I’m in the process of signing up a new client. It’s an exciting moment. I am about to get to know a complete stranger really quite intimately. And the complete stranger is also entering a new world, one in which they will be asked a lot of very personal questions as we explore the story they want to tell and work together to create a structure which will suit the telling of it. I am confident we will collaborate in creative harmony to achieve our goal, but I’m the one who has been here before, so I have a better idea of what is involved.
Most clients will have been thinking about their book for a while. It may have been for years – something they had always wanted to do. They may even have started writing, but decided they could do with some help. Whatever the situation, making that initial contact with a ghostwriter is a dive into uncharted water, and I am sure all my colleagues in United Ghostwriters respect the courage it takes to make that first approach.
We each try to make it as easy and unintimidating as possible, answering the questions we have been asked before, but also looking for the things that make the proposed story unique.
Getting a handle on the book the client wants written is the priority. Will it be viable? Do I want to engage with it for what will be a matter of months? I am an optimist and basically assume each person’s life is interesting until proven otherwise. And I have had a lot of fascinating conversations with people who have done and seen extraordinary things. But sometimes you have to back away, politely indicating that the project, however dear to its protagonist, is not for you.
Once they’ve passed the very gentle vetting process, clients are keen to know how long it is going to take to get the book with their name on the cover in their hands. And, of course, how much is it going to cost?
The fees we charge are, unsurprisingly, closely related to the number of words we are contracted to write. United Ghostwriters has a sliding scale as a basic guide, but it depends on the book itself. If it is a complicated business manual, involving a great deal of research, it will cost more, because it will take more time. And yes, time is money. A personal memoir where the client provides all the necessary material (and has a brilliantly vivid memory!) will take less time and cost less. But ultimately it comes down to negotiation between consenting adults.
As for how long the book will take to write, the timescale will be agreed in the contract both parties sign to start the process. The agreed price will be paid in tranches, often starting with a third on signature, followed by a third at the halfway point, and the final third when the book is completed.
There is then the question of how the manuscript finds its way into print.
The traditional way is for a publisher to buy the rights. They will offer an advance against royalties, and undertake editing, printing, distribution and publicity.
But be warned. Advances are not what they used to be. If you are very famous – which basically means being on television – you’ll be looking at a sizeable advance which should cover your ghostwriter’s fee. For others, an advance will be a helpful contribution, but should not be expected to cover all of it. And don’t hold your breath as far as publicity is concerned. Budgets have shrunk over recent decades. The money is there, but most of it goes to the authors whose fame ensures high sales figures anyway.
But is a traditional publisher always the best option? There are conflicting views on that, but a lot of authors self-publish and make money from doing so. They don’t regard a healthy income from sales on Amazon as in any way inferior to royalties gleaned from bookshop sales passed on – eventually – by their publishers. And why should they? In the end, what all authors want is readers. If you can add a couple of noughts to your readership by self-publishing and (crucially) self-promoting, why wouldn’t you?
Self-publishing is a versatile and expanding section of the book world, and I happily recommend it to clients I feel would benefit from going down that path.
After all, my first novel was self-published, and it was chosen as the Guardian’s Book of the Week. It also proved a great calling card for me, resulting in a contract with Random House. Come to think of it, someone actually bought the film option – not a life-changing amount of money, and they never made the film. But hey! I could still be waiting to find a publisher for that first novel, and I have never regretted publishing it myself.