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!

Sunday, July 15, 2018

I found my niche! (Lots of them, in fact)

"How many different careers have you had, Rich?"

I get asked this question more often than you might think - because I am, in fact, a mutt who has worn many different hats in my life. People have known me over the years as a computer programmer, a corporate manager, a freelance writer, a book author, a public speaker, and a psychotherapist. And that doesn't count youthful indiscretions like being a pizza delivery man, golf caddy, short-order cook or radio announcer.

Which brings up something I've always noticed: we tend to look down our noses at people who don't follow one path in life. Children are asked, "What do you want to be when you grow up?," while adults are greeted with, "What do you do?" Most of us know better than to be racist, sexist or even ableist nowadays, but we are still thoughtlessly single-path-ist. We use terms like "dilletante" or the euphemistic "Rennaisance man" as a synonym for "lost and confused" - but never, in my experience, in a good light.

My diverse career actually makes more sense than people might think. Some paths were borne of neccessity - like when layoffs, technical obsolescence and burnout made my original 20-year software career impractical, and I started writing full time. Others were happy accidents, like when I wrote a book that unexpectedly became an international bestseller and I suddenly found myself speaking 40-50 times a year all over North America (a pace that continued until I retired last year).

Finally, some things made no particular career sense, except that I really wanted to do them. I secretly always wanted to be a psychotherapist all my life, but after decades of brushing it aside for more practical pursuits, a novel distance learning program in the 2000s put that within reach. After which I happily juggled writing, speaking and therapy for many years - often with people who knew me from one field scratching their heads about the others.

Which brings up a larger point. Why should any of us HAVE to have a single "brand"? What is wrong with wearing different hats as we go through life? If we can walk and chew gum at the same time, why can't we have more than one profession?

I actually think being a mutt is great. It always gave me multiple ways to make a living, any of which could be scaled up if needed. And it doesn't equate to "unsuccessful": personally I have never been fired or laid off, had to borrow money from people, or even been late paying a bill. I can truthfully say that I've done well at just about everything I've tried, and now I am happily retired (and still doing lots of different things). As far as I'm concerned, it's all good.

Far too many people feel trapped in someone else's idea of a good life. Others discover that their chosen career becomes obsolete or intolerable. And many suffer a horrible loss of self-esteem when what they do, for whatever reason, doesn't work out. But society is often far richer when people escape their career ruts: for example, I'm glad Walt Disney moved on from being a failed newspaper editor, and Andrea Bocelli gave up being a defense attorney to sing.

So my closing thought is to stop asking your children questions like "What do you want to do when you grow up?" Instead, ask them what they like. What they enjoy. What makes their heart sing. And as they get older, how they might get to do more of the things they love. And perhaps, with a little luck, lots of them!

(P.S. My favorite job of all? Hands down, being a stock clerk at a department store when I was eighteen - because the cute girl I met working there has been my partner ever since.)

Thursday, September 29, 2016

On Tooting Your Horn

A little while ago, I ran into an old colleague who noted that I tended to toot my own horn on Facebook – in other words, that I often post about my speaking gigs, my books, or the good times I am having.

She is completely accurate about all of this. But it raises a deeper issue that rarely gets explored: the differences between tooters and non-tooters. So I would like to take you inside the mind of a lifelong tooter, to put it in its proper perspective.

You see, for many people, this issue takes on moral overtones. Non-tooters often grow up believing that it is shallow and pretentious to brag about yourself; as one recent meme put it, “May your life be half as good as it seems on Facebook.” At the other end of the spectrum, tooters are at risk of seeing non-tooters as dullards who celebrate nothing and share nothing.

Neither of these stereotypes is completely accurate. So here is my attempt at brokering a truce between these two worldviews. First, here are some of the reasons why I tend to toot my horn:

1) To me, tooting isn’t egotistical – it is epidemiological. Since the dawn of history, people were often hunters and gatherers who took care of their families. And when they stopped being able to do so, they died. This is how hunting trophies and harvest celebrations came about: they celebrated the successful pursuit of food and survival. So for thousands of years, tooting has been a celebration of life, and of still being in the hunt. Same thing when I celebrate my goals and pleasures – it isn’t about winning or being better than others, but rather about taking pride in the happy pursuit of a good life.

2) For me personally, there is almost a spiritual dimension to celebrating yourself. During the toughest times of my life, non-tooters usually had nothing to say to me. It was always other tooters who encouraged me, cheered me on, and gave me hope. So I've always wanted to be like them - someone who likes themselves and loves others.

3) We tend to be attracted to our own species as friends. I really like the company of other tooters. For example, I have always delighted in seeing other people’s books, cheering on their launch campaigns, watching their videos, and hearing their stories. It is life-affirming for me to be in the company of other people who take joy in their own pursuits, and see possibilities for themselves and others.

4) Tooters make good tutors. Yesterday at a speaking engagement in Pittsburgh, one woman told me how much she enjoyed my talk (always a good thing to say to a tooter), and then confided that someday she would like to be a public speaker herself. I gladly sat down with her at lunch and opened my playbook about getting started in the business. More broadly, I love seeing other people learn, grow, and succeed. If you want to learn to become a writer, speaker, musician, or whatever, your best bet is to find a good tooter.

5) Finally, we are all the product of our own family histories. I come from a large family of high achievers, including a very professionally successful father, and a funny and often brash mother with a very healthy ego. For someone who grew up as I did, taping my mouth shut about my life would feel like a dull grey existence.

Non-tooters often mistakenly believe that tooting is a reaction to covering up some deeper emptiness in your life. Not in my case. If you were to crack my head open, you would find a pretty happy guy inside most of the time. And if I am sharing good things publicly, this is a very good sign that I am in my normal happy place. When things are tough for me, I am much more likely to withdraw then blather on.

I should also add that having a healthy ego has nothing to do with being vain or competitive. I am very proud of my own successes. But if you came along and did the same things twice as successfully, I would honestly be extremely happy for you. I enjoy the company of other tooters precisely because we delight in each other's joys and accomplishments.

Now, a word to you non-tooters: you’re OK too. You have perfectly valid reasons for being the way you are, based on who you are and what you have learned in your life. And there are healthy and unhealthy extremes to both your personalities and mine. Tooters can be friendly and engaging, or egotistical boors. Non-tooters can be kind and modest, or wet blankets. It goes without saying that we should always try to be our very best selves, and respect each other.

But above all, we all have to be true to who we are. We all have our own unique personalities and gifts. And living someone else’s life is never a prescription for happiness. So if you are like me, toot away!

Saturday, July 30, 2016

The only political blog I will write all year – 2016 edition

In this most unusual of election years, we have a communications skills expert’s nightmare: one of the most divisive races in modern history, fueled by non-stop partisan talk radio, cable TV and social media.

I am pretty apolitical on the best of days, but this year in particular, the electoral process makes me feel the same way most women would probably feel if Bikini Babes of NASCAR was blaring on their TV 24/7. But people still do ask me to weigh in about politics, and while I wouldn't dream of telling you how to vote, I do have some thoughts about how to best approach this election. Here they are:

Use the outrage test. I have a simple rule for whether an issue should concern me: is the outrage bipartisan? If not, then it isn’t allowed to take up valuable space in my head. This simple rule automatically exempts me from Benghazi, Melenia Trump’s speech, Hilary’s emails, Trump steaks, and a whole host of other issues.

This is particularly true when (only) one side is going, “Oh, OH! Let’s investigate! Let's litigate! Let's prosecute!” When I hear people talk about jailing Hilary or blocking Trump from candidate security briefings, all I can do is roll my eyes and mutter to myself, “Holy 1998 impeachment, Batman.” Because these faux issues won’t give anyone a good job, improve our well-being or stop violence.

Real issues like the economy, health care, racial justice and the police, and terrorism raise strong opinions from both sides – and even if they disagree, it’s game on. But if one side is outraged and you are hearing crickets from the other side, move along.

Choose your sources. Do you form your political opinions – or worse, express them – through Facebook memes or partisan sources? Let me make a gentle suggestion. See what a more neutral source has to say first before you contribute to the political discourse. You might be surprised to learn that people actually do exaggerate things and distort facts – even in politics.

If you can’t do that, and reject the mainstream media the way many good zealots do, fine. At least do me this favor: check out the memes and articles that the other side is posting first. Then imagine that all of you were locked in a room, and couldn’t emerge until you reached consensus. What do you think the consensus might be? At least let that inform your posts and opinions.

Tune out the pundits. Political talk hosts on opposing sides are probably best friends off-camera. Why? Because they all engage in the same strategies: emotionally-charged language, fatuous arguments, one-sided facts, straw man arguments and ad hominin attacks.

Everyone criticizes commentators on the other side for doing it – but when I notice the same things with pundits on their side, people look at me like I have three heads. Yet they too are polarizing people and spreading half-truths. My gentle suggestion: don’t listen to jerks just because they are “our” jerk.

Listen to the other side. This is the most important advice one could give for this or any election – learn how the other side thinks. Listen to their candidates. Read their articles. Visit their social media pages. Because real problems are solved through dialogue and consensus. And that can only happen when both sides “get” each other first.

If you can’t frame the other person’s position as that of a totally reasonable person, you aren’t yet capable of advocating effectively for your side – you are limited to preaching to your own choir. Which, in my humble opinion, never changes anything.

This is especially true in this unusual election, where it seems like the more we vilify the opposition candidate, the more their poll numbers go up. I hope that when the dust settles on the 2016 campaign, its legacy is that we finally learn to listen to each other and solve problems together.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Becoming a book millionaire, revisited

A little over a year ago, I shared my thoughts about reaching the milestone of selling a million dollars worth of books in this blog post. More recently, I created a blog post for my good friend (and New York Times bestselling author) Carol Roth about what I feel is the larger issue: how to consistently get published by major royalty publishers, and write books that are regularly featured in bookstores.

Aside from the obvious advice (create outstanding content, and work your way up to the big leagues by writing a lot), it discusses what I truly feel is the hidden secret of every published nonfiction author: become a student of (1) how successful nonfiction books are structured and titled, and (2) the mechanics of good, tight queries and proposals. Here is a link to my post:

Enjoy, and best of success with your own writing!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Sixty years on

Today I turn sixty years of age.

So how does it feel to be 60? Mostly thankful and thoughtful. I am happy, healthy, and enjoy my life. But any major life transition is a complex mosaic of emotions, and at the risk of TMI, here is my best effort to capture them:

1) I can’t believe that I am still married to, and madly in love with, the same woman I met when I was 18 years old - and that she is still as beautiful as the day I met her. Our relationship remains my greatest joy and probably always will be.

2) I do not feel the least bit old. My eyesight and my waistline beg to differ sometimes, but at least in the latter case I hope to do something about it this coming year. Still, I honestly feel that 60 is the new 30.

3) I will probably never stop working. Nor do I ever plan to sit, beer in hand, in front of a television for days (or even hours) on end. The thought of a permanent vacation sounds like anathema to me. But I do find myself using the “R” word (retirement) a lot more often now.

Whenever it happens, my idea of retirement will probably be crazier than other people’s. There are things I hope to always do as long as I am vertical, like my psychotherapy practice, my annual teaching gig at Cornell, or writing for my favorite clients. And I will still speak when it is interesting and fun. At times, I will still be extremely busy. But I will consciously start winding down things I do just to make a living.

4) I haven’t punched in at a job for many years now, and am reaching the happy conclusion that I hopefully never will. There are few things I am more proud of than having supported my household entirely through self-employment for much of the past two decades. God has been very kind to me in providing wonderful clients and great opportunities every year, and I am extremely thankful.

So finally, what about the whole question of, you know, getting older?

I probably felt more mortal – and worried more about it – when I was in my 20s and 30s than I do now. I enjoy life more now, one day at a time, than I did then. And I am not alone: studies show, for example, that 85 year olds are among the happiest people.

But I am more aware than ever of our own mortality. For example, my father and his only sibling – two of the most successful people I’ve ever known – did not survive the decade I am now entering. So I value time like I never have before.

Of course, I hope to fare better than they did. I often tell my wife our old parish priest’s joke that I have an “un-dying” love for her. But my departed family members have given me a gift: an urgency to not trade precious time for things that aren’t important. For example, I am sure all those articles telling us to keep working and delay Social Security are technically correct – but after watching too many people I love never get to retire at all, I am probably unwilling to trade more sunsets with Colleen for much of their advice.

So overall, what is it like turning 60? I hope it is a way station on a path, and many years from now I hope to be a bit like the late Hedda Bolger – a psychotherapist who, at age 102, was still seeing clients and teaching online training programs. In the meantime, I am very glad to reach this great age.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Online Marketing: How to Make a Pain in the Ass of Yourself

The world is full of online marketing experts. Some of them are brilliant and have taught me a lot (I’m looking at you, David Newman). But others teach and use tactics that annoy the heck out of me, and probably many others. Here are three examples of “worst practices” I still see a lot of:

Squeezing people on your squeeze page
If you are offering me a free copy of 10 Tips for Better Tweets or whatever – and aiming it at solopreneurs like me, not businesses – where did you get the brilliant idea of *requiring* my phone number on your signup page?

You obviously don’t know how busy I am. Or how much I love getting interrupted by cold calls from people trying to sell me something. My phone already rings too often from people who feel I have nothing better to do all day than switch phone companies or whatever. And clearly you don’t grasp that I’ll call you when I want more information. Except I probably won’t call you.

I do need to point out that it is common practice for businesses in the B-to-B market to gather phone numbers and call - that's how they roll. But trust me on this one: if your product or service is designed to help individuals succeed, we really, really, really don't want you calling us.

(By the way, guess what is on my squeeze pages? NOTHING. I never make people sign up for my content. I figure that if people like it, they’ll call me. After years of capturing low-quality leads, I have personally found that simply putting great stuff out there is actually more profitable for me.)

Too much of a good thing
I completely get giving you my email address in return for some kind of perk. And yes, this does give you the right to send me information. But not Every Single Freaking Day. Or even every few days. I don’t care how fantabulous your product is, it doesn’t mean you get to clog my in-box like an infestation of lice. This is the marketing equivalent of someone giving your kids a snare drum for the holidays.

Copping an attitude
Perhaps the worst failing is when people treat me like I am stupid and need to be “pushed.” Act now Rich! Don’t miss this Rich! Did you read this Rich? Last chance Rich! Honestly, many marketing emails sound like they are trying to call a dog or yell at a teenager, rather than connect with a friend.

It isn't rocket science

Ironically, marketing has always been a big part of my success as a writer and speaker. But I’ve never bought in to the idea that good marketing is about bugging people, over-promoting yourself, inundating them with information they don’t want, or breathlessly rushing them to action. To me, it all circles back to things my mother taught me: build a good reputation, help other people succeed, and don’t be a jerk. What do you think?