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Working With Ghostwriters 101

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by Hannah Gordon, Deborah Herman, and Lindy Ryan

How an author, publisher, and a ghostwriter can collaborate so true success can happen.

There is a sense that writing as a career is a glamorous pursuit. There is also a misconception that all writers can make a living doing it full time.

There are writers who can earn a living as wordsmiths if they are willing to use their skills to become working writers rather than focusing on the front-line world of the “talent.” There are movies stars, and there are the people who make films happen. It is the same in the publishing industry. There are the people who have huge platforms or significant stories to tell, and then there are the people who do the heavy lifting to make a book a success.

In a recent article in Publishers Weekly titled “Ghostwriters Come out of the Shadows,” Rachel Deahl described the specialized work of ghostwriters— who are now being given the more prestigious term collaborator—largely because they are an accepted part of a project and they want to be recognized for their contribution. As Deahl aptly pointed out, “In today’s industry, where publishers are more and more reliant on nonfiction projects by authors with significant platforms, good collaborators are in higher demand than ever.”

What makes a good collaborator? According to Deahl, “industry sources say the best collaborators are equal parts editor, reporter, writer, mimic, and shrink.” We would have to agree. In talking about the most important qualities for publishers to prioritize when searching for a ghostwriter, three stood out as crucial nonnegotiables.

Relationship Management/Match

A ghostwriter has an interesting pair of shoes to fit, and identifying the right pair can sometimes be like finding the perfect match for Cinderella’s missing glass slipper. In addition to the right skill set for the job, when bringing in a ghostwriter, it’s important to make sure the ghostwriter and author are good dancing partners as well. The two form a partnership and must be able to move together in harmony—even better than Cinderella and Prince Charming.

The ghostwriter’s job is to bring out the best for author and capture their voice and story, so it’s imperative that the two have a good working relationship and appreciation for what each other brings to the table. In this case, it’s not just a match of skills and story, but of personality as well.

This relationship management becomes even more imperative depending on the subject matter, particularly when a ghostwriter is enlisted to assist in telling an author’s story that may involve trauma or other tender/confidential information. This is where Deahl’s prescription as a ghostwriter as a mimic and a shrink come in. A ghostwriter—whether rewriting a drafted manuscript, interviewing the author to create the manuscript, or working hand in hand co-writing a manuscript—must know when and how to ask the right questions. If a ghostwriter pushes a topic too soon, it could derail the interview at best or cause the author to lose trust in their ghostwriter.

Deborah Herman

As a former literary agent, an author, and now a publisher, Deborah Herman knows firsthand the many—often unanticipated—challenges in collaboration. In her most recent book, Member of the Family: My Story of Charles Manson, Life Inside his Cult and the Darkness that Ended the Sixties, (William Morrow) with Dianne Lake, the youngest member of the Manson Family cult, she had to learn the delicate balance of questioning and listening that capturing the story of a traumatized person demands.

“I have ghostwritten several books that were nonfiction prescriptive. The author had the credentials and the information, but they didn’t have the writing skill,” Herman says. “For my first job as a working ghostwriter, I had to fix a manuscript that was rejected by the publisher.

These are the more common types of books where ghostwriters can find work. With the book I wrote with Dianne Lake, this became more of a true collaboration.”

This is the direction taken by many professionals today who make their living as writers for hire. The skill of interviewing and writing is given more credibility and, as Deahl points out in her article, many “collaborators” have agents who match them up with the bigger projects.

“The most important skill I needed while working with Dianne was trust building,” Herman says. “I have education as a journalist, but this is a different form of interviewing. As a collaborator, you are not looking to find the story; you are looking for the voice and perspective of the person with whom you are writing. You need to build trust and take it slowly. The first time I interviewed Dianne, it was as if she was sitting in front of me but talking from the other side of the room. She revealed things in a monotone where I had to say, ‘Whoa, back up. Did you just say …’ It became a journey we took together, and I learned to accept my role as a sacred trust where I could not push her beyond her capacity to reveal her memories.

“Dianne described the process as a circle. We would talk about general information, and then I would move closer to the trauma. When the revelation was made, I would back away to give it time to settle in her psyche and my own. As the collaborator, you take the journey with the author and need to make sure you don’t become overwhelmed with their trauma. In the end, the greatest compliment you can receive is if people see the subject and recognize their voice and not yours. It is challenging but very rewarding.”

Subject Interest or Experience With Subject Matter

Lindy Ryan

Like any good job candidate, a ghostwriter should bring a strong resume to the table and be prepared to show examples of their work. Depending on the genre, the ghostwriter should have appropriate subject matter knowledge or expertise (nonfiction), genre structure or formula-writing savvy (fiction), as well as an understanding of audience and target market readers to ensure they are the best fit for the task. Not only does this help support the ghostwriter’s proficiency for the project, but it adds value in the form of additional insight and experience that benefit the project. Taking time to evaluate a ghostwriter’s portfolio is important due diligence that will inform the understanding of their style and familiarity with genres/topics based on previous work. Deahl’s mention of ghostwriters as reporters comes to mind. “The ghostwriter’s job is multifaceted, but one of the most valuable skills they can bring to the project is familiarity with the subject matter and/or the target audience for the book,” says Lindy Ryan, president of Black Spot Books. “Shaping the story to appeal to genre readers and stand strong in the market is as much a part of the ghostwriter’s role as helping the author write the book.”

Ryan recently edited Defending a Serial Killer: The Right to Counsel (Vesuvian Books), a memoir from attorney Jim Potts who recounted the legal and ethical dilemmas he faced as a law student when defending convicted serial killer Michael Dee Mattson. Though the book touched on areas outside of her expertise, the book was geared toward law and ethics students, and Ryan, who is a longtime professor at Rutgers University and the author of several textbooks and other academic publications, was recruited to edit and reshape the manuscript for academic adoption.

“I was very fortunate to be part of this project,” Ryan says. “Not only did I learn a good bit about constitutional rights and the judicial process, but I was able to use my knowledge of nonfiction editing and pedagogical development to help the author tell his story in a way that would help educators, students, and others studying law to learn from his experiences in a meaningful and tangible way. Jim and I worked so well as partners in a writer/editor/ghostwriter paradigm that we are now exploring our next projects together, taking more of Jim’s firsthand experiences into publication.”

Strong Editorial Sense

Often, the purpose of hiring a ghostwriter—from any perspective—is to make the writing and editorial process of manuscript creation go more smoothly. Ghostwriters should contribute to the editorial process, not become an extra step.

In addition to their writing skills, a ghostwriter should lend a certain level of editorial prowess: write strong, edit smart, and contribute to solid story development. In many cases, a ghostwriter takes the place of a developmental editor, and should be able to complete a manuscript without introducing continuity problems, plot holes, or other developmental errors that necessitate more work for an editorial team. In fact, this is why developmental editors sometimes turn into ghostwriters.

When a developmental editor is elbows-deep in a manuscript, it may be most efficient—for the publisher and the author—to shift the role into a ghostwriting position where the editor-turned-writer then has the capacity to implement even more substantial changes and take more creative license with the manuscript.

Hannah Gordon

Hannah Gordon, author, publishing consultant, and freelance editor and ghostwriter, has walked the line between developmental editor and ghostwriter more than once—with different outcomes each time.

“The first middle grade manuscript I edited at my former company needed a lot of work. The bones of the story were there, but they were definitely not in the shape of any skeleton I’d seen before, and there were no muscles or ligaments to speak of,” she says.

The lack of cohesion and large plot holes are what turned Gordon into a ghostwriter instead of a developmental editor.

“After a bit of work, it was clear the manuscript needed a rewrite, adding a few more significant characters and plot points. It was historical fiction for kids, so it needed to be engaging and entertaining but also present an accurate snapshot of history to teach from.

“An editorial sense is like a Spidey-Sense,” Gordon says. “Sometimes you know a manuscript has to be driven by plot, others by theme. You have to sense what the manuscript needs—who will read it, why, how, and when? And, above all, what is the message the author is trying to convey, and what is their most natural method of conveying it?”

Ghostwriting may not seem as anatomical as Gordon makes it sound, but it certainly does necessitate a lot of moving parts work together to create a fluid, engaging manuscript—so perhaps the bodily comparison isn’t too off.

Publishers need quality writers for the books they want to acquire, and there are those writers who want to work steadily even if they have dreams of writing the great American novel. Publishers will likely work with ghostwriters who come through the literary agents who present the projects. While publishers may have favorite writers, it often falls more within the job of the agents to make this match.

“I got lucky,” says Herman, recalling her first experience as a ghostwriter. “I was working with an agent to develop book proposals when I was offered the job of revising the manuscript that had been turned down. It was a work for hire, and in the end, I might have earned five cents per hour. I didn’t know if I could do the job, but I threw myself in it to learn.”

Learning how to include ghostwriters in your process as an indie publisher may feel a lot like Herman’s first experience ghostwriting. But when the author, publisher, and ghostwriter all prioritize the most important aspects of the collaboration, true success can happen.

Hannah Gordon is an author, editor, marketer, and podcaster. She freelances in the publishing industry, frequently editing and ghostwriting for indie publishers and authors. She welcomes connections through @HR_Gordon on all major social media platforms and her website HannahRGordon.com, where she blogs about plants, books, cooking, and life.

Deborah Herman is a bestselling author specializing in true crime memoir and has worked on all sides of the publishing world as a writer, editor, literary agent, indie publisher, and author branding specialist. Subscribe to her blog at micropublishingmedia.com.

Lindy Ryan is award-winning author, editor, professor, IBPA board member, and a 2020 Publishers Weekly Star Watch Honoree. She is the founder and president of Black Spot Books, an imprint of multimedia corporation Vesuvian Media Group. Learn more at vesuvianmedia.com and connect with Black Spot Books on social media at @BlackSpotBooks, and with Ryan on Twitter @LindyRyanWrites.

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