Do you need a ghost? Publishers seem to think so
Publishers see thousands of manuscripts cross their desks every week, many claiming to be thedefinitive work on this subject or that. The trouble is, with so many definitive works jostling for attention in near identical subject areas, it isn’t easy to stand out as an author. The odds are further stacked against success if the writer is not particularly well known, or has no evidence of a track record with previous definitive works.
A collaboration with a ghost writer does tip the odds in your favour and smooth a book’s passage through from the proposal stage to finished manuscript. You don’t just need to take this ghost’s word for it either. Many of the publishing professionals I have spoken with say working with a professional co writer can considerably increase the chances of a publishing deal.
So, why does a ghost make things so much better? Well, a new author won’t get close to securing a meeting with a publisher, let alone a coveted publishing deal, unless they can demonstrate two things. The first is that they are an expert in their field, because that will play well in marketing and promotion and ensure book sales. If a publisher can’t see any evidence of a prospective market there is very little chance they’ll invest. Then, secondly, the would-be author has to reassure a publisher that the book in question will be well written and structured in a way that will grip the attention of book buyers and reviewers. Even better, is a book that is written so well it is highly likely to be recommended to all the book buyers’ friends. A well-known ghost, or at least one with a good track record, will immediately answer this second criteria. Having a professional on board signals a seriousness about a project.
Ultimately, what publishers like about ghosts is that the presence of one guarantees a professional standard of work. This is something that is more important than ever today.
Much of the current demand for higher standards in book writing is said to have its roots in the ‘misery lit’ phenomenon which took off in the mid Nineties with the publication of A Child Called It, the memoir of American writer Dave Pelzer describing his outrageously cruel childhood. In the book, he details how his alcoholic mother, who dismissed him as ‘an it’, beat, starved, stabbed and burned him, forced him to swallow ammonia and eat the contents of his siblings’ nappies. It rapidly became a runaway bestseller, selling millions of copies, spawning two sequels and a number of related books.
Misery lit, which is somewhat coyly referred to as ‘Painful Lives’ in Waterstones, or ‘Tragic Lives’ in WH Smith, very quickly became a huge boom sector for the book world. The genre spawned a whole new market for ghosts who have the skill to interpret these stories. Interestingly though, it also upped the ante across the whole publishing sector. Readers are now no longer satisfied with glossy, marketing-led, PR-sanctified versions of people’s lives. It turns out that fame, or notoriety, alone won’t sell a story these days. We want to know the whole, unvarnished, gritty truth about those we invest our reading time in.
Plus, of course, we now all have a large social media footprint. Nearly everyone has some sort of online presence and those in the public eye will blog, tweet, message and post endless minutiae about their daily lives on-line. Thanks to the constant drip feed of information we (or more importantly the potential reader) believe we really know the people we admire. If the person in question then released a book of half-baked anecdotes, or worse still, ones that have already been well rehearsed online, it is not going to cut it with readers. No, we all, quite rightly, demand authentic, well crafted, interesting and absolutely fresh revelations.
This is why ghostwriters are worth their weight in gold. Professional writers are skilled at teasing new and interesting details out of authors and presenting them in compelling ways. Publishers can rely on the fact that experienced ghostwriters won’t simply write what an author tells them too. Ghosts do their research and constantly push hard for something new. It takes a skilled questioner to cut through the easy laughs or glossy PR persona, rummage through a person’s innermost thoughts and judge what is really worth listening to. Similarly, it takes a seasoned interviewer to gently steer an author away from using their book as a platform for point scoring, exaggerated versions of key episodes or unwarranted (probably misguided) self analysis. A professional writer will keep a story fresh because they are prepared to ask the really intimate questions.
There is a reason that more than 50% of the non fiction books in bestseller lists are written in collaboration with a ghostwriter. (And many fiction books are too). Publishers know that the involvement of a professional writer guarantees that a book is written in the best possible way. That is to everyone’s advantage: the publisher, the author, the ghost and, most importantly, the book buying reader.