Monthly Archives: August 2008

Ghost writers need to eat, too!

Every week or so, a potential client asks me whether one of our writers would be willing to work on spec, to accept payment when the book gets published, to work as a partner, or some other euphemism for assuming the risk of the client’s project.

For anyone considering asking me this question, here are my top reasons why this makes about as much sense as investing in the moat-digging business:

  1. The writer is your supplier.   Would you ask a plumber, landscape architect and roofer to accept payment on when — and if — your house sells?
  2. Asking a supplier to forego payment in the hopes of making a bigger ROI when you publish is essentially asking them to invest in your idea for a book.  These are writers we are talking about.  They have dozens of their own ideas they would rather invest in.
  3. It takes time for a book to get published.  Unless you happen to be a former president or major league MVP, your writer could starve while waiting for you to publish.
  4. The reality is that most books will never see the light of day.  What?  Does the writing suck?  Not with our writers!  Does the idea suck?  Actually, almost everybody who comes through the door with the greatest idea ever…has a pretty good idea for a book.  Maybe not the greatest idea ever, because the Bible and The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy have already been written, but nevertheless the ideas are pretty good.  But it takes perseverance to keep knocking on doors, like the folks at Chicken Soup for the Soul did, year after year until finally a publisher agrees to give it a go.  And our writers don’t feel like gambling a couple months of pay that a client might just be the rare gem able and willing to do that.
  5. Believe it or not, life gets in the way.  Clients disappear all the time.  Seemingly reliable clients.  It’s really amazing how often people who decide to write a book get stricken by disease, get surprised by divorce, lose a very close relative or simple vanish without a trace (Yes, this has happened several times!).*  In fact,  if the insurance companies had access to my statistics, it would be justifiable cause for them to cancel your insurance right now on the spot, as well as the insurance of everybody related to you.  Your writer doesn’t want to do a month of work for you and hope you’ll stick around, ignoring everything else in your life.
  6. If you are writing a book hoping to sell it, you are undertaking a business venture.  Every business venture requires start-up capital.  Even a hot dog stand.  What makes this business venture so attractive is that $10,000 or $20,000 is peanuts.  You won’t get a fast food franchise for those pennies.
  7. Our writers are professionals, not part-time college students looking to puff up their CVs.  Please treat them like professionals.

There probably are many other reasons why our writers don’t want to work for free, hoping that at some point in the future they might get paid.  I fact, I suspect that when they read this post, I might get a few more ideas.  And I might add them here. 

* One client who vanished into thin air, a really nice gentleman, popped up again eight months later.  A car crash, a marital breakdown, a move to a new city…and he was ready to start up again.  But most MIA clients never turn up again.

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Should You Self-Publish?

You have a great idea for a book—or a book you and rewritten/polished by a ghostwriter. You have the visions of touching people’s lives, of being mobbed with adoring fans (or people who care passionately enough about your book to argue the inconsistencies endlessly in online forums), of being on “Oprah”.

However, the idea of dealing with submissions, agents and publishers may make you think twice. You don’t want a cast of thousands involved with your book. You want the final say, you want the control over marketing, publicity, book covers and, of course, profits. Yet self-publishing has a stigma attached to it, based on the faulty thought, “Well, if a book is any good, surely a publisher will buy it.”

The stigma persists and ignores the story of a man who wrote a book for his daughters, submitted it to agents and publishers, got the brush-off and self-published it. When he persuaded local bookstores to take the book, the booksellers found that the book became a local bestseller. Simon and Schuster snapped up the book we now know as The Christmas Box by Richard Paul Evans. The book is good, and a publisher did buy it—but only because Richard Paul Evans persisted and believed in his book.

You might want to self-publish your book for a variety of reasons, even though you’ve hired a ghostwriter to make the book perfect. As good as the best ghostwriter is, the publishers, even the small presses, and the market dictate what gets bought. It’s selelection, not rejection.

The ghostwriter’s job is to make sure people want to read your book once it’s in their hands and they’ve opened the cover to look at Page One. The ghostwriter may or may not, depending on your contract and the agreement you’ve reached, help you with publishing or self-publishing advice. As a ghostwriter, however, my potential reasons for self-publishing are:

  1.  You want a greater share of the profits, bearing in mind that you’ll also assume all the costs (including the ghostwriter fees).
  2. You only want to pay for the books you plan to print.
  3. You want to “test the waters” and see how much demand there is for your book—a limited-release rollout beta-test, as it were.
  4. You want total control over which groups you speak to and what publicity you do (bear in mind that if you want to sell books, 100 percent of the responsibility for publicity is on you, as it usually is for everyone but the big-name authors).
  5. You want total control over the content of the book, right down to whatever proofreader you hire (a proofreader is different than a ghostwriter or editor, and is essential to the finished product). You also assume the risks there, even if you publish under a pseudonym.
  6. It’s your family history or other material so niche-oriented that a publisher wouldn’t accept it.
  7. You can’t wait for a publisher because the material is time-sensitive. For example, if you or someone you love have a life-threatening condition and you want to tell your story to ask for help or to help someone else, you might not want to go through the delays of submitting the book to a publisher or agent. Or the material is about some personal nightmare you’re suffering—for example, medical malpractice (documented) and you want to win public sympathy. (Be certain to check with an attorney.)
  8. You intend to start your own publishing company.

You are probably asking yourself, will a ghostwriter take me on if I announce firmly and decidedly that I want to self-publish? That depends on the ghostwriter. In my case, it’s a firm yes. Other than the satisfaction of completing a job that you’re happy with, I have no ego stake in your book.

In fact, a ghostwriter will probably be pleased to help you prove that old chestnut about self-publishing somehow being inferior wrong, wrong, wrong. To quote screenwriter William Goldman on the movie industry, “Nobody knows anything.” Today’s self-published book may well be tomorrow’s hit or life-changing vehicle.

Don’t assume that a ghostwriter won’t work just as hard to get your book right if you’re self-publishing as if you’re submitting to the William Morris Agency or HarperCollins. Ghostwriters will ask the same of you in return. If you’re determined enough to publish your book yourself, to get an ISBN number, to obtain distribution, to file for copyright and to incorporate your own publishing company, the odds are good that you’re determined to make your book the best it can be by working with us and getting at least three separate people to proofread it. You can be a success.

 And we’ll even coach you the night before you appear on “Oprah”.

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Organizing Your Book: Clustering

Let’s say you work in marketing or you are a manager. Your job calls upon you to write presentations, convincing letters and reports every week. You have a great idea for a business book (or even a sports book, let’s say, if you’re a Yankees fan). However, books are entirely different animals than business communications. Science fiction writer Ben Bova calls writing a book “the long siege”.

You know that you don’t have the time or the motivation to write anything longer than a marketing presentation, so you hire a ghostwriter to spin your marketing, managing or baseball vision into (you hope) bestseller gold. At a minimum, you want your book to connect with people, to affect them in some way and to entertain or inform them.

The problem is, you don’t know how to get started. And after phone calls, e-mails and maybe even a face-to-face meeting, your ghostwriter, who may be juggling several projects simultaneously, has only a vague idea of what you want to say and what the content of the book is.

While ghostwriters have a spooky sort of intuition and a supernatural ability to inhabit your voice so that the words on the page sound exactly like you, ghostwriters are not omniscient or mind-readers. Your ghostwriter will need some direction, some signposts to mark the path from idea to finished book.

As a businessperson, you have probably participated in brainstorming white-board sessions. You can do this on your own, for your book, without a committee looking over your shoulder, thanks to a technique called clustering.

Writers Tristine Rainer (The New Diary, Your Life As Story) and Ellen Sandler (“Everybody Loves Raymond,” The TV Writer’s Handbook) discuss clustering in their books on how to write diaries/nonfiction and television scripts, respectively. Clustering helps you free-associate and gather together all the ideas associated with your main idea.

Here is how I explained clustering recently to someone who sought my advice about how to get started writing a book.

  1. Get a piece of paper — letter size will do, but a long sheet is preferable.
  2. Draw a circle in the center and write your main idea or subject inside it. For example, you might write “baseball marketing” if you decide to combine your passions, say if you use baseball as a metaphor for marketing, or talk about marketing of baseball as a case study,
  3. Without stopping, write down as many ideas as you can that relate to the subjects of baseball marketing, baseball or marketing. They may seem silly or irrelevant. That’s all right! The whole point is to get you thinking. Circle each idea and draw a line from it to the main idea. Sometimes these smaller ideas will relate to each other, so you can connect them with lines or arrows.
  4. When you’ve filled the paper with ideas or you can’t think of any more ideas, review the ideas that you’ve written down. Some of them simply may not make sense or you may not be able to use them. You thought, for example, that you could use all the RBIs (runs batted in)  for your favorite players to illustrate a point about marketing, but it doesn’t work on paper.  Odds are that will save a ghostwriter considerable time and energy in writing that section only to have it slow down the work.
  5. Take one of the ideas, for example “Boss Coach”. This could a be a former boss who always used stories about the Yankees to illustrate points in meetings. Use a separate sheet of paper and repeat the exercise for “Boss Coach”. Your cluster of ideas could help you develop a chapter that shows “Boss Coach” was the leading marketing manager of your company and a motivator of people. “Boss Coach” could even be a main subject of your book, or maybe a clever hook for each chapter who introduces the marketing concepts.
  6. Sometimes those ideas will lead you to the meat of your book. For example, you might discover that Boss Coach’s favorite player was Mickey Mantle. What does Mickey Mantle have to say that can apply to marketing? Could you marry Mickey Mantle with marketing and use that as the focus of the book? Anecdotes about Mickey or highlights from Mickey’s career could serve as the subject for each chapter. If you have Mickey Mantle written down on your original clustering sheet, do another mini-clustering exercise for Mickey Mantle—all his plays, all the marketing wisdom that might be related to those plays, and even low points in his career. You might have to consult an attorney to see if you can legally pursue the Mickey Mantle angle, but if you can, you have the focus for your book.
  7. Consider showing your clustering exercise to the ghostwriter (writers love to learn). You might work with the writer to create an outline based on your Mickey Mantle mini-clustering exercise, and the writer might spot other subtopics in your original cluster.  Or you might produce a rough outline yourself and show it to the ghostwriter. Either way, now the ghostwriter has a clearer, more specific vision of what you want.

One last point: Clustering might help you in your working life while you consult with the ghostwriter. You may find yourself using the technique for marketing presentations when you’re hard-pressed for inspiration and material. It’s something to keep you energized and motivated while you wait for your big break into publishing.

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