Go for it. The best ways to get attention for yourself will vary based on your industry.

One book I really like on this subject is Get Slightly Famous by Steven Van Yoder. I interviewed Yoder shortly after the first issue of his book came out several years ago. And while I haven't read the second edition, I found that he is very knowledgeable and gives reasonable, action-oriented advice about builidng your following.

So, dear readers, have you found any platform building tactics particularly effective? Let's pool our collective knowledge in the comments section.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Top 10 Ghostwritten Books:

Love this list.

I especially like reading about what these ghostwriters did when they were not ghostwriting. Pulitzer Prizes, National Book Awards. Makes me want to go practice my Oscar speech.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Sandford Dody: A Ghost's Story

This obituary of ghostwriter-to-the-stars Sandford Dody has stayed with me since I read it in July. Dody ghostwrote books for Bette Davis, Robert Merrill, and Helen Hayes, among others. Yet, it made him deeply unhappy. This Wall Street Journal piece says he wrote, "After all, how can one become a ghost without dying a little?"

I think it's difficult for some people to create work and put someone else's name on it. I don't share that view when it comes to ghosting. I love helping people find the right words to tell their stories or share their ideas. But that doesn't make them any less their stories or ideas. I didn't live the experiences. I didn't formulate the thoughts. Whether I'm ghosting a book, opinion piece, or speech, the majority of it comes from someone else's brain. I help them say what they want to say in ways which other people want to read or hear.

What do you think about Dody's view of ghosting? Weigh in in the Comments section.

Anatomy of Successful Collaborations

"How does that work?" It's a question ghostwriters frequently try to answer after we reveal what we do for a living. There's no simple response--book collaborations take many different forms, from a named co-author to an invisible ghost who helps the author tell his or her story. I've collaborated on about a dozen books and each engagement has had its own quirks and conditions.

An easier question is "How does that work well?" I've found there are some definite hallmarks of successful collaborations. When these are in place, the process is enjoyable, exciting, and produces a darn good manuscript.

Clear goals. The ghost and the author each need to understand why the book is being written. Is it going to be used to build the author's credibility as an expert or speaker? As a business tool? To share specific ideas that will appeal to a particular audience? To use personal stories as a call for action? A good ghostwriter will help the author develop a manuscript that supports the book's goals.

Content outline. Whether I'm ghosting a book that will be published by a publishing house or self-published by the author, the first phase of the project always includes a content outline. This helps us develop a logical content order and ensures that the finished project is interesting and informative. Without a content outline, projects can lose momentum and stall because there's no plan for divulging the content order. The outline also ensures that we don't overlook key points.

Timeline. Like any big project, writing a manuscript needs to be well-managed to ensure it is completed in a timely manner. The author and the ghost should work together to determine milestones--chapters, word count, etc.--and the amount if time it will take to complete them. Authors and ghosts need to carefully consider other demands on their time, including the author's existing business obligations and the ghost's project load to ensure they allow enough time to complete the best possible manuscript.

Good communication. Gosh, that's trite, isn't it? But it's true. If a passage or chapter isn't working for the author, or if the ghost is having trouble getting the right information, the worst thing that either one can do is avoid talking about it. A ghostwriting relationship is like a short-term marriage. If you don't talk about the things that aren't working, it's impossible to correct them. Constructive critique and revision or polishing are part of the process.

A common voice. I'll probably never be the right person to ghost a book that requires an academic tone and a lot of jargon. I can mimic voices well in my writing, especially as the author and I move forward in the process and I've had a chance to speak extensively with him or her and read any writing he or she has done. However, my writing veers toward a more conversational style. I find that's more engaging for the types of business and money topics I typically tackle. My most successful engagements have been with clients who had a similar view of the book's voice.

Mutual respect. Good ghostwriters are not typists who take the author's dictation. We can help you refine your concepts into marketable ideas. Most of us have been working in publishing for years and can help you navigate this crazy business.

At the same time, no one knows your business or area of expertise like you do--and we get that. It's not our job to change your ideas or messages. We may challenge them here and there (just as a reader would) or offer suggestions about how to better present them, all in the name of creating the best book possible. But it's our job to take your ideas and present them in a way that people are dying to read.

Sure, there are other elements that make collaborations successful. But, in my experience, these are the most important. When these essentials are in place, anything else can be overcome.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Top Ten Questions I Get When I Tell People I’m A Ghostwriter (And my answers.)

1.Oh, do you know any celebrities?

No, and that’s a big misconception about ghostwriters. We’re not just for celebrities anymore. Sure, celebrities still hire ghostwriters to pen their memoirs. But most ghosts are working for less rarified clientele. I write for business people – CEOs, entrepreneurs, management consultants, managers, etc. Other ghosts I know work with doctors, designers, technologists and Wall Streeters. If it’s a section in Barnes and Noble, the ghostwriters are there.

2.Don’t you want to write your own books?

Yes, and I do.

3.How did you get into that line of work?

I was a freelance magazine writer in 2004 when one of my sources asked me if I would work with her on a book. I did. It was fun. And I also had a very strong sense of what I brought to the process. She had great ideas; I could put them in book form. I thought: Hmmm, maybe I can make this a business.

4.What books have you written? Or is that a secret?

I’ve written 12 books. Some of them are a secret, most are not. All ghost agreements are different, but in most of my work, I ask that the client mention me in the acknowledgements. In fact, if you want to find out if a book had a ghostwriter, read the acknowledgements. Waaaaaay down there, after the author has thanked everybody from the publisher to his favorite Starbucks barista, you may find the ghostwriter. That’s the individual thanked for his or her help in writing/editing/creating the book. Once I was thanked for my “help in preparing the manuscript.” Whatever. Just spell my name right.

5.Can you really make a living doing that?


6.How do you get paid?

That’s the questions I often get next because nobody quite believes me when I say I make a living as a ghostwriter (and I do.) Often, I am paid directly by the author/expert (that would be the person whose name appears in big type on the book cover.) Sometimes, I negotiate for a slice of the royalties, but not always. Generally, the bulk of my payment is made before the book even hits the shelves.

7.How does ghostwriting work, exactly?

Every client is different. Some want to be very involved with every word on the page. Others want to write a check and come back in six months to find their book done.

8.Don’t you feel terrible when a book does well and someone else gets all the credit?

No, I feel great. I know that book would never have happened without me. It would still be a great idea, trapped in the brain of a busy person with too much to do to sit down for six months and write a book. I feel very proud when the books I’ve worked on do well.

9.Do you just ghostwrite books?

Books are the main part of my business, but I also do articles, reports, newsletters, etc. And the world of new media has brought new work for ghostwriters. Twitter, for example. I hear there’s work for ghostwriters “tweeting” for clients. Can’t say that’s my cup of tea, but if it helps a ghost make a living, it’s all good.

10.Will you ghostwrite my novel?

No, sorry. I’m strictly a non-fiction ghost. But I’d be happy to make a recommendation for you.

A Day in the Life of a Ghostwriter

Some of my friends and acquaintances—and possibly even my parents—have no idea what I do for a living. I mean, they know I write stuff, but they don’t know what stuff and how much stuff, and most have no clue that the stuff I write actually earns me a good living.

For instance, I can’t tell you how many people who, when they bump into me while I am getting my morning latte, ask, “Where’s your daughter?” What I assume they really want to know is this, “You don’t really work, so why isn’t your daughter with you every moment of the day?”

I fear that some people think of me as a lay-at-home mom—the type of woman who would put her kid in daycare just so she can watch Oprah and get pedicures.

Despite how much this frustrates me, I can understand why people would think these things. For one, I rarely talk about what I do. Periodically, I’m required by law not to talk about my work because I’ve signed a nondisclosure agreement. Other times I just don’t want to deal with the 600 questions certain people tend to ask when I mention that I’m ghost-writing a book.

So, usually, when people ask me if I’m working on anything interesting, I just reply, “Not really.”

Thus why most people think I don’t truly work at all.

Anyway, I’d like to set the record straight about what really does go on inside my house while I am working and my daughter is at daycare. Here’s a typical day.

6:15 a.m. I wake to my alarm. I try to meditate for 15 minutes before my daughter wakes. It’s my firm belief that meditation builds focus—and writing takes a lot of focus.

6:30 a.m. If my daughter is still sleeping, I check email, Twitter and do all of those other virtual things that people keep telling us we should be doing these days. I also use this time to do obsessive and not-so-good-for-my-state-of-mind things like checking my blog stats.

6:45 a.m. My daughter is usually awake by now. The next hour involves breakfast, dressing, and me trying to do more email while my daughter whines that I am not paying enough attention to her.

8:00 a.m. If the morning is going well, we’re in the car and we’re driving to Kindergarten (which has wrap-around care).

8:30 a.m. I drive to my husband’s coffee shop, where I pick up a latte that he makes for me. One day out of 5, someone will ask me about the whereabouts of my daughter. Now that she’s in kindergarten, this happens somewhat less often than in year’s past.

8:45 a.m. I’m home. Depending on how focused I feel, I might turn on some music. I listen to alternative rock when I need a kick in the pants, classical when I need to focus, and nothing when I really need to crank something out. The coffee hasn’t kicked in yet, so, for the time being, I’m not really trying to focus on anything. It’s just more email and other small, mindless tasks.

9 p.m. If I’m having a productive day, then this is when things get serious. I turn off email. Sometimes I unplug the phone. Occasionally I give myself a “now it’s time to really focus” pep talk. Then I force myself to draft a new book chapter. Starting from scratch is hard for me, which is why I always start the day with the blank screen. If I don’t force myself to get this out of the way first, I’m likely to put it off all day long.

Occasionally my husband will come home during this time. This irritates me because I’m in the zone and even the sound of the door opening will take me out of the zone. In fact, I wish we didn’t have a door at all. It just makes too much noise, in my opinion. Anyway, my husband knows not to talk to me when I am in said zone, and he no longer gets miffed when I don’t bother to greet him. If it’s his day off, he might try to turn on the TV (my office is in a great room that also doubles as the TV room). When he does this, he is met with a hairy eyeball and an, “I don’t think so.”

And, yes, of course I feel terrible and guilty about this, but the zone is the zone. The zone is where money is made.

10:30 a.m. Thank. God. That’s. Over. There are now 1000 to 2000 words on the screen. Most of them are the crappiest words that any writer has ever written, but the screen is no longer blank. I reward myself by walking the dog. You might think that I have the cush life—I get to take a big honking half hour break midmorning. But this dog walking is actually productive time for me. I do my best problem solving during dog walking. I also get my brain warmed up for more writing. And as I walk, I think about whatever book I am working on and various ways I can make it the best book ever published. Usually, by the end of the walk, I’ve come up with a really cool way to distinguish the book from other books in that category.

11 a.m. If I need to do research, I do it. If I’m doing a diet book (I specialize in diet) I’ll go to PubMed and look for studies. Occasionally, I just surf Google, in search of ideas. If I’m really busy, I outsource this part of my day, hiring a researcher to find it all for me.

Noon. Lunch

12:30 p.m. I fill in another chapter for the book. This is usually a chapter that I roughed out a week prior. I already have a couple thousand crappy words to start with and a basic outline, so filling in the rest is a lot like spreading grout. I just look for the missing pieces, find them, and write them.

2 p.m. I’m tapped. Crap, it’s only 2 p.m. though! That sucks. I should really work more, shouldn’t I? But my brain? What happened to it? I have a Puritan work ethic. That’s why I do so well at this work-at-home thing. I’m my own boss from hell. I suck every last bit of creative effort from my brain nearly every day. So now that I’m losing brainpower, I switch to less mentally taxing things. If I’m working on a magazine piece, for instance, I’ll line up interviews during this time slot. If I need to talk with a book author, I’ll give my author a call. I also reserve this time for random book emergencies that tend to pop up—a publisher who has a sudden query very late in the process, an author who is freaked out because her book is about to come out the next day and she’s worried no one will want to read it, that sort of thing. I might handle easy writing tasks at this point too, such as the chapter that just needs a proof read or a little pruning.

3:30 p.m. Okay, now I’m so tapped I don’t even know how to spell my own name. It’s time for a run. Again, sounds cush, but I actually get a lot of thinking done during my runs.

4:15 p.m. What I am about to admit next is nasty and gross, but it’s the honest truth. At this time of day I’m usually still in my running clothes, I’m sweaty and stinky, and I’m at my computer. I’m here and not in the shower because something occurred to me during the run that I realize I need to deal with RIGHT AWAY. It’s possible that, during the run, I came up with an awesome idea for a book and I want to tell my lit agent about it. Or maybe I finally figured out how to solve a problem that has been plaguing me on a book, and I want to execute the solution before I forget about it.

4:40 p.m. I don’t shower now, I’ll miss the chance. In I go. I put off washing my hair for another day. There’s not enough time for that. Usually the phone rings right about now. If I allow myself to answer it, I not only miss my shower, but I also end up racing to daycare to gather my daughter.

5 p.m. or so. I pick up my daughter and do dinner, homework and bedtime.

8 p.m. My daughter is in bed. It’s anyone’s guess whether or not she’ll stay there. I try to write my blog (either on this site or at If I’m wasted from the day, I blow off blog writing and just go to bed.

9 p.m. Assuming I didn’t go to bed and the blog is done, I turn on the TV for THE FIRST TIME ALL DAY LONG (just had to make that clear). I sit with my husband and we watch something incredibly scary and gory like Dexter, Criminal Minds, or CSI.

10 p.m. Now I’m definitely in bed. Night.