Ghostwriting – expectations versus reality

I’ll start this week’s blog with a confession: whenever I receive enquiries, I often spend the first few minutes of the conversation trying to talk the would-be author out of writing their book. OK, that’s a slight exaggeration, but I do try to manage expectations. Hiring a ghostwriter is a big commitment and I want my clients to be realistic and to go into it with both eyes open.

For a start, penning a book is not a get rich quick scheme. If you want to write about your ruinous divorce, or business bankruptcy, or crime caper gone wrong, in a bid to recoup all the cash you’ve lost: don’t. It’ll take months to complete and publish the book and there are no guarantees that you will make back the costs of investing in the process, especially if you bring in a ghostwriter. Oh, and if you are in the latter category and are still in the midst of the criminal caper, or the court case is ongoing, you should also consider postponing your dream of a book glorifying your derring-do. Ghostwriters are a cautious bunch and are unlikely to get involved in anything that is going to tie them in knots legally. Fair enough if you are fully exonerated, but my advice is to wait until the judge rules in your favour before lining up a ghost.

Another favourite I come across is the aspiring author who says they have at least three or four books to get out there. My advice is always to focus on putting their best possible material into the book under discussion. Don’t hold anything back. By all means, dream of a three book series, but get the first bestseller under your belt first (using everything you have got) and then return to the writing table.

I encourage every author to think carefully about the type of book they are planning and where it sits in the current market. I had a conversation with another ghost a short while ago who had received an approach from a doctor who said he wanted to pen a behind-the-scenes look at working in the NHS. The ghost gently told the doctor to take a look at the bestseller list, which is currently dominated by This is going to hurt, Secret diaries of a junior doctor, by Adam Kay. The book was also named Book of the Year at the National Book Awards. Obviously, there are two schools of thought here. You could say that the mere fact such a book has proved so popular proves that there is a market. It could also be taken that the moment has passed. To be a runaway success, it helps to get in front of the zeitgeist, not to trail behind.

It is not uncommon for people to contact me saying they have a book ‘ready to go’, which just needs a tidy up. After all, I do advertise a polish and publish service. However, when I respond with ‘great, how many words have you done’, the reply has occasionally been as low as 6,000. To be clear: the traditional length for a book is 70,000 words plus. It is not an editing service that is required here: it is a writing-from-scratch service. Or certainly a fuller collaboration than the author first imagined.

Something that often surprises aspiring authors is when I say that writing the book is, in fact, the easy bit. Certainly, aside from the financial commitment of working with a ghost, which is not something to be flippant about. No, it is what comes afterwards that authors really need to weigh-up before jumping in. Having a (brilliantly ghost-written) book is no guarantee of success. Readers need to hear about the book and buy it. With tens of thousands of books published every year, it is no easy task to get noticed. Authors need to actively participate in the marketing, PR and sales of their book. That will entail a huge commitment in time and energy. Of all the authors I have worked with, the ones that have been the most successful by far are those that have pushed their book with their every waking breath.

The last thing I want to do is to discourage anyone from writing their story. Far from it. I genuinely love my job because it is brilliant to hear other people’s stories. However, it is a once-in-a-lifetime commitment for most people (especially if they forget about the three-book series) so it is crucial to manage expectations and recognise the realities behind producing a book.

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