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 ;)