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The Ghostwriting Experience: Perspectives from the Ghostwriter, Author, and Publisher

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PUBLISHED JAN/FEB 2020

by Melanie Votaw, Reporter, Author & Ghostwriter —


Melanie Votaw

As a ghostwriter, I’ve heard a lot of misconceptions about my profession. “What? You mean the person whose name is on the cover didn’t write the book?”

Or: “Oh, I couldn’t possibly use a ghostwriter; then, it wouldn’t be my book.”

I usually respond this way: Doesn’t it seem like a lot to expect someone to be an expert in their field and also an expert in constructing a book? After all, ghostwriter/editors like me have spent years honing our craft.

Of course, one of the reasons for these misconceptions about ghostwriting stems from another common misconception: that if you can write a good sentence, you can also write a book. Many authors are soon relieved of that notion, discovering that a lot more goes into writing a book than proper grammar and punctuation.

That’s what happened with one of my recent ghostwriting clients (I’ll call her Lucinda). “When I was starting to write my book, and I heard other people were using a ghostwriter,” she told me, “my impression was ‘Oh, then you’re not writing the book.’ So while I felt a little funny at first, you took my words, you found my voice, and you wrote it better than I would have written it. But it isn’t filled with your ideas; it’s filled with my ideas. At the end of the day, I feel comfortable it’s my book.”

Besides those who don’t feel equipped to write a book without help, there are authors who simply don’t have the time to do all the work. They still have to convey the information to the ghostwriter, but that’s less time-consuming than writing every word themselves.

“Structure is probably the most challenging part of the process, and I have rarely seen someone do it well on their first attempt.”

Teri Rider, publisher at Top Reads Publishing LLC, says that authors who use ghostwriters present her with the “very best scenario.” “I think ghostwriters are a wonderful resource and publishing partner,” she says, “especially for those professionals who are looking to add a book to their existing business platform, giving them the benefit of positioning themselves as an expert in their field. It is such a delight to get a well-written and technically clean manuscript for a book, and it helps make the publishing process and final outcome that much better.”

Of course, there are authors who would love to hire a ghostwriter but find the customary five-figure cost to be prohibitive. I recommend that first-time authors in this situation hire a coach to help them through the process. This allows them to spend less but still finish with a better manuscript that requires less editing. Many ghostwriters also offer such coaching services.

Lucinda discovered, however, that it was more economical in the long run to work with a ghostwriter. “I have a girlfriend who’s written two books now. She does all of her own writing, but she has spent way more than I have on edit after edit after edit,” she says. Lucinda had one other editor review the manuscript after the ghostwriting was complete. “When I finally gave it to my publisher, she said she’d never seen such a clean manuscript,” she adds.

As Lucinda found out, a ghostwriter is more than “just” someone who organizes the information into chapters. They can help an author 1) determine if their book idea is viable, 2) devise an outline, 3) decide whether to self-publish or try for a traditional publishing contract, 4) create a book proposal, if desired, and 5) navigate publisher options, book covers, and marketing, among other services. They can also help an author stay sane during the exceptionally vulnerable process of putting their work on the line.


The Ghostwriting Process

Every ghostwriter has their own process, but the best professionals can adapt and conform to the author’s needs. In my experience, however, most books are written based on a combination of recorded interviews (usually conducted over the phone), previously written materials, and research. While some authors believe they need to work with their ghostwriter in person, I have found it to be unnecessary. Almost all the books I’ve written have been done long distance without a reduction in quality.

So, how do you choose a ghostwriter and ensure a successful collaboration? Here are some tips:

1. It’s important to thoroughly vet the ghostwriter’s background and testimonials, of course, but it’s also important to feel that your ghostwriter “gets you.” Do they understand your subject matter and what you’re trying to communicate? Are you simpatico? You can discern this through your initial discussions, but, more often than not, it’s a gut feeling.

2. Once you’ve made your choice, trust your ghostwriter’s advice. Be wary of defensiveness. You certainly don’t have to agree with every one of your ghostwriter’s opinions, but you’ve hired this person for their industry expertise. So, if you decide to go against their advice, make sure it’s for a good reason.

3. Don’t expect your ghostwriter to nail your voice right away. Give them some time to “sound” like you on the page, and allow them to provide rough, unpolished drafts in the beginning.

4. Be careful of the opinions you receive from people outside of the publishing industry. They know what they like, and they know if something they’ve read isn’t clear. But they don’t usually know how a book should be constructed or how to diagnose issues in a viable way.

5. Don’t ask your English teacher aunt or your friend’s graduate student son to ghostwrite your book. I have nothing against English teachers or graduate students, but you need someone who has experience writing books. Structure is probably the most challenging part of the process, and I have rarely seen someone do it well on their first attempt. Plus, those in academia often struggle to match the colloquial voice of contemporary popular books.

6. To find a ghostwriter, you can ask publishers, literary agents, or other authors for recommendations. You might also search online for a “self-help ghostwriter” or “memoir ghostwriter,” for example. There is an organization called the Association of Ghostwriters as well with a professional membership you can access.

7. Most of the time, the ghostwriter remains “ghostly” with perhaps only a mention within the acknowledgments (often described as an editor). Other times, a ghostwriter’s name appears on the cover as a coauthor, such as “By Dr. So-and-So and [or with] Ghostwriter’s name.” It’s a good idea to include a clause in your contract with your ghostwriter about the level of discretion you expect. They may ask to disclose your relationship to others in the industry when they’re vying for new work, but the degree to which their arrangement with you is kept under wraps should be up to you as the author.

Ultimately, the ghostwriting process is an opportunity for you to marry your expertise with the expertise of a publishing industry professional. There’s no shame in doing so, whether the reason is due to lack of skill or time. What’s most important is that you get an excellent book that represents you well in the marketplace and provides you with the ultimate outcome you’re after. ⦁


Melanie Votaw has been a publishing industry professional for nearly 20 years. She has written 34 nonfiction books—10 as an author and 24 as a ghostwriter—for such publishers as Macmillan, Hay House, Perseus, and Hyperion. She has ghostwritten numerous successful book proposals and edited more than 60 books that have won 32 awards. She also serves as a book coach, both for individuals and in an online group coaching program for self-help authors. Her website is MelanieVotaw.com.

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