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!

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