Friday, March 29, 2019

Should you use a ghostwriter?

Yesterday someone posted a question to the National Speakers Association’s Facebook group about using a ghostwriter. She had been quoted $25K and six months’ time to write her book, and wondered if this was (a) normal and (b) worth it.

This question lit up this normally staid group, with over 100 responses and counting within 24 hours – with enough diverse opinions that the original poster claimed to be even more confused. Since I was a professional ghostwriter for many years – and more important, am now retired and am not selling anything – I wanted to add my two cents. Bear in mind these are my opinions alone.

First, here are my answers to her questions: (a) yes, if this person has good credentials, and (b) not necessarily. Here’s more detail on both answers:

What ghostwriters cost. My fees for the first draft of a full-length book were normally around $25K as well, with a time frame of 4-6 months. However, I was at the high end of the spectrum, generally writing for "A-list" people whose books were released by major publishers. Others may charge less, and in some cases much less.

Here is how that breaks down. Writing and researching, say, a 50,000 word book will involve hundreds of hours of the ghost’s time, at professional rates. (I always charged clients by the hour, for as many or as few hours as they wanted – making it easier for them to do as much of the writing as they wished.) Think of what it might cost to hire a plumber or have someone mow your lawn for two months straight, and you get the idea.

Part of the reason I commanded those fees was that I had a strong publication track record of my own with major royalty publishers, and knew my stuff about creating a published book - including analyzing the market, knowing what styles and genres were selling, and deconstructing a client's style into a writing voice. Part of what you are paying for with a high-end ghost is expertise, not just labor.

BUT not everyone needs this, as we will discuss below. There are less expensive options – in some cases far less – that might be perfect for your book. If you are hiring someone at the high end, you should be paying for their experience in publishing as well as writing. Which is why, as my good friend and colleague Lois Creamer posted in yesterday’s post, checking credentials and previous publications is extremely important.

Is it worth it? Opinions vary widely here. Here’s mine: we are worth it if our work adds sufficient value to your business, through book sales or increased exposure. Which means the level and pedigree of writer you hire should ideally depend on YOUR platform. Here is some data from my own experience:

First, for most of my clients, money was no object. They were CEOs of multi-billion dollar corporations, television personalities, or academics with funding sources. Ironically, most of them were very good writers. But they were busy doing much more important things than me, traded their money for my time, and everyone was happy.

Second, they all had good platforms to begin with, and often had a publisher lined up. Platform is incredibly important. How important? Most of my ghostwriting clients had much better publishers and larger advances than I did with my own books (and in some cases, the advance paid for my services).

(As an aside, this is why I never feel a ghostwriting project is “my” book – its success always revolves around the client’s ideas and platform, not my turgid prose. I’m just a service provider, like a good plumber.)

Finally, most books sell in frightfully small quantities. Even bestsellers. If you check industry sales figures, it is not unusual for even the top business book to be selling only 100-200 copies a month on Amazon. And far more than you think sell a few copies here and there.

There are exceptions, of course, and I realize J.K. Rowling is worth half a billion dollars as of this writing. But if you are a mere mortal like me, I would be cautious if people tell you that you will probably make back your $25K in book sales. And even more cautious if they claim that paying them $$$ to write your book will make you a star.

(Incidentally, this is also why you should never offer a ghost a share of your royalties to write your book - usually this arrangement will make both of you very unhappy.)

So for the right people, yes we are worth it. But personally I never felt comfortable marketing my services to individuals, because too often it would have been a situation where I made money and they didn’t.

So what should you do? If you are a good speaker - but not particularly a writer - and want help getting a book to market, here are some questions I would ask first:

First, start with your platform. If you have channels for selling a large number of books, even if you self-publish – or have a publisher lined up – a full-fare ghost may be a good option.

Next, look at why you want a book. Which, by the way, I feel is important for a speaker – the vast majority of them do have one or more books out. But for a typical speaker, I feel an inexpensive self-published book will do just fine. Because what you are selling is still mainly YOU and your PLATFORM, and the book is a calling card.

Finally, decide if you are a writer who speaks, or a speaker who writes.

I personally was in the first category. Writing a bestselling book over a decade ago was like winning a game show, and launched a successful speaking career that I might never have had by just trying to speak. But that was because my main talent was as a writer, and speaking came along for the ride.

Conversely, check out the NSA’s million dollar roundtable of very top speakers sometime. Last I checked, most of them were NOT bestselling authors. But they are all incredible speakers. They don’t necessarily need to have bestselling books like I did.

In my humble opinion, a writer who speaks - i.e. someone who wants to brand themselves around a bestselling book from a major publisher - would normally benefit more from a full-fare ghostwriter than a speaker who writes, and just needs a book for back-of-room sales and a calling card. Your mileage may vary, of course.

What other options do you have? There are many ways to get a book out there, with a wide range of costs. Here are just a few:

Write it yourself, and hire a good editor.

Consider less expensive options. These include ghosts who don’t work at the high end of the market, all the way to offshore and low-cost providers on freelance web sites.

Be aware that quality can vary widely, with potential pitfalls ranging from bad grammar to plagiarism. I wouldn't scrimp on quality, because a book is an important part of your brand. But lower-cost writers are not always a bad option IF you vet their past work carefully, and are willing to have the finished product carefully edited by yourself or others.

If you have a really good platform (increasingly a must for landing a royalty publishing contract), consider the traditional route of agents and publishers, where they pay you.

Be aware that going for a publishing contract does NOT involve writing the book first – books are sold to agents and publishers on the basis of a 30-40 page proposal, with a table of contents, competitive analysis and sample chapters. In this case, consider hiring a ghost to just write the proposal, THEN worry about hiring a ghost for the book AFTER you land a contract.

(On the last point, oh all right, I guess I am selling something – for three bucks on Kindle. My recent book The Million Dollar Writer goes into lugubrious detail about becoming a royalty published author, as well as a successful freelancer. And yes, I have sold over a million dollars' worth of my own books. Here’s the link if you are interested:

Hope this helps the original person posting, and others. Good luck!

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Things I love - and hate - about RVing

When I stopped working full-time in my 60s, one of the first things on my bucket list – clich├ęs about retirement notwithstanding – was to go out and purchase a motorhome. (Below is a picture of our rig: a gently used 31 foot Jayco Escapade.) Now, after more than two years and 20,000 miles of cris-crossing the country in it, I can share some of the pros and cons of having your home on your back.

First, let’s start with some of the things I love about RVing:

1. Wherever you go, there you are
Even though I’ve flown hundreds of thousands of air miles in my career, visiting places ranging from China to Curacao, my dirty little secret is that I hate traveling. Sleeping in hotel beds, eating in strange restaurants, and having no privacy for days or weeks on end has always been stressful for me. So first and foremost, an RV takes much of the “travel” out of travel.

To me, one of the greatest joys of RV travel is being somewhere far away and yet able to raid the refrigerator whenever I feel like it, set the temperature to whatever I want, and sleep every night in my own bed. Not to mention knowing that the nearest restroom is as close as my turn signal.

2. It’s the cheapest way to go
Travel by motorhome is, far and away, the cheapest way to travel. For years, when my wife and I would visit my family in Arizona, we’d often spend $4-6000 by the time you added in air fares, car rental, hotels at $200+ a night, and eating nearly every single meal out. Last year, by comparison, we spent three weeks going to Tucson by motorhome and the costs barely topped $2K.

Here’s how it breaks down. First of all, the cost of gas kills you. Motorhomes like mine get no more than 8 miles per gallon on a good day – after all, you are carting a residence around. But after that, everything else is dirt cheap. Food is the same as staying home, RV campgrounds are around $40/night and sometimes much less, and nearly everything you need comes with you. You can often spend a week somewhere in your RV for not much more than the cost of a single night at a major-city hotel.

3. It can be surprisingly convenient
Last summer I spent four days at a psychotherapy conference in Washington DC, where I presented a research paper and attended committee meetings. Instead of spending all that time in a stuffy and expensive DC hotel, I stayed at an RV park outside the Beltway and was “home” every night. So how did I get to the conference every day? A bus came right to the RV park every hour, 20 minutes later I was at a Metro station, and nine stops later I was at my conference – easy-peazy.

There are RV parks at major resorts like Disney, parks close to public transportation in major cities, and even upscale RV resorts that are a short Uber ride from anything you want. And as a huge baseball fan, I’ve made numerous trips to Philadelphia, where you can park your RV and tailgate right at the ballpark, and a clean and safe campsite is just over across the river.

That said, I’ll be the first to admit that RVing also has its drawbacks. Here are a few of the things I hate about RVing:

1. Repairs
Things go wrong with RVs. Often. If you were driving your entire home around constantly, things would break down for you too. I sometimes joke to my dealer’s service department – whom I’ve gotten to know quite well – that I’m slowly replacing the entire RV one piece at a time.

To be fair, I’ve yet to have a single problem with the vehicle itself (a Ford E-450 V10 Super Duty). But since we’ve owned this RV we’ve fixed the generator, the power converter, and the refrigerator. We’ve dealt with sticky electric steps, a leaking cab bunk, clogged faucets, a waterlogged counter top, and more. And upgraded the shocks, to the tune of $1000, so my wife doesn’t go flying every time we drive over a bump. But so far it’s still been like many good relationships: expensive but worth it.

2. Restrooms designed by idiots
For some reason I’ve never figured out, nearly every RV campground restroom has these tiny stalls with doors that only open *inward.* Look at the picture here. Eyeball the distances involved. Now tell me how you get *out* of these stalls without having to brush against *everything.* Blecch.

There are exceptions, thankfully. The KOA campground near Hilton Head, for example, actually has stalls with their own sinks and the BBC piped in. Very civilized. But also the exception and not the rule.

3. Wonky WiFi
Practically every campsite claims to have WiFi. With a strong emphasis on the word “claims.” Because almost universally, it doesn’t work. Whether all 200 people at the campsite are using it at the same time, or whatever else is going on, the result is still the same: it’s usually too pokey to even send an email.

Some campgrounds offer two levels of service: free WiFi that doesn’t work, and expensive paid WiFi that might. As for me? I usually just tether my cell phone and carry on.

4. You don’t fit everywhere
A full-size motorhome like mine takes up two car lengths. Driving it is not a big deal – it’s like driving a van (because technically you are driving a van), with slightly wider turns and more wind resistance. But parking it is often another matter entirely.

There are some places you simply can’t go in a motorhome. Many strip malls and gas stations, for starters. If there isn’t enough room to turn around a big vehicle, you risk being able to get in but not out. For example, ask me about the time I tried to go to a mall outside of DC, discovered its only parking was garages whose ceiling heights were too low for my rig, and to add insult to injury, the only way out was a too-tight turn that left me blocking heavy traffic with horns blaring. That was fun.

And then, sadly, there are a few entire cities that are not at all RV-friendly. Pittsburgh, where I used to live for many years, has NO place to park an RV downtown, save for a bus lot far from everything that costs $100 to park in (!). Some areas have under-height bridges or other restrictions: for example, you can't drive an RV through the Lincoln or Holland Tunnels in New York City. And as for most street parking or garages, fugheddaboutit. Eventually you learn to think like a truck driver and plan your route around things like interstates, truck stops, shopping malls and campsites.

Adding it all up

So in the end, is RVing worth it?

Think of it a little like owning a pet. You put up with bites, scratches, changing the litter pan, and medical problems, because being warm and furry covers a multitude of sins. It is precisely the same thing between me and our RV.

This is why I gladly hook up the sewer and the utilities every night, do dumpster duty, go outside in bad weather to fix things, or drive 400 miles a day to get us where we are going because I couldn’t possibly imagine being retired without an RV. And so far, I still love it.