October 03, 2001
THE GOOD LIFE OF GHOSTWRITING by Claudia Suzanne | printable version
One of the primary reasons I first became a book ghost rather than a freelancer writer has to do with statistics. Book industry insiders estimate that 50% or more of all traditionally published books in today's market are worked on by one or more ghost/book doctor/line editor. In the self-publishing world, the percentage is probably even higher - and all indications point to the situation just becoming more and more favorable for the ghost.
A colleague of mine on the East Coast, who has taken the time to do a casual study, estimates that approximately 50 real ghostwriters exist in this country. If he's off by 100%, that's still only 5,000. Maybe he's off by 200% - that's 10,000 of us to ghost some 25,000-50,000 books per year. I like those odds.
Freelancers, on the other hand, pitch ideas to publications. Since there are a finite number of publications and hundreds, if not thousands, of freelance writers pitching stories to each one on a daily basis, even getting noticed, much less contracted and paid, is an uphill battle.
Other freelancers write for businesses: corporations, mid-sized companies, small start-ups. The disadvantage to this pursuit, as I saw it, was the concept of working for a group of people, rather than an individual. Fees are less negotiable and have to be approved by committees, which can send out an impersonal termination notice if someone else comes along with a slightly lower fee schedule or a personal relationship with one of the committee members.
Ghosts usually work one-on-one with individuals who are well aware of their need for us. I like that. Ghostwriting is incredibly personal - just like writing. So I made a choice.
Fifty-six books later, I think I chose wisely.
AUTHORS, WRITERS AND EDITORS
Let's set the record straight from the onset: when Lee Iacocca wrote his life story, it was about his life. The ghostwriter, William Novak, did not intersperse the material with vignettes about his own history, even if he did get a byline on the book. When a psychiatrist who has spent 20 years evolving a theory about split personalities authors a book, the ghostwriter does not spend more time duplicating or verifying the evidence or expanding the theory.
When an individual has lived with a story running around in the back of her head for umpteen years before she finally gets it down in novel form, the editor is not expected to change the characters, twist the plot, and develop a new surprise ending. In other words, the author of a book is the person who supplies the ideas, plan, theory, stories, etc. The person who helps the author arrange everything on paper in a marketable form is the writer. The person who makes sure the manuscript conforms to commercial standards is the editor. Individuals who bring material, research and/or story ideas to the project are co-authors or collaborators.
Is writing the book harder than getting the material together? Absolutely, if you are not a professional writer. That's why authors hire professionals: to help them get started, to work with them on putting everything together, or to fix their well-intentioned but not quite up-to-par manuscript. If you are a professional writer, writing is your job; it's what you do. You like it. You're good at it. It does not overwhelm you to sit in front of a blank computer terminal and come up with a first sentence. If you are not a professional writer, this theoretically simple task can be as overwhelming as handing a writer a scalpel and saying, "Okay, make your first cut."
Let's be honest: it took that shrink 20 years to come up with a marketable theory. It took an entire life for Colin Powell to have something to say that other people would want to read about. It can take a businessperson hundreds of deals, meetings, mistakes and triumphs to develop a system important enough to share with the world. It will take the writer a matter of months to put all that experience and expertise into readable manuscript form. There is no contest: the book belongs to the author. Certainly, your contribution is valuable, damned valuable. And laborious. And time-consuming. But hundreds of thousands of writers could do the job (even if only a few thousand would). Only one guy could claim to have started in vaudeville with a seal; played straight man to Gracie Allen on stage, in movies and on TV; and still be a show-biz icon at 100: George Burns. No matter who helped him with the writing, he was the author of all his books.
Ghostwriting, like all professional writing, has three aspects: art, craft, and business. People who come to ghosts usually do so because they lack one or more of those necessary components, sometimes - actually most of the time - all three. They don't know the business; they don't know how to fully develop their ideas on paper (art); they don't know the craft involved in communicating with someone who does not already know and agree with them. It is the ghost's job to 1) educate the author so he knows what he's getting involved in; 2) transform the manuscript, notes, or series of interviews into a marketable product; and 3) maintain the author's voice so that the final product reads like the author, not the writer.
Writers who want to get into the ghostwriting business need to acquire two new craft skills to complement their knowledge about structure and grammar: the ability to analyze material for the positive, and the ability to maintain someone else's voice. Both these skills are eminently learnable In fact, I think I can honestly say that, with a few specific exceptions, all my students have conquered these skills without undue difficulty. Like any other writing skills, they can be acquired either by trial and error, or through instruction. To the best of my knowledge, there are no books currently available to teach these particular crafts.
For a broader explanation of the differences between ghostwriters, collaborators, and editors, please see:
Claudia Suzanne began her writing business in 1988 after a successful career as a professional drummer and vocalist. While providing consultation and guidance to hundreds of clients, she has written, ghosted, or edited over 50 nonfiction and fiction books as well as three of her own titles, including This Business of Books: A Complete Overview of the Business from Concept Through Sales. Her ghostwriting specialties include manuscript and political assessment, 3rd-party voice preservation, over-all structure, story development and tight editing. Please see Claudia's website at: http://www.wambtac.com/ghostwriting.htm