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How to Get the Most from a Ghostwriter

  • By Harry Bingham
  • Published 09/1/2011
  • Fiction

As an author and manager of a large editorial/writing agency, I’ve had experience of numerous ghostwriting projects. Some of those have gone on to become national or even international bestsellers. Some of those have proved to be a horrible waste of time and money. So here are our tips on making something work: First, the book / proposal / idea needs to be compelling. However brilliant the ghostwriter, a poor idea will never fly. You need to be able to take advice on this topic. Naturally, you will be passionate about their own idea, but if an expert third party is negative, you’re probably making a mistake of you don’t listen! Next, the ghostwriter needs to be passionate about the project. I don’t think we’ve ever seen a successful ghosting project where there wasn’t a really good match between ghost and assignment. Usually that’ll mean that we assign the most obvious author. If it’s a book about finance, we’d use someone with background and interest in that area. But it doesn’t have to work like that. We’ve also been really excited about a chick-lit-type memoir which was handled by a ghostwriter who wasn’t really the chick-lit type. But she got into the project, got enthused – got passionate. It’s that passion which is key. You need to make sure your ghost is genuinely passionate and not just after your money. Fiction is harder than non-fiction. It’s possible to be successful in either category, but fiction is almost invariably weakened if the originator of the idea and the author are different. A strong non-fiction story, however,will almost certainly prove saleable if the other elements of the ghostwriting package are right.

There also needs to be a good, trusting relationship between you and y

our ghost. Usually, in fact, there needs to be something a little like friendship. You’d think these things shouldn’t have to matter, but they do. It’s amazing how predictive those things are of success. Additionally, you need to be able to let go of their own work, their own ideas, their own phrasing, their own titles, their own structures. That’s not to say that the ghost doesn’t want to make use of those things, but if the ghost doesn’t have creative freedom, they can’t do their job. The universal result of a manuscript which is tightly controlled by the client is an unpublished manuscript. Also, the finances need to be right. Good writers aren’t especially cheap and, in our experience, ghostwriting always takes longer than expected. If the budget isn’t properly worked out from the off, the project will have problems down the line. I don’t think we’ve ever seen a successful deal that was done on the cheap. Nor do I ever remember a project that lasted less long than expected. And last – you have to enter on these things realising that they might fail. Publishing is a horrendously difficult business. It’s poorly paid, unpredictable and the market conditions have been getting worse for years. If you’re the client, you need to realise you aren’t investing money, you’re speculating. You might lose everything you put in. You’ll get a manuscript, of course, but you may not get a book deal. That means you need to think long and hard about making a commitment.

If you are thinking of commissioning a ghostwriter, these things should make you pause for thought. You get to pay a lot of money for a project that may fail to see print. So why do it? Well, the answer is normally that your story is so extraordinary, so compelling that you just know it’s going to work. It’s those kind of stories which are any publisher’s dream – and you’re right to share it!



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